Movie Reviews - 2013 postsWednesday August 27, 2014
Movie Review: The Immigrant (2013)
I think of the word “traduced” when I think of this movie. As in: Someone must have traduced Ewa C., for without having done anything wrong she found herself in America one fine morning.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa Cybulska, a Polish immigrant arriving in America in 1921 with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), who is suffering from tuberculosis and thus taken out of line at Ellis Island and placed into quarantine. She disappears into the bowels of an uncaring, faceless bureaucracy. Ewa, meanwhile, is traduced: declared a woman of low morals because of a shipboard incident. But she is saved from disappearing into bureaucratic bowels by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who insinuates himself into every situation and exudes ickiness from the get-go. He declares he will vouch for her, does, and off they go into the uncaring bowels of New York City: the lower east side.
Bruno, it turns out (and big surprise), runs a kind of burlesque show. He’s half barker, half pimp, and our concern for Ewa is of a traditional nature: Will she be forced into prostitution? What of her virtue? Oh, what of it? My concern for the movie, meanwhile, was graver: Would this just be a sad, downward-trajectory film or would it veer in unexpected directions? Could it retain our interest and still feel true?
The good news is it’s not simply a downward-trajectory film. Ewa isn’t just a victim and Bruno isn’t just a victimizer; but the prostitution thing still happens. Off camera, mostly.
Unraveled, Ewa’s story is a sad one:
- Her parents were killed during the Great War.
- On the ship to America, she is raped, which is why she is declared “a woman of low morals.”
- Her uncle, who is supposed to meet her at the dock, abandons her when he discovers her new, traduced reputation. When she finds her way to his and his wife’s place in Brooklyn, he hands her over to the cops, who hand her back to Bruno. She’s trapped.
The arrival of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a Houdini wannabe, cousin to Bruno and rival for Ewa’s affections, adds energy and comedy to the story. Ultimately tragedy, too. The cousins fight over her and Emil is killed. For some reason that I can’t quite fathom, Ewa immediately becomes a suspect in his murder. It was Emil’s knife, they had been seen fighting publicly, yet somehow she is suspect. She could wind up in prison. Or worse.
It’s almost the Perils of Ewa. We’re just missing the traintracks.
Two wrongs, two rights
“The Immigrant” does two things wrong. One is that poster. Look at that thing. Who designed it? How incompetent do you have to be to make Marion Cotillard look both airbrushed and unattractive? You airbrush people to make them look more attractive, but she looks better in any frame of this film than she does in this lifeless thing. (Mouse over for a better version of the poster.)
The second thing the movie does wrong—and I hate to mention this because I’m a fan—is Joaquin Phoenix. He does not seem to be the man he’s supposed to be. He’s supposed to be slick but he’s not, a salesman but no, a user of women but how? Instead he gives us his usual, muddled, self-hating Joaquin schtick. This is a character who fended for himself as a kid on the lower east side? Since when?
But the movie also does two things right. First, it cast Marion Cotillard as Ewa. She’s a wonder to watch. She’s not only makes us feel this woman’s vulnerability, her toughness, her dedication to her sister, but she’s beautiful enough that you understand why both men fall in love with her. Yeah, I know: the movies are full of beautiful actresses. But ... Maybe it’s just me. We lust after actresses (Halle Berry, et al.), we get smitten by others (Carey Mulligan, et al.), but she’s the only one that makes my stomach do little flips. I get joy just out of watching her face. You know the line about how you’d pay to hear John Houseman read the phone book? I think I’d pay to watch Marion Cotillard read the phone book.
There’s also the film’s message of forgiveness. Throughout, Ewa is repulsed by Bruno; she despises him. But when she’s wanted for murder (which, of course, he committed), Bruno hides her. The cops beat him and he doesn’t talk. They steal everything he’s saved; ditto. Shortly thereafter, Ewa returns to her aunt’s home to ask for the money to free her sister. She asks this: “Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” She says this. It’s like a break in the clouds:
God has sent me to someone so very lost, someone who made my life a sin. And now, this person suffers for me. So I am learning the power of forgiveness.
“The Immigrant” was written and directed by James Gray, who’s made, among others, “We Own the Night,” “Two Lovers,” and “The Yards.” Those are gritty, “good effort” movies. They’re trying for something and don’t quite get there. You want to like them more. This is another one.
Movie Review: Unforgiven (2013)
The most original thing about Lee Sang-il’s “Unforgiven,” which at times feels like a shot-for-shot remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Oscar-winning western, is the character of Goro Sawada (Yuya Yagira), who is more dynamic and memorable than “The Schoefield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett) in Eastwood’s version.
Unfortunately, Goro Sawada is completely reminiscent of an even more famous character: Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo from “Seven Samurai.” He jumps, shouts, scratches his beard, and grunts similarly. And just as Kikuchiyo was with the samurai but of the farmers, having come from peasant stock himself, so Goro Sawada is with Jubei (Ken Watanabe) and Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto), former Samurai in the 13th year of the Meiji restoration, even if he is actually Ainu, a native of the island of Hokkaido, where the action takes place and the movie was filmed.
It’s as if The Schofield Kid had been Native American. Which, to be honest, might have been an interesting choice.
There are other, subtle differences between the two movies, of course, including using the hero’s drinking less effectively. Plus the villain isn’t building a house as Hackman’s was. Instead of the end of the Civil War (1865) we get the end of the Shogunate (1868). We also lose—or lose in translation—some of my favorite lines: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” and “We all got it coming, kid.”
Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same. A whore laughs at a dude’s penis, a whore is cut, a reward goes up. An aged hero and his aged sidekick decide to go for it. Before they get there, another man, a good samurai, tries, and gets his ass kicked. Our aged heroes are joined by a kid who doesn’t get it, arrive in a town that doesn’t want them, and the hero, sick with the flu, barely makes it out alive. Afterwards, he and the kid kill one of the guys who cut the whore, but his aged sidekick is captured and killed. Leading to ... You know.
So the big question with Lee Sang-il’s “Unforgiven” is: Why bother? I didn’t find an answer to that. Lee doesn’t improve upon Eastwood. Might as well remake “Seven Samurai.”
Oh, right. Well, there, too.
Movie Review: The Lunchbox (2013)
“The Lunchbox,” set in the bustling city of Mumbai, India, has a slow-paced, patient approach that suits the means of communication between its main characters: hand-written letters left in the lunchboxes that she makes (and which were originally meant for her husband), and that he eats. In this manner, gradually, they share their stories and insights with one another. He mentions that his wife is dead and buried, and that he recently sought out a grave for himself, but only vertical graves are left. A commuter who has to stand on the trains to and from work, he adds, “Now I’ll have to stand even when I’m dead.” There’s also this, which is true and isn’t: “I think we forget things if we don’t have anyone to tell them to.” Then they talk up the GNP, and how Bhutan has the GNH, or Gross National Happiness index, and wouldn’t it be great to live in Bhutan? Then she drops the bomb. “My husband is having an affair,” she writes. “I think it’s time for us to meet,” he writes.
Will they? What will happen then? Do they fall in love? Are they already in love?
Yeah. I didn’t care, either.
“The Lunchbox” is indie lite. It has its charms, but its slow-paced approach tends to lead to the obvious and precious rather than the wise and profound. You think you’re sitting down to a true Indian meal but it’s actually prefabricated and packaged and smuggled in through the kitchen door, then slowly heated. You’re supposed to not notice.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a Mumbai housewife and mother who converses with the unseen (“Auntie,” who lives upstairs and gives her cooking advice), but not with the seen (her husband, Rajeev, who is that movie staple: the busy phone guy). So she tries to woo him with food. Not dinner, lunch. Which is picked up and taken to her husband through Mumbai’s “massively efficient” delivery system. Except it gets delivered to the wrong dude. Oops. So much for “massively efficient.”
The wrong dude is Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a grumpy, longtime accountant on the verge of retirement after 35 years, who has to train in his replacement, the grinning, gladhanding Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). But Saajan is also the right dude, since Ila’s husband is obviously the wrong one. Look, he’s still on the phone! Look, he’s not even noticing her! Despite the cooking! And he didn’t even notice the food he ate wasn’t her food! But Saajan? He notices. It hasn’t exactly warmed his heart yet—he’s mean to Shaikh, and doesn’t return the ball the neighborhood cricket-playing kids hit on his balcony—but give it time, give it time.
I liked, somewhat, the Shaikh subplot. Was Saajan being forced out? No, he voluntarily took early retirement. Is Shaikh a fake and a phony? No, he’s a decent, friendly man who inexplicably has no friends. That’s why he drags Saajan to his wedding. I also liked Saajan—or at least Irrfan Khan’s acting. Even eating, he gives you something.
I also liked the upstairs auntie, unseen, like Carlton the Doorman, who gives Ila cooking advice. I’m glad they kept her unseen.
But Ila? What’s there? She cooks, she listens, she hopes, she does the laundry, where she smells on her husband’s shirt another woman and knows. And knows. And opens up to the unseen Saajan. But there’s no there there.
We get a touch of magic realism. When she shoos a fly, he shoos a fly. That kind of thing. It’s a bit of a magic-food movie, isn’t it? Like “Like Water for Chocolate”? And “Chocolat”? But muted? For foodies? And sensitive, international people? But I was bored. I’m a patient, book-reading man but I saw where most of the story was going. Look, he’s nice to the cricket-playing kids now! How nice.
It’s a bit like “You’ve Got Mail,” isn’t it? About as profound, too. It does a good job, as romance needs to do, of keeping the couple apart for most of the movie, but then it does too good a job of it. The day they’re supposed to meet, he smells his grandfather in the bathroom and realizes it’s him. Then on the train, a young man offers him his seat. “Uncle, would you like to sit?” He’s old, she’s young, she needs to move on. “No one buys yesterday’s lottery ticket, Ila,” he writes. Then channels are crossed. He retires, disappears, returns. She looks for him, can’t find him, decides to leave her husband anyway. Her husband was never much in the picture anyway. Just in her life.
The ending itself is unnecessarily open-ended. They never meet. Are they still searching for each other? Don’t you want them to?
Yeah, I didn’t care, either. Maybe I’m cold-hearted. Maybe I need someone to make me hot Indian lunches.
Movie Review: Ekstra (The Bit Player) (2013)
Loida (Vilma Santos), the working class, single mother of a college-age daughter, has a dream. She’s a bit player or “ekstra” on the cheesy, night-time soap operas of the Philippines, but she wants more. She wants a speaking part. She wants to break through. She wants to be a star.
So like everyone, more or less.
“The Bit Player” (“Ekstra” in the Philippines) is essentially a cinema-vérité-like day in the life of Loida. It begins at 2 a.m. with tea, breakfast, and a washcloth shower, and ends at 4 a.m. the next day with the stink of failure.
Among the extras
There’s an early morning round-up of the extras, who travel by van to the location shoot. A few are discharged en route: a young boy, for example, who’s supposed to be the younger version of the male lead in the soap (Piolo Pascual, playing himself), but who, according to the talent scout, doesn’t look enough like Piolo. Out he and his father go, onto the side of the road.
At the shoot, the extras find no place for themselves—this area is for the stars, this area is for the caterers—so they wind up sitting in a field. Among them:
- Loida, our sympathetic mother figure, whose daughter keeps texting with money demands from the university.
- Venus (Rita Rosario G. Carlos), the brassy friend of, and quiet competition to, Loida.
- Olga (Hazel Dela Cruz), the girl too pretty for peasant scenes. She’s too pretty for the name “Olga,” too.
- Madonna (Antonette Garcia), who makes a buck on the side selling food and drinks to the other extras.
The soap is like most soaps: the loves and schemes of awful rich folks. Belinda (Marian Rivera), the wealthy daughter, is in love with Brando (Piolo), the peasant stud, but ordered to marry Sir Richard (Richard Yap) for the sake of the family. The extras toil in the fields wearing conical hats or bring product-placement drinks in maid’s uniforms. They’re background. As the casting director tells them, “You’re called ‘talent’ but you lack talent.”
The production team has its own conflicts. The director has to deliver quickly, while the producer is interested in cutting costs. He wants it good, she wants it fast and cheap, but it often winds up out of control. The stars act like stars—leaving and arriving on a whim. One time, Loida has to double for a star who’s gone missing. It’s a kidnap scene. Filmed from behind and tied to a chair, it’s supposed to be a speaking part (extra money), but, no, Loida doesn’t sound like the star. So the director has her gagged. But too much of her face is still visible so he has her hooded as well. After that, she’s slapped, kicked, burned with a cigarette. One of the production people tells her of her dress, “Take care of this: It’s more valuable than you.”
Eventually it all pays off. Late into the night and the early morning, a call goes up for an extra who can speak English reasonably well to play a lawyer. This one is no good, that one, eh ... but Loida? A shrug from the assistant director. She’ll do. The rehearsal goes well, or well enough for a night-time soap opera filming 24 hours from air time. The first take goes less well: Loida walks too far forward and blocks the star from the camera. She’s given a mark to hit but on the next take looks down to find it. The third take she messes up her lines. Finally the director loses it and she’s cast aside: back to the background. She’s not cut out for it. Maybe she never was.
Streep and Schwarzenegger
For most of “Ekstra,” I was only vaguely interested in what was happening. A lot of work, a lot of arguments, a lot of ego, went into the creation of something that was not only valueless to the culture but detrimental. Product placement is the least of it; soap operas, like most movies, sell wish fulfillment. They sell the dream of wealth, beauty, and glamor. At the same time, they sell schadenfreude, as the wealthy, beautiful and glamorous feel the heartache implicit in soap opera storylines.
I also objected when Loida began to stumble during her big scene. It felt way too cruel to me. It felt sadistic and/or bathetic. But ultimately Santos has a restraint that makes it work. You sense Loida’s world has crumbled but she doesn’t know what to do. There’s doubt and pain in her eyes now.
Interestingly, Santos, who looks like the part she plays—someone passed over by life—is in reality a hugely successful actress and politician. She was the Mayor of Lipa City and the Governor of Batangas, a province in the Philippines. There are four major film awards in the Philippines and only 17 times has someone won all four in the same year. It’s called the Philippines Movie Grand Slam, and Santos was the first to do it in 1982. She’s since done it three more times. No one else in Philippines has done it more than twice. She’s basically the Meryl Streep and the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Philippines.
“The Bit Player,” at 111 minutes, could’ve been 20 minutes shorter. We could’ve used fewer on-set shenanigans and more on Loida’s background. How did she get on this path that’s apparently so wrong for her? And what happens next? Forget a dream deferred—what happens to a dream dashed on the rocks? What do you do when you realize you’re no good at what you’ve struggled for your entire life? We never find out.
Soap operas may be about wish-fulfillment fantasy, but “The Bit Player” is about identification, and never more so than when Loida is surrounded by the stink of failure. Most of us know that smell. Well.
Movie Review: Leninland (2013)
If people in an absurd situation realize they’re in an absurd situation, are they no longer absurd? Does the situation become tragic instead?
Moot point here, since no one in “Leninland,” a 53-minute documentary from Askold Kurov, thinks they’re in an absurd situation. They take it all very, very seriously.
In Gorki, Russia, where Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died, a museum to honor his legacy—as if he needed another one in the Soviet era—opened to the public in 1987. For the first three years, according to Natalya, a history teacher, it drew 3,000 visitors a week. Visitors fell off a bit in 1990. A year later, the U.S.S.R. was swallowed up by history. The museum still exists but now it draws 20 visitors a week—mostly Chinese tourists or field trips of Russian schoolchildren, who, when asked who Lenin was, guess the following:
- A leader
- A Russian
- A human
It’s a bit of a comedown from the days when Lenin was, in the Russian consciousness, a combination of Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse.
Lifeless in the death-mask room
On the plus side (for Lenin), he’s got Natalya and Evgenia, the bickering caretakers of the museum.
Evgenia is religious and sees Lenin in this light. He’s her opiate. Not her only one, either. She loves Jesus and Communism, too. You read that right: Jesus and communism. “The truth of the Lord was with the Bolsheviks,” she says at one point. “Great men do not die: they go to Heaven and keep working,” she says at another point. She says she’s at the museum as part of her spiritual journey. She could be from Portland or Seattle.
Natalya? She’s still a true believer: in Lenin, communism, and her way or the highway. You don’t mess. She overwhelms all of her opponents with words. We see her instructing a would-be tour guide at the museum not only on what he should say but on the proper way to point with his pen. When the town council talks up changing the museum from its Lenin-centric focus so that it might draw more tourists, she reminds everyone that Lenin is why the town is known. A beautiful red carpet used to adorn the Lenin “death mask” room, but it was taken for another, more important museum, and she laments its absence. “Now it’s just so lifeless in here,” she says of the death-mask room. You half expect her to say the rug really tied the room together.
Eventually she and Evgenia argue about spirituality versus matter/basic necessities. Their voices are calm but tense, as each strives to get in the last word and get her point-of-view understood. To be fair, as workplace arguments go, it beats Ginger vs. Mary Ann.
Throughout, I kept flashing back to that great line from George S. Patton in the George C. Scott movie: “Americans love a winner ... and will not tolerate a loser.” So with the Russians here. Lenin was the leader of a team that lost. He’s in the dustbin of history. He put Russia there. Why be reminded of that?
Or maybe it’s just franchise fatigue.
“Leninland” is a good doc: short, absurd, indicative of how far the country has come. In the end, a new museum director is appointed, and he’s got plans for the museum—Chinese stage shows, we learn, to bring in more Chinese tourists—but Natalya disputes them in front of everyone. Not smart. But he doesn’t go after her. Instead he points at Kurov and tells him to stop filming. The camera is dutifully lowered but continues recording. Then we hear the director telling him to delete the footage. “Stop and delete,” he says repeatedly. Obviously, Kurov doesn’t do this. He also says the following with the new director still nearby: “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.”
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