Movie Reviews - 2013 postsThursday July 24, 2014
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.”
Movie Review: Muse of Fire (2013)
If this doesn’t kill documentaries starring the documentarian, nothing will.
The subject is a great one. Shakespeare: Why does he resonate? Why are we scared of him? Does he still matter? How is he taught and how is that a problem? What the hell is iambic pentameter anyway?
Most of the talking heads are great ones, too: Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Derek Jacobi, Brian Cox, John Hurt, Tom Hiddleston, Jude Law, Ewan McGregor. On and on. The missing link is Sir Kenneth Branagh, the finest Shakespeare interpreter I’ve heard.
And our guides for all of this? Dan Poole and Giles Terera, two out-of-work, late thirties British actors, children of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” who, four years ago, for reasons that remain vague, decided to make this documentary. They spend much of it telling us how difficult it was to make it. Dan, in particular, does this. He almost seems to resent us for watching. Other times he’s giddy and goofy. Does he think their bits together are good? Pissing in this field? Taking the piss out of each other? Eating fast food? When he was on screen, I kept flashing to that scene in “Annie Hall” when Alvy is forced to watch an unfunny stand-up comedy routine: “Look at him mincing around. Thinks he’s real cute, you want to throw up ...”
Their holy grail keeps changing. Oh, if only they could interview Sir Ian McKellen. Hey, they get him! Oh, Jude Law’s playing “Hamlet” in London but they can’t get tickets. Bugger. But wait, there’s a special show at Elsinore Castle in Denmark! And they get to interview him there! Hey, you know how both of us only got into Shakespeare, really understood him, when Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” was released in 1996? So imagine interviewing Baz, the Wizard of Baz, all the way in Hollywood, right? Guess what?
“We couldn’t believe it!”
That’s a line we keep hearing, as the thing they want to happen happens. Did they try to get other things to happen? Interview Leonardo DiCaprio about playing Romeo or Claire Danes on Juliet? Did they try to get Branagh? Why only talk up the successes? More, why were they successes? How did these two blokes, without even the dignity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, get to interview these famous folk? Did one lead to another lead to another? “Oh, you got Sir Derek? OK, then.”
Reading Shakespeare like Vonnegut
On the plus side, I kept thinking of my own experiences with Shakespeare.
We first read him in ninth grade, “Romeo and Juliet,” and then watched the Franco Zeffirelli version of the movie, during which all the boys fell in love with Olivia Hussey and all the girls fell in love with Michael York. I didn’t get that one. Weren’t they supposed to fall for Romeo? Tybalt’s an asshole; he’s the cause of much of the tragedy. I had so much to learn.
Shakespeare didn’t really take for me until college. We were reading “Othello,” Act 1, Scene 1, going through the motions of this passage:
Zounds, sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
Then the professor took over and read the passage with verve and left no doubt the meaning of tupping. “Ohhh,” I thought. By the time I arrived in Seattle in 1991 I was reading Shakespeare regularly. I remember turning pages of “King Lear” on lunch breaks as if it were as easy to read as Kurt Vonnegut. Later, when I worked in the warehouse at the University Book Store, and I got tired of listening to music on my walkman, I switched to BBC productions of Shakespeare: “Hamlet” starring Branagh and “King Lear” starring John Gielgud. That last was the one for me. Branagh was in this one, too, as Edmund, and I kept listening to his soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2: the “Why bastard? Wherefore base?” speech. He made it sound contemporary. He brought it to life.
That’s the key. Make it resonate. I believe it’s Steven Berkoff in the doc who says you should always put the actors in modern clothes. Update the setting to bring out the universal in the words.
Most of the American actors says Brits do Shakespeare better, but some Brits say Shakespeare and his contemporaries probably sounded more American. They also say that some of the best interpreters have been American: Brando in “Julius Caesar,” for example. Me, I thought of Dustin Hoffman as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” on Broadway, which my friend Dean and I were lucky enough to see in 1989.
At some point I expected clips—Brando, Leo, Ian McKellen’s great opening of “Richard III”—but I suppose they cost too much. You can watch them for free on YouTube but they cost too much for these guys to put in the doc. That’s a shame. But surely some Shakespeare movies are in the public domain? According to IMDb.com, more than 1200 versions of Shakespeare’s plays have been filmed in some manner, starting in 1898 with a short version of “Macbeth.” Couldn’t they have given us some of that history? Instead of another shot of Dan pissing in a field?
A few of their road trips are worth it. A British man, with great enthusiasm, teaches Shakespeare in prison, where lines such as Lady Macbeth’s “What’s done cannot be undone,” have a particular resonance. They go to Madrid to see a Spanish production of “Henry VIII,” where one of the actors professes amazement that Shakespeare could so perfectly delineate not just the modern woman but the modern Spanish woman.
Why Shakespeare? Judi Dench recites some lines, then, nodding her head, says, “Now if you’d written that, you’d be up all night looking at yourself in the mirror.”
“I don’t know any actor at the end of their career saying, 'What a waste of time all of that Shakespeare was,'” adds Ian McKellen.
Maybe Tom Hiddleston sums it up best: “He speaks to every man and every woman in every age in every time.”
I couldn’t agree more. I just wanted better guides.
Movie Review: Chinese Puzzle (2013)
“I have a problem with the ending,” the French publisher of French novelist Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), now living in New York, tells him at the end of “Chinese Puzzle.” “It’s a horrendously happy ending.”
So it is. The middle is a problem, too.
The French publisher, by the way, knows we all want to be happy in life but we want drama and tragedy in fiction. Maybe. What he should have said is that we want drama and tragedy when we read but we want happy, Hollywood endings when we watch. That feels true but is it true? And if so, why? One assumes readers are more intelligent than watchers. But many of us are both—readers and watchers—so do we want different things depending on the medium? I probably find myself pulling for that happy ending more often in movies, even though, intellectually, I know it would be wrong; even though I know it would make the movie less resonant.
But I wasn’t rooting for the happy ending here. I was with the French publisher. The two of us should’ve grabbed a drink afterwards and bitched about the film.
La vie, c’est compliqué
A Chinese puzzle tends to be a complicated and intriguing thing—how do the pieces fit together?—but “Chinese Puzzle” leaves out the intriguing. It tends toward the superficial and downright silly.
Remember that old joke playing off the Army’s slogan, “See the world, meet interesting people—and kill them”? I feel something similar about writer-director Cédric Klapisch’s Xavier trilogy (L’Auberge Espagnol,” “Russian Dolls,” this). Except it’s “See the world, meet beautiful people, and fuck them.”
A year ago, as the film starts, Xavier was happy and content and living with his British wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and their two kids, Lucas and Jade (Amin Djakliou and Clara Abbasi), in Paris. But then they drift apart. Xavier’s best friend, Isabelle (Cécille de France), a lesbian, wants a child with her Chinese-American lover Ju (Sandrine Holt), and asks Xavier to provide the sperm. He does. Wendy doesn’t like it. Or something. And anyway she meets an American during a business trip to New York. Then she moves there with the kids. So he moves there to be near the kids. But now he’s out of his element. It’s like Barcelona again except he’s 40.
In a way the problem with the movie is that it is constructed like a Chinese puzzle: here’s this piece, and this piece, and this piece. Here’s this problem, and this problem, and this problem. They all build out but don’t construct much.
Once he moves to New York, he needs a place to live. Ju helps with that, but then he needs a job on a tourist visa. A fellow divorced dad helps with that (bike messenger), and we see him on that bike. Once. Then it’s forgotten. We also see him bartend. Once. Is that how he’s making a living? Isn’t he selling books in Paris? He’s a semi-successful novelist there, isn’t he? Or does he merely have the “small but loyal following” of a T.S. Garp?
For custody and immigration issues, he needs a lawyer, and gets a schlubby Jewish guy (Jason Kravitz), who suggests marrying an American. Guess what? Because he saves his Chinese cab driver from a pummeling, the driver’s nice-looking niece agrees to help. Mazel tov! But the INS ain’t buying it, and spends more man-hours questioning him and her than the CIA did in tracking bin Laden. Then there’s Isabelle. Yes, the baby is born, and that leads to the babysitter, a pretty young Belgian thing (Flore Bonaventura), which leads to an affair. It’s like Garp again but without the guilt. Is this when I began to lose interest? When I saw more beautiful French lesbians naked on the screen? The French are really stuck on that. So to speak. They don’t resolve it, either. Everyone works to shield Ju from Isabelle’s infidelity even as the severe INS officers arrive in the cramped third-floor walkup above the Chinese laundry to double-check on Xavier’s marriage. Life is so crazy!
The movie had promise, too. Early on, Xavier contemplates the difficulty of life going wrong, and mentions that, for an atheist like himself, this means falling back on the German philosophers. So they show up periodically—like Humphrey Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam.” There’s Schopenhauer on his bed dispensing advice. Later, in America, he imagines Hegel telling him, “All nothingness is the nothing of something,” which both Xavier and I liked. And then? Rien. C’est tout. Bummer. I was hoping to learn something. But like everything else in “Chinese Puzzle,” it starts and stops. It begins and goes nowhere.
C’est la vie
Life is messy—that’s the point of the movie—but this is a pretty neat version of messy. You get to be a trim, handsome Frenchman, your New York is both gritty and safe, and your fallback position is Martine (Audrey Tautou). Who’s near 40 now so apparently no one wants her anymore. C’est la vie.
“C’est la vie” used to mean, “Well, life kinda sucks; get used to it.” Here, la vie, c’est compliqué, mais extraordinaire. C’est hereux.
How happy is the ending? How Hollywood is it? Klapisch actually has Xavier run through the streets of New York to stop the girl from leaving. So they can all stay together and be happy together. And in the end they walk in one of New York’s many parades, and Xavier, with Martine by his side, exchanges greetings with the older Chinese dancer he sees every day in the park, whose own story means nothing; and whose appearance here is just another superficial, meaningless piece of the puzzle.