Movie Reviews - 2014 postsWednesday June 10, 2015
Movie Review: Excuse My French (2014)
They say comedies don’t travel, and “Excuse My French,” a controversial, coming-of-age comedy that did well at the Egyptian box office last year, is an example of how this is true. And how it isn’t.
It’s true because a lot of the jokes don’t translate (Ex: the “No Offense” nickname), or western audiences won’t find them funny (ogling the hot teacher, Miss Nelly, along with her subsequent offscreen molestation).
It isn’t true because Hani’s situation is universal. I related anyway.
In 1975, the year after my parents divorced, I graduated from the safe confines of Burroughs Elementary School and was bussed across town to Bryant Junior High, where I got picked on mostly because I was 1) smart, 2) small, and 3) white.
Hani Adel (Abdallah Peter, who has a Fred Savage thing going on) switches schools because his father dies suddenly and his mother can no longer afford private school. So he attends a public middle school for boys, where he is picked on mostly because he is 1) smart, 2) small, and 3) Christian.
Actually scratch that third one. It doesn’t come into play until the third act. Besides, as boys around the world know, the first two are bad enough.
The wolf and the sheep
The film has a mild Wes Anderson vibe to it: a lot of head-on shots for comic effect; a lot of small figures at the center of the frame.
Hani’s school has a mild anarchic vibe to it. As his mom drops him off, the first thing he hears—from a passing kid—is how hot his mom is. At assembly, the school bully, Aly, keeps shouting down the adult speakers. He rules from the back of the classroom, while Hani can’t find a seat until he has to settle for front and center with another small kid, Mo’men, who becomes his friend.
(Sidenote: Do the kids stay in the same classroom all day while the teachers rotate? I got that sense. It’s the opposite in the states.)
Every early step for Hani is a misstep. He begins an answer with “No offense, but ...” and gets nicknamed “No Offense.” (I still don’t get it.) He thinks he can win over the kids with wordplay, then with science experiments, then by reciting the Koran. He’s elected class president but only because he’s perceived as controllable. (“May God help you,” Mo’men tells him after the election.) In the schoolyard, he’s constantly given the Darwinian lessons of life by a small, moustache-wearing teaching assistant: there are wolves and sheep and he is a sheep. The assistant shows him the room of the damned, which includes a kid who ratted on his classmates to his mom. Hani feels trapped.
But he’s nothing if not determined and resourceful. For a moment, he wins some measure of popularity with futbol and rapping prowess. But after Miss Nelly’s molestation, he’s determined to stand up to at least one bully—Ally—and does. For that, he gets beaten up, and for that his mom drags him back to school to accuse and complain. Since she’s wearing a cross, his cover is blown; and since his mom ratted, he winds up in the room of the damned. Even Mo’men abandons him.
But even here he’s determined. His mom wants to immigrate to Canada but he refuses. He gives up tennis for judo, then, during Ramadan, takes a Nutella sandwich to school to provoke classmates who are fasting. It works. He and Aly get into a fight, he gets his ass kicked, but the other kids seem turned off by Aly’s triumphalism. For a moment I thought the movie was going to go “Cool Hand Luke” on us in a way that didn’t sense here. (Hadn’t Aly always been a chest-beating doofus? Why turn away from him now?) But that’s not the way it goes. Hani stands up again, throws dirt in Aly’s eyes, and pummels him. The kids cheer. They put Hani on their shoulders and a half dozen surround the defeated Aly and kick him. Both boys are punished by standing in the schoolyard and holding their hands in the air for an extended period. “Part of Hani was happy for being punished,” the narrator tells us. Those are the last words we hear.
If all of this seems odd and vaguely brutal, well, it is. I liked that part of it.
Spotting one a mile away
“Excuse My French” is based upon the middle-school experiences of writer-director Amr Salama—who also wrote and directed the award-winning “Asmaa,” about an Egyptian woman suffering from AIDS—and the appeal to me isn’t in what’s familiar but what’s not; in what feels particularly foreign.
It’s basically a feel-good comedy but there’s not a lot to feel good about. Yes, Hani triumphs. But not before one teacher is molested, another has his face slashed, and all joy is drained from Hani’s initially exuberant face. By the end, he’s constantly on guard, his face screwed up into a wary scowl. There’s something that feels true about that. The joys you have to give up in order to simply survive. Salama doesn’t sugarcoat it the way Hollywood would.
He also doesn’t sugarcoat the Muslim/Christian dynamic. “I can spot one a mile away,” Mo’men says of Christians, not knowing he’s saying it to one who’s a foot away. Even better is how Hani is treated once his cover is blown: as a nonentity by most, and with condescending kindness by the administration. How great is that? Somewhere, we’re all victims of both discrimination and its flip side—political correctness. Another universal.
If anyone from Egypt has seen the movie, I would love to hear your thoughts. And your translations of the jokes I missed. Also, why is it called “Excuse My French”?
Movie Review: Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains (2014)
We know going in that Kurmanjan Datka (played by the lovely Elina Abai Kyzy for two-thirds of the movie) will unite the 40 tribes of modern-day Kyrgyzstan and become legendary. But as the movie begins, our heroine is just a small, unwanted girl in a 19th-century, mountainous, patriarchal society who doesn’t even get to choose her own husband. So how does she do it? How does she attain power?
Turns out the way Corazon Aquino and Isabel Peron attained power: through the death of their husbands.
Second question: What does she do that’s so legendary? According to the film:
- When she’s a little girl, and her father wants a male heir, it’s prophesied that 1) he won’t get it, and 2) his daughter is worth 100 boys. “Our country will need her tomorrow,” the cave-dwelling seer says. And outside a tiger growls in the high grass.
- As a young woman, she brings water to a wife falsely accused of adultery when no man in the village will help.
- In a massive breach of cultural mores, she leaves her first husband, who is rich and weak. And in the river she crosses, a tiger swims.
- When her second husband is assassinated, and she is targeted by his enemies, she rides her horse off of a cliff and into the river below. Both she and the horse survive. Yes, there’s a tiger there, too.
- When tribesmen are ready to abandon the notion of unity that her husband had been fighting for, she gives the speech that inspires the tribal leaders to fight for their land. And they win.
- When Russian soldiers arrive from the North, she gives the speech that inspires the tribal leaders not to fight for their land. And they’re annexed by Russia.
- When one of her sons is captured for killing Russian soldiers, she attends the hanging and does nothing to prevent it.
- At the beginning of the 20th century, she gets her picture taken by Russian officer Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who later became leader of Finland.
That’s about it. According to the film.
Hold ‘em, fold ‘em
I mostly went to see “Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains,” which played at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, because I knew so little about the country.
Kyrgyzstan is, to put it mildly, interestingly situated. Its people look like Asians, dress like Mongols, practice Islam, and are forever menaced by Russia. According to title cards at the beginning of the film, the country was united in the 9th century but slowly broke apart. It took Kurmanjan to unite it again. I think.
There’s still a lot of things I don’t quite get. Her arranged marriage turns out to be with a weakling, who .... can’t seal the deal on honeymoon night? Is that the implication? And does he send Fatty to take over or does Fatty do this on his own accord when hubby can’t break a stick by the fire? And does Fatty rape her, or is he stopped when she throws water in his face?
The real Kurmanjan fled to China, initially, but in the movie she simply returns to her family, who are ostracized for her impertinence; tribal chiefs are summoned to pass judgment. The local feudal lord, Alymbek Datka (Aziz Muradillayev), also arrives, and he passes judgment: He likes this feisty woman; he takes her for his wife.
But everyone’s got a boss. Apparently the Datka reported to the Kokand khanate, which was made up of the modern-day stans: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan. When Alymbek tries to unite some of the Kyrgyz tribes, he’s assassinated. Then Kurmanjan rallies the troops and they win independence. Then the Russians arrive and they lose independence.
That’s pretty much the movie, and from an outsider perspective it doesn’t quite gel. Kurmanjan is legendary because she allowed Russia to annex their land? But it makes sense in this way, and please forgive the puny analogy, but it’s all I’ve got. For me, whenever I’ve been promoted in a corporate environment, it often feels like I have less power. I should feel the opposite but don’t. The higher I go, the weaker I feel. Maybe here, too. She rose to a level where the opposition was Russia, and to fight Russia was to invite extermination. So she didn’t. She knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
How a country portrays itself
“Kurmanjan Datka” is not a very good movie but you admire the effort it took to make it. (The Guardian has a good article on why “Queen of the Mountains” was made and the controversies surrounding its production.) And its two leads do have a movie-star presence. Elina Abai Kyzy is beautiful, while Aziz Muradillayev has something of Chow Yun Fat in his calm manner and amused eyes.
Plus it’s always interesting to see how a country portrays itself—particularly one that has had little opportunity to do so.
Movie Review: Meeting Dr. Sun (2014)
When I lived in Taiwan in 1987-88 I became a little obsessed with statues. You’d see them everywhere. Mostly they were of Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang dictator who died in 1975, and whose more benevolent son, Chiang Ching-kuo, died shortly after I arrived. (Black armbands suddenly appeared on everyone.) But nearly as often the statues were of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the 20th century revolutionary leader and first president of the Republic of China, whose 1923 speech on the “Three Principles of the People” was adapted into the Taiwanese national anthem, and who is so revered that both capitalist Taiwan and communist China claim him. Back then, I always wanted to do a photo essay on all of the Chiang and Sun statues in Taiwan. At the least, I wanted a headcount.
I mention all of this because the key artifact in “Meeting Dr. Sun,” the wholly original, humorously deadpan, imperfect-crime caper from Taiwanese writer-director Yee Chih-yen, is, of course, a statue of Sun Yat-sen. This one doesn’t stand in a school courtyard, or on a busy street, or in the middle of Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, but is relegated to a storeroom. And it soon becomes as desired, and as fought over, as the real Dr. Sun.
“You have to pay your class dues this month.”
These are the first words we hear in the movie, and we hear them over and over again. It becomes a theme. Not the words but repetition. Repeating phrases is a key element in the film’s deadpan comedy.
The one who’s being hounded with this phrase is nicknamed Lefty (Zhan Huai-Yun)—“as in ‘the left side,’” he says over and over—who is a gangly, slow-moving high school student in Taipei. One day, staring into a storeroom off the school’s gymnasium, he gets an idea and his face breaks into a smile; then he shares this idea—stealing and hocking the statue of Dr. Sun to pay for classes—with three fellow students who also owe money. He tells them this on the streets of Taipei while continually moving them away from potential eavesdroppers: flight attendants leaving a hotel, for example, and an elderly man with a walker; people, in other words, who have absolutely zero interest in what they’re doing. That’s when I first began to laugh.
Lefty is careful about every detail. He knows his team needs masks, so he buys the cheapest ones: plastic versions of a wide-eyed, blue-haired and red-bowed anime girl, whose mouth is stuck in a small “o” of surprise. Then he and his team practice and pantomime the heist. His face lights up with pride as he confirms they need to complete the caper in under an hour—before the one guard on duty stops watching TV and makes his rounds. Then, a complication: Lefty finds a notebook on the campus grounds and realizes that someone else is planning to steal and hock the statue of Dr. Sun.
That someone is nicknamed Sky (Wei Han-Ting), who’s smaller, tougher but not as smart as Lefty—a low bar he doesn’t quite reach. He’s also more conniving. Invited to join Lefty’s gang, he instead steals the equipment so he and his gang can pull off the heist first. Incensed, Lefty’s gang joins them, all eight wearing the same absurd anime masks, all of them needed to move the heavy statue of Dr. Sun. It’s not until they actually get the thing on the truck that they suddenly realize both gangs are present. Confusion and sloppy fighting ensues.
Two China policy
“Meeting Dr. Sun” is rarely laugh-out-loud funny; its humor is more on a constant, delightful simmer. It’s also charming and surprisingly gentle. And metaphoric? Are the gangs fighting over Dr. Sun representative of the two Chinas fighting over his legacy? Is the movie a class argument—what the poor have to do to get a proper education?
Such meaning peeks through. Near the end, there’s a big, two-minute fight scene between Lefty and Sky on the deserted, nighttime streets of Taipei, which is, again, funny, long, exasperating, and surprisingly gentle. As the boys roll around on the greasy ground, punching and kicking and flailing, the statue of Dr. Sun, stuck in the middle of the street, looks down on them as if with a mixture of bemusement and admonishment; and maybe a little shame that it’s come to this.
Movie Review: Listen Up Philip (2014)
Philip, indeed. The title graphics alone—using the font of Philip Roth’s early’70s bestsellers, particularly “Portnoy’s Complaint”—give it away, even if the story hadn’t.
A Jewish-American writer in New York City, with a unique voice and acerbic attitude, leaves his girl and the city to sit at the feet of the great man, who lives in a rustic cabin in the goyishe woods with a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty. But instead of short-story writer Nathan Zuckerman sidling up to E.I. Lonoff, who has a graduate student, Amy, staying with him and his wife (and who may or may not be Anne Frank!), as in “The Ghost Writer,” one of Roth’s best novels, we watch two-time novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), genuflecting before Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who has his daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter), staying with him.
Another difference: Roth is funny.
More than that. Roth’s characters, from Portnoy to Zuckerman, were nice Jewish boys for whom things (libido and ego, generally) got in the way. There was conflict there. This Philip? Writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s version? We first see him lambast an ex, who is 25 minutes late for a lunchdate at a corner coffeeshop; and rather than feel any sense of guilt, he feels free. He’s the literal “freed-man.” So he acts the dick again with another old friend—a contemporary who didn’t live up to the promise, and who (punchline) is in a wheelchair—and then spends most of the movie in this frame of mind. Zimmerman’s the same way, and initially seems to be warning Friedman in a better direction. I.e., “View the error of my ways,” as Lonoff essentially tried to warn Zuckerman. But Zimmerman is worse than Friedman. He’s cantankerous, his talents aren’t what they were, he rails at friends and family. Even as he basks in Friedman’s admiration, he has to take him down a peg. He and his friend Norm get the 25-year-old Scotch; Friedman gets the 10. Zimmerman is forever telling him, “I did it better.” Friedman, who abuses others’ niceties, accepts this abuse. It’s his idol, after all.
There’s a vague argument in the movie that for these writers to create their art they have to distance themselves from the rest of humanity, who are, more or less, chatter, interruptions, annoyances; and maybe in so doing (I’m extrapolating here), in distancing themselves, they plant the seeds of their own destruction, eventually losing the necessary elements, the necessary humanity, to continue to create their art. Actually, scratch that second part. It’s not here. And normally I’d like that. Our popular stories are full of comeuppance for men behaving badly when the real world shows us the opposite—that success almost requires ruthlessness. So it would be nice if our art owned up to that unpalatable observation, and “Listen Up Philip” kinda does. Zimmerman has his great successes, Friedman will have his.
But that leave us with ... what? Again, where is the conflict? Roth gives us the tension between nice and venal, and that drives his narratives, while Friedman is Zuckerman laced with Mickey Sabbath (sans the sex), and so never particularly interesting. He says little that’s witty or insightful. He doesn’t grow, doesn’t shrink. This is a great novelist? He seems more Hollywood/movies than New York/novelist. He ends the film as he began it, walking the streets of New York, alone, bumping into people, with successes ahead and a scowl on his face. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with him, let alone 90.
Movie Review: The Salvation (2014)
“The Salvation,” a Danish film set in the American west of the 1870s, is a purer western than most Hollywood westerns.
An Easterner (way east: Denmark) and war veteran (the Second Schleswig War, 1864) winds up in the Old West, where he loses wife and child in brutal fashion and seeks revenge. The town is full of cowards, the mayor/undertaker and sheriff/minister are either weak or collaborators, and the villain who runs things is surrounded by henchmen, bullies and rapists.
Each trope is slightly skewed yet powerfully realized. The film’s foreign pedigree helps with both. Hollywood westerns are all about revenge but the work of prolific Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (“In a Better World”) is about the consequences of revenge; the consequences of standing up to a brutal world. What happens when you match the world’s brutality with your own? Doing so, in Hollywood’s version, is necessary and clean and usually the end of the movie; for Jensen, it’s necessary but never clean and usually the beginning of the movie. Sunsets are a Hollywood contrivance.
There’s a moment 60 minutes into this 90-minute film that’s indicative of why it works. Jon, the Dane (Mads Mikkelsen), has been strung up in the courtyard of the villain, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but rescued by his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), and both are pursued through the countryside by Delarue’s brutal men. Does Jon even know he’s been rescued? He’s out cold for most of it, and his brother has to leave him behind with a rifle. When Jon wakes, he crawls to a pond, drinks, then hears horses approaching. He crawls behind a rock again, grabs his rifle, waits in a panic. The horses go past. He sees that. He also sees they’re dragging something behind them. Peter. Dead.
At this point, the camera closes in on Jon’s face, and on the pain he feels. The music doesn’t well up; it’s quiet, soft. There’s no sudden determination in his eyes at the end, either. Just pain. The whole scene makes you wonder what our westerns would’ve been like if men like Clint Eastwood had been better actors, or had a touch of humanity in their performances.
The first 20 minutes are tough to take, by the way.
A prologue tells us that Jon and his brother Peter (Miakel Persbrandt), following the defeat of Denmark to Prussia/Austria in the Second Schleswig War, left for America, and created a life in the town of Black Creek. Then Jon sends for his wife and son. He first mistakes a woman alighting from the train as his wife but she’s actually behind him; we see her first. On the stagecoach, she tells him in Danish, “You not only look like them, you sound like them.” “You will, too,” he replies consolingly, but she doesn’t mean it as a compliment. And in the stagecoach, two men will prove her right. If John Ford’s stagecoach was a microcosm of civilized society, the version by Jensen and director Kristian Levring is the opposite.
Later in the movie, imprisoned in town, Jon will be chastised by the Sheriff/Minister of Black Creek, Mallick (Douglas Henshall), thus: “If you’d just shown a little compassion for Delarue’s brother instead of killing him, then Mrs. Borowski and Mr. Whisler and Joe No Leg, they’d still be here.” Except he does show compassion. That’s the problem. Even after the two men pull a gun on him and try to rape his wife in front of him (and her son), and Jon gets the upper hand on them, he doesn’t kill them immediately. He shows that little bit of compassion, little bit of civilized behavior. And because of that, it all goes wrong. Lester (Sean Cameron Michael) puts a knife to the boy’s neck, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) grabs the wife again, and Jon is forced to put down his gun. Then he’s kicked out of the stagecoach and into the black night.
He tries to catch the coach, but nobody can outrun horses. Even so, he’s able to follow its tracks to a deserted area, and finds bodies along the way: the stagecoach driver; his son. And there’s the coach next to the woods, with Lester standing guard, rocking back and forth.
Welcome to America.
The revenge is swift. That was unexpected. Lester gets it in the forehead, Paul runs out of the stagecoach, pants between his legs, is shot down. He pleads for what he didn’t truly appreciate before: mercy. “She’s not dead!” he cries. “She’ll be fine!” But Jon keeps pumping his rifle until there are no bullets, and no life, left; then he goes to the stagecoach. We don’t see what he sees; just that he sees it.
This should be the end, right? Twenty-five minutes in. Instead, there are consequences: As alluded, Paul is the brother of Delarue, who runs the town, and who exacts revenge (until the true killer can be found) by taking two lives for his brother’s life: an old woman and a drunk. Not content, he also kills Mr. Whisler, husband and father. The town elders simply watch. The Mayor/undertaker, Keane (Jonathan Pryce), is actually in collusion with Delarue, who, it turns out, isn’t bullying the town simply from pleasure; he’s driving people out so Standard Atlantic Oil Company can buy up all the land. There’s a reason the town’s called Black Creek: the stuff bubbles up from the ground. “It’s that sticky oil,” Jon says later in the movie, by way of explanation for all the bad that’s happened. “Delarue believes it’s gonna be worth thousands.”
I love that. Thousands.
It all plays out the way we expect but it’s really well-done. The sheriff/minister not only captures Jon for the murder of the two men, not only chastises him for his lack of mercy, but justifies his own collusion in the name of the Lord. “Your death is going to bring us some time,” he says. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice a single sheep to save the rest. I’m just a shepherd guarding the flock.” In an Eastwood movie, Mallick would’ve been brought low in some way; he would’ve realized the error of his ways; he would’ve embarrassed himself. Here, even to the end, he’s allowed to see himself as the shepherd, the hero. He’s even given the last line of the movie.
In the end, Jon leads an assault on Delarue’s place with the grandson of Mrs. Borowski. The kid tries, but he’s no soldier. But Jon has another partner: Madelaine (Eva Green), the mute widow of Delarue’s brother. Except despite all the fine feelings he has for his brother, Delarue rapes her, and after she tries to flee, he gives her to his men to rape and kill. That’s about when Jon begins his assault and kills everyone but (of course) Delarue. And he’s about to be (of course) killed by Delarue when (of course) Madelaine puts a big hole through Delarue. And in the smoldering aftermath, the Sheriff/Minister arrives to survey the damage and praise the survivors. Except he’s rebuffed, and so offers these parting words to our two heroes: “May the Lord have mercy on both your souls,” he says.
That’s the last line of the movie. Well, last spoken line. As the movie ends, the camera pulls back, and we see all the wooden oil wells on the property, looking like ancient ruins, or newfound gods.
Question: What exactly is the salvation of the title?