Movie Reviews - 2014 postsWednesday August 05, 2015
Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Twenty years ago, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) became an international star by playing a scheming young woman, Sigrid, who takes advantage of her older boss and lover, Helena, in Maloja Snake, a play and then film by Wilhelm Melchior.
In the first part of Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Maria, accompanied by her super-competent personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), takes the train to Zurich to accept an award for Melchior, who, they hear en route, dies at home. A heart attack. So there is sadness, mourning and regret amid public ceremonies. Maria also reverses herself and agrees to take the role of Helena in a London revival of Maloja Snake by director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger).
In the main part of the movie, Maria and Valentine stay at Melchior’s place in Sils Maria, and rehearse and argue over Maloja Snake. Maria has trouble seeing herself as Helena, since Helena is the weak one in the play; she has trouble even liking Helena. There are echoes between the women in the play and the women rehearsing—except that Maria, the employer and artist, has power that Helena didn’t, or felt she didn’t, while Valentine struggles to get her views across. She feels her opinions are not respected. Which is why it’s Valentine who disappears on a hike in Sils Maria, echoing the disappearance of Helena in the play. We never find out what happens to either of them, although it’s assumed Helena, the older character, dies (that’s what older characters do), while Valentine simply leaves for a better opportunity (that’s what younger people do).
In the epilogue of the film, Maria is an afterthought in the run-up to the premiere in London, as the gossip machine surrounding the new Sigrid, Hollywood bad girl Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), overwhelms all.
The first part is the most interesting—it has zip and snap amid the close quarters of the train—while the second part is meditative. It’s the epilogue that’s weakest.
Mellifluous vowels vs. nasty consonants
Stewart is a revelation. The film was nominated for six Césars but won only one, for Stewart as supporting, and it’s deserved. She seems real, forthright and vulnerable. She’s subtle and sexy. It’s a role that puts memories of the nothing Bella in the trashbin.
Her character is also an idiot in the way that young people are idiots. She thinks Twitter is the real world, for example, as opposed to an aspect of what passes for the public world at the moment. It came on like that and will be replaced like that.
Much of the movie is about Maria being replaced like that. It’s coming to terms with no longer being Sigrid but Helena, with all that the name implies: classic, ancient, all mellifluous vowels versus the hard, nasty consonants of Sigrid. As Sigrid, Maria never liked Helena, nor the actress who played her, who died a year after the film was released. Old actresses don’t fade away, apparently, they just disappear. (Cf. Debra Winger, Bridget Fonda.)
Here’s the problem. The trashy tabloid world is an easy target and Assayas doesn’t even hit it right. He glances off it. Jo-Ann Ellis has starred in a recent superhero flick, which Valentine defends to Maria, but when we (they) finally see it, replete with 3-D glasses, it’s like a low-budget, 1970s version of a superhero flick, with tinfoil outfits and awful haircuts and dialogue. There’s so much to lampoon in modern movie culture, in our love of the superhero, but it helps if you’ve know what you’re lampooning. I got the feeling Assayas has seen none of it.
Plus Jo-Ann’s lover is a famous novelist? Let me quote Gore Vidal in 1992: “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.”
How sweet to be a cloud
A common Assayas theme is whither culture, French or otherwise, in this Americanized and Hollywoodized world, but he’s handled it better elsewhere (“L’heure d’ete,” particularly). We were young once, and serious, and now things have gotten away from us. And look who (or what) is powerful.
But “Sils Maria” doesn’t quite click. Its use of the Maloja Snake, the cloud formation in the Alps, is both heavy-handed and slightly incomprehensible, and the film doesn’t do what it does: coalesce into a distinct form.
Movie Review: Yves Saint Laurent (2014)
In the entire history of film and television, according to IMDb.com, French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent has only been portrayed three times: Ian McKellen in an episode of “Saturday Night Live” in 2002; then two feature-length French biopics in 2014. After years of famine, in other words, the feast. A model’s diet—but more purge than binge. Basically “Truman Capote writing ‘In Cold Blood’ in two 2005 feature films” all over again.
The other YSL movie, “Saint Laurent” starring Gaspard Ulliel, focuses on the designer during his jet-set heyday from 1967 to 1976. This one, starring Pierre Niney, starts in ’57 in Oran, Algeria, where Laurent was born and raised, and it ends about the same time as the other, 1976, when Laurent pulled himself out of his coke-addled stupor to reimagine Russian peasant garb—ushanka hats, linen dresses, and shawls and scarves—as haute couture. How he did this we don’t know. As with most of his creations in the movie, they’re just there. Then there’s applause. Then someone says he’s a genius. Répéter.
A lot of knowledge is assumed here so it’s good I watched it with Patricia, who knows something about fashion and design. I didn’t know, for example, that the Russian fashion show was a watershed event for Laurent—his 61st home run, so to speak. P hadn’t heard of his first model-muse, Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon, César nominee, and hot), but definitely knew the second, Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin), who has a smaller and more meaningless role. Does she even speak a line of dialogue? She’s haught instead of hot.
This “Yves Saint Laurent” was nominated for seven Césars, winning one (best actor for Niney), and it’s nicely photographed (by Thomas Hardmeier), but it’s not a particularly good movie. When we first see YSL he’s already the heir apparent at Dior. How did he get there? Then Dior dies and YSL takes over. Then he’s conscripted into the French military, but the movie keeps things vague. The Wikipedia entry on YSL gives us more drama:
Saint Laurent was in the military for 20 days before the stress of hazing by fellow soldiers led to him being admitted to a military hospital, where he received news that he had been fired by Dior. This exasperated his condition, and he was transferred to Val-de-Grâce military hospital, where he was given large doses of sedatives and psychoactive drugs, and subjected to electroshock therapy. Saint Laurent himself traced the history of both his mental problems and his drug addictions to this time in hospital.
Most of the movie is about his relationship with longtime companion and business partner Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne), who helps him set up his own fashion house. In fact, the movie becomes more about Bergé than Laurent. We see events through his eyes. As Laurent grows from timid genius to outlandish jet-setter, Bergé displays the patience of Job. He tries to protect Laurent and is accused of controlling him. Laurent cheats on him incessantly, and falls in love with another man, but Bergé takes it all with preternatural calm (and some connivance). Does Bergé ever go with Laurent to the clubs? Does he want to? Meanwhile, the reason YSL is relevant—fashion—gets short shrift in favor of nightclubbing and descent into addiction, which is never (never ever, screenwriters) interesting.
How about a conversation on the basics of fashion? Why this dress is beautiful and that one isn't? Why this fashion show succeeded and that one didn't? “Yves Saint Laurent” is the second French movie I’ve seen in a month where I wanted a little philosophical discussion from the French and didn’t get it. What's going on here? Are they trying to overcome their stereotype by offering its opposite? Come back to the boulangerie, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean-Paul Sartre.
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.