Movie Reviews - 2014 postsSaturday July 22, 2017
Movie Review: Sa Jiao Nu Ren Zui Hao Ming (2014)
Something gets lost in translation. Right away.
The Chinese title is “Sa Jiao Nu Ren Zui Hao Ming” or, roughly, “Flirty women are happiest,” but reducing this to the English title, “Women Who Flirt” isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s the concept of sa jiao, which doesn’t really have an English translation. “To flirt” is probably the best we’ve got. Except in the west, both women and men flirt. But sa jiao? That’s for women and children. It’s women sounding like children to get something they want.
It can be freakin’ annoying.
There’s a great example of it here that had me laughing out loud. Our lead, Angie (Zhou Xun), a financial analyst, whose longtime friend, colleague, and secret love, Marco (Huang Xiaoming), is now involved with this flirty tease of a Taiwanese girl, Hailey (Sonia Sui). So her friends urge her to go on dates of her own. They’re disastrous, of course. It’s a montage, and one guy actually talks about taking a dump in the middle of the street—I forget why—and she looks at him and says, “Tao yan,” or “I hate you.” She says this to all of her dates. Later, her friends ask her how she says it, and she replays it for them—straight—and they’re like, no, and school her on the sa jiao way of doing it: turning the fake whining and pouting up to 11. Tao yan-awwwww. They keep doing it until she tries it. It becomes a game. It made me laugh. It made me flash back. When I lived in Taiwan, I heard that a lot.
As for the movie, yeah, no. It’s one of those rom-coms where everyone is so awful you don’t want anyone to wind up with anyone.
Zhou Xun needs a date
First, we have to get past the notion that someone as beautiful as Zhou Xun has to work to get a man to notice her. It’s like one of those Hollywood movies where Michelle Pfeiffer can’t get a date. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t begin to cover it.
So you immediately dislike Marco for not noticing either Angie’s otherworldly beauty or her interest. He sees her as, like, “a dude.” He keeps repeating this like it’s wisdom, but all I could think was, “What special brand of idiot is this?”
The girl he chooses instead isn’t half the beauty Zhou Xun is. Plus, it turns out, she’s wholly malicious. Like soap-opera malicious. She only picks up Marco—on a busride in Taiwan—because during the ride, despite her best efforts, he can’t stop talking about Angie and she wants to see what type of woman (who’s absent) can usurp her (who’s present). She’s not even interested in Marco. She gets involved in this long-distance relationship for weeks and months just to spite a woman she’s never seen.
Then there’s Angie herself, hung up on the doofus Marco, and going out of her way to win him. It’s a role that’s really beneath the dignity of Zhou Xun.
Hide and seek
A couple of moments aren’t bad. During the big confrontation between Angie and Hailey, the soundtrack music uses spaghetti western motifs, while the villainess’ dialogue anticipates Donald Trump:
Angie: Are you crazy? Love’s not a competition.
Hailey: That’s what the losers say. And I’m not a loser.
We also get this nice piece of advice from Marco’s father: “Do you know why kids like to play hide-and-seek? Because they want to be found.” That’s sweet. Although true? It’s probably the joy of the chase, the tension between being lost and being found.
Most of it, though, is beyond stupid. It’s both too timid (our leads) and shockingly crude (Angie’s friends). Marco finally comes to his senses and of course has to run to Angie, like all the Harrys and Jerrys before him, and win her over. And in front of her friends. Which he does! Which causes them to tear up! And we get this epiphany from him about sa jiao that took 90 excruciating minutes to realize:
After a while, all that sweet talk gets really annoying.
Actually, sooner than that.
Movie Review: Labyrinth of Lies (2014)
If you’re debating which movie to see on the 1950s investigations that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65—and who isn’t?—you can always compare how each did at the German Film Awards. “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” in which Bauer captures Adolf Eichmann with the help of Mossad, was nominated for five Lolas and won four, including best film, direction and screenplay. A year earlier, this one, in which a prosecutor unsuccessfully pursues Josef Mengele, was nominated for four Lolas and won null.
Which seems about right to me.
“Labyrinth of Lies” is a procedural, but for the first 40 minutes we wait for the young, handsome, by-the-book prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), working in Frankfurt in the late 1950s, to come up to speed. As in: He has to learn that the Holocaust happened.
That this generation of Germans didn’t know about the Holocaust, or Auschwitz, comes as a bit of a shock. It certainly demonstrates the necessity of the Auschwitz Trials; but it’s also dull. It’s like waiting for the hero to figure out the sky is blue.
The conflict, too, is by-the-book. Radmann’s colleagues mock his pursuit, but the bossman, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), is on his side so he keeps going. An American functionary ridicules his search but respects his diligence enough to bring him a cup of coffee. Ex-Nazis lurk everywhere, smirking in the shadows. A journalist, Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), hounds him to do more, then partners with him in doing more, then is dropped by him when it’s discovered that he, the journalist, was a 17-year-old guard at Auschwitz. Radmann winds up getting drunk and losing his way and losing his way-hot girlfriend (Friederike Becht). He goes from knowing nothing about the Holocaust to knowing nothing about forgiveness. He becomes unreasonable. We know he’ll come around.
We know too much because too many scenes are clichés. Radmann has a nightmare in which he pursues Mengele through creepy, lab hallways, spins him around, then wakes up before seeing his face. After he discovers his own father was a Nazi, he has the same dream, but this time, we know, it’s his father’s face he’ll see. We know that when he begs off after a bedridden friend, Simon (Johannes Krisch), asks him to say the kaddish at Auschwitz for his daughters, he’ll find time to do it in the end. He does, with Gnielka, whom he forgives, as we knew he would. And as they walk along the Auschwitz fences, away from the camera, we know Radmann will put his hand on Gnielka’s back as a sign of reconciliation.
One moment sticks with me. When Radmann has that nightmare, in quick shots, he sees his face in multiple mirrors as if it had been experimented on by Mengele: swollen eyes sewn shut, etc. The morning after I watched the film, I woke up thinking of that, and more, thinking of Simon’s twin girls: imagining their horror and helplessness. They knew little of this world before they were turned into human lab rats. The movie needed more of the horror I felt for them, and for us.
Movie Review: Laggies (2014)
I wanted to like it.
It’s set in Seattle, and directed by one of our own, Lynn Shelton, who’s super pretty. I liked the scene in the trailer where Megan (Keira Knightley) twirls the “Tax” sign to stir up business for her accountant father, Ed (Jeff Garlin). No one in the movie gets super powers, nothing blows up but relationships. I wanted to like it.
But I got a bad vibe early.
It begins with found footage, a senior prom escapade from 10 years earlier. Four girls get drunk, get naked, swim in a skanky hotel pool. They laugh. They’re having an adventure.
Cut to today, where three of the four are soft and self-satisfied in motherhood and matrimony. Only Megan feels like this isn’t for her.
We’re supposed to sympathize because her friends are silly and have bad taste. She’s also, of course, with the wrong guy, Anthony (Mark Webber). You can tell he’s the wrong guy because he’s dull and has a receding hairline. He talks up a “personal development seminar” on Orcas Island in which you choose an animal to help with your behavorial patterns. His is a shark—a reminder to keep going or sink. And it works. After 10 years, he finally proposes to Megan, but he does it at the wedding of their friend. Surely a breach in decorum.
What finally propels Megan out of this rut? It’s partly the proposal, and partly seeing her father making out with the bride’s mother in the reception parking lot. Betrayal! At 28! So, pretending she’s heading to Orcas, she instead gets caught up with high schoolers, led by Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz). First she buys them booze. Then she pretends to be Annika’s mom for a parent-teacher conference. Then she’s staying in Annika’s bedroom.
Thank god Sam Rockwell shows up.
Sam Rockwell, lifeguard
He’s Annika’s father, Craig, and his role here is almost like his role in “The Way Way Back”—except instead of playing a lifeguard offering life advice (and friendship) to a wayward teenage boy, he’s a divorce lawyer offering life advice (and eventually love) to a wayward twentysomething girl. He adds pizzazz and jazz to the movie. He asks pointed questions and delivers blunt truths:
Craig: I get that this can sometimes be sensitive information for a woman, but how old are you?
Megan: I'm ... in my 20s.
Craig: And why are you sleeping over at my house? Or I guess the larger question is: Why are you hanging out with my daughter?
Megan: It's kind of hard to explain.
Craig: I bet.
Megan: No, I mean, I've never really tried to. Not even to myself.
Craig: I like hearing things better when they're not rehearsed.
He’s the movie’s most interesting character.
I’ve said it before: Some of the best on-screen portraits of men in recent years have come from women. Here, it’s not just director Shelton but screenwriter Andrea Seigel. And it’s not just Craig but Anthony. He’s dull, yeah, but he’s loyal. He’s stolid—like Gandolfini in “Enough Said,” and Adam in “Girls.” It’s the women who are flighty and backbiting and hard-to-please. I’m surprised this isn’t mentioned more when critics, particularly male ones, encourage getting more female voices out there. Yes, this is good for women, but I think it’s even better for men. Because they like us, they really like us.
Sadly, we don’t spend enough time with Craig. It’s more about Megan, who’s meh, and Annika, who has adolescent issues and mommy issues. Bethany (Gretchen Mol, underused), a catalogue model, left a long time ago. She has a good line when Megan and Annika visit her and she wonders to Megan in the kitchen what Annika expects:
Megan: That you serve some lemonade and ask her five to ten questions about her life.
Bethany: [Pause] Treat somebody badly enough you just assume they'll be happy to let you go.
Fighting the momentum
The resolution should be intriguing. I think we’re all propelled along pathways, and it’s easy to give in to the momentum and intertia, and it’s hard to get on a new path. So the question is: How does Megan get on a new path?
Well, after she begins a relationship with Craig, Annika discovers Megan’s engagement ring and feels betrayed. So does Craig. Then Megan does a good deed for the girl but returns to Anthony and her old life. And that’s the end.
Kidding. She and Anthony are about to elope to Vegas when he makes a fatal mistake. He takes a selfie of the two of them at the boarding gate and sends it to “the group,” their friends with bad taste. And that’s when Megan knows she can’t be with him; that’s when she gets off that pathway and onto the one that leads back to Craig.
So she begins with movie directionless and with the wrong guy and ends the movie directionless and with the right guy. Progress, I suppose.
Movie Review: Copenhagen (2014)
Copenhagen deserves better.
British actor Gethin Anthony (Renley Baratheon of “Game of Thrones”) plays William, an American who travels to the titular city to: 1) deliver a letter from his now-dead father to his never-seen grandfather, and 2) screw hot girls.
He’s the kind of twentysomething who thinks it’s the height of hilarity to make blow-job motions next to a sleeping man on a train. He thinks it’s his right to keep dinging the bell on the hotel lobby desk even though the concierge is on the phone two feet away. He’s thoughtless, self-centered, and angry that his friend Jeremy (Sebastian Armesto) brought along his girlfriend Jennifer (Olivia Grant). He assumed this was “a guys trip”; he assumed it was all about him. Even with Jennifer, he assumes it’s all about him. “You wanted to fuck me first,” he says to her at the hotel bar. Classy.
The next day she and Jeremy leave. Would that we could. Then William meets a Danish girl, Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), a waitress at the hotel who accidentally spills coffee on the letter he’s supposed to deliver. They argue. She sends him to the wrong place in town. They meet again and argue some more. Then she decides to help.
So we get it. It’s about an asshole who becomes a better person because of a good woman.
Except she’s not a woman. She’s 14 years old.
Once William finds this out—40 minutes into the 90-minute movie—he backs off, right? Yes and no. Mostly he just gets more petulant. Because he likes her.
But he still backs off, right? Sexually? Right?
Yes and no. They get topless and make out in his hotel room, but he stops there. Hansen was 19 or 20 during filming but I still had to cover my eyes during these scenes. The ick factor was strong. It doesn’t help that we like her but despise him.
Question: How do you make an asshole in a movie sympathetic? Or at least interesting? However you do it, writer-director Mark Raso doesn’t. Is it because Anthony is a Brit doing an American asshole? That he gives us the surface but nothing deeper? That Anthony's a Baratheon?
All I know is I had zero tolerance for this character. As a result, we’re kind of annoyed that Effy falls for him. And as a result, when William finds out that his grandfather had been a Nazi collaborator during the war, and that he went to prison for it, and that he’s still alive, well, it’s more amusing than dramatic. Serves you right, dickhead.
But of course that’s how William “grows” in the end. Throughout, he’s an angry young man because of daddy issues; after confronting his grandfather, the former Nazi—who should’ve been near 90 but seems like a fit 70-year-old—he realizes his own father’s daddy issues were much, much worse. So he develops a kind of empathy.
Sadly, by this point, we have none for him. Effie is so good she makes William better, but William is so annoying he makes us worse.
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.