Movie Reviews - 2014 postsThursday June 05, 2014
Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014)
Is a Hong Kong martial arts movie today similar to a Hollywood musical in 1975 or a Hollywood western in 1983? A genre limping past its prime? Is that just my perspective or do they feel that way in Hong Kong, too?
I lived in Taipei, Taiwan for two years (roughly: 1988-90), and I returned to the states a fan of the genre, which most Americans, at the time, associated with silly, z-grade fare. I brought with me a bootlegged, VHS tape of one of Jackie Chan’s early films, “The Young Master,” which I showed around. Most adults dismissed it before it began; kids loved it. They loved Jackie. They sensed a comrade in getting away with, and out of, shit. When the Varsity Theater added Hong Kong weeks to its calendar schedule in 1993 I tried to get anybody and everybody to go with me. I usually went alone. One conversation I remember in particular. My friend I-Ning, from Singapore, didn’t want to go, but we began talking about the genre and its stars, and I asked her, “Hey, whatever happened to Zhou Ren Fa? When I was in Taipei, he was everywhere. A big, big star. I even had a lighter with his picture on it. Now I never hear his name mentioned. People just talk about Chow Yun Fat. But whatever happened to Zhou Ren Fa?”
She responded with one of my favorite sentences ever: “Chow Yun Fat is Zhou Ren Fa.” (Chow is the Cantonese version of his name; Zhou, the Mandarin.)
The point is I knew Hong Kong movies back then, and I don’t now, so I don’t know if “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai,” directed by Wong Ching-po, with action choreography by Yuen Wo Ping, is indicative of genre today, and if its stars, Philip Ng and Andy On, are supposed to be anything. They can still do the routines, sure, but it feels rote. It lacks imagination. The movie has a dreamlike quality, but that seems less intentional, less Lynchian, and more a matter of poor plotting. The movie eliminates almost all exposition, and tries to give us just the good bits; except they’re rarely good. I was bored quickly.
Like Kelly and Caron
Ma Yongzhen (Ng) is a farmboy with massive martial arts skills who goes to the big city: Shanghai 1930. He’s got a jade bracelet on his right wrist because he’s promised his mother: 1) not to kill anyone with his strong right fist, and 2) to stay away from the gangs.
On the boat ride over, he gets into a fight, but that’s because some gang member literally steals food out of the mouth of a young girl. In Shanghai, he and his village compatriots meet up with a village uncle, or cousin, who’s basically comic relief, and who gets them into the door of a laborer job. Ma’s strength does the rest.
Ah, but one of his village compatriots steals some of the product, a bag of opium, and the gang beats him up. Ma, stoic, fuming, returns the bag, fights the gang, and calls the police. Or the police arrive anyway. Are they corrupt? I’m not sure. Is Ma in jail or under their protection? Questions, questions. The true gang leader, Long Qi (On), whom we’ve seen dispatch a legendary triad member in stylistic fashion without breaking a sweat, retrieves the opium from the cops. Then Ma calls him out. They fight. So soon? Here, they fight to a standstill. Here, they fight until Long’s cigarillo burns out. As a result, Ma wins the dope but rather than sell it he sets it on fire. To Long Qi’s forced, cheesy laughter. Truly, it’s one of the worst laughs in movie history.
What happens next is both a breath of fresh air and completely nonsensical. Ma, who has promised his mother to stay away from the gangs, gets a job with ... Long Qi? To keep an eye on him? No. Or we don’t know why he does it. He just does it. He becomes Long’s right-hand man. And Long Qi loves having him around, loves fighting with him at odd intervals around town, as if fight were dance and they were Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in “An American in Paris.” It’s the great love story of the movie. Ma has Michelle Hu, the mouthy girl back in the nice, poor section of Shanghai, run by Sammo Hung; and Long has the catatonic singer, Jao Junjie, who sings “Ku-be ku-yi,” and who ultimately betrays him to the Japanese; but theirs, Ma’s and Long’s, is the movie’s true love story.
Once Upon a Time in Nanjing
How do you make an evil gang leader like Long Qi good? By making the other triad members collaborators with the Japanese. Long is then poisoned and beheaded by the axe gang, while Ma can only watch helplessly, and histrionically, behind a strong metal prison door. Which sets up our final act: Ma taking out all the triad leaders, and the Japanese, with his superior kung fu skills. Does no one carry a gun around town? A machine gun? Don’t they know what year this is?
There are a few worthwhile moments. Anything with Sammo Hung, really, who, at 62, maintains grace and an economy of movement in his few fight scenes. I also liked this exchange between Ma and the underutilized, mouthy Michelle Hu:
She: I will treat you better.
He (hopeful): How much better?
She: I won’t scold you.
But once Long died, I lost interest. I knew where it was going. It got there. How awful, by the way, to make patriotic movies set in China in 1930. Knowing what comes next for China. That’s how I occupied myself while watching Ma beat back the Japanese here. Sure, kid. Great, kid. But where are you in 1937?
Movie Review: The Trip to Italy (2014)
I’m not sure why I like these movies so much, based, as they are, on a BBC TV series in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing versions of themselves, travel around England (“The Trip”) or Italy (here), ostensibly so Rob can write a foodie piece for The Observer, but really so they can amuse themselves and us with the following: good imitations of Brits (Michael Caine, Hugh Grant), bad imitations of Americans (Al Pacino, Robert De Niro), and thoughts about life, career, fidelity, and death. We also get many allusions to movies and literature.
One of the main selling points for me, to be honest, is this last part: the literature. I know tons of people who can riff on “The Godfather” and “Annie Hall” and Batman movies. But quoting Byron and Shelley in the voice of Richard Burton? Riffing on and imitating Gore Vidal and Truman Capote along the Amalfi coast? I’m yours.
These references to “Childe Harold” and “Don Juan” and the Gulf of Spezia almost sadden me, for it makes me realize how absent these things are everywhere else. These are erudite men but we live in a less erudite time and in a less erudite culture. Me, too. I used to know this shit.
A lovely gait
“The Trip to Italy” goes down easier than “The Trip”—as Italian food to British—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. This trip is less tense but also less poignant. In the first movie/series, the thin-skinned prickliness of Coogan, or “Coogan,” acted as bulwark to the constant yammering of Brydon, or “Brydon,” who kept doing, not only Pacino and Burton, but an unfunny vocal inflection, “the small man trapped in a box.” By the end we realize that this could also describe Coogan, or “Coogan,” who can’t get over his mid-range status, his inability to break bigger, and acts out in petty ways. It can describe us, too. We’re all trapped in some kind of box; most of us get small there.
In “Italy,” most of Coogan’s prickliness is gone, smoothed out by age or the Italian sun, which means our bulwark is gone. Brydon is unbridled. He keeps riffing. His Pacino is over-the-top but at least recognizable (“What is that thing you’re doing with your tongue—a gecko?” Coogan asks), but Brydon can’t come close to Woody or Clint or De Niro. Does he know this? That his American imitations are the impressionist equivalent of Kevin Costner in “Robin Hood” or Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins”?
But the movie’s mostly funny. They’re basically two men trying to outdo each other. They drive down Italy in a MINI Cooper, which alludes to “The Italian Job,” which allows them to resurrect their epic battle over who does the better Michael Caine impression. Coogan has it all over Brydon on the Americans but I’ll give Brydon this one: his Caine is excellent. From there, doing Caine as Alfred in “The Dark Knight Rises,” they riff on Christian Bale and Tom Hardy’s incomprehensible accents.
Their wit is quick:
Coogan (on pretty hotel employee): She’s got a lovely gait.
Brydon: Probably padlocked.
Brydon: Where do you stand on Michael Bublé?
Coogan: His windpipe?
They’ll take any topic and go. Among them:
- Whether they would eat Mo Farah’s legs.
- How to pronounce Alanis Morrisette’s first name.
- The nonsexual glances they get from young women now that they’re in their 50s.
- Which of them will be remembered 200 years from now.
The Alanis talk arises because they’re listening to her driving down the coast. At one point, Coogan imagines a conversation between himself and the singer in which he expertly skewers the superficial rebellions of youth: “I admire you taking a stand against society’s mores by wearing your jumper inside out, but enough’s enough.” My god, make a T-shirt of that.
There are subplots. Brydon reads for a role in a Michael Mann film and gets the part—to Coogan’s jealousy. He also has a fling with a British woman on a boat.
Coogan’s subplots? Not much. He’s leaving LA. His son joins them. Two other women join them as well—Yolanda (Marta Barrio) and Emma (Claire Keelan)—but I could never figure out who they were. Is Emma supposed to be Coogan’s agent? And Yolanda? She of the red dress? Which made me think of Buck O’Neil? What’s her role in all of this?
Fellows of infinite jest
Where does it all lead? Nowhere, really. The point is the journey, and it just kind of ends. I thought a better ending would’ve been when they were arguing in the Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples, surrounded by skulls. Brydon picks up a skull and does and bit of “Hamlet” but screws up the line: “Alas, poor Yorik, I knew him well,” he says, which Coogan corrects: “I knew him, Horatio.” Then he does the rest:
A fellow of infinite jest
He hath born me on his back a thousand times ...
Where be your gibes now?
Your gambols, your songs?
The look he gives Brydon here is poignant.
Is literature their means of communicating about the deeper aspects of life they can’t otherwise talk about? Middle age and death hangs in the background on this trip, as it always seems to on trips, while pop culture dominates the foreground. The food hardly factors in at all.
Movie Review: Kraftidioten (In Order of Disappearance) (2014)
“I am just a guy who keeps a strip of civilization going through the wilderness,” says Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård) as he accepts the “Citizen of the Year” award in his small mountain town in Norway.
So is he a cop? A lawyer? A doctor?
Nope. He drives a snowplow.
Turns out that snowplow just doesn’t keep civilization going but its opposite—or its nasty cousin—in the form of gangsters who take people for rides. And for much of Hans Petter Moland’s “Kraftidioten” (“In Order of Disappearance”), Nils, the town’s Citizen of the Year, gets revenge on those gangsters. Soon the snow is splattered with blood. It’s a comedy.
Not just an old-man revenge movie
“Fargo” is the inevitable comparison—white snow + blood + dark comedy—but there are elements of the Coens’ “Miller’s Crossing” as well: the mob bosses played for laughs. Plus Tarantino: gangsters in cars having quotidian conversations. Two Serbian gangsters talk up how nice Norwegian prisons are. No one rapes you, no one beats you, look I got my teeth fixed. Two of the Norwegian mobsters are gay and in love, while the cops in town, clueless, have their own conversations. Only Nils is on his own. He’s a silent, driving force: the snowplow personified.
Early on, his 20-something son dies of an overdose but Nils refuses to believe the cause of death. “Ingvar was no drug addict,” he says. He says it again and again. The cops dismiss him—all parents say that—while his wife sneers, with anger in her eyes, before leaving him. Distraught, alone, Nils decides to take the Hemingway out: shotgun to the mouth. But just then, Ingvar’s friend, Finn (Tobias Santelmann), crawls out of the corner of the garage with the news that, yes, Ingvar was no drug addict. He was an innocent victim. Cocaine comes through the local airport, and Finn didn’t think the local gangsters would miss a bag. Whoops. Finn’s connection was a guy named Jappe (Jan Gunnar Røise), who lives in the city, and who, when confronted by Nils, flashes the gun in his belt and tells him, “Go back to your hick village. Be nice and safe there.” For a second, Nils looks scared and out of his element, but only for a second. Then Nils decks him, pounds his face into the pavement, and, after extracting information about Nils’ boss (Ronaldo), uses Jappe’s own gun on him, after which we get, as we did with Ingvar, a title card: against a white background, the name (Jan Erik Peterson), the nickname (Jappe), years born and died, and the cross. We’ll see a lot more of these, with different religious symbols, before the movie ends.
As Finn leads to Jappe, Jappe leads to Ronaldo (Kåre Conradi), who leads to Strike (Kristofer Hivju), who refuses to name names. Dead end? No. Nils visits his estranged brother (Peter Andersson), who, in his mob days, was known as “Wingman.” After “Top Gun”? And he agrees to look into it.
If this were the story, even laced with occasional touches of dark humor, it would basically be another old-man revenge movie—Stellan Skarsgård’s version of “Gran Torino” or “Harry Brown.” But it’s at a higher level. It’s both lighter (i.e., funny) and darker (in its extended view of humanity). Those other movies take themselves so seriously. “Kraftidioten” has a beautiful, deadpan, absurdist streak to it.
Lost in translation
Leading the way is Greven (Pål Sverre Hagen, Thor Heyerdahl of “Kon-Tiki”), a second-generation Norwegian gang leader. He’s pompous, stupid, ineffectual and a vegan. He grows angry when his ex-wife (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) accuses him of feeding their child sugared cereal. There’s nothing quite like the Norwegian mouth trying to wrap itself around the words “Fruit Loops.”
It’s mostly a movie about mistaken identity, isn’t it? Everyone has nicknames and no one knows anyone. The gang grabs Ingvar for the wrong reasons, and they make his death seem like an overdose because they incorrectly assume, as Strike says, “If a Norwegian kid disappears, there’s always some obnoxious parent looking for them.” Greven forever calls the local Serbian gang “Albanians,” and assumes they are behind the disappearance of his men. Even family members don’t know each other. Nils’ wife thinks he won’t do anything about the death of their son, while Nils’ brother assumes the same:
Nils: I’m going to kill him.
Wingman: You? You couldn’t kill anyone.
So they hire a contract killer nicknamed the Chinaman, and we get this conversation:
Wingman: It must be cold here for a Chinese.
The Chinaman: I’m Danish.
Plus ethnically Japanese.
But the Chinaman betrays the Dickmans by telling Greven who was really behind the death of his men. Except Greven assumes it’s the other Dickman, and kills Wingman. Meanwhile, one of his gang states the obvious: “If it was Dickman who killed our people, then the Serbs must be pissed off about the guy we hung on the sign.” More than he knows: for the dead Serb was the son of mob boss Papa (Bruno Ganz, doing Vito Corleone), and now we’ve got a gang war amid ski resorts and hang-gliding.
Does the movie lose something in the final act? The coincidence of Nils grabbing Greven’s son just as the Serbian gang is about to? But the final shot, the final death, is perfect: less a grace moment than another graceless moment. The final nail in the haplessness of humanity.
“Kraftidioten” isn’t quite “Fargo” but it’s pretty close. And that’s high praise from a Lundegaard.
Movie Review: I Origins (2014)
Let’s imagine a few things:
- That reincarnation is real
- That the eyes are truly the windows to the soul
- That our eye signature—as unique as our fingerprints—follows us from life to life
What would you do with this set of circumstances? What story could you make out if it?
Writer-director Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”) envisioned a movie set in the near future when people would know who they had been in past lives. They would know the mistakes they had made, the crimes they had committed, who they had loved and what they had lost. It might explain why they acted the way they did. And from that, a story. He planned to call it “I.”
He also envisioned a movie set in the present, or near-present, when we finally had scientific proof that reincarnation was real. He thought of it as a prequel to the other movie.
Unfortunately, he made the prequel first.
$11.11 on 11/11
“I Origins” isn’t a bad movie but it is disappointing. Michael Pitt plays Ian Gray, a floppy-haired, hipster scientist with a habit of taking pictures of people’s eyes. Does he do this with animals, too? I think just people.
At a costume party early in the 21st century, he meets a mask-wearing free spirit, whose eyes he photographs, and who then kisses him, takes him to the bathroom for sex, and then abandons him there. He’s stricken, stunned, but he doesn’t know who she is. The next day at the university lab, where he’s a star grad student, he meets his new first-year lab assistant. Her name is Karen (Brit Marling of “Another Earth”), and, unlike the others, she gets what he’s up to. He wants to show the evolution of the human eye, in all its complexity—its irreducible complexity, according to Intelligent Designers. Here’s the trouble: on a scale of 1 to 14, with 14 being the complex human eye, he needs a zero point: a creature without eyes but with some aspect of our eye signature. Karen begins researching an answer.
And no, thank God, she’s not mask-wearing free spirit. He doesn’t find the girl that easily.
He finds the girl this easily. He’s in a convenience store, a 7/11, buying smokes, etc., and the price comes to $11.11. And the date is 11/11. And he goes outside and the windows on the building across the street all look like 11s. Then the No. 11 bus pulls up. He gets on, as if in a trance, then gets off, in a daze. And he sees the mask-wearing girl’s eyes again. They’re on a billboard for Devonne of Paris. She’s a fashion model.
I never did get this “11” thing. Why 11? Because it looks like two “I”s? Or eyes? Because of “Spinal Tap”?
Anyway, we now get two stories: the love story with the free spirit, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and the work story with Karen. In the latter, he’s trying to disprove the Intelligent Design community; according to Sofi, he’s trying to disprove God. But she wants to turn him on to a life beyond science and data; to a world of coincidence and spirituality, and, yes, God. She talks about him being in a closed room, and there’s a door with light on the other side; and she urges him to walk through this door.
Sadly, I found all three characters annoying. Karen was too serious and severe, Sofi was too impetuous, Ian never seemed like a scientist to me. A true scientist isn’t interested in disproving X or proving Y. He’s interested in what the data shows. Sofi, as beautiful as she is, didn’t seem like a model, either. How come she never has to go anywhere? A fashion show? A fashion shoot? Of the three, only Karen fits her profession. But she hides, and not well, a secret love for Ian.
I’ll cut to the chase: On the day Ian and Sofi attempt to wed, Karen finds an applicable zero-point creature, so they all wind up in the lab together. Sofi is not a fan of the lab. “You torture worms?” she asks in her childlike French accent. During a clumsy moment, Ian gets a chemical solution in his eyes and can’t see for 24 hours; then he and Sofi get stuck in an old freight elevator at her apartment. It begins to creak. He forces open the doors to the hallway above and urges her up. She won’t. Him first, she says. Eventually he goes, and he’s in the act of pulling her up when the cable snaps and the elevator crashes down. He cradles her and she seems to sigh. But he can’t see properly. So he can’t see she was cut in half. That’s the end of Act I.
In Act II, it’s seven years later, he and Karen are now married, and they’ve published a book about their findings. (Stubbornly, God still lives). They have a baby.
At the hospital, an odd thing. They’re doing the eye signature thing on the baby when a different name, Paul Edgar Dairy, a sixty-ish black man, pops up. A glitch, they’re told. But later they get a call from Dr. Jane Simmons (Cara Seymour), who tells them their baby has early signs of autism. Could they come in for a test? Stricken again, they watch an odd test being conducted—the baby’s reactions to a series of images—and after some research Ian winds up in Boise, Idaho, and the Dairy farm, which is not a milking farm at all but a farm owned by the Dairys, whose patriarch, Paul Edgar, died a few years earlier. And look: there’s the dog whose photo in the lab made the baby smile; and look, there’s the wife whose photo made the baby eventually cry. Dr. Simmons isn’t testing for autism. She’s testing for reincarnation.
(She’s also causing undue stress for parents like Ian and Karen by using the autism angle. Enough to get her license revoked? The movie glosses this over. It goes off into other things. I know, only so much screentime, but it still bugged me.)
Anyway, Karen, Ian and their friend Kenny (Steven Yeun, a standout in a small role), do their own research testing eye signatures and get one from Sofi’s: in New Delhi, India, three months earlier. Off Ian goes. Now he’s out to prove, if not God, at least reincarnation. He’s out to prove the eternal nature of the soul.
Eyeless in Gaza
“I Origins” is certainly smarter than the average movie, but given the vastness of its subject it also feels reductive. The pretty love interest who died young is reincarnated as a pretty, shoeless girl in India (of course), rather than, say, an ugly girl in Alabama, or a firefly in Pennsylvania, or an eyeless worm in Gaza. Are people only reincarnated as people? Never other animals? Is there a hierarchy to reincarnation? Was Sofi’s a demotion? The movie wants to wake Ian and us up to possibilities, to the open door, but it feels like a closed room. It feels tied up in a bow.
The trailer didn’t help. Ninety percent of the plot is in the trailer. It takes us all the way from the love affair, through the death, to Ian seeing the girl in New Delhi. That’s about 15 minutes from the end. So there were few surprises for me. Shame on the people who make these things. They’re trying to get people to see it—I get that—but they’re ruining it for the people who do.
There is a moment I thought profound. Ian and Sofi are in the lab and Sofi is talking about spirituality and the soul, which Ian dismisses, so she points to his test subjects. She asks if these worms, which have no eyes, know anything about light. He says no. Even though light is all around them? Yes, even though that. So maybe, she says, human beings are like these worms. Maybe God is all around us but we don’t have the proper sense with which to see Him.
I liked that bit.
And I’m still looking forward to “I.” I’m curious to see what else Mike Cahill might do with this concept.
Movie Review: Klumpfisken (The Sunfish) (2014)
The most macho thing I expect to see in the movies all year happened in “Klumpfisken” (“The Sunfish”), a slice-of-life Danish film from first-time writer-director Søren Ball.
Kesse (Henrik Birch), a third-generation fisherman from Hirthals, a provincial town in northern Jutland, is moving around on his boat at night too quickly, and falls and cuts his hand. Badly. Later he gets 20-25 stitches in it but now he doesn’t have the time. So what does he do? He duct-tapes it.
Take that, John Wayne.
Kesse, by the way, is moving around on his boat at night too quickly because he’s been illegally fishing over his quotas and selling the rest on the black market. Not because he’s shady but because he’s upstanding. He’s a decent man being squeezed by forces beyond his control: international economics, government regulations, and big fisheries.
A dying way of life
The movie opens on a typical day. Here’s Kesse on his boat on the ocean. Here he is telling first-mate Lars (Lars Torpp Thomsen) to watch the lines. Here’s the catch, the transfer, the inspection, the clean-up. He gets a meal, the same meal, goes home, watches TV, goes to bed, starts over. He’s a hard man to know. He also owes 100,000-150,000 krone. Because he’s a gambler? An alcoholic? Nope. It’s just what we’ve seen. He doesn’t make enough money to support the making of it.
Kesse’s real problem, besides being squeezed by all of the above, is Lars. He can’t afford to have him on but he can’t let him go, either. Lars’ father had been Kesse’s first mate, and he’d died in the nets, right in front of Lars when the kid was 13. There’s a sense that more than 150,000 krone is owed.
Kesse, in fact, doesn’t just not fire Lars; he takes on another hand, Gerd (Susanne Storm), a biologist from a university in Copenhagen doing a study on fishing populations. Initially he views her as the enemy: Someone who cares more about fishing populations than fishermen. But he warms to her, and she to him, and eventually a romance develops. He’s got charm but he’s truly provincial—rarely having traveled 15 km from Hirthals. They go for walks (where he misses all her signals), go to an aquarium, and scuba dive there. They watch the Ocean Sunfish, a huge, ghastly-looking creature, swim slowly by.
But the money he gets by having her temporarily on board won’t save him, so he succumbs to the inevitable: He lets Lars go. The precariousness of their situation apparently comes as news to Lars, who curses him, gets drunk, curses him some more. Lars is truly a waste of space; he’s there to make Kesse look good. Then Kesse makes a bad choice. Does he agree to take Lars back because he’s fishing over the quotas or is he fishing over the quotas in order to take Lars back? I assume the latter. He’s going to save his friend, or “friend,” and his business, by embracing illegality. The downfall of every good man.
This works well once, twice. The third time, his contact doesn’t show, and he’s forced to move the extra fish to his home, where Gerd awaits. “I thought you were better than this,” she says, leaving. So did he, he realizes, and lets Lars go again. With the illegal fish still in his garage? Bad move. That night, instead of his contact, it’s the inspectors who arrive, tipped off by Lars. Kesse is fined and temporarily loses his license. But he can’t afford temporarily so he loses it all.
These are the circumstances that finally propel him out of Hirthals and onto the train to Copenhagen. To be with Gerd? Will she take him? Who knows? The point for writer-director Søren Ball is to get him out of town. Fin. No pun intended.
The Ocean Sunfish is apparently the biggest, heaviest bony fish in the world, but ... Is it also supposed to be Kesse? Something that shouldn’t exist anymore? Something almost prehistoric? Early on, Kesse’s friend calls him a dinosaur. So maybe that’s it. Even so, as a metaphor, it hardly resonates.
“Klumpfisken” is a quiet, matter-of-fact film that’s altogether too quiet and matter-of-fact. It’s interesting only in a “National Geographic” kind of way. For me, there’s just not enough story there. The better story—what does a man who has lost everything, including the only home he’s ever known, do?—begins exactly at the moment we leave.
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