Movie Reviews - 2017 postsThursday June 14, 2018
Movie Review: The Taste of Betel Nut (2017)
Have I ever seen a revenge tale in which the revenge comes first? In “The Accused” we see the crime at the end, rather than the beginning, but that one’s hardly a revenge tale in the traditional sense. Jodie doesn’t take the law into her own hands; she gets a lawyer.
Here we see the revenge first. Li Qi (Yu Shen Shi) is a gentle man who works with dolphins and seals at a small Sea World-type show in Hainan, China. We watch him wordlessly go through his paces. Now he feeds the critters; now he puts on clown makeup; now he takes it off like Glenn Close in “Dangerous Liaisons.” It’s nighttime and he gazes at the ocean. What is he thinking? There’s viritually no dialogue. Then it’s daytime and we watch him follow a fat man with dyed blonde hair from a crowded marketplace to a broken-down area where Blondie hangs with peers and chickens. Qi hangs back with ... is that a steel pipe in his hand? Or a long knife? When Blondie goes to investigate a squawking rooster, Qi makes a move.
At this point, director Hu Jia cuts the action and the screen goes dark for a second. When it returns, Qi’s face is covered with Blondie’s blood. No more clown makeup.
That’s the act of revenge. The rest of the movie is why it was necessary.
I didn’t much like “The Taste of Betel Nut,” by the way. The lack of dialogue at the beginning? That’s throughout. The movie is mostly quotidian atmosphere. We get few clues as to what is happening when. And why. Like what’s going on with the guy walking in the ocean? Periodically, we get underwater shots of his legs. Is something going to happen to him? Is he the reason for the revenge? Only later do we realize these are like chapter breaks—but why underwater shots, and why of a man’s legs, I have no clue.
The story comes by and by. Qi lives with Ren Yu (Zhao Bingrui), a brash, handsome, generally half-naked kid who runs a karaoke biz on the beach at night. He’s told he looks like Leslie Cheung, the movie star, and he kind of does: full lips, lidded eyes. He’s also generally irresponsible. Qi quietly plays the wife role in their relationship.
Into their little community comes Bai Ling (Yue Yue), the daughter of the woman who serves meals on the beach at night. Qi kind of lights up around her, she kind of lights up around Ren Yu. Classic love triangle. Does she know about Qi and Ren Yu? That they’re a kind of couple? One night, after a wedding, the three get drunk, chew betel nut, whose properties, they’re told, make your body tingle and make it tough to breathe. “Like love,” Bai Ling says. Afterwards the three have their threeway.
In the aftermath, for a day or so, it’s awkward. Then Bai Ling suggests an adventure, and they take a boat to get lunch. At the bar, while the boys are outside, a group of jerks, including Blondie, come on to her with crude comments, and she tosses a cup of tea into Blondie’s face. He’s about to slug her when Ren Yu breaks a bottle over his head, and off they all run, chased by eight or nine jerks. They get away. But because of the opening, we know they’ll return. We know something bad will happen.
While we’re waiting for it, we get the back-and-forth of the love/sex triangle. Bai Ling wants to be Ren Yu’s girlfriend, he says no, she kisses Qi, then runs off and kisses Ren Yu passionately. She’s about to leave for school again when she and Ren Yu go missing. The cops show Qi footage from a security camera on a bridge: eight motorcyclists, including Blondie, force them to stop, beat Ren Yu unconscious, and take Bai Ling away. Ren Yu winds up in a coma; Bai Ling’s naked, bound and beaten body washes up on the beach. It’s horrifying. It's suddenly just horrifying. But now we know why the blood at the beginning.
The ending is ambiguous. Qi is walking toward their rooftop apartment, through the billowing, drying sheets on the clothesline, and sees a young man with a shaved head (and scars there, as if beaten there) staring out at the water. The young man turns and smiles. It’s Ren Yu. Alive? Or is this just Qi's wish? Or is Qi dead now, too, attacked by the gang after he killed Blondie, and this is a kind of wishful afterlife? Ren Yu is welcoming him to heaven.
Again, I can’t really recommend “Betel Nut.” I wanted less mood, more character. Or more interesting characters. I wanted some fucking dialogue.
But placing the act of revenge at the beginning of the movie was well done. It’s almost as if we don’t get the revenge. The images that linger are the crimes, so horrific and needless.
Movie Review: The Third Murder (2017)
I say “spoilers” but, really, how can I spoil what I can’t fathom? There’s nothing to spoil here because there are so few answers. It’s legal procedural as M.C. Escher painting. Every step seems to lead us somewhere, but, scratching our heads, perplexed, we simply wind up right back where we started.
The movie opens with a murder. In the grassy fields near a river, Misumi (Koji Yakusho) takes a wrench and beats in the head of his former factory boss. The blood splatters Misumi’s cheek; then he splatters the corpse with gasoline and sets it aflame. Later, he confesses to the crime. Open and shut? Seemingly. But we’re two minutes in. As the movie progresses, we wonder if what we’ve watched is a thing that even happened.
Do the right thing
Our protagonist, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), is brought in by Misumi’s first attorney to help with the case. He’s the son of a judge—the same judge who 30 years earlier was lenient with Misumi during his first murder trial—and he’s, you know, doing lawyerly things. He’s looking for ways to get his client off or his sentence reduced. He wants to avoid the death penalty.
Apparently this was the impetus for the film. Here’s director Hirokazu Kore-eda:
I was talking to a friend, who is a lawyer, and ... I asked him “What was it that he did?” and he said, “We’re there to make adjustments to the conflict interest.” I mean, I don’t know if addressing the conflict of interest is more of a common way of thinking in the west, but many people in Japan believe that the court is the space in which the right thing is done and the truth is pursued. So there was a gap between what the lawyer was telling me and how the Japanese public perceives it.
You could argue it’s the difference between the movie version of the world and the reality, which is why Kore-eda decided to make a movie that dealt with that reality. Or, really, that began with that reality—using the best facts in your client’s best interests—and then ... not. Here’s what he asked himself:
“Okay, what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?”
It takes us a while to get there. The movie is masterfully atmospheric. You know how a film clings to you afterwards? Walking home, every sentence my wife said seemed to float in the air, pulsating with potential meaning, until disappating and leaving nothing behind; just a residue of meaninglessness. That’s what much of the dialogue, much of the movie, felt like to me.
Is Misumi crazy or wise? Is he malicious or protective? Did he kill the factory boss because he had debt, because he was fired, because the boss’ wife asked him to, because the boss’ daughter, Sakie (Suzie Hirose), wanted him to?
At one point, Misumi seems to commune with, and read the mind of, his attorney after the two hold up hands against the plastic partition separating them. So is he an empath? Later, Sakie implies something similar. She says Misumi sensed she wanted her father dead—since he was molesting her—and that’s why he killed him. And yet we hear nothing more of his empathic abilities. They‘re raised to be forgotten.
Or how about the thing with the birds? If he didn’t kill the factory boss, then why mercy-kill his own birds beforehand while setting one free? Why bury them in the backyard beneath a cross of stones? And what does it mean that the burned body at the crime scene also formed a neat, perfect cross? Or that the movie ends with Shigemori standing at a literal crossroads?
My wife thought Misumi hadn’t committed the murder. She felt he was simply covering for Sakie. That’s why he kept changing his story and motives: to protect her. Sure, I said. Except 30 years earlier, he’d committed another murder in another city, and the prosecutor there said he kept changing his story, too. Changing the story to protect Sakie can’t be the answer because it’s what he’s always done. We’ve just gone in circles. We’re back on M.C. Escher’s steps.
The truth will not out
To be honest, I can't even pinpoint what the title refers to. The earlier murder was a two-fer, so is the factory boss the third? Or is Misumi himself the third murder? He’s an innocent man doomed to be executed by the state, which isn’t interested in a search for truth.
I admit I liked “The Third Murder." From the beginning, I felt in the hands of a master. What’s fascinating, too, is that Kore-eda seems to have upended his original purpose. Disappointed by the reality of the Japanese legal system, he wanted to make a movie about a lawyer who did search for the truth, who was what we envisioned a lawyer to be. And what happened? His client got screwed and the truth wasn’t outed. Indeed, the more he searched for the truth, the further it got from him. And from us.
Movie Review: A Man of Integrity (2017)
Iranian writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof likes opposites. He began his 2011 film “Goodbye” with someone saying hello, and he begins “A Man of Integrity” with the title character, Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), engaged in an illicit activity: fermenting alcohol inside watermelons and hiding them below the floorboards in his small shack on his fish farm in northern Iran.
Immediately, two men appear asking about the watermelons. They search, can’t find them, but take away a rifle whose permit is expired. Are they cops or private contractors? At the outset we think the former but by the end we’re not so sure.
We’re not sure of a lot throughout the film.
Sleeping with the fishes
Where’s the “integrity” of the title? Here: Rather than pay a bribe to a bank official to delay mortgage payments, Reza sells his car and tries to do it legit. Things get worse from there. It’s like Serpico refusing the bribe; the corrupt in power no longer trust him. They need him to be one of them. And if he isn’t one of them, he must be excised.
That's when the fish in his fish farm begin to die. Eyes burning, Reza tracks things to Assad, his neighbor. He’s in the midst of pulling up the chains of a dam which may have kept fresh water from them when a figure appears over his shoulder. Next thing we know, Assad has a broken arm and Reza is in jail for assault. Frustrations now mount for Reza’s wife, Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee). Reza is supposed to be released after 24 hours, but there’s always a delay, or new rules or new charges, or prematurely closed offices. She brings in her brother to help navigate the corrupt system, and even then it takes five days. Finally back in his own bed, Reza, the next morning, awakens to fresh horror: birds swooping on his farm, attracted by the scent of dead fish. They’ve been poisoned.
For a time, I wondered what the movie would become. Would we simply watch Reza’s downward trajectory? From refusing to leave his farm to agreeing to sell it to being offered half of what it's worth? Or nothing? At every turn, the straightjacket is tightened. His wife is the head of a school, which Assad’s daughter attends, from whom she finds out Assad’s arm was never broken. Hadis sends a message to Assad through the girl. Assad sends a message back: He pulls the girl from the school.
I kept wondering about the watermelon-fermented wine seen in the first act. Was that a way out? No. It’s for Reza’s personal use—even though it’s been prohibited for Muslims in the Islamic Republic since 1979. He takes it to an underground spring—a literal man cave—where he drinks and rests and thinks. And plots.
Akhlaghirad has a handsome, powerful presence. His eyes burn. They burn in part because he can’t see a way out as a man of integrity; so he becomes its opposite. It’s a movie of escalations. Reza is trapped so he traps the well-connected Assad by framing him for drug use. Assad, from prison, engineers a response: He burns down Reza’s house. Reza then uses a corrupt prison guard to bring him poisoned drugs. Assad is killed, and, at his funeral, Reza attends and stares down his children with those burning eyes.
An offer he can’t refuse
“A Man of Integrity,” which won “Un Certain Regard” at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is beautifully art-directed but often slow-moving, and it uses a verbal shorthand to explain complex Iranian societal matters. For an outsider like me, much has to be guessed at, and even now, writing this, I’ve often got my hands in the air. One review mentioned that Reza was a former univeristy professor. When did that come up? And in what period was the movie set? Is it contemporary, or is that news footage of Khomeni on TV?
So what kind of movie does “Integrity” become? It’s a lose-by-winning movie. Reza wins but he doesn‘t. In winning, he loses. Just as Michael Corleone, in “Godfather Part III,” tries to raise his family above the corruption, only to find greater corruption among the legitimately powerful, so Reza, by defeating Assad, wins the admiration of the powerful and corrupt, and, in a final irony, is offered Assad’s position. Reza wants to be a man of integrity but the corrupt machine doesn’t allow it; and in the end he’s offered a prime spot in that very corrupt machine. It’s an offer he can’t refuse.
Movie Review: The Bookshop (2017)
The sad ending made me happy but otherwise I don’t get this movie. I don’t get why it was chosen to open the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival, particularly without anyone (director, star, best boy) in attendance. I don’t get how it was nominated for 12 awards, and won three (best film, director and adapted screenplay), at the 32nd annual Goya awards in Madrid, Spain earlier this year. I don’t get what the point of it is. Books are good? People are bad? Bad things happen to good people when bad people force the issue? Sure. Also when bad people don’t force the issue.
Here’s the story, reduced:
- Good woman opens bookshop
- Bad woman machinates against her
- Bookshop goes out of business
Main thought, afterwards: Do you even need the bad woman? Why not:
- Good woman opens bookshop
- Nobody gives a shit
- Bookshop goes out of business
That’s more indicative of the world, isn’t it? Imagine if more movies followed this trajectory. All of us might be a little wiser, and a little less paranoid.
Don’t fuck with arts center patrons
The good woman is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a widow who loves books and wants to share her love by opening a bookshop on the Suffolk coast of England in 1959. What is she doing in Hardborough, Suffolk? I assumed she was there with her husband, who recently died, and she was trying to figure out how to give the rest of her life meaning. Nope. Halfway through, we find out her husband died 16 years earlier in the midst of World War II. So what has she been doing all of this time? And was she already on the Suffolk coast or did she move there? She seems like an outsider. Maybe that’s just the nature of readers.
The bad woman is Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson). Problems arise when Florence buys “The Old House,” a damp property, for her bookshop, because Gamart wanted it for an arts center.
Believe it or not, that’s the conflict. As Florence gets her bookshop up and running, and acquires friends and allies, chiefly the town’s big, reclusive reader, Edmond Brundish (Bill Nighy, who has all the best lines), Violet, from within her upper-middle class walls, and with her own allies, machinates against her. Christine (Honor Kneafsey), the bright, curly-haired girl who helps in the bookshop, and who improbably hasn’t read anything until Florence arrived, is made to work in another bookshop. Something about child labor laws. So Milo North (James Lance), Violet’s smug, closeted confidante, offers his services. For some reason, Florence accepts. Now the fox is in the henhouse.
Truly, though, the big blow for Florence is when Violet gets her nephew, a government official, to pass a law allowing the government to buy “The Old House” from under Florence. Meanwhile, because of Milo’s internal machinations, the building is declared unfit for human occupation—even though Florence lives there—and they don’t pay her anything for it.
Actually, the bigger blow happens earlier. Brundish becomes adviser and friend to Florence. She gets him to read Ray Bradbury, for example, and he advises her on whether or not “Lolita” is a good novel and she should sell it. (It is, she should.) He’s old money, too, in this sleepy town, where you’re either working class or don’t seem to do any work at all, and eventually he comes out of his shell and confronts Violet. Over tea, he tells her what a nasty piece of work she is. Nice! Then, on the walk home, he suffers a heart attack. Bummer! Now Florence has no allies and enemies pounce.
Well, she has one ally left.
A lantern in the first act...
As Florence is leaving Hardborough for good, via boat, defeated, Christine pops up on the pier with the lantern she’s always carried, and, in the distance, Florence sees “The Old House” on fire. It’s Christine’s revenge on Violet's vengeful spirit. And it’s at that point we learn our narrator throughout the film (Julie Christie) was actually Christine, grown up and running her own bookshop. Florence’s legacy lives! Books live! The whole thing is supposed to add a touch of sweet to the bitter.
Except it feels false. If the building goes up in flames just as Florence is leaving, how is she not be blamed, and pursued, and imprisoned? And where is she leaving to by boat— Belgium? In the acclaimed novel written by Penelope Fitzgerald, she leaves by train, bowing her head in shame, according to The New Yorker, “because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.”
That line is key to me. Wasn’t Florence’s bookshop a doomed enterprise from the beginning—even without Violet? And isn’t grown-up Christine’s bookshop a doomed enterprise in the Internet/Amazon age? The movie's focus on Violet covers up the bigger problem: It's less the machinations of a few than the indifference of most. Not to mention our own sad dreams.
Movie Review: Kung Fu Yoga (2017)
There’s a moment midway through “Kung Fu Yoga” (“功 夫 瑜 伽”) that warmed my heart.
Our hero, Prof. Jack Chan (Jackie Chan), the most famous archeologist in China (“one of them,” he always responds with modesty), is in a high-end hotel in Dubai, where he’s just fooled a friend, a rich Chinese businessman, into buying a stolen Indian artifact for $160 million so it can be studied rather than privatized and coveted. Except now several toughs start a fight on the stairs leading to the second floor of the lobby; they want the artifact, handcuffed to the wrist of the businessman, and pull him away. Jackie fights the others, sending two of them tumbling down the stairs, and then jumps over a railing to protect his friend. Except it’s more than a jump. He piourettes. He kicks his back leg up to twist around and land and keep moving and fighting. All in one swift motion.
It’s that slippery grace we’ve seen onscreen for more than 40 years. And at age 62 (his age when “Kung Fu Yoga” was filmed), Jackie can still bring a bit of it.
Which is good because the movie, directed by longtime Chan collaborator Stanley Tong (“Supercop”), is a mess. An expensive, well-produced mess.
ESL, Lesson 2
It was supposed to be a joint production between China and India, but at the last moment the Indian partners, Viacom 18, backed out, as did Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who was set to play the film’s villain, Randall. He was replaced by Sonu Sood, who is meh but does his best with lines like the following—the first words the movie’s villain says to the movie’s hero:
Some call it “destiny.” Some may call it “meant to be.” But I call it “I make it happen.”
All of this in English, by the way. The Chinese characters speak Chinese, but when the Indian co-stars arrive everyone communicates in the international realm of stilted English. We get painful intros out of an ESL reader:
Ashmita: Nice to meet you, Profesor Chan. Your reputation precedes you ...
Jackie: Call me Jack.
Xiaoguang: Doctor, how are you?
Ashmita: I’m good. Thank you.
Xiaoguang: I’m Zhu Xiaoguang, Professor Chan’s T.A.
Ashmita: You’re Zhu Xioaguang? Your thesis is brilliant!
(Jackie, next time your films need help with English dialogue, 打 电 话 给 我。我 帮 您.)
It doesn’t help, either, that we first see Ashmita (Bollywood newcomer Disha Patani) walking toward us in luxuriant-haired slow mo, while, on the soundtrack, angelic music plays. It’s reminiscent of what they did back in the day with Spanish beauty Lola Forner in “Wheels on Meals” (1984)—except that was used to comic effect, since it provoked dopey, slack-jawed looks from both Jackie and Yuen Biao. This? It’s just dopey. Jackie’s Prof. Chan now, 62, and can’t get be the slack-jawed youth. Plus he has 40 years on the girl: He was born in ’54, Patani in ’92. Yet somehow she’s the one who holds onto his hand a beat too long? And Americans think Hollywood has problems with this shit.
Past the intros, the movie is set in three places:
- The Kunlun mountains of Tibet, where the Magadha treasures, tributes from India to the Tang dynasty, were lost in 647 A.D., and are now found 30 meters below the icy surface
- Dubai, where Jack’s friend’s son, fortune hunter Jones (Aarif Rahman), absconds with the Diamond of Magadha, which is the key that unlocks the entire Magadha treasure
- India, where that treasure is finally unlocked.
All of these places are gorgeous. (Temple of Thuban, here I come!) Each place has its chases and fights, and they’re not bad, just not “Supercop” good. The whole thing is a little like “Fast & Furious” but by way of Jackie’s “Operation Condor” movies.
There are good bits. In Dubai, Xiaoguang and company arrive in front of the hotel late for the car chase when a visiting westerner assumes Xiaoguang is the carhop and hands him his keys. “We’ve got a car!” he shouts. I like the Indian fights with the rope and the snake. I like “Never touch a woman’s hair!” and Jackie getting all “Eighteen strokes to subdue the dragon” on the villain. Old Hong Kong mainstay Eric Tsang shows up in a minor role, and both male supporting actors have personality. Aarif is dynamic, while Zhang Yixing, AKA Lay of the hugely popular boyband Exo, who plays Xiaoguang, has self-effacing comic timing for such a pop sensation.
But the movie takes too long to get up-to-speed, and too many characters are added unncessarily—including Ashmita’s T.A., Kyra (Amra Dastra), who’s mostly there as potential love-interest for Jones. The reveals, meanwhile, are less than revealing. Oh, so Kyra isn’t Ashmita’s T.A. but her sister? Sure, why not? Oh, Ashmita is really a princess? Sure, whatever. “Truthfully,” we’re told, “she is the 68th generation descendant of Prince Gitanjali of Magadha.” And, oh no, crap, here she comes in slow-mo with angelic music again.
A Bollywood ending
The final scenes take place in a deep Indian cavern, where they find a gold temple, and where Jackie gives Randall about a thousand chances to do the right thing.
“This is passion, devotion, dedication,” Jackie says of the temple. But Randall and his thugs simply try to strip it of its jewels. “Respect history!” Jackie tells them. They don’t. He sheds light on a gold Buddha and everyone bows, but Randall is bowing to the gold more than the Buddha. He’s enthused about the chests full of treasure until his men discover they’re just full of ancient scrolls about medicine and Buddhism and throw them on the ground. “This is the knowledge and wisdom to help people live better lives!” Ashmita tells him. Right. So what’s it doing in an underground cavern?
All of this leads to the final big battle. Jackie breaks out the classic gong fu moves, and both Ashmita and Jones prove themselves adept. The fight’s almost over when Indians in the usual maroon/gold flowing religious robes show up out of nowhere. For a second, I thought they’d lived there all these years, but apparently not. Apparently they just wandered in? As reps of the people? To whom all of this belongs? It’s absurd but it stops the fight. Jackie and Randall look at each other. They walk down the stairs. Then, in Bollywood fashion, everyone breaks out into song and dance.
For all that, the movie killed at the Chinese box office (and died at the Indian one). It grossed US$250 million during Chinese New Year 2017—Jackie’s biggest haul by far. Was it the international settings? The high production values? The Bollywood stars? Sad to say, I think it was mostly the kid from the boy band. Brought the girls in.
For what it’s worth, Jackie, I came for you—the greatest movie star in the world.
Jackie: “One of them.”