Movie Reviews - 2017 postsWednesday January 10, 2018
Movie Review: Youth (2017)
In “Youth,” Feng Xiaogang’s sweeping tale of a cultural troupe in the People’s Liberation Army in the 1970s, one of our main characters is He Xiaoping (Miao Miao), a young dancer from the provinces with a sad backstory. Her father was reeducated during the Cultural Revolution, and her mother remarried; Xiaoping has since taken her step-father’s name, but he ignores her, and village peers bully her. She’s hoping for better now that she’s in the PLA.
She doesn’t get it. Is it simply first impressions? Mean girls? When she arrives, her clothes smell (it costs to shower where she lived), and she sweats more than the other girls, and, despite her cheery demeanor, she can’t live this down. It doesn’t help that she borrows the military uniform of Dingding (Yang Caiyu) to take a picture to send back home—specifically to her father, to whom she’s loyal, and who isn’t long for this world—nor that she doesn’t own up to it when confronted. There’s also an incident with a padded bra, which is apparently scandalous. Bottom line: She’s “other” in this troupe. She’s mistreated, a punchline.
But boy can she dance. And when the group is readying to perform before cavalry officers in the mountains, the lead dancer, as in a classic Hollywood melodrama, injures herself. It’s Xiaoping, the understudy, who is called upon to save the day.
Except by this point she’s done with the troupe—less for the way they’ve treated her than the way they treated Liu Feng (Huang Xuan), a selfless, almost saintly figure, who is kicked out for indescretions. Specifically: He spent years doing good deeds for Dingding because he was hopelessly in love with her; and when he finally confesses this to her, and tries to embrace her, he’s caught (“caught”) and condemned.
So Xiaoping, done with it all, feigns illness to get out of dancing the lead role. Ah, but the political commissar realizes she’s faking, and, in his wisdom, decides to see where she’s going with it. He takes her on stage before the cavalry officers, tells them that she’s sick but has agreed to perform for them anyway. The troops chant her name: “Learn from Comrade Xiaoping!” they cry. The music wells up, and the camera closes in on her, saluting the troops, overcome with emotion.
And then she shows them what she can do.
Except that doesn’t happen. Instead we cut away, and the next time we see Xiaoping she’s working as a nurse on the front lines of the Sino-Vietnamese War. We never get the big dance number the movie seems to be building toward.
It’s even weirder than that. Because the big dance number was actually filmed. It was in the movie when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. It’s even on YouTube. You can see it here. But it’s not in the movie I saw in downtown Seattle last weekend. And apparently it’s not in the film released in China on Dec. 15.
And what about that release? For a film from Feng Xiaogang, the Steven Spielberg of China, “Youth” had a really rocky time getting before the public. It was supposed to be released in late September, just prior to “National Day,” October 1, but was pulled by the Chinese government at the last minute. There’s an extremely informative article on the background to all of this by Richard Yu on the Cinema Escapist site, but even he doesn’t know why the film was pulled. He simply thinks the politics of the film, such as they are, had nothing to do with it.
So did something happen between when it was pulled and when it was released? Did Feng take some extra scissors to his project? Did someone else?
It’s the real thing
“Youth” is based upon a popular novel by Yan Geling, who was herself a dancer in a PLA troop in the 1970s, then became a journalist during the Sino-Vietnamese War. Essentially she’s Suizi (Elane Zhong), who narrates the film, and who’s part of the troup’s two unrequited love stories. Just as Liu Feng does everything for the shallow Dingding (for naught), so she does everything for the callow Chen Can (Wang TianChen) for naught. The Chinese do love their weepies. They love the scent of bitter almonds.
Me, I love this period in Chinese history. In 10 years, China went from the Cultural Revolution, when a whiff of westernism, let alone capitalism, was enough to be reeducated; to “to get rich is glorious,” when the machinery of capitalism was put into place and began to roar. The movie reflects that leap. The first thing we see is a giant mural of Mao Zedong; one of the last, a giant ad for Coca-Cola.
I admit that when the war started I went, “Wait, what? A Sino-Vietnamese war? In the ’70s?” Turns out it wasn’t much to brag about. The Chinese backed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and when Vietnam desposed them, China took offense and attacked. (Most wars have suspect provenances, but starting one to keep Pol Pot in power has to be at the bottom.) The war lasted a month and cost China between 9,000 to 62,000 lives, depending on who you believe. Here, it costs the ever-helpful Xiaoping her sanity (temporarily) and the ever-selfless Liu Feng his arm (permanently). We do get a lovely scene where Xiaoping’s old troupe performs for the war’s wounded, and she, startled into recognition by the music, winds up outside, dancing on the grass under the stars.
Shortly after, amid tears, the troupe is disbanded. Economic reforms are on the way. Capitalism is on its way.
To get rich may be glorious but it’s not portrayed so here. The people who get rich are the Chan Cans of the world—the opportunists. The Xiaopings and Lei Fengs get screwed again. The last time we see them, they’re huddled together on a train station bench in the mid-90s. Suizi’s voiceover lets us know they remain together, unmarried and without children, and show up at a reunion in 2016. But she says she won’t show us those scenes. She says it’s better to remember everyone as they were when they were young.
These days are ours
This is the second international film in the last three years to use “Youth” for its English language title—after Paolo Sorrentino’s 2015 film—and there's some interesting differences between the two. Most obviously, the western film focuses on the aged (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel), while the Eastern film on the young (to the point of casting unfamous actors in the leads, and not showing us how they aged). It’s the opposite of how we perceive each culture: the west discards its aged, the east reveres its elders. I hope China doesn’t give up on that as it moves to the center of the world stage.
Overall, I enjoyed “Youth”—I was certainly swept up by it—but there’s a big disconnect that isn’t addressed. On some level, we’re all nostalgic for our youth, as is our narrator, Suizi, as is the film itself. Which means she/it yearns for this troupe, full of mean people, and this period, the Cultural Revolution, a time when society was upended, education reviled, priceless artifacts destroyed, and millions of lives ruined. Not exactly “Happy Days.” Not even “That ’70s Show.”
The movie also should've given us Xiaoping’s triumphant dance scene. I mean, c’mon.
Movie Review: The Disaster Artist (2017)
I’m not a fan of shitty movies. I have friends who are, who gather monthly to drink, laugh, and do the whole “MST3K” shtick with this or that piece of crap. Sometimes it sounds fun. It's just not for me.
I’ve never seen “The Room,” for example, a 2003 vanity project by a long-haired, pockmarked, deep-pocketed, thick-accented dude named Tommy Wiseau, who not only stars but writes, directs and produces. He’s good at none of these things. He’s notoriously bad at all of them. The movie is notoriously bad. It’s the “so bad it’s good” movie of the 21st century, and, over the years, has acquired a cult following, including various Hollywood stars: among them, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen and James Franco.
“The Disaster Artist,” directed by and starring Franco as Tommy, chronicles its making. It’s the opposite of “The Room”: it's gotten raves: 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, top 10 lists, WGA nomination. It’s the acclaimed movie about the making of a bad one—a la “Ed Wood” or “Boogie Nights.”
Here’s my question: Does “The Disaster Artist” make “The Room” worse? Somehow less fun?
A cable kind of guy
I began to understand how huge all of this was last month, at Christmastime, when my nephew kept repeating the following line of dialogue to me. It's almost like his generation's “wild and crazy guy”:
I did not hit her, it’s not true. It’s bullshit. I did not hit her. I did naaaht. Oh hi, Mark.
It's from an infamously bad scene in “The Room.” You can see it here.
You can also see how it’s redone in “The Disaster Artist.” Franco's scene is good: the number of takes it took; how everyone on set knew the line except for the actor, Tommy Wiseau; how when he finally nailed it, in a manner so bad it became a joke, everyone broke into applause—because at least it had been done.
But ... Franco doesn’t quite nail it, does he? He doesn’t get the quick glance over to Mark before tossing the bottle on the ground. He doesn’t get the squinched eyes on “Naaaaht.” You look at the difference between the two scenes and wonder if Franco isn't a good-enough actor to act as badly as Tommy Wiseau.
Plus ... isn't he’s kind of menacing?
That’s what surprised me when I watched some YouTube scenes from “The Room” after seeing “The Disaster Artist.” Tommy Wiseau may be weird and off, but he’s not as weird and off as James Franco playing Tommy. There’s an innocence in the original that isn’t in “The Disaster Artist.”
Indeed, if “The Disaster Artist” reminds me of any movie, it’s “The Cable Guy,” starring Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick. Each is about a vaguely menacing loner who insinuates himself into the life of a well-meaning guy.
The well-meaning guy here is Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), a San Francisco actor who’s too uptight onstage. That’s why he admires Tommy, who puts it all out there. In their acting class, Tommy does an extended version of Brando doing Stella; at one point, he literally climbs the walls. Greg wants to be like that.
But the closer he gets to Tommy, the more he realizes how odd he is. The hair, the thousand-yard stare, the Eastern European accent. The insistence that—despite the accent—he’s an American from New Orleans.
Franco piles on oddities of his own. Tommy does Brando in acting class but he’s never seen a James Dean movie? But it allows us to watch the “tearing me apart” scene in “Rebel Without a Cause,” which Tommy incorporates into/steals for “The Room.” As with tossing a football around with Greg. Even though he can’t toss a football around.
Despite his near-comatose look, Tommy is a go-getter with a carpe diem attitude—at least when it comes to Greg. A move to LA seems impossible to Greg until Tommy says they can stay at his apartment down there. He has one. He’s loaded. But he seems fixated on Greg to an unhealthy degree. When the two are at a bar, and Greg starts chatting up a cute bartender, Amber (Alison Brie), Tommy demands they leave. And when Greg moves out to move in with Amber? It’s like a betrayal.
Is it because Tommy is lonely without Greg? Because Greg is his only friend? Or is it something deeper? The movie never answers these questions, merely insinuates. It never answers who Tommy is, or where he’s from, or how he got rich. It almost delights in not answering.
Later, when Greg laments the endless, fruitless auditions, and says the only way they can be in a movie is make one themselves, a light bulb goes on over Tommy’s head, and “The Room,” in which Tommy mistreats nearly everyone on set, and which is about how everyone betrays the upstanding hero, is made.
Thus the implication of “The Disaster Artist”: that Tommy makes “The Room” to keep Greg close, then makes it all about Greg’s betrayal of him.
That’s some fucked-up shit. And does it make “The Room” itself less fun as a result? I guess people who like shitty movies will have to answer that one.
For the birds
So Tommy spends millions of dollars to make a horrible movie while being a horrible person in the process. But this is Hollywood, so we need a happy ending. More: Franco and others like “The Room.” They know it's a horrible movie but they don't feel it's a horrible movie. It's given them too much joy. And that's their out. That's their happy ending.
In “Ed Wood,” the best director in the world, Orson Welles, tells the worst director in the world, Ed Wood, to keep going: “Visions are worth fighting for,“ he says. ”Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?”
Here, it’s something similar. Though the movie is a disaster, though at the premiere every winds up laughing at it, Greg convinces Tommy that that’s a good thing. Did Hitchcock ever make people laugh like this? No. So in this way Tommy is better than Hitchcock.
Yeah. He is naaaht.
Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)
For a director as esteemed as Guillermo del Toro, it’s kind of shocking how few esteemed movies he’s made. It’s really just “Pan’s Labyrinth” and this. Everything else is lesser fare (“Crimson Peak”), B-comic movies (“Blade II,” “Hellboy”) and giant stupid shit (“Pacific Rim”). He’s got one Oscar nom (original screenplay, “Pan’s”), two BAFTA noms (both for “Pan’s”) and a shitload of sci-fi awards.
I guess that’s who he really is: a sci-fi geek.
As for this fairy tale, fish-out-of-water love story? Patricia loved it from beginning to end. I liked it. But you know what I liked more? I liked Del Toro talking about it.
In December, he was on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and pointed out that “The Shape of Water” is really a revisionist take on “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” It’s the outsider’s take—the creature’s take. The woman, rather than being desired, is desirous. The creature is a creature, but benevolent and intelligent and curious. The true villains are the white men in charge: scientists and military officials and bureaucrats. I wonder if del Toro considered having Michael Shannon smoke a pipe throughout—like a ’50s era, B-movie scientist hero.
Then he goes deeper:
The screenplay makes a point of showing you that the characters that have the power of speech, that talk, have more of a trouble communicating with each other than the characters that just are.
That's nice. The movie is set in the early 1960s, one of the most frigid parts of the Cold War, but del Toro lets us know why the film is relevant today:
Every time we talk about emotions we do so very guardedly and with the fear of appearing disingenuous. And I wanted to make a completely honest, heart on the sleeve, non-ironic melodrama in which we talk about falling in love with, quote unquote, “the other”—as opposed to fearing the other, which is what we face every day in the news and politics.
Listen to the whole thing. His accent alone makes it worth it.
As for the movie?
OK, so I’m a worst-case-scenario person. Sue me. I just couldn’t get past the stupidity of our heroes, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), stealing an Amazonian river-god from the U.S. government in 1962, right under the nose of a borderline psychotic head of security, Richard Strickland (Shannon, essentially reprising his “Boardwalk Empire” character), and then ... not doing anything with him. For days. They just fill up the bathtub and let him flop around in there. Then Elisa has sex with him. She fills her entire bathroom with water and has sex with him. Mind you, she lives above a movie theater, and the building is old and made of wood. Fuck the shape of water, what about its weight? That’s risking a lot for one fairy-tale schtup. It’s not exactly staying on the down-low.
Even before then, in the government facility, isn’t Elisa quick to embrace the creature? To assume he’s not harmful? Here’s an egg, here’s another. You have claws and fangs but what the hell, I’ll just hang poolside with you. Within reach.
BTW: He is harmful. Ask the cat.
And what about the cat? Don’t they get over her pretty easily? If this things bites the head off Jellybean, I don’t think I’ll risk my ass helping him escape. Not that he’d get anywhere near Jellybean; she’d mess him up.
With most of this, del Toro is placing his needs as a filmmaker (to create the visually and emotionally dazzling) above the needs of his characters. He’s doing what he wants rather than what they need.
That said, Hawkins is wonderful as Elisa, a mute janitor at a government lab, the lowest person on the totem pole, who, despite her mousy exterior, has an inner steel and her own, full, no-apologies sex life. Some of my favorite scenes are her confrontations with the bullying, supertall Strickland. How her eyes don’t budge. How her gaze undoes him because it doesn't bend to his will.
I also loved Michael Stuhlbarg as the most sensitive undercover Russian spy in the world. He brought true emotion, true feeling, to what might otherwise have been a by-the-way character. When he’s killed, shot by his own, it almost physically pained me.
I just wanted the movie to make more sense. Even Cold-War fairy tales should have their own internal logic.
Movie Review: Girls Trip (2017)
I wasn’t planning on seeing this, but then the New York Film Critics Circle tapped Tiffany Haddish for supporting actress over Laurie Metcalf in “Lady Bird” and Holly Hunter in “The Big Sick,” so I had to check it out.
No doubt, Haddish is the best thing in the movie, the only one who’s laugh-out-loud funny. But choosing her and this role over Metcalf and Hunter? The hell? Does NYFCC have a history of going with broad comedies? Did they, for example, choose Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” a role which garnered a best supporting actress nomination at the 2011 Oscars? Nope. They went with Jessica Chastain for three films: “The Tree of Life,” “The Help” and “Take Shelter.” So why this one? Why now?
Plus “Bridesmaids” was actually a good movie. Remember how it opens? With Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph having conversations that felt as intimate as any lifelong friendship? It felt personal and specific and funny.
“Girls Trip” is the opposite of that.
A mile away
We’re told that four friends graduated from college in 1995 and went their separate ways. And each became a plot point waiting to turn:
- Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) is super-successful, “the next Oprah,” with a line of books, shows, products she pushes with her ex-football star husband, Stewart (Mike Colter of “Luke Cage”), encouraging women to “have it all.” Let me guess: He’s cheating on her.
- Sasha Franklin (Queen Latifah) is a struggling former journalist who runs a celebrity-gossip blog. Bills are piling up and backers are demanding more dirt and more clicks. Let me guess: She’ll realize the error of her dirt-digging ways.
- Lisa Cooper (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a single mom so anal she borders on obsessive-compulsive. Let me guess: She’ll let her freak flag fly.
Yes, yes, and yes.
The last of the four is Dina (Haddish), a take-no-prisoners party girl who refuses to be fired from her office job for physically attacking the coworker that stole her Go-Gurt. The four are reunited when Ryan, on the verge of her Oprahesque deal, flies them to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival, where she is keynote speaker.
During the course of the weekend, things get crazy. Lisa accidentally pees over a crowd on Bourbon Street and hooks up with a studly man half her age; Dina pees over a crowd on Bourbon Street on purpose and gets the others effed up on absinthe; Sasha keeps pondering whether to go public with photos of Stewart in flagrante delicto with an Instagram queen (all bootie, boobs, and bitchiness), while Ryan has to decide whether to give Stewart, and possibly that Oprahesque business opportunity, the heave-ho.
It’s obvious what Ryan needs to do but it takes her the entire movie to do it. And then of course it turns out OK. The Oprahesque deal goes through anyway—Oprah didn’t need a Stewart, after all—while Sasha is rewarded with a partnership. It makes up for the time Ryan totally threw her over for Stewart—a key fact that’s revealed only two-thirds of the way through.
What’s not funny
The obvious plot turns might have been forgivable if any of this had been funny. It isn’t. Haddish is funny. Her demonstration of the grapefruit method had me laughing so hard I missed the next 15 seconds of dialogue. I think I had a few other laughing jags courtesy of Haddish, who, not coincidentally, is the only character who doesn't have an obvious plot-turn.
That’s the lesson. The obvious isn’t funny. Bullshit isn’t funny. The other characters are obvious and bullshit. Bravo to Haddish and thanks for the laughs, but unlike NYFCC I stop there.
Movie Review: Batman & Bill (2017)
It’s a helluva story.
The doc opens with Marc Tyler Nobleman, a writer of young adult nonfiction, talking to a class of elementary school kids. He shows them a slide of the bat signal, asks them if they’ve heard of Batman, and says of course they have. He’s been giving talks all over the world, from Chile to the UAE, and he hasn’t been in a classroom where someone doesn’t know Batman. Then he says this:
On every Batman story since the first, in 1939, there was only one name in the credit line: “Batman created by Bob Kane.” Here he is. And here’s the thing about that credit line: It. Is. Not. True.
We soon learn how Nobleman discovered that Bob Kane had a partner, Bill Finger, who created the bat suit, Batman’s origin, the bat cave, Robin, Gotham City, and who wrote several decades of Batman stories, but never got a line of credit. So Nobleman becomes determined to not only tell Finger’s story but to get his name properly credited in Batman comics, movies and TV shows. And after 10 years, and thousands of hours of research and detective work, he does just that. And justice is finally served.
Throughout, Nobleman is considered Bill Finger’s Batman. Several talking heads, including director Kevin Smith, say so, while the doc shows an animated Nobleman casting a long Batman shadow.
“I think there has to be one person who steps up and leads the charge,” Nobleman says. He’s that one person.
Here’s the thing about that line of credit: Is. It. True?
Mark of Kane
The doc lauds Nobleman in two ways:
- He makes people aware of Bill Finger
- He tracks down Finger’s granddaughter, who has the legal standing to challenge the Kane credit line
There’s no doubt about the second achievement. We see all that happening. But the first? Just how well-known was Bill Finger when Nobleman began his project?
I was pretty deep into comic books in the 1970s but I admit I never heard of him. There’s also that montage of Nobleman asking comic-con visitors, some dressed as Batman, a series of Batman-related trivia, and all of them nailing the questions until the final one: Who’s Bill Finger? “Him, I don’t know.”
So Finger wasn’t generally known. But within the comic book industry? Oh yeah.
The doc tells us that when Batman producer Michael Uslan was a kid, he was introduced to Finger as “the creator of Batman” at the 1965 New York Comic-Con. Shortly thereafter, Jerry Bails wrote a fanzine article, “If the Truth Be Known or A Finger in Every Plot!,” lauding Finger’s contributions, but Kane denied it in an article for Batmania magazine, and that ended that. Finger remained mostly unknown and died in poverty in January 1974. He began as a ghost writer and became a ghost.
Here’s what’s left out. Finger was inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1994 (the same year as Bob Kane), and the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1999 (three years after Kane). In 2005, about the time Nobleman began researching his book, Comic-Con International established the “Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.”
Nobleman makes much of the fact that Finger died without an obit while upon Bob Kane’s death in 1998, The New York Times did a huge write-up on him. What he fails to mention? Kane’s Times obit credits Bill Finger in the second graph:
Batman and Robin, the characters that Mr. Kane created with his partner, Bill Finger, nearly 60 years ago, are some of the longest-lived comic-book heroes in the world.
What’s left out tends to elevate Nobleman; it makes it seem like only he knew.
But alarm bells really went off for me when the doc focused on the difficulty of getting a credit change for a longstanding comic-book character.
As example, we hear about the decades-long battle between DC Comics and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—including the 1947 case, in which Superman’s creators were awarded $94K but lost credit, and the 1960s case, in which the court sided with DC. Then Nobleman says this:
Long story short, Superman has been the subject of litigation almost from the beginning, and it’s been going on for decades at this point. ... And you know the Superman situation would not instill a lot of confidence that you can win.
Long story short? The doc fails to mention the 1970s case, in which Warner Bros., worried over negative publicity preceding “Superman: The Movie,” awarded Siegel and Shuster and their heirs $20,000 a year (later upgraded) as well as credit in all forthcoming Superman movies and comic books. Why was this left out? That’s huge. That’s precedent.
Is that the idea? They wanted Nobleman’s work with Finger to seem ... unprecedented?
Even Nobleman tracking down Finger’s granddaughter leaves me with more questions than it should.
It’s thrilling detective work. When Nobleman started, all that was known about Bill Finger’s family was he had a son named Fred. It’s Nobleman who discovers Fred died of AIDS in 1991. He’s also the one who discovers that Fred had a child through a previous marriage, and he tracks down the girl, Athena, via an online Florida wedding announcement and MySpace page. He visits her. We see footage of that visit—apparently for a doc Nobleman planned at that time. We hear her complain about how hard it’s been for her—knowing what her grandfather did but not getting family cred. “I still don’t have closure,” she says, near tears. “I was excluded from everything.”
But ... what year was this visit? 2006? 2007? Later we see Athena going to the premiere of “The Dark Knight” in 2008 and having a great time. Then before the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, DC/Warners wanted her to sign a document terminating rights to any kind of claim to the character.
“They wanted to keep me quiet,” she says.
It took her four years to realize this? What was she doing in the interim? The whole thing feels fuzzy. It feels like Nobleman wanted her to sue but she went to premieres instead. And it gets even fuzzier. Suddenly she’s with a guy named Dr. Travis Langley? Who’s that? Suddenly she’s getting pressure from comic book fans? I thought comic-conners didn’t know Bill Finger. Or is that before Marc’s book was published in 2012 and created a surge of interest?
But, yes, eventually she sues, and in Sept. 2015 they reach a settlement, and it’s announced that Finger will receive credit on the TV show “Gotham” and the movie “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Wait, just those? No, it appears those are just examples. It appears he’s getting credit the way Siegel and Shuster got credit for Superman. Even though the doc never tells us Siegel and Shuster got credit for Superman.
(I’ll only briefly mention the irony that when Bill Finger finally, finally got credit for co-creating one of the world’s most famous characters, it was on “Batman v. Superman,” one of the worst superhero movies ever made.)
Listen, it’s a helluva story, and I’m grateful that Nobleman did all he did to get Bill Finger the credit he deserved. I even recommend you watch it. But “Batman & Bill,” directed by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce (“The Art of the Steal”), focuses too much on him, and makes murky too much of the history. A better Bill Finger doc awaits.