Movie Reviews - 2018 postsMonday December 31, 2018
Movie Review: People's Republic of Desire (2018)
The girl in the poster looks trapped and she is. She’s Shen Man, a live-streaming star on YY.com, a Chinese social network that launched in 2005 mostly for gamers, then relaunched in the 2010s for a wider audience. I still don’t quite get it, to be honest. It has something called “hosts,” and fans follow these hosts. Some give them virtual gifts, which are somehow translated into real money, and in this way the hosts can make a living and even become rich. Sometimes the hosts have huge financial backers and if they’re popular enough (or financially backed enough?) they can enter an annual 15-day contest to determine who’s “best.”
How is best determined? By wittiest? Funniest? Sexiest?
By votes. Except you can also buy votes. And the richer you are the more votes you can buy. Think of it as American democracy after Citizens United, with Chinese versions of the Koch brothers solely interested in promoting this or that YY.com host rather than directing governmental policy. Why do they do it? Because they’re bored? Because it brings them status? Who knows? Director Wu Hao only talks to a few financial backers.
That’s my main complaint. I wanted a wider vision. I wanted more explanations as to the absurdities going on in front of me.
At the least, YY.com is aptly named. Watching, I kept going “Why? Why?”
Start with the two hosts who make up the brunt of the doc.
Shen Man is a former nurse who’s had cosmetic surgery to look prettier, but she’s still no Zhao Xun. She flirts with and whines to her fans, and has tens of thousands of followers, some of whom are encouraging, some of whom are just assholes (“Show us your tits,” etc.). Big Li, meanwhile, is always referred to as “a comic” but in the many times we hear him hosting his live-streaming show, I think I laughed maybe once. Mostly he cajoles and complains and cheerleads. For what exactly? For him—and his audience. They’re a kind of a team—the downtrodden and ignored. The way I root for the Seattle Mariners, Chinese provincials root for Big Li. Similarly, he disappoints.
How did they get to this position in the first place? I’m not sure. I don’t think they’re sure. A wider vision, maybe showing us marginal hosts with only a handful of fans, would at least give us something to compare to. But I get the feeling Shen Man and Big Li are where they are because they were first. The first ones through the wall may get bloody, per “Moneyball,” but the first ones through the technological door don’t have to be particularly talented. See early movie, radio and TV stars. See the early stars of YouTube and Instagram.
Fame and fortune don’t exactly make them happy, either. Shen Man winds up supporting her father, who comes to live with her. Big Li visits his relatives in the provinces and promises to make them all proud. It’s like he’s talking to his fanbase rather than his family.
Their isolation increases. We see them in their apartments and live-streaming from their apartments, and that’s about it. As the movie progresses, each gets more sallow and unhealthy. We long for them to get outside. We long for us to get outside.
The doc is bookended by two “best of” competitions. In the first, Shen Man wins without much effort but Big Li is blindsided by a new competitor, Picasso, with a wealthy patron. The loss doesn’t bring out the best in him. He spends months licking his wounds, then plans a comeback with his own wealthy benefactor. Doesn’t help. In the second 15-day competition, not only does Picasso swamp him but he falls into massive debt— something like a million dollars—because he owes his benefactor some percentage of the votes bought for him ... or something. Either way, he's ruined. We flash back to the beginning of the doc, with Li, a former migrant worker, riding through Beijing in the backseat of a town car, smoking a cigar and wearing shades, and feeling full of himself. We expected comeuppance but not a million dollars worth.
In her match, Shen Man loses, too, but she’s smarter, or more risk-averse, and drops out sooner. But she’s still distraught; her self-worth is gone. At the end of the doc, talking to her fans, those men who often encourage her to take off her clothes, she finally reveals herself—not without clothes but without makeup. It’s the movie’s one healthy act.
“People’s Republic of Desire” does what documentaries are supposed to do: It gave me a glimpse into a world I know nothing about. It's also a world I know everything about. It’s about the desire for wealth and fame, yes, but at bottom it’s about loneliness and isolation. It’s about the urge to connect, and how social media taps into this urge and never assuages it. Social media is to connection like salt water is to thirst. We drink and we drink, and we wonder why we keep getting thirstier.
Movie Review: Burning (2018)
Writer-director Lee Chang-dong’s last film, “Poetry,” was about the horrific death of a girl that happens off-stage. We never see the girl but we hear about her rape and death, and we see the blasé and calculating reactions of the people responsible. We also watch the old woman who tries to make it matter; who tries to truly see the girl even though she’s never met her.
“Burning” is also about the death of a girl that happens off-stage. And not only do we not see it happen, we really don’t even know if it happens.
Consider it an arthouse version of a revenge thriller. The revenge happens clumsily—not to mention less-than-heroically—at the 11th hour, and we’re not sure if it’s necessary. Traditional revenge movies are all about certitude and satisfaction. This leaves us with nothing but questions.
We first see her outside a department store, dressed in a cute, midriff-baring outfit, with another cute girl, involved in a kind of raffle. They’re drumming up business; that’s why they’re out there. It’s about a minute into the movie, and we’ve followed Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), smoking a cigarette in an alley and onto this delivery. He’s thick-lipped, with an expression halfway between numb and stunned. He wants to be a writer but doesn’t know how to start. “To me, the world is a mystery,” he says later. It doesn't get clearer.
Initially, Haemi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo) is a pleasant mystery. She eyes him, flirts with him. Hey, he wins the raffle! It’s a pink woman’s wristwatch. In an alleyway, smoking cigarettes, he gives it to her.
Turns out they know each other from their small village, and soon she’s taking him back to her tiny apartment. Does he sense something off about her? We do. Like an increasing number of young Korean girls, she’s had plastic surgery, and in her apartment she talks about that time in eighth grade when he crossed the street to tell her she was ugly. You think it’s a comeuppance moment: You thought I was ugly, now I’m pretty and flirting with you but you can’t have any of this. Bye. Instead she kisses him, sleeps with him. In their relationship, he’s quiet and passive; she does all the heavy lifting.
Then she’s off for a trek to Africa and he’s left to care for a cat he never sees. He arrives, fills the now-empty dish, then masturbates standing up. He’s biding time until she returns.
When she does, she does so with another boy, Ben (Steven Yuen), who is cordial enough but mostly smug, superior, amused. On the phone, he mentions something about his superior genes. In the audience, we do a double take. Did he really say that? It’s either a bad joke or a worse reality. We quickly suspect the latter.
All definitions are lost, and Jong-su doesn’t know how to ask the right questions to bring them back. Are he and Haemi a couple? Are Haemi and Ben? What’s his role? Even so, he keeps hanging out with them—he never sees her alone again—and the places they’re hanging out get ritzier, with more and more of Ben’s high-end friends. You know that scene in “High Fidelity” when Charlie Nicholson (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has John Cusack over, and there’s a dinner party in progress? “Everybody, this is Rob,” she says. “Rob, this is everybody.” This is like that. Our protagonists aren’t part of the crowd.
The key moment occurs at Jong-su’s father’s ranch. When he first goes there, we hear some awful, tinny noise in the background, and I’m thinking “Is that North Korean propaganda?” It is. The ranch is right on the Demilitarized Zone. Jong-su is looking after the rundown ranch because his father is in prison for attacking another man. His father, it seems, has a tendency to explode. We wonder if it runs in the family.
On the porch, the three smoke pot and Haemi takes off her top and twirls and dances; then she passes out on the couch. To Jong-su, Ben confesses a pastime: he likes to burn greenhouses. He’ll find an abandoned greenhouse nobody wants and torch it. “You can make it disappear as if it never existed,” he says. He says he has his eye on a greenhouse near Jong-su’s place. Jong-su looks around. Near? Very near, Ben says.
For a while, we see Jong-su running up and down the dirt roads near his father’s place, checking on all the greenhouses. Is he trying to protect them? Is he waiting until one burns up so he can alert the cops and get Ben out of the way? What he’s doing isn’t exactly proactive.
At what point do we suspect he's already lost? When he can’t get in touch with Haemi? As she was leaving his father’s place, he chastised her for dancing in front of them topless, saying only whores do that, and we suspect her absence is related to that. But then he can’t find her at her apartment, either. She's disappeared. Plus the landlord says she never had a cat and he can’t find evidence of the one he fed all those weeks. Did he merely dream the cat? The whole thing becomes dreamy, or nightmarish, with Ben is at the center of it. But Ben never reveals himself as such. He stays cordial, distant, supercilious. He’s always seems amused by Jong-su’s efforts.
And he has a new cat.
You can make it disappear as if it never existed.
Revenge is a dish
Any thoughts on the false ending? Jong-su does his amateur investigations and doesn’t get far, but far enough to strongly suspect Ben killed Haemi. Then he settles behind his computer screen and types. We see him from outside his window, and the camera pans back, and we get the building, and more and more of the city. It’s a classic ending shot, but it would leave most everything unresolved. Was Jong-su writing about Haemi? Ben? Was it fiction? Is this the way he finally becomes a writer—via this horrible mystery?
But the movie keeps going, and the son becomes the father. Jong-su explodes. He and Ben meet on a lonely wintry road, and as Ben is about to take control of the conversation again, Jong-su knifes him in the gut. Initially I was so confused that I thought it was the other way, that Ben had knifed Jong-su, but no. It’s our guy doing the deed. Then he stuffs Ben in his sports car and sets the thing on fire. He makes a thing disappear as if it never existed.
Shivering, naked for having disrobed and burned his bloody clothes, he drives away in his beat-up truck. And that’s the end.
Steven Yuen as Ben is getting acclaim from American critics groups, deservedly, but Jeon Jong-seo really anchored the movie for me. She anchored it with how off she was—in a breezy, believable way. It’s her first role.
“Burning” was a little too long for me, a little too dreamy. My mind began to drift. Was that Lee’s intention? It actually makes you want to watch the film a second time. To see what you’ve missed. I like thinking about it, though. The more I think about it, the more I like it.
Movie Review: Shoplifters (2018)
A middle-aged couple who committed murder hole up in the tiny, shack-like home of an elderly Japanese woman, who lives there with her granddaughter—a sex parlor worker. The couple is also raising a young boy whom they kidnapped from a pachinko parlor and taught how to shoplift. Returning from a shoplifting escapade, they spy a four-year-old girl on a balcony and take her home as well. When the old woman dies, the couple buries her body inside the home and take all of her money.
They’re the good guys.
Most of the above is learned at the 11th hour, or by and by. We begin thinking the couple is the parents of the boy, and one of them is the child of the matriarch. We begin thinking they’re a family. Which they are. That’s writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s point. At least that’s how he began the movie—with the question, “What makes a family?” He decided it wasn’t blood.
Question: Does he rig the game?
The couple is big-hearted in a cold-hearted world. They keep the girl because she was being abused. They found the boy abandoned in a car. The “father,” Osamu Shibata (Lily Frank), taught him shoplifting, he later tells the cops, because it’s the only thing he knew how to teach him. He says this haplessly, but without pity or ego. There’s a recognition in his eyes that it all went wrong, that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but what are you going to do?
There’s nothing venal about them is my point, and they have an upfront honesty that most families don’t have. The boy, Shota (Kairi Jo), is acting distant, and Osamu surmises why. At the ocean, in the waves, he talks to him about boobs and morning boners and desires. He tells him he’s not abnormal for these urges but at one with the world. “Everybody likes boobs,” he says. The “mother,” Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), compares the girl’s scar, where her biological mother burned her with an iron, to her own near identical scar from a work accident. “We’ve been chosen, haven’t we?” she says. It’s a bonding moment.
Kore-eda keeps giving us these moments. They’re precious without being precious. Shota, upset about the addition of the girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), or maybe because he’s asked to think of her as a sister, and to train her in shoplifting techniques, doesn’t come home. Osamu surmises he’s in a nearby abandoned car. He goes there, sits in the car with Shota, talks to him, talks him into going back home. There’s nothing haranguing about it. It’s gentle. It reminded me of a moment, when I was a child and threw a temper tantrum at my grandparent’s house and locked myself in the car outside. Eventually my grandfather came and got me. By then I was depleted. I went willingly, happily. I was so happy to see him.
When the family is finally caught, and wind up before the authorities and the press, everything gets twisted.
Another question: Why does Shota do it? They get caught because Shota gets caught for shoplifting, and at the end of the movie he tells Osamu he got caught on purpose. Which we know. We see it happening. He abandons the technique he’d been taught, and which didn’t work as well as Osamu thought. (The local grocer, for example, knows the kid is shoplifting—another poignant, charming scene.) But why does Shota do it? To momentarily protect Yuri, who is trying to shoplift too? Or to protect her on a larger scale? To get her away from Osamu and Nobuyo and the cramped, big-hearted life they live with its petty crimes?
Also, why tell Osamu at the end? What is he telling him? That he did it on purpose to end a lifestyle that wasn’t sustainable? Or is he saying: I didn’t really fail. Your techniques are still good. I’m still a good shoplifter.
The kids are beyond cute. Is that rigging the game, too? Shota is so pretty he looks like a girl—the way that a teenage Joaquin Phoenix looked like a girl in “Parenthood,” or the middle Hanson brother in the “MMMBop” video. Yuri, meanwhile, is so quiet and vulnerable that when she finally smiles it lights up the world. Just the way she moves, my wife said, broke her heart.
The standout for me is Ando as the mother, Nobuyo, who is tougher than her husband. She’s the one who takes the rap for the crime of kidnapping Yuri away from abusive parents. Ando reveals complicated depths with a glance, an intonation, a shrug. She deals with the pettiness of humanity—as at work, with bosses or colleagues—with a knowing, amused smile. It’s not saddened or bowed; it’s almost triumphant. It’s like she’s thinking, “I knew you were going to be that small.” She knows how the game is really rigged.
When the cops accuse her of simply “throwing away” the matriarch by burying her, she looks them in the eye, directly, but without heat. “I found her,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It was someone else who threw her away.”
I could watch this movie again just for Ando; just for moments like that.
Movie Review: The Favourite (2018)
About five minutes in, I went “Oh, right. Yorgos Lanthimos.”
The trailer makes it look more fun than a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. It lies. Trailers do that. In fact, as I was watching this, I began to think maybe trailers should only be made by the directors of the movies they promote. That way, we’d get their sensibility—the movie’s sensibility—rather than the marketing department’s. We’d get more original trailers and fewer lies.
So what’s a Yorgos Lanthimos movie like? Disturbing. Discordant. Often unnecessarily so. In an early scene in “The Favourite,” we slowly become aware that there’s a steady thrumming, thumping noise on the soundtrack. Occasionally there’s an urgency to it, as if it were warning us of some upcoming shock, but mostly it’s just there: constant and annoying and taking us out of the movie. To me, it sounds like a headache. It’s classic Yorgos.
That said, I mostly liked “The Favourite.” And I liked it more when I found out its characters were historical.
Stripped and whipped
Watching, I’d assumed this British queen, at war with France, with a powerful, Machiavellian Duchess whispering in one ear, and an equally Machiavellian servant girl whispering in the other, was a kind of fiction. It was England but not England—like Central Europe in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It was Evergreen England.
But it’s the story of Queen Anne, the last ruler of the House of Stuart (Olivia Colman, brilliant), and her close friendship with Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is, in the end, usurped as “power behind the throne” by her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). The whole story is right there on Wikipedia:
Flattering, subtle and retiring, Abigail was the complete opposite of Sarah, who was dominating, blunt and scathing. During Sarah’s frequent absences from court, Abigail and Anne grew close; Abigail was not only happy to give the queen the kindness and compassion that Anne had longed for from Sarah, but she also never pressured the queen about politics...
In real life, the Duchess lost the battle but won the war. Queen Anne died in 1714, Abigail retired to a private life, and the Duchess lived another 30 years. In her memoirs, she writes dismissively of the Queen, which, some say, is why Anne has generally been discounted by historians:
She certainly meant well and was not a fool, but nobody can maintain that she was wise, nor entertaining in conversation. She was ignorant in everything but what the parsons had taught her when a child.
There's a bit of irony here. The bad words written by the Duchess are actually kind compared to what “The Favourite” does. In “The Favourite,” Anne is most definitely a fool: easily manipulated, whining, crying, caring nothing for the people around her. She’s concerned she’s fat but overeats and throws it up. She’s the original binge-and-purge girl. You know “The Godfather” edict—it’s not personal, it’s just business? Lanthimos’ Queen Anne is always personal. She's so uninterested in business she doesn’t even know her country is still at war.
Our lens through all this is Abigail, who arrives in court in a crowded carriage in which a man is masturbating in his trousers; then she’s literally pushed out of the carriage and into the mud. At the palace, she’s dressed down by the Duchess, who, enjoying her power, lingers over such moments like a cat with a mouse. Abigail is put to work as a scullery maid—assistant to the kitchen maid, the lowest possible position—where the other servants cackle when her hand is burned by lye. Several times, she’s literally kicked by men, who are more dangerous—or at least more comic—when they start acting lascivious. “I should have you stripped and whipped,” she’s told several times. How horrible the world is. How nice she is. Or seems.
For her burned hand, she makes a balm from plants she finds in the woods, and this turns out to be her in. The Queen suffers from gout, and the raw meat slapped on her swollen red joints does nothing, so Abigail arrives surreptitiously and applies the balm. It helps enough, and she insinuates herself enough into the conversation, to get herself noticed—less by the Queen and more by the Duchess, who senses that Abigail is more calculating than she seems. She's sees her as a lieutenant. But that's not how Abigail sees herself.
The movie then is about Abigail’s rise and Sarah’s fall. In her memoirs, or maybe just via her wicked tongue, the real Duchess implied Abigail was also the Queen’s lover. The movie does more than imply and tosses in the Duchess for good measure. Their wicked tongues are used for more than spreading gossip.
Much of the movie is funny, and most of the funny stuff—chiefly with the foolish Queen—wound up in the trailer. Colman is a treasure: the whole “look at me/don’t look at me/look at me” exchange. There’s even a moment when we feel for her—when, early on, Anne tells Abigail how she gave birth to 17 children and lost them all. Most were stillborn or died in infancy. One, Prince William, lived to age 11 before succumbing. It’s tough to imagine giving birth to 17 kids, let alone losing them all. For a moment, she seems like a human being. The moment passes.
I would’ve liked “The Favourite” more, I think, without Lanthimos’ singular, distracting discordancy and general showiness. Patricia, a graphic designer, a former art director, hated the typography that accompanied the film. She found it pointless, hard to read, and smug. She loved the women in all their awfulness.
Movie Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
There’s a moment about 45 minutes into “The Spy Who Dumped Me” that made me laugh.
Our main characters, Audrey and Morgan (Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon), two American girls caught up in international spy intrigue, are on the run for their lives in Europe. Unbeknownst to them, Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno), an international model/gymnast/assassin (you know the type), has been sent to Prague to kill them, and, I assume, retrieve the maguffin in Audrey’s possession. She’s getting in position over Prague’s Old Town Square and asks her superior, via earpiece, who she’s looking for. Response: “Targets are two dumb American women.” She raises her rifle, looks through the scope, sees:
- two girls posing for a picture, one flipping the bird, the other doing the flicking-tongue-under-v-sign gesture
- a hung-over girl on a bridge throwing up into the water below while her friend holds her hair back
- two girls doing a bump-and-grind against a shrouded medieval statue, and, per subtitles, “both whooping”
At which point, realizing the impossibility of her task, she lowers her rifle.
That’s a good bit.
The rest of the movie is simply empowerment of those same dumb American women.
Our heroes are amateurs who bungle their way into international espionage and thrive there. The outlandishness that makes Morgan “a bit much” in the real world is perfect for distraction, while Audrey, 30 and going nowhere with her life, has real talent for the spy game. Before, she couldn’t lie. Now she’s adept at it. She’s good at the bait-and-switch, at killing (via all those Friday-night video arcade shooting games), and at hiding the maguffin where the sun don’t shine. Sure, innocent people die (Uber driver), but our girls wind up feeling good about themselves, and isn’t that what’s important?
Audrey also gets to kill the duplicitous spy who dumped her (Justin Theroux) and win the spy who’s loyal (Sam Heugan). Both women get new, sexy careers. They start out the movie as us (stunted, marginal) and wind up the movie as them (heroic, central). The thing they were brought in to mock is what they become.
Here’s an excerpt from my 2015 review of “Spy” starring Melissa McCarthy:
Most genre spoofs occur when Hollywood takes someone who looks and acts like us (a schlub) and places them in an exciting genre movie (western, action-adventure, spy thriller). The laughs come when the schlub tries to live up to the genre and falls flat, while the catharsis comes when the schlub becomes the wish-fulfillment fantasy figure in the end. The genre may be mocked but it ultimately wins. Wish-fulfillment fantasy wins. We want us on the screen but no we don’t; we’d rather see them.
“Spy” did the genre spoof better because McCarthy’s character wasn’t a schlub; she was assistant to a superspy (Jude Law) but actually competent. I.e., more competent than the men. She’d just never been given the chance. But when Jude appears to die in the first reel, she gets it. The comedy comes in how less-than-glamorous her version of the spy game is. It’s really a feminist/lookist take within the genre spoof.
This isn’t that. “Dumped Me” reverts us back to the stupid norm. It pretends that you can join late with zero experience and still master the game.
That’s not what dooms it, though. It's just not funny. I think I laughed fewer than 10 times. I liked the bit about driving the manual-transmission car into the kiosk at 2 mph. I liked Cheesecake Factory menus compared to the novels of Dostoevsky. I liked Paul Reiser and Jane Curtain as the parents, and Reiser’s line reading on Woody Harrelson. And not much else.
Some of the action sequences are surprisingly good but has McKinnon ever been less funny? Has Kunis made a smart decision since “Black Swan”?
“Targets are two dumb American women.” The movie’s targets are many dumb American women. Based on its pallid box office, it didn’t hit them, either.