Movie Review: The Monkey King 2 (2016)
Once again, Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng), a devout Buddhist monk, travels west to find scriptures to bring back to the hedonistic east, and once again he’s accompanied on this perilous journey by Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), the half-pig creature; Wujing (Him Law), the water/celestial creature; and most important and powerful of all, Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok), the Monkey King, who is given to mischievousness and bursts of anger and violence. Oh, and once again their main nemeses are sexy women/demons, led by Baigujing, the White Bone Spirit (international actress Gong Li), who wants to eat Xuanshang to attain immortality. Because that’s how you do it in the east. Fountains of youth, schmountains of youth. It’s all about the monks.
I keep saying “once again” because all of this is from the classic 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” which is invariably translated into English as “The Adventures of Monkey.” It’s as widely known in China as “Don Quixote” in Spain, or “The Wizard of Oz” here, and it shares qualities with each. I still have a copy of the book from my days in Taiwan. (Mouse over movie poster to see.) I never got around to reading it.
But I’ve seen versions before. Last spring, the Seattle International Film Festival showed two of them: the 1927 silent film “Cave of the Silken Web,” and its 1967 Shaw Brothers remake, in which the sexy women/demons are in reality giant spiders. Since this is “Monkey King 2,” I figured we would be past this part.
Freed to be trapped
Apparently the first movie, which set opening box office records in China in 2014, focused on chapters 1-7 of “Journey,” in which Wukong gains more and more power, and more and more hubris, until he challenges heaven itself. He’s only thwarted when the Buddha traps him under a mountain.
This one picks up 500 years later when Tang Sanzang begins his journey west. He’s quickly abandoned by his two human disciples after a giant tiger threatens them and Sanzang flees into a cave—the same cave, it turns out, where the Monkey King is trapped. Sanzang releases him, and the Monkey King is free again! Well, yes and no. He’s trapped, in a sense, by the Goddess—think Glynda, or a Deus Ex Machina—who ensures that a journey is taken, friends found, lessons learned; who ensures, in other words, that we get a story.
Meanwhile, further west, children are being kidnapped by the White Bone Spirit and never seen again. Except she’s not really doing the kidnapping; the king is, and he’s using the blood of the children, held in small cages, to stave off a crippling disease. Not that the White Bone Spirit is all good, mind you. She still kills humans to stay young. She also tries to trap Sanzang so she can eat him. Gong Li, by the way, is great in the role: all whispery, sexy insinuation. When she moves through the air, her long dark dress billows behind her as if they were steps she had taken. They’re like building blocks that then go poof. It’s a great effect—eclipsed only by Gong Li herself, who, at 50, looks 20 years younger. A steady diet of devout monks maybe?
The chief conflict throughout the journey is the Monkey King’s ability to see danger and kill it, and Sanzang’s inability to see the same danger and his constant admonition against killing.
So is Sanzang devout here or naïve? Or both? And will the way he punishes the Monkey King (constricting a gold band around his head via Buddhist chants) cause the Monkey King to rebel against him? Also, how do you end the story if not by killing the villain?
Actually, that’s my favorite thing about “The Monkey King 2.”
There’s the usual big final battle, in which the White Bone Spirit brings to life an army of skeletons surrounding her palace (think: “Jason and the Argonauts”), and when these are shattered and defeated by our heroes, the remnants are swirled into one giant skeleton (think: “The Mummy”), who tries to get at Sanzang. Nope. Monkey King wins. The White Bone Spirit is in the process of dying, and her spirit will never be reborn. Victory!
Except the movie actually lives up to the precepts of its protagonist. Instead of revenge and killing, we get forgiveness and sacrifice. Sanzang, knowing he will be reincarnated, sacrifices himself so that the White Bone Spirit, who was once human, can be reincarnated, too; so her spirit can live on. Sanzang’s physical body turns to stone, and in the end it’s carried on the back of the Monkey King, who, with Bajie and Wujing, continue the journey.
How cool is that?
The rest of the movie is just CGI swirls. For me, “The Monkey King 2” is most interesting for being what western movies are not.
Final thought: Getting eaten by Gong Li: Surely there are worse ways to go.
“Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend.”
-- Pres. George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796
“It's one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
-- Pres. Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, 2016
“We are going to start winning again. We don't win anymore as a country. We don't win on trade. We don't win with the military. We can't beat ISIS. We don't win with anything. We are going to start winning again. And we're going to win so much, you are going to be so happy. We are going to make America so great again.”
-- Donald Trump, victory speech after winning the Republican New Hampshire primary Tuesday night
PARIS REVIEW: I once interviewed Allen Ginsberg, and asked him why he wrote the way he did—to which he replied, “Just because I do!” Is there much more to be said by poets about why they write the way they do?
SIMIC: Probably not. I write to annoy God, to make Death laugh. I write because I can’t get it right. I write because I want every woman in the world to fall in love with me. One can try to be clever like that, but in the end it comes down to what Ginsberg said.
-- from “Charles Simic, The Art of Poetry No. 90” in The Paris Review
What Liberal Hollywood? Part 89
John Leguizamo says what I've been saying for years—although, in this USA Today Op-Ed about #OscarSoWhite, etc., he's saying it about the place, while I've been saying it about the product:
For all the talk about “liberal Hollywood,” the film industry is as conservative as any other wealthy institution. If Hollywood were a U.S. state, it would be Alabama. It's more conservative than TV. It's more conservative than Broadway, which was the dinosaur of the media world not too long ago.
Then he talks up the musical, “Hamilton,” in which people of color play the founding fathers, and which has been my absolute obsession these past few weeks. Here's an early version of the opening number. Here's a CBS Morning Report on Lin-Manuel Miranda. In the #OscarSWhite controversy, Spike Lee also referenced “Hamilton,” specifically the song “The Room Where It Happens,” insisting—like Leguizamo and Viola Davis—that it's a matter of opportunity; of getting into the room where it happens.
Oscar Watch: Guilds Have a Threeway
“Revenant” carries home its DGA.
For the first time since 2004, the three major guild awards (Actors, Producers, Directors) have awarded their best picture to three different movies. Back then, actors went “Sideways,” producers “The Aviator,” and the directors chose “Million Dollar Baby,” which wound up winning both best director and picture at the Oscars in March.
This year, the actors chose “Spotlight,” the producers “The Big Short,” and last night the Directors Guild went with Alejandro Inarritu for “The Revenant.” It's the second year in a row Inarritu has won the DGA, which, I believe, has never happened before.
Who saw it coming? Me. Kinda. This was last Sunday:
I could see a 3-way split among the guilds: Spotlight (SAG), Big Short (PGA), Revenant (DGA). So like 2004 but w/better movies— Erik Lundegaard (@ErikLundegaard) January 31, 2016
Inarritu and “The Revenant” had a shot with the DGAs, I thought, because it was the most visually spectacular movie among the nominees. Just gorgeous. It's a real director's movie the way that “Spotlight” is an actors movie.
A secondary reason: In a season of #OscarsSoWhite noise, Inarritu is the only person of color nominated in the major awards categories.
I actually teased Oscar predictor Sasha Stone about this. All month she's been hot with #OscarSoWhite anger because of the lack of noms for people of color, yet she's not a “Revenant” fan. After SAG, we had this exchange:
To be honest, I'd be happy with any of the three winning best picture. They landed exactly 4, 3 and 2 in my top 10 movies of 2015, and the No. 1 slot is a foreign film. I think “Spotlight” is important, “The Big Short” even more important (also more entertaining), but I think “The Revenant” is the most artistic of the three. But again, any of them.
Oh, and if Inarritu wins the Oscar for best director, too? Which he seems likely to do? It'll be the fourth year in a row a non-white person has won the award. #BestDirectorSoNotWhite?
Here's a recent history of the guilds:
|Year||DGA||PGA||SAG - CAST|
|2015||The Revenanat||The Big Short||Spotlight|
|2013||Gravity||Gravity/ 12 Years a Slave||American Hustle|
|2011||The Artist||The Artist||The Help|
|2010||The King's Speech||The King's Speech||The King's Speech|
|2009||The Hurt Locker||The Hurt Locker||Inglourious Bastards|
|2008||Slumdog Millionaire||Slumdog Millionaire||Slumdog Millionaire|
|2007||No Country for Old Men||No Country for Old Men||No Country for Old Men|
|2006||The Departed||Little Miss Sunshine||Little Miss Sunshine|
|2005||Brokeback Mountain||Brokeback Mountain||Crash|
|2004||Million Dollar Baby||The Aviator||Sideways|
|2003||Lord of the Rings||Lord of the Rings||Lord of the Rings|
|2001||A Beautiful Mind||Moulin Rouge!||Gosford Park|
|2000||Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon||Gladiator||Traffic|
Final thought: I actually like years like this. I like it when the hardware is divided among good movies, and we're not sure what will happen Oscar night.
That Idiotic 'Hail, Caesar!" Race-Based Protest
On the town.
Thursday was an annoying online day for me. First that idiotic Frank Underwood meme, then this. Clowns to the right of me, jokers to the left.
On the Daily Beast site, frequent contributor Jen Yamato interviewed the Coen Brothers about their movie, “Hail, Caesar!” and asked them about #OscarSoWhite. They weren't really hip to the protest. Or they thought everyone cares too much about the Oscars. Which is true. Here, too. Although, in my defense, I don't really care so much as I'm intrigued by what the Academy decides to honor each year; what the conversation is. Really, the point of the Oscars is to disappoint, and everyone has their breaking point when they stop caring too much. Mine happened in March 2006.
Anyway, Ms. Yamato brought up why the cast for “Hail, Caesar!” was in fact so white: all of these white 2010s Hollywood stars playing 1950s Hollywood stars. The answer, of course, is obvious, but in the piece she only brings it up to bypass it:
Such overwhelming whiteness could conceivably be explained away by pointing to the milieu of Tinseltown circa the 1950s, when the industry's racial demographic was far less diverse than it is today. I asked the Coens to respond to criticisms that there aren't more minority characters in the film. In other words, why is #HailCaesarSoWhite?
Then the Coens responded. And they weren't exactly Minnesota Nice about it.
“It's important to tell the story you're telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity—or it might not.”
“You don't sit down and write a story and say, 'I'm going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,'—right? That's not how stories get written. If you don't understand that, you don't understand anything about how stories get written and you don't realize that the question you're asking is idiotic.”
“It's not an illegitimate thing to say there should be more diversity in an industry. But that's not what that question is about. That question is about something else.”
In a way, Yamato was brave to include all of this in her piece. She allowed herself to be an idiot in print to make a larger point.
Except she, and a lot of other people, think her smaller point is the legitimate one. Some of these people are friends of mine who are friends of hers, and who defended her on the usual social media outlets. I went the opposite route. I pointed out that all of these hashtag protests actually cancel each other out:
- #OscarSoWhite only because...
- #MovieIndustrySoWhite, and...
- It was incredibly so in the early 1950s, when “Hail, Caesar!” is set, which means ...
- #HailCaesarSoWhite as a protest makes no fucking sense.
So Thursday was a long day.
That Idiotic Frank Underwood Meme
A friend posted this on Facebook the other day:
She leans right, I lean left, and we had the following FB conversation:
Me: Frank Underwood (pictured) succeeds by lying, manipulating, threatening and killing. Is that the message this meme wanted to convey?
She: Didn't make it so I can't speak to author's intent. I prefer to take the words at face value.
Me: If you want the meme to mean something, you have to earn it. This is just sloppy.
She: Think you may be over analyzing it a bit.
So if she didn't make the meme, who did? Ted Nugent, it turns out. Or it came from his FB page. So,yeah, not overanalyzing. It's an anti-entitlement message, which means it's anti-Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. It's saying: If you don't succeed, you only have yourself to blame.
It made me think of a story I'd just read in Jane Mayer's book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” which everyone should be reading. I mean everyone. It's the most infuriating read ever.
The story is about a man named Donald “Bull” Carlson, who began to work at the Koch Refining Company in Rosemount, Minn., in 1974. He often worked 12- and 16-hour days, scrubbing out huge storage tanks that had been filled with leaded gasoline. He vacuumed up fuel spills. Sometimes vapors from the storage tanks were so powerful they blew his helmet off.
In 1995, Carlson became too sick to work any longer at the refinery. When he obtained his company medical records, he and his wife were shocked by what they read.
In the late 1970s, OSHA had issued regulations requiring companies whose workers were exposed to benzene to offer annual blood tests, and to retest, and notify workers if any abnormalities were found. Companies were also required to refer employees with abnormal results to medical specialists. Koch Refining Company had offered the annual blood tests as legally required, and Carlson had dutifully taken advantage of the regular screening. But what he discovered was that even though his tests had shown increasingly serious, abnormal blood cell counts beginning in 1990, as well as in 1992 and 1993, the company had not mentioned it to him until 1994. Charles Koch had disparaged government regulations as “socialistic.” From his standpoint, the regulatory state that had grown out of the Progressive Era was an illegitimate encroachment on free enterprise and a roadblock to initiative and profitability. But while such theories might appeal to the company's owners, the reality was quite different for many of their tens of thousands of employees.
Carlson continued working for another year but grew weaker, needing transfusions of three to five pints of blood a week. Finally, in the summer of 1995, he grew too sick to work at all. At that point, his wife recalls, “they let him go. Six-months' pay is what they gave him. It was basically his accumulated sick pay.” Carlson argued that his illness was job related, but Koch Refining denied this claim, refusing to pay him workers' compensation, which would have covered his medical bills and continued dependency benefits for his wife and their teenage daughter.
In February 1997, twenty-three years after he joined Koch Industries, Donald Carlson died of leukemia. He was fifty-three. He and his wife had been married thirty-one years. “Almost the worst part,” she said, was that “he died thinking he'd let us down financially.” She added, “My husband was the sort of man who truly believed that if you worked hard and did a good job, you would be rewarded.”
The story made me think of Boxer, the strong, loyal horse in George Orwell's “Animal Farm,” who works hard to make the farm succeed, and who is rewarded by the pigs when he's old by being shipped off to the glue factory. The pigs in “Animal Farm” are communists, of course, but it's a leftist critique of communism. The point being that in the end, the pigs are just as bad as the other human farmers; they're just as bad as capitalists like the Koch brothers.
So Ted Nugent's sloppy Frank Underwood meme is more apt than he realizes. Want something? Earn it by being a ruthless sonofabitch. Earn it by being a horrible human being. It's so much easier to get ahead if you don't give a fuck about anyone else.
Speaking of: Ted Nuget has some authentic autographed memorabilia he'd like to sell you.
The Origins and Ironies of the Tea Party
“Critics would later point out that [Rick Santelli's] indignation had not been similarly stirred by the Bush administration's bailouts of the country's largest banks, about which he had grumblingly conceded, 'I agree, something needs to be done.' Yet when Obama proposed help for the over-extended underclasses, Santelli looked into the camera and shrieked, 'This is America! How many of you people want to pay your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom, and can't pay their bills? Raise their hand. President Obama, are you listening?'
”As his fellow traders whistled and cheered, he went on to say, 'We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I'm gonna start organizing.' From the start, the analogy was inapt. As Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, a richly reported book about Obama's stimulus plan, observed, 'The Boston Tea Party was a protest against an unelected leader who raised taxes, while Obama was an elected leader who had just cut them.'"