Movie Reviews - 2010 postsTuesday February 16, 2016
Movie Review: True Legend (2010)
“True Legend” seems like a typical revenge movie until it isn’t; then it slaps on a half hour coda that points the way toward other, better movies. But there’s a meta aspect I found intriguing.
First the plot, such as it is.
Su Can (Zhao Wenzhuo) is a general in 1860s China that’s overrun by foreigners in the wake of the Unequal Treaties. (Fodder for martial arts movie forever.) In a huge cavern, he almost singlehandedly rescues an imperial prince, then in humble, Buddhist fashion, gives up a governorship to return home to his wife, Yuan Ying (the ridiculously beautiful Zhou Xun), and their son, Feng, and start a Wushu school. It’s an odd move. What’s the point of a Wushu school in a China overrun by wyguoren? He also suggests his godbrother as governor, when everyone can see that Yuan Lie (Andy On) is a haughty, resentful man. But off Su goes. And he prospers.
Then Yuan Lie returns with an army to get his revenge. Why revenge? It turns out he and Ying are adopted siblings of Su’s father, who killed Yuan’s father in a battle long ago. Su’s father raised them, but, you know, blood will out. And he beheads the old man, then takes Ying and Feng next to a roaring river. To throw them in? No. He’s waiting for Su. He's itching for a fight.
First thought: Su is so much better at gongfu. How can Yuan take him?
Because he’s been cheating. He’s had armor plating stitched into his skin, like the ironclad ships the Ching dynasty couldn’t defeat. He’s also developed the Five Venoms Fist move, which, for our purposes, turn his arms blue and injects venom into his opponents. That’s how he wins. Su, poisoned, falls into the river, and Ying after him, to save him. The boy gets left behind.
Su and Ying are further saved in the mountains by Dr. Yu (special guest star Michelle Yeoh!), but Su, the man who was so magnanimous in victory, is a poor loser. First he starts drinking. Then he starts punching trees and ripping off their bark. Then martial arts masters appear before him tauntingly, always out of reach. The Old Sage (Liu Chia-Hui) says he will teach him, “Only if you defeat the God of Wushu” (Jay Chou). So day after day, week after week, year after year, Su fights the God of Wushu. And guess what? It’s all in his head. It’s like “Fight Club.” Ying tearfully tries to get him to see this, but it’s only after he finally wins that he sees it himself. “Ying is right,” he says, almost cheerfully. “You are all in my head. I never want to see you again, ha ha ha.”
This sets up the final battle with Yuan Lie, who, being the villain, rigs the game. He has his soldiers bury Ying alive. Problem? He neglects to tell Su this; and Su, ripping off Lie’s armor like it’s the bark of a tree, kills him first. By the time Su finds his wife, it’s too late.
So at this point, we’re 75 minutes in. Our villain is dead, our hero’s wife killed. Where does we go from here?
We go to my favorite part of the movie.
The legend who taught the legend
By the way: You thought Su took the first defeat hard? Even though he has a son to raise, Su becomes a town drunk: long matted hair and beard, tattered rags for clothes, forcing his son to beg for money. Ah, but foreigners are still insulting Chinese women and killing Chinese men. So Su, in his drunken craziness, develops the “drunken fist” style of fighting; and in a raised, star-shaped arena surrounded by tigers, he takes on, and defeats, the usual haughty, muscle-bound foreigners, led by 11th-hour villain Anthony, played with scenery-chewing and line-forgetting aplomb by David Carradine, in one of his last film roles. The End.
But that's not my favorite part of the movie. This is: the title card right before the closing credits.
Yeah, that sounds like a dig, but that title card genuinely made the movie for me. Because it reveals—and I probably should have known this going in—that Su becomes Beggar Su, the giggling, red-nosed master who teaches the drunken fist to the better-known legend, Wong Fei-hung, who’s been portrayed in the movies 100 times—most famously in “Drunken Master,” which made an international star out of Jackie Chan in 1978. More, not only does that movie and this one share directors (famed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping), but it was Woo-ping’s father, Yuen Siu-Tin, who originally played Beggar Su back in ’78, just a year before his death. So “True Legend” is like Woo-ping resurrecting his own father.
How cool is that?
I just wish I found the movie itself as fascinating.
Zhou Xun: The other reason to see the movie.
Movie Review: A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010)
I checked this out because I was so impressed with the later Hans Petter Moland/ Stellan Skarsgård collaboration, “Kraftidioten,” but “A Somewhat Gentle Man” (Norwegian: “En ganske snill mann”) didn’t quite work for me. Despite its great title, the dark humor is slightly off, its secondary characters aren’t as memorable, and then there’s the ick factor.
The ick, by the way, isn’t about violence; it’s about sex.
Skarsgård is excellent as Ulrik, a pony-tailed mob enforcer who, as the movie opens, is being released from prison after 12 years. A friendly guard offers him a bottle of booze and a piece of advice: Keep moving forward; don’t look back. So what’s the first thing Ulrik does when he steps out the gates? He looks back.
Not with animosity. If anything Ulrik seems stupefied, and it takes us a while to figure out it’s no pose. He was once a man who could kill without thought, but now he’s a man who doesn’t have many thoughts. Mostly he’s interested in going along to getting along. To a cringe-worthy degree.
At a café, he meets his old mob boss, Rune Jensen (Bjørn Flobert of “Kitchen Stories”), and the gum-chewing, matter-of-fact but argumentative assistant Rolf (Gard B. Eidsvold), and the former sets him up with a place to live, a job, and an assignment. The place to live is with Rune’s sister, Karen Margrethe (Jorunn Kjellsby), an ugly, unpleasant woman who sticks Ulrik in the prison-like surroundings of her basement. The job is at an automechanic’s garage, run by Sven (Bjørn Sundquist), who talks out subjects in long run-on sentences, and who warns Ulrik away from his secretary, Merete (Janikke Kruse), a pretty but severe woman. And the assignment is to kill the guy who sent Ulrik to jail 12 years ago.
So what happens? He winds up rejecting the assignment but sleeping with the woman. Not Merete; Karen Margrethe. That’s the ick factor. Imagine Billy Crystal sleeping with Anne Ramsey in “Throw Momma from the Train” and you get an inkling. Then times it by three.
First, Karen Margrethe brings him a television set, which he adjusts to get a Polish station; then crappy dinner leftovers; then increasingly elaborate dinners as her interest is piqued by his lack of interest. Finally, she steps out of her voluminous underwear and lays down on the small bed where he’s watching TV and tells him to get on. He does so dutifully. Not many movie scenes are tougher to watch.
Then it happens again. And again. Each time, you’re waving your hands in surrender: “No ... no!”
The world—and other women—act upon Ulrik as well. Merete’s former husband shows up at the garage and acts like an asshole; Ulrik watches. Ulrik’s ex-wife (Kjersti Holmen) tells him his son has disowned him, then asks for a quickie; he obliges. The son, Geir (Jan Gunnar Røise), finally meets the father, but without emotion, and introduces him as his uncle to his pregnant wife; Ulrik nods and goes along with it. Meanwhile, whenever he takes out a cigarette he’s told he can’t smoke there.
But slowly he begins to break out of his spiritual prison. Sven has a heart attack and asks Ulrik to watch the garage, where the ex-hubby shows up and beats on Merete until Ulrik headbutts him, takes him outside, warns him against hitting women and children, then breaks both arms. Merete is slowly grateful and, in passive-aggressive fashion, seduces him. But Karen Margrethe suspects, gets jealous, rats him out. All the small things Ulrik had slowly built up crumble, so he agrees to take back the assignment to kill the man who sent him to prison. But will he go through with it? Can he still kill without thought? Without conscience?
The ending is nice—standing outside at the salvage yard, enjoying a smoke, talking up the coming spring—and, again, Skarsgård is perfect in the role. You buy him as both acted upon and actor; as stupefied and smart. But the tone of the humor is either too loud (Sven’s run-on sentences) or too soft (the no-smoking bits). A few years later, with “Kraftidioten,” Moland gets the tone perfect.
Movie Review: 30 for 30: The House of Steinbrenner (2010)
Anyone who knows me knows I’m no fan of the New York Yankees; but even they, the team named after a masturbatory gesture, that added “Suck” to the baseball lexicon, those overpaying, playing-field-tilting, star-grabbing 1% bastards of Major League Baseball, even they deserve a better documentary than this.
It’s a muddled movie. It was filmed in 2008, when the Yankees played their last game at Yankee Stadium, and in 2009, when they moved to New Yankee Stadium and won their 27th World Series title, and in 2010, when George Steinbrenner, the owner of the club since 1973, the Mouth that Roared, finally died after a long illness; and during these years the team is at a kind of crossroads. Is New Yankee Stadium for fans or corporations? Will the winning tradition continue? The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born, and in this interregnum Barbara Kopple filmed “The House of Steinbrenner.”
It doesn’t help that Kopple, a two-time Academy Award winner for “Harlan County U.S.A.” (1976) and “American Dream” (1990), is a Yankees fan. ESPN’s 30-for-30 docs begin with the filmmaker talking about why they were interested in the subject. Here’s Kopple:
When I was a kid I went to Yankee games with my brother and my parents and how could I not want to make a film about the Yankees? I mean, the Yankees are the biggest sports entity in the world. And I think what really made me want to do it is I was home and watching the All-Star Game. And I saw George Steinbrenner going around in a golf cart. He starts to cry. And I just thought, “This could be an amazing film.”
It isn’t. It’s tough to tell the story of something you love. Love is about not seeing clearly. That’s its point.
The stupid shit Yankee fans say
“The House of Steinbrenner” begins in triumph with the Yankees’ 27th World Series title and a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan. We get shots of the Yankees on their floats: Nick Swisher rocking out like a rock star, Alex Rodriguez, as always, too self-aware, Derek Jeter looking up at buildings as if he’d never seen them. We get sound-bite interviews with fans whooping it up and saying the stupid shit Yankee fans say:
- “The world is back to normal. Because the Yankees are champions of the World Series!”
- “The Steinbrenner family is the greatest owners in sports! New York fans are the luckiest cause they’ve got the Steinbrenners, who spend money so we can have parades like this! Let’s do it again!”
Then we get the sadness and nostalgia of the last game at Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built, and the excitement and disappointment (expensive seats; obstructed views) of the first day at New Yankee Stadium. We get a lot about George but little from George, since, by this time, the illness that would take his life in 2010 had rendered him mute. We get a really nice line from one of the New York scribes:
He’s not George anymore. He’s a quiet man in his twilight and looks at the scene from afar now.
Meanwhile, Hal Steinbrenner, heir apparent, comes off as a tight-lipped, bristly CEO. He comes off as a numbers man. He’s someone desperate to make sure the mask doesn’t slip.
Fudging Yankee history
It doesn’t help that the doc fudges Yankees history. Early on, Kopple asks various folks, “What’s your favorite memory at Yankee Stadium?” and we hear three answers:
- Louis Requena, official photographer at Yankee Stadium, says, “Maris hitting that big homerun. You know?”
- Yogi Berra, catcher and philosopher, says, “I gotta say the no-hitter. That Don Larsen pitched.”
- George Steinbrenner, circa 1998, says: “’77/’78, great teams. I can remember plays. I remember Piniella’s play in right field, one of the greatest defensive plays I’ve ever seen. Couldn’t see the ball. Stuck his glove out—boom. It hit. Against the Red Sox. The playoff.”
What’s wrong with these answers?
Perspective on the Maris homerun would’ve been nice: the fact that Yankee fans spent 1961 booing Maris because he wasn’t Mickey Mantle; the fact that hardly anyone showed up for the last game of the season when he was sitting on 60.
The Yogi thing is simply semantics. I can guarantee you that almost every baseball fan watching muttered underneath his breath, “Perfect game,” every time Berra said “No hitter.”
Then there’s Piniella’s catch. As soon as Steinbrenner mentioned it I saw it in my mind. Bottom of the ninth inning, Sox down 5-4. With one out, Rick Burleson draws a walk. Then Jerry Remy hits a line-drive to right field. What we don’t know is that Piniella has lost the ball in the late-afternoon sun. We don’t know it because he pretends he doesn’t. He pretends he’s about to catch it, and this keeps Burleson close to first. And then Lou’s lucky. The ball drops five feet away from him and he stabs at it with his glove and keeps Burleson from going to third. So it’s first and second, rather than second and third, when Jim Rice flies out to deep right. Burleson can only tag up to third rather than home. He doesn’t tie the game. Then the great Carl Yastrzemski pops up for the final out and the Yankees win and go on to win the ALCS and the World Series—their 22nd.
Except that’s not the highlight they show. The highlight they show is the catch in the bottom of the 6th when, with two on and two out, Piniella went into the corner to rob Fred Lynn of extra bases. It’s a nice catch. But I’ve never heard anyone say Piniella lost that one in the sun. So … did they show the wrong clip? In a documentary called “The House of Steinbrenner,” while relaying George Steinbrenner’s favorite moment at Yankee Stadium, did they show us the wrong moment?
But the history that’s mostly fudged isn’t from Steinbrenner; it’s about Steinbrenner.
Memories are short, the man is dying and then dead, so the encomiums come fast and furious. We get eulogies. Fans remember ’77 and ’78, and the late ‘90s dynasty, and forget the years in the wilderness. They forget that Steinbrenner’s desire to win got in the way of winning. He was too impatient, and, as a result, under his watch, the Yankees went pennant-less (15 years), and without a World Series title (18 years), for longer than at any time since the team bought Babe Ruth in 1919. And, it could be argued, and has been argued, that they only won then, in 1996, because Steinbrenner had been banned from Major League Baseball in 1990 for hiring a private detective to tail his superstar outfielder Dave Winfield. As a result, for two or three years, he wasn’t around to muck up the works. He wasn’t there to trade prospects like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettite for an aging star or utility player. Thus Jeter, Rivera, Pettite stayed. And they became the core of that 1990s dynasty.
The fans blame Hal for the problems of New Yankee Stadium, but that was George’s baby. We get a clip of him in 2002, talking. “You hate to think about moving away from that great stadium,” he says. “But we do have problems: all the new stadiums coming. We have new generations of people coming. That maybe that stadium doesn’t mean as much to them.”
Right. Steinbrenner was more interested in the profits a new stadium and its corporate boxes could bring than in the grand tradition of Yankee Stadium. The Yankee organization put profits before tradition, then went out and bought a bunch of players and won in their first year at the new ballpark. Since? Bupkis.
Is this the new curse? Old Yankee Stadium cursing New Yankee Stadium? Let it be so.
There are people and there are assholes
At least the scribes get George right:
- Bill Gallo of The New York Daily News: “He was vain. He was at times rude. He reminded me of a Prussian general: General von Steinbrenner.”
- Maury Allen of The New York Post: “He thought the loss of a game in June was the end of a season. … He loved the ego gratification of what the Yankees is all about.”
George, too, gets George right. “There are major league ballplayers,” he says, “and there are Yankees.”
Man, that’s an asshole thing to say. “The House of Steinbrenner” is a documentary about such assholes, directed by a woman who loves them so.
Movie Review: Les femmes du 6ème étage (2010)
Is there no culture, no matter how free and sexy it seems to outsiders, who don’t see themselves as uptight and staid and in need of the wildness of another, generally more southern culture?
So as the British did with Italy in E.M. Forster’s novels and subsequent Merchant-Ivory films, and as Americans do in the Caribbean, getting their groove back, etc., so the French, in “The Women on the 6th Floor,” turn to Spain to shake off the shackles of their deadening, monetized, neutered civility. And they don’t even have to leave Paris to do it.
It’s 1962, and Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) and his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) live in relative luxury in an apartment in Paris. He’s a successful, genial stockbroker, she shops and complains. But right before the movie begins, his mother dies. Apparently she ran the household with the help of a longstanding, dour French maid, Germaine (Michèle Gleizer), who in effect raised their kids, now off at boarding school, and over whatever objections Suzanne had at the time. But: queen is dead, long live the queen. Suzanne and Germaine now clash, Germaine leaves in a huff (or on a bender after some Malaga wine from the Spanish maids on the 6th floor), and in the next shot there are dishes in the sink, the refrigerator is filthy and M. Joubert has no clean shirts. What to do? Mme. Joubert is at a loss. But her pick-a-little, talk-a-little friends suggest the latest thing: a Spanish maid. Apparently Mme. Joubert doesn’t know a whole passel of them live on the 6th floor of her building, so she goes to the local church and picks out Maria Gonzalez (Natalie Verbeke), who 1) lives on the 6th floor, 2) is newly arrived from Spain, and 3) is a looker. Because what wife doesn’t want a hot maid cooking for her husband?
There are trials. Maria must make M. Joubert’s egg just so, three and a half minutes, and does. She is given impossible tasks by the Suzanne ... and enlists the other maids to help complete them. They sing a Spanish version of “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” while doing so. It looks like fun. Maiding.
The other maids are mostly stock, nondescript, and/or played by Almodovar alums. There’s Maria’s Auntie, Concepcion (Carmen Maura, who’s been in almost every Almodovar since “Folle ... Folle ... folleme Tim!” in 1978, and who picked up a Cesar for her performance here), stocky and jovial; Dolores (Berta Ojea) is also stocky and jovial. There’s Carmen (Lola Dueñas, “Broken Embraces,” “Volver,” “Talk to Her”), a tough, cynical communist, and Teresa (Nuria Solé), a tall drink of water who winds up married to a French salon keeper. Then our Maria of the beautiful eyes.
Initially, Jean-Louis is a bit stodgy, demanding that Maria call him “Sir,” etc., and Maria has secrets, including an 8-year-old son back in Spain, and the maids have various machinations and battles with the nasty concierge, Mme. Triboulet (Annie Mercier).
We get Jean-Louis’ background in a burst while helping Maria move some of Madame’s things to the 6th floor. Apparently his grandfather started the brokerage firm, his father maintained it, and now he runs it. Apparently he’s lived his whole life in this building. Not a surprise. He seems a dull man without much imagination. At this point, for example, he hasn’t imagined sleeping with Maria.
But on the 6th floor he’s introduced to the other maids, helps them with their stopped-up toilet, and basks in their gratitude. He lets Dolores use his phone (landline, kids) to find out about her sister’s child. In this manner he becomes immersed in the lives of the maids and becomes interested in all things Spanish. “You never worry about anybody, suddenly you care about Spanish maids?” his wife asks him. He does. Fairly innocently thus far.
Eventually, despite the above comment, his wife mistakes his absences for an affair with a client, the notorious, red-haired man-eater Bettina de Brossolette (Audrey Fleurot), and she throws him out. After a pause on the steps, he returns to a room on the 6th floor and lives with the maids. He’s never had a room of his own. He luxuriates in it. It’s kind of cute, actually. The man who has much who’s never had this.
If the maids had all been dumpy, and his interest in them quirky, I might have been charmed by “Les femmes du 6ème étage.” But the maids are not all dumpy and his interest in them, at some point, is fired mostly by his interest in Maria, which he hides, poorly, behind an unsure smile and dumbfounded looks. They sleep together, of course. But they’re so nice about it. And that wife is so awful.
That’s the movie, basically: a rich, dumpy Frenchman leaves his wife to fuck his hot Spanish maid. But the movie stacks the decks so we like both of them, don’t like the wife, and get our happy ending in Spain, where Maria flees, despite another child, a daughter this time, but where Jean-Louis finds her hanging up the wash. He smiles at her, she smiles at him. The ending implies they wind up together. But what does she see in him besides money? What does he see in her besides hot? What happens when his money and her looks go? What will they have? Nice? How long before she throws that three-and-a-half minute egg in his face?
Movie Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)
WARNING: RELEASE THE SPOILERS!
Has there been a more truncated heroic cycle than “Clash of the Titans”? Our hero is a baby cast adrift, then he’s a son gazing at the horizon, then he’s an adult orphan bent on revenge, and with a mission, which takes one, two, three, four steps, after which he kills the big monster and banishes the big villain (for the sequel), and kisses the girl, and ... and that’s it. We ... are ...outta here.
This is the way we do things now. Our need to get on with the story reveals our contempt for the story. Maybe because we already know the story. “Tell us that one again, Daddy.” We’re adults now but we act like kids.
The story being told here is one of my least favorite for being so ubiquitous in the 21st century: the One; the Chosen One. It plays on our id, our early years, when the world revolved around us, when we were all chosen ones. When everything had a reason.
“You were saved for a reason,” Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), Perseus’ foster father, tells a newly adult Perseus (Sam Worthington), as Perseus stands on the prow of the boat gazing longingly at the horizon. “And someday that reason will take you far from here.”
I’m so tired of this conceit. Should we turn it around? Hey, Fatso. There’s a reason you’re in this theater stuffing your face with an extra large tub of popcorn with extra butter and watching this crap. And someday that reason ...
Stop making no sense
In “Clash of the Titans,” which contains no Titans, the Gods create man but can’t live without man’s worship. That makes no sense. A group of humans from Argos, intent on worshipping King and Queen, tear down a statue of Zeus (Liam Neeson), invoking the wrath of Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who secretly despises Zeus. That makes no sense. After attacking the upstart Argosians, he kills, as a freebie, two innocent bystanders, Spyros and Marmara (Elizabeth McGovern), which makes no sense, but it enrages their son, a young Perseus, giving him his raison d’etre, revenge upon Hades, which he’ll forget in the second movie.
Despite this display of God power, the Argosians are determined, more than ever, to not worship the Gods, which makes no sense, and Cassiopeia (“Rome”’s Polly Walker) brags about the beauty of her daughter, Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), bringing down an even greater wrath. Hades shows up again, turns Cassiopeia to dust, disperses the Argosian soldiers, and promises to “release the Kraken,” a horrific monster, if Andromeda is not sacrificed for her mother’s effrontery. But Hades finds he can’t kill Perseus and immediately knows why: Perseus is a demi-god, the son of Zeus. He’s special.
Of course Andromeda’s father doesn’t want to sacrifice his daughter, so he sends his men, led by the stalwart Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), away from Argos, on a mission to kill the Kraken. This, too, makes no sense, since the Kraken is going to show up in a few days anyway. Why send your best men away from the city? Why not wait him out?
Right. Because “waiting him out” isn’t a story.
Zeus, half-son revealed, now has mixed feelings about the whole thing. He wants the Argosians punished, sure, but he doesn’t want to kill his half-son to do so. So he sends him a winged horse named Pegasus and an enchanted sword to protect him. But Perseus’ hatred for his absentee father is apparently greater than his hatred for the killer of his foster parents, and, initially, he refuses both gifts. He thinks he can get by without them. He’s an idiot without a personality. He’s an idiot only idiots can like.
Love? Fear? Release the Kraken!
Around this time we learn that Zeus lives off the love of man while Hades lives off their fear. So shouldn’t Hades be more powerful than Zeus? Isn’t fear more prevalent in us than love? At the least it’s worth a debate, a mention, a passing line or two. Here. Let’s trade two giant scorpions for 30 seconds of debate.
Nope. On we trudge, stupidly, to get the head of Medusa with which to beat the Kraken. Battles are engaged, soldiers fall, until we’re left with just the main dudes, the ones who have names. But all of them, even Draco, buy it in the underworld. Only Perseus, looked over by a kind of angel, Io (Gemma Artetron), who’s kind of hot, triumphs.
Of course, back in Argos, the people, led by a religious nut (Luke Treadway), are rightly worried about Zeus, Hades and the coming Kraken, so they grab Andromeda and tie her up on the cliffs above the sea, as an offering, and because it’s sexy. But at the last minute Perseus appears on Pegasus and yadda yadda. Hades appears and yadda yadda. Then Perseus and Andromeda kiss and ... Wait. He winds up with Io, not Andromeda. That makes no sense. Isn’t she a guardian angel? It’s like dating the tooth fairy.
So most everything that happens in “Clash of the Titans” is expected. The only unexpected moments are the nonsensical ones.
“The oldest stories ever told,” Io tells us in the beginning, “are written in the stars.”
Or in Hollywood.