Movie Reviews - 2000s postsTuesday May 08, 2018
Movie Review: Ip Man (2008)
Donnie Yen as Ip Man, the real-life Wing Chun martial artist who would eventually teach Bruce Lee, embodies the stillness of the master. He is quiet and modest, his movements minimal. At one point, I was reminded of the beginning of the final battle in “Drunken Master 2,” when an angry musclebound man wielding a chain battles Jackie Chan ... who is carrying only a Chinese hand fan. Here, in Ip Man’s second battle, he takes on a bullying northern master who is wielding an axe. Ip Man’s weapon? A feather duster.
The movie is in two parts: before and during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s/40s. We get four main Ip Man battles:
- vs. Master Liu (Chen Zhi-hui), who wants to test his prowess
- vs. Jin (Fan Sui-wong), the bristling northerner intent on embarassing the town of Foshan and all southern kung fu
- vs. 10 Japanese martial artists for 10 bags of rice, which Ip Man refuses
- vs. Gen. Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), the movie’s main villain, an honorable autocrat intent on proving Japanese karate better than Chinese kung fu
Production values are high. Characters are stock but not outré. The movie is similar to its main character in that it has little wasted space.
Much of the movie is seeing who will become what under Japanese occupation. The cocky police inspector (Lam Ka Tung) becomes a translator ... and a traitor? No. He has honor. He does what he can to protect Chinese citizens. Ditto the Chinese businessman (Simon Yam). The main disappointment is the northerner, who winds up a thief in the woods robbing the Chinese, who have nothing. Fan Sui-wong has presence, but his character is an idiot; he’s Dennis Moore. Apparently he shows up in the sequels.
Ip Man, meanwhile, loses his estate to the Japanese and winds up shoveling coal. When the northerner begins to bully the factory workers, he relents and teaches them Wing Chun. Why has he resisted educating for so long? Not sure. Because he was wealthy? Because his wife (Lynn Hung) didn’t want him to?
That could’ve improved upon. The wife thing. There’s no more thankless task than to play the wife who tries to keep her husband from the plot. We’re here to see him do X (fight Apollo Creed, investigate the JFK assassination), she doesn’t want him to do X, so we wait. That's the wife here—particularly in the first half. She doesn’t want him to fight anyone, even for the honor of the town. In the second half, with Japanese everywhere, she’s more like Adrian waking from her coma: Win.
There’s not much more to it than that. “Ip Man,” directed by Wilson Yip, with fight choreography from Sammo Hong, reminds me a bit of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” It doesn’t try to add to the classic kung fu movie; it reduces it to its essence. It tries to perfect what’s there.
Movie Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)
It would be tough to imagine a more light-hearted, lyrical movie about the horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Normally I’d cry bullshit, but writer-director Dai Sijie based the movie on his own novella, which was based on his own experiences being re-educated in rural Sichuan province near the Tibet border from 1971 to 1974. Plus the movie is just lovely. Plus he gives us the lovelier Zhou Xun in the title role. Not Balzac; the other one.
At times I was reminded of the Danish coming-of-age film “Twist and Shout.” In both, two boys, between capers, respond to world events (Cultural Revolution; Beatlemania) and feel the deep ache of first love. In both, there’s an illegal abortion. In both, you can’t help but fall in love with the girl, too.
I was also reminded of “Pygmalion”: men attempting to educate a provincial woman. There are layers upon layers of irony in this. The two boys, Ma (Liu Ye) and Luo (Chen Kun), are sent to Sichuan province to unlearn western values and learn the deep, simple truths of peasants as dictated by Chairman Mao. Instead, they steal western literature, Balzac chiefly, and inculcate the little Chinese seamstress (Zhou) on the very thing they’re supposed to be unlearning: western values. Near the end, they toast each other for doing this well.
How well do they do this? She leaves them.
What Paris is
When they first arrive in the rural, mountainous village, one anticipates the worst. They’re out-of-their-element city boys whose very strength—their smarts—has been deemed a moral weakness, a plague upon the country and culture. A book they bring with them, a book of recipes for God’s sake, is torn up and thrown into the fire by the village leader (Wang Shuangbao) as being too bourgeois. He nearly does the same with Ma’s violin, too, which he thinks is a child’s toy, but Luo saves it. He says that it plays music. He gets Ma to play a Mozart sonata and lies about its provenance. He says it’s a mountain song entitled “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” The violin is saved.
I kept expecting a comeuppance that never came. Yes, their job is to lug vats of liquid shit up the mountains, spilling it over themselves as they go, but soon the capers begin. They sneak to a nearby village to watch its girls bathing beneath a waterfall. One of them is the little Chinese seamstress, who becomes fascinated with the city boys. Soon they’re inseparable, and the boys take it upon themselves to educate her into the world beyond her own. They hear rumors that Four Eyes (Wang Hongwei), the son of an intellectual, apparently taking to reeducation well, has a secret cache of western literature. It’s true, they steal it, and in nearby caves they read her Dostoevsky, Dumas, Flaubert and Balzac. How much doesn’t she know? What Paris is; what France is; where Europe is.
More, because they have a talent for storytelling, they are tasked with going into town, watching North Korean propaganda films at outdoor cinema, then reenacting the story for the villagers. One time, Luo retells them a Balzac story instead. He gets them to shout out the title. It’s amusing. Rather than being re-educated from western influences, he’s educating them in western literature. And it has its effects. The seamstress’ grandfather, the old tailor (Cong Zhijun), creates embroidered garments. We see the seamstress trying on the first bra in the village. The world is opening up.
Both boys fall in love with the little Chinese seamstress, of course, but she begins a relationship with the more handsome of the two, Luo, who, at one point, leaves for two months to attend to his sick father. (There is much more mobility during the Cultural Revolution than I realized.) It’s then that she reveals to Ma that she’s pregnant. We’re walked through a series of Mao-era Catch 22s: Abortions are legal but only with a marriage certificate; but you can only marry after age 25 and our protagonists are just 18. So Ma, the son of a doctor, convinces one of his father’s colleagues to perform the service. For his help, he gives him Balzac.
What changes her
I love the way the movie moves. It ambles like a lazy summer afternoon but the story coheres; in the end, the pathway is distinct. It leads Ma, our narrator, to Paris, where he makes his living as part of a string quartet, and where, one day in the late 1990s, he hears news of the Three Gorges Dam project, which will flood the Sichuan village where he once lived. So he returns, with camera, to film what’s there, and to look for the little Chinese seamstress, with whom he’s still in love. Some of the villagers recall her, or the old tailor, but that’s it. There’s no sign of her. Then Ma flies to Shanghai for a reunion with Luo, who’s a doctor, married, and with a child. Years earlier, in 1982, he too went looking for the Chinese seamstress to no avail. They drink, watch Ma’s video, reminisce.
Then we get a flashback to the day she left. She leaves early and the grandfather wakes the boys, who run in pursuit. They catch her on the stone path between the verdant, vertiginous Chinese mountains, his hair cut short, wearing tennis shoes. Ma hangs back while Luo talks. We get this exchange:
She: I decided I’m leaving.
He: What changed you?
In a way it’s more poignant than “Pygmalion.” Henry Higgins shows Eliza the world and she returns to him; the boys show the seamstress the world and she leaves them for it.
In the last part of the movie, this joint French-Chinese production, we see the video Ma took of the Sichuan village being flooded. The camera—Dai’s, not Ma’s—pans in, and we see the tailor’s old sewing machine, and the bottle of French perfume Ma brought for the little seamstress, being submerged. Underwater, the bottle twirls; it dances. Then, still underwater, we see a door open, and there are our protagonists as they were in the early ’70s: Ma playing violin while Luo reads Balzac to the little Chinese seamstress. The past isn’t buried, it’s submerged. It’s a final image so poignant as to be piercing.
Movie Review: Hollywood Chinese (2007)
It’s a polite documentary. That’s what you take away. It’s a surprisingly polite compendium of a century of racist casting and storytelling in Hollywood.
Only 10 years have passed since “Hollywood Chinese” first aired on PBS’s “American Experience,” but here’s how long ago that was: The talking heads in the doc use the term Yellow Face, rather than the hashtag-ready #whitewashing, to describe white actors playing Asian characters. And here’s how long ago that wasn’t. That shit’s still happening. Hollywood is still casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles. I’m not talking Matt Damon in “The Great Wall”—that character is supposed to be European—but more like Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” and Emma Stone in whatever hell movie that was. How depressing that this still goes on. I get it: studios want a bankable name. I get it: actors want a challenge. But c’mon. Would Tilda Swinton do blackface? History won’t look kind.
In this regard “Hollywood Chinese,” as polite as it is, is a corrective. It’s a history lesson.
The sad earth
Writer-director Arthur Dong takes us all the way back to the beginning of the movies, the early Nickelodeon silents. Historian Stephen Fong mentions that the Chinese were subjects in two kinds of movies: 1) China as the oldest civilization in the world—and least-known to westerners; and 2) the exoticism of Chinatown. For the latter, we get no end of opium movies, including “Broken Blossoms” (based on the short story “The Chink and the Child”), but I don’t recall much for the former. Instead, we see fictionalized newsreel footage of the anarchy during the Boxer Rebellion. Two shorts, both from 1900: “Beheading a Chinese Prisoner,” in which, with stop action, a Chinese man appears to have his head cut off; and “Massacre of the Christians by the Chinese,” in which the Chinese do the same to Christian missionaries, then celebrate holding their heads aloft. It’s a “holy shit” moment. It’s like something ISIS would’ve produced.
The first Chinese-American filmmaker, according to the doc, was Marion Wong, born in California, who wrote and directed “The Curse of Quon Gown (1917), starring her sister-in-law Violet. She went bankrupt. We get the early films of James B. Leong and Esther Eng, and then Fong says this:
What we didn’t see happen is the development of an alternative cinema such as you have with a race film—black film—or with Yiddish film. You had some aspiration for that, but it was not to be.
That’s left hanging. Why didn’t it happen with Chinese filmmakers? Is there a reason? A supposition? A half-assed guess?
When a big Hollywood movie was finally made about China, “The Good Earth,” based on Pearl Buck’s novel, the Chinese leads, of course, went to Caucasians: Luise Rainier and Paul Muni. From there we explore Charlie Chan (played by whites), Fu Manchu (played by whites), Chinese playing Japanese and vice versa; the submissive sexualization of Chinese women (Nancy Kwan, Joan Chen) and the de-sexualization of Chinese men. Each subject could be its own doc. It’s a shame this isn’t a series.
The most poignant, thought-provoking moments for me are near the end. B.D. Wong rides his Tony award for “M. Butterfly” into a supporting role in the Steve Martin comedy “Father of the Bride,” playing the outlandish gay assistant to the more outlandish gay wedding planner played by Martin Short. And he says this about that:
I’m at once feeling like I’ve somehow been invited to a party that I’ve never been invited to—world-class comic film actors, all Caucasian, a character that was not written for an Asian-American character. And I won the role by merit. I was thrilled to have done so. And then I found myself in a kind of bed that I made, which was: You’re cashing in the Asian-American desexualized chip.
I was always aware of this chip being cashed in. And I’m not at all regretful of it. What I’m regretful of is that I even have to have this discussion.
That last part is perfect. Because what’s the difference between what Wong does and Martin Short? Why is one OK and the other not? Because there’s not enough macho Asian roles to counterbalance it? Is Bruce Lee not enough by himself?
I’ve never been a big fan of Justin Lin, but he says two things here that impressed me. The first is about how Chinese-Americans are trapped between two cultures, and they’re “other” in both:
As an Asian-American, I go to Asia and I don’t belong there. They have different rules. They want to see exotic white people in their world. Like, it’s the reverse, you know? So you’re kinda stuck as an Asian-American. You’re like, “Hey, we’re three-dimensional [in my movie]!” And they’re like, “Oh, fuck you, I don’t care. We wanna see white people.”
He also takes down a very white, very privileged notion of “selling out,” and it’s about fucking time:
When you’re in film school everyone talks about, “Oh, I wouldn't make a studio film, that's selling out.” And you’re like, “You know how hard it is to ‘sell out’? To, like, work with a studio? They only hire 12 people a year—in the whole world!”
Walking the earth
Oddly, no “Kung Fu.” I suppose because the focus is on movies rather than TV. But it would’ve been worth it. There’s Yellow Face issues (David Carradine), as well as the second coming of Key Luke and Philip Ahn. Or maybe I wanted this—expected this—because “Kung Fu” is where I first became aware of Chinese culture. And while it was “other” it was positive. It was strong, quiet and peaceful, and posited against dirty American racists. It was cool, too, and later referenced in one of the coolest movies in Hollywood history:
Jules: Basically, I’m gonna walk the earth.
Vincent: What do you mean, “walk the earth”?
Jules: You know, like Caine in “Kung Fu.” Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.
We get the example of Wayne Wang, who rode “Chan is Missing” into indie success and middling mainstream success—including Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.” We get the blistering embarrassment of Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles.” We get Ang Lee as talking head—more for the prestige value, one imagines, since he’s Taiwanese, not Asian-American.
I didn’t need Luise Rainier justifying her use of Yellow Face in grandiose terms; I didn’t need Christopher Lee talking about “Orientals.” I would’ve liked follow-up on the Chinese/Japanese thing, since, in “The Joy Luck Club,” which is viewed positively here, a Japanese-American actress, Tamlyn Tomita, was cast as one of the Chinese-American daughters, while another daughter, Rosalind Chao, gained fame playing a Japanese character on “Star Trek—The Next Generation.”
An update already feels necessary. I imagine the next one won’t be so polite.
Movie Review: Catwoman (2004)
You should never make a superhero out of a domesticated animal. Seriously. There is no Dog Man, no Gerbilboy, no “The Goldfish.” And if maybe you can get away with it, like maybe you can get away with it with Catwoman, you should never have the hero adopt the mannerisms of the domesticated animal.
In “Catwoman,” once Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) dies and is reborn because an Egyptian Mau kitty named Midnight sits on her chest and breathes into her face, we witness her do the following:
- go crazy for catnip
- order cream at a bar and slurp it
- stare at fish in a fish tank with goggle eyes
- gobble sushi/tuna
- run from rain
I’m surprised one of the villains didn’t get out a piece of string.
Quiet or papa spank
Who’s the villain in “Catwoman”? Spider-Man fights the Green Goblin, who wants power; Batman fights the Joker, who wants chaos. Catwoman fights Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), former face of Hedare Beauty Products, who wants to stay younger-looking longer. OK.
Hedare is upset when she’s shunted aside for a younger model by her bitchy CEO husband George (Lambert Wilson). She’s a woman scorned. She’s also a tough executive. Her company is about to introduce a new product, Beau Line, pronounced bee-yew lean, which not only hides the effects of aging but actually removes them. Of course, women who use the cream complain of headaches and nausea, and its chief scientist warns that if someone stops using the product, their face kinda sorta disintegrates. So there are side-effects. For that bit of info, the scientist is killed—his death blamed on Catwoman—and Laurel pushes the product forward. Because they have millions invested in it? Won’t this side-effect be obvious eventually? Isn’t the FDA paying any attention?
Wait, there’s more. Because this is some magical beauty product.
Sure, if you stop using Beau Line your face disintegrates, but if you keep using it your skin turns into living marble. You become virtually invulnerable. And that’s what happens to Laurel, who I guess has been using it longer than anyone. And it finally gives the movie its requisite supervillain. A bit late, sure, about five minutes before the end, but it allows the usual WWE tide-turning in the final battle: 1) hero winning; 2) hero on ropes (clinging to top floor of skyscraper); 3) villain vanquished (falling from skyscraper).
Worse is why Laurel falls. She sees her reflection in the skyscraper’s glass, realizes her face is disintegrating, and can’t live in a world where she's not beautiful. It’s like the Green Goblin losing to Spider-Man because of shrinkage.
“I was everything they wanted me to be,” Laurel tells Catwoman. “I was never more beautiful, never more powerful. And then I turned 40 and they turned me away.” The movie is a metaphor for Sharon Stone’s entire shitty career. It's a metaphor for the shittiness of Hollywood.
It’s also a primer for everything you shouldn’t do in a female superhero movie. Quickly: Don’t have your main character work at a cosmetic company. C’mon. The supervillain should be a man, I feel, but if it is a woman don’t pit youth against age; just leaves a bad taste. (Cf., “Supergirl”) And does any male character become hyper-sexualized when they develop powers? Does their sexuality become part of their power? Feels like the masturbatory dreams of boys who draw women well but interact with the real thing poorly.
There’s a way they might’ve justified Catwoman’s overt sexuality and slinking around. It’s in a line that Midnight’s owner, the crazy cat lady Ophelia (Frances Conroy), tells Patience as she’s explaining the history of her ancient Egyptian powers. “Catwomen are not contained by the rules of society,” she says. “You follow your own desires. This is both a blessing and a curse. ... But you will experience a freedom other women will never know.”
Many women I know are afraid to go out alone at night. They feel circumscribed by the constant, potential violence of men. This should’ve been Patience. Instead of a mousy, overly polite graphic designer who talks into her chest and whom nobody realizes is as beautiful as Halle Berry, she should’ve been someone who had experienced violence, possibly rape, or at least the threat of it. She was afraid to go out at night. Then she developed powers and owned the night. Hell, this could’ve been her raison d’etre. Spider-Man has the great power/responsibility line, Batman has revenge for the death of his parents, Catwoman could've had this.
Instead, she licks Benjamin Bratt’s face, licks her lips after drinking cream, dances seductively at a club with a whip, struts on building parapets like she’s a model on a catwalk. She says meow.
To Wong Foo, thanks for everything
There’s such idiocy here: the sassy friend who becomes sick then gets the doctor of her dreams; the sets (industrial fan, etc.) like out of some shitty 1984 MTV video; the fact that Patience first displays her powers in a one-on-one basketball game.
My favorite idiotic bit may be the rationale for why Patience becomes Catwoman in the first place. Seems Midnight the cat foresaw Patience’s fate, so she decided to see if she was worthy. How? By hanging out on Patience’s window ledge, three stories up, then climbing onto a higher ledge when Patience peeked out. And that’s how Patience proved her worth: by climbing out onto a ledge to save a cat that didn’t need saving. It's like jumping into the air to save a bird.
It didn’t have to be this way. “X-Men” had been released four years earlier, “Spider-Man” two years earlier. People knew how to do it. But Warner Bros. chose a one-named Frenchman, Pitof, who had directed exactly one feature, to helm it; they picked several journeyman screenwriters, John Brancato and Michael Ferris (“The Net”), to pen it; and we got this hot mess.
Hey, Halle Berry, you just became the first African-American actress to win an Oscar for acting in a lead role. What are you going to do now?
I’m gonna play Catwoman!
Movie Review: What Just Happened (2008)
The book was better.
Seriously, how sad is it that Hollywood can’t make a good movie from a juicy, insidery memoir about the absurdity of making movies in Hollywood? Shouldn’t they own that shit?
Art Linson’s book, “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line,” focuses on Linson’s years in the late ’90s producing pictures for Fox Studios, including: “The Edge,” “Great Expectations,” “Pushing Tin,” and “Fight Club.” You look at that list and think, “Well, ‘Fight Club’ anyway.” Except that one was the real disaster. The Fox brass was horrified by the film. Nobody got it. And it led to a shitty marketing campaign that smoothed over the very things—its violent complexity; its take on modern male culture—that might have made it a box office success. “Fight Club” has become part of the cultural vernacular but at the time, to use a Linson phrase, it didn’t keep anyone’s swimming pool heated.
Think of that. The thing that’s dismissed out of hand by the people in power is the thing that means something, the thing that lasts. This dichotomy is indicative of Hollywood but not limited to Hollywood.
Bring me the beard of Alec Baldwin
Linson’s memoir gives you all of this; it’s blunt and funny. The movie, which he wrote, soft-pedals and fictionalizes things. It follows the rules of “Fight Club” by not talking about “Fight Club.”
Instead, we get “Fiercely,” an idiotic-looking (and idiotically titled) action-adventure movie starring Sean Penn; and instead of the stunned horror of Fox execs at the “Fight Club” screening, we get dull art/commerce arguments:
- The rebellious director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) wants to kill his hero in the end—and his little dog, too.
- Preview audiences freak when the dog is shot.
- The studio head (Catherine Keener) makes Brunell change the ending for the Cannes Film Festival so the dog lives.
- Brunell screens the dead-dog version anyway.
- Our hero, Ben (Robert De Niro), the movie’s producer, becomes persona non grata at the studio as a result.
Worse, I actually liked the ending where the dog lives. It’s bittersweet; it resonates. Brunell’s “artistic” ending simply piles on misery. I’ve said it before: Just because studios and test audiences want the happy ending doesn’t mean the grim ending is any good. It’s probably equally reductive.
Oh, the movie screws up the story of Alec Baldwin’s beard, too.
In the mid-1990s, Baldwin, still a leading man, agreed to make a movie called “Bookworm” (eventually: “The Edge”), written by David Mamet, but he showed up to the reading wearing a heavy beard. He was supposed to be the young rival to an older patriarch, played by Anthony Hopkins, but Baldwin looked as old as Hopkins. They needed him to shave, but he refused: temper tantrums, curses, overturning tables, etc. He kept claiming artistic integrity. Finally, days before shooting begins, he shaves. Afterwards, Linson asks an actor friend why Baldwin was so committed to the beard and the friend responds, “Alec probably thought he was a little too heavy and he didn’t like the way his chin looked.”
And in the movie? It’s Bruce Willis rather than Baldwin; and after much ado, including asinine behavior at a funeral, everyone gathers around Bruce’s trailer on the first day of filming to see if he’s shaved. When the door opens, he appears in the doorframe in profile—still bearded. Do you see it coming? A mile away? I did. Bruce turns and the other half of his face is shaved. Then he makes a joke and everyone on screen laughs. They’re friends again!
In the book we got the small, vain, but very human reason inside all that hifalutin artistic/commercial turmoil. In the movie we got ... Got me.
You can’t handle the truth
Linson and director Barry Levinson also add a love story to the movie: Who’s Been Sleeping with My Beautiful Ex-Wife (Robin Wright)? Like we give a fuck.
The book is about how difficult it is to get movies made, and how difficult it is for any movie made to make money. More, it’s about all the forces that prevent Hollywood movies from being good or true. The movie proves the book's point.