Movie Reviews - 2013 postsTuesday November 14, 2017
Movie Review: Finding Mr. Right (2013)
How often is the man the moral corrective in a romantic comedy? Ever? Generally, the men in these movies have issues (think “Pretty Woman,” “As Good As It Gets”), and it's up to the woman to, you know, make them want to be a better man.
Not so in Xue Xiaolu’s “Finding Mr. Right” (Chinese title: “Beijing Meets Seattle”). Here, the male lead, Frank (Wu Xiubo), is quiet and centered, lovely around his daughter, and with infinite patience around even the worst of humanity. The female lead? She's the worst of humanity.
Jia Jia (Tang Wei) is somehow both former editor of a gourmet food magazine and spoiled, pregnant mistress to a Chinese tycoon. And since she can’t legally have the baby in China (since she's not married), she flies to the U.S., specifically Seattle (because she loves “Sleepless in...”), to have the baby there.
And she's just awful. She berates the driver who meets her at the airport (Frank), calls him “mouse boy” (for the gerbil cage he has in the backseat), and makes him carry her heavy, designer luggage everywhere. At the illegal maternity center—the house of Mrs. Huang (Elaine Jin of “Yi Yi”)—she demands a bigger room, then demands and gets Mrs. Huang’s room. She glares, pouts, mocks, flashes money. She walks into a room where a movie is being watched and gives away its ending. She gets drunk at a nightclub, and after Frank gently suggests she not drink for the baby, she accuses him of looking down on her and declares, “As a mother, I’m a hundred times better than any of those women!” You want to be a million miles from her.
It's almost refreshing.
Was it refereshing to Chinese moviegoers? For they not only made “Finding Mr. Right” one of the highest-grossing movies of 2013, they made Seattle the destination spot for Chinese living abroad.
Last exit to First Hill
That's how I first heard about “Finding Mr. Right." In 2014, our office moved from lower Queen Anne near downtown Seattle, to Bellevue, Wash., and I was surprised by the number of Mandarin-speaking Chinese people there. What happened? According to The Guardian, this movie happened.
Gotta say: It's kinda fun to see your city through foreign eyes. That freeway exit you encounter after a long slog up from Portland is suddenly exotic. Same with those tired buildings in downtown during the Christmas months. Because it means you’re here. Or at least Vancouver, B.C., where most of the non-establishing shots were filmed.
Christmastime is when Jia Jia begins to be a better woman. The Chinese tycoon is supposed to visit but instead sends another designer handbag, and Jia Jia, despondent, walks in the drizzle of Mrs. Huang’s residential neighborhood—the kind without sidewalks—where she comes across Frank’s car, invites herself in, marvels at how nice the place is given his circumstances, then finds out why. Just as she's really a magazine editor, he’s really Hao Zhi, a famous surgeon from Fuwei hospital in Beijing! So why is he picking up pregnant girls at the airport?
To be honest, I never quite got that. He and his wife needed to move for their daughter, Julie (Jessica Song), who’s asthmatic, and probably averse to Beijing pollution, and for some reason one of them has to give up their career? And since she makes more, as executive at some international company, he drew the short stick?
The wife, Linda (Rene Wang), turns out to be even more of a piece of work than Jia Jia, while the daughter’s a pill in that overly cutesy way of Chinese movie kids. At one point, she fakes an asthma attack to get away from mom and everyone treats it with a smile and a mock finger wag. But it gives Frank and Jia Jia (and Julie) a chance to bond and watch fireworks. On Christmas. Nothing like good old-fashioned, all-American Christmas fireworks.
The movie has its charms. After Jia Jia and Julie hop a flight to New York, where Frank is taking the medical board exams, they disagree on where to go first—MOMA (Julie) or the Empire State Building (Jia Jia/“Sleepless in Seattle”)? Jia Jia wins, and Julie, bitter pill that she is, writes HELP on her hand and shows it to a cop. Nice going, kid. They’re arrested, Frank is called in (missing his boards), and, because Jia Jia is there vaguely illegally, they have to concoct a better story while being interrogated in separate rooms. They come up with the “We’re really in love” story, which allows them to talk up the quality in the other they truly admire. That’s kind of sweet.
Better, at one point Jia Jia tells her cop, a Chinese woman who speaks Mandarin, that she’s trying to create the kind of ideal family she sees in Hollywood movies: mother, father, two cute kids, and a dog. Then she says aloud: Wait, Julie is allergic to dogs. There’s a pause. The cop, who surely isn’t buying any of this, suddenly bursts out angrily: “That’s not an issue! Obama’s daughter is allergic to dogs, too. But they have a Portuguese water dog and everything’s fine!”
Finding a sleepless affair to rightly remember
Are there too many subplots? Jia Jia's tycoon boyfriend is arrested for fraud, freezing her accounts, and of course speeding up her return to normalcy. Mrs. Huang has to leave before her baby is born, conveniently sticking Jia Jia with Frank—who, by the way, is actually divorced. Has been for a year. His wife is even getting remarried. So we know where it's all going.
But damn does it take a while to get there.
Frank doesn’t help. “You know what your problem is?” Jia Jia tells him. “You’re too nice. Women don’t like guys who are too nice.” She’s not wrong. Frank actually picks up his ex-wife's wedding dress. He's there at the wedding. Thankfully, Jia Jia shows up, too, trashtalks through it, then has a catty face-to-face with Linda, in both English and Chinese, in which Linda gets the upper hand. We watch Jia Jia stew, wondering what crazy thing she’ll do, while Frank stares at her in silence. After several beats, he says it: “You spoke good English.” Another charming moment.
But even from here it’s a long slog to the end. Jia Jia collapses at the wedding and Frank diagnoses her problem and saves her life. He and Jia Jia and Julie (and the new, uncrying baby) are enjoying an idyllic American time together when a thicknecked man pulls up in an expensive car. Seems the tycoon beat his fraud rap and wants Jia Jia back. And gets her! The designer luggage is loaded into the trunk again, and she looks at Frank longingly. And then off she goes to Beijing.
Then we get a montage of opulent clothes-buying and cold, opulent Chinese hotel rooms, along with complaints to the still absentee tycoon—who apparently can’t be torn away from business deals to be with her—and so Jia Jia finally ends it. “Two years later...” we‘re told and see her fixing a sink and face-timing friends. It’s idyllic mommy time in that Hollywoody way: hardwood floors and morning light and quiet playtime while mommy works on her website about gourmet Chinese food. And Frank is...?
Out of the picture. Yeah, they’re still not together.
Here's why: As “Sleepless in Seattle” needed its “An Affair to Remember” ending on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, so “Finding Mr. Right” needs its “Sleepless in Seattle” ending on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Frank takes the med boards again (are they only given in New York?), and celebrates with Julie from the observation deck of the ESB. Julie takes a selfie and sends it to Jia Jia, who receives it ... from the observation deck of the ESB! She's there! But she looks around and can’t find them. Because ... ? Yeah, they’re already back on the street. (Good god.) So she takes her own selfie, sends it to Julie, and eventually, finally, Christ already, our romantic leads are united romantically. He holds her hand, she puts her head on his shoulder, and the camera pans out from the observation deck and into a wider shot of New York, while, on the soundtrack, Louis Armstrong sings “What a Wonderful World.”
Somewhere Nora Ephron smiles. Or sues.
Movie Review: Violette (2013)
In 2008, Martin Provost directed and co-wrote “Séraphine,” a movie about an acclaimed but relatively obscure French female painter in the early part of the 20th century. It was nominated for nine Césars and won seven, including best picture, screenplay and actress. I thought it one of the best movies of the year.
In 2013, Martin Provost directed and co-wrote “Violette,” a movie about an acclaimed but relatively obscure French female writer in the middle part of the 20th century. It was nominated for zero Césars, and no, it won’t make my retroactive list of the best of that year. It's not bad but doesn't resonate.
Emmanuell Devos (“Kings & Queen,” “Read My Lips”) plays Violette Leduc, a novelist and memoirist who ... Here. This explains a lot of it. It’s the first time Leduc's name appears in The New York Times:
Fame Through Confession
Roger Straus Jr., president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, recently acquired in Paris the American rights to “La Batarde,” by Violette Leduc, an autobiography. The 57-year‐old author has previously written five novels that won her the approval of such literary people as Jean‐Paul Sartre and Albert Camus but brought small financial return. Then, with what Simone de Beauvoir describes in a foreward to the book as “intrepid sincerity,” she confessed her way to literary fame, to sales that have passed 50,000 copies and to contracts for publication in Britain as well as the United States.
That was from 1964 but the movie begins in the middle of World War II, when Leduc survives by selling goods on the black market. She’s enamored of and living with a writer, Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), who, as portrayed here, is a bit precious with his talent. When she turns up days late after being imprisoned, he shushes her so he can finish a sentence. “Where did you get to?” he says finally. “I was worried sick.” He doesn’t sound like it.
She, on the other hand, is all id: pungent and needy. “To think I washed my hair for you,” she says, and when he doesn’t react, she leans forward and tells him, “Smell.” Later, she deals with his disinterest (he was gay) by showing even greater interest. “Take me in your arms. Touch me. Shut your eyes. Imagine I’m someone else.” It’s almost a relief when he’s out of the picture, since we think it’ll stop her from embarrassing herself so.
It won’t. Raised an orphan, and without a filter, she will always be recklessly needy. But she is also brutally honest, which is what you want in a writer. "Spit out on paper everything that makes you so miserable,” he tells her; and since he tells her, she does. We see her hold the pen over the page, and hold it, and then write, “Ma mère ne m'a jamais donné la main” (“My mother never gave me her hand”), which will be the first sentence of her first book, “L’Asphyxie.” Good first sentence. And very Violette.
In Paris, she thrusts the manuscript into the hands of Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), who is the opposite of Violette in most respects: successful, intellectual, cool to the point of chilliness. But she knows talent, and one evening sits Violette down and says the following:
First, I must apologize. I was expecting dull childhood memories by a frivolous snob. You’ve written a fine book. Powerful, intrepid. That’s what matters. Have you been writing long?
When Violette says Maurice Sachs is the real writer, de Beauvoir is blunt:
Sachs is the opposite of you. He hides his true self—behind words especially. But he urged you to write, that’s the main thing.
“He hides his true self—behind words especially” should be a warning issued to every writer.
With Sachs out of the picture (apparently he died at the end of World War II), de Beauvoir, in effect, replaces him, becoming both spur to Violette’s career and that unattainable thing that makes her needy. Violette wants into the inner sanctum of de Beauvoir, Sartre, et al., but gets only their distant encouragement. She wants their success but only achieves her own. She deals miserably with her mother. Eventually, per the above Times clip, she writes her way into popularity.
But it’s not a great movie. Why does “Séraphine” work and this not? Is it the difference between the art of the writer and painter? Painting is at least a visual medium, which suits the cinema better.
In the end, I think it comes down to personality. Seraphine was quiet, uncomplaining, and expected little; we were drawn forward to wonder over her. Violette is needy, loud, forever complaining. For all the art of the picture, and there is art, we can’t wait to get away from her.
Movie Review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” is a dreamy vampire movie for adults. If you could live for centuries, after all, would you hang out in high school per Edward in the “Twilight” series? Isn’t that a little creepy? Isn’t Edward a little Wooderson for doing that? With one change: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I stay the same age and they stay the same age.”
Jarmusch’s vampires aren’t chasing after freshmen or sophomores but have steeped themselves in science, the arts, ennui. They can explain quantum physics, speak Latin, and play classical violin. They’ve hung out with Byron and Shelley. They were Shakespeare. One of them anyway. There’s a great exchange when Eve (Tilda Swinton), living in Algiers, actually suggests that her friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) finally drop that literary bomb on the world and let everyone know that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare:
Eve (eyes lighting up): It would cause such thrilling chaos.
Marlowe (weary): I think the world has enough chaos to keep it going for the minute.
These blood-suckers actually try to get along with us. They bribe hospital workers to get “good blood,” and take it home and drink it from heavy aperitif glasses, then float back as if in a heroin stupor. They don’t prowl the night in search of people to kill. Either the sport has gotten old or too dangerous. There’s all that “bad blood” out there. AIDS kills. Even vampires.
Christ, you know it ain’t easy
Eve’s husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), for reasons we don’t quite fathom, isn’t living with her in Algiers. He’s in Detroit, a half-dead city, where he’s gaining renown as an underground musician. By night he creates his music, and hands it off to his fan/gopher, Ian (Anton Yelchin), who’s signed an NDA, and who gets him things he asks for, such as a specially designed wooden bullet. A bullet introduced in the first act will surely go off in the third ... unless it’s a Jim Jarmusch movie. Then no. Adam wants to kill himself but never pulls the trigger. Instead, Eve, taking red-eyes all the way, comes to visit him. They entwine, like John and Yoko on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Since not much is happening at this point in the movie, we wonder what might happen:
- Adam’s hospital connection, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), betrays him, and there’s a battle.
- Ian gets too garrulous—or more garrulous—and there’s a battle.
- The rock ‘n’ roll kids, Adam’s groupies, break into his house, and there’s a battle.
Nope, nope, nope. Instead, Eve’s younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shows up uninvited and wreaks a kind of quiet havoc. The three of them go out to a nightclub with Ian, come home with Ian, and Adam and Eve leave a thirsty, impulsive Ava alone with Ian. Not smart. They’re centuries old but they don’t see what’s coming? We do. Afterwards, they kick her out and dispose of Ian’s body, then flee the Motor City. They take red-eyes back to Algiers, where, thirsty, they discover Marlowe has drunk bad blood and is dying. Then he dies. And in the end, Adam and Eve, refuting the title, kill two lovers necking under a full moon.
That’s the story. It’s more of a mood piece. Specifically, it’s Jarmusch’s mood. Here’s a quote from him on IMDb:
I feel so lucky. During the late ’70s in New York, anything seemed possible. You could make a movie or a record and work part time, and you could find an apartment for 160 bucks a month. And the conversations were about ideas. No one was talking about money. It was pretty amazing. But looking back is dangerous. I don’t like nostalgia. But still, damn, it was fun. I’m glad I was there.
Adam and Eve are nostalgics but it’s Jarmusch’s nostalgia. They play 45s, listen to obscure R&B and rockabilly (“Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” “Can’t Hardly Stand It”), read great works of 20th-century literature. Adam’s wall is like the wall of the 1970s college student: Franz Kafka, William S. Burroughs, Oscar Wilde, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane. Eve reads aloud from Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXVI (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments ... ”), which is the most famous of the sonnets. My thought: She’s lived for centuries and she’s still reading that one? When was she born? Fourteenth century? Tenth century? Earlier? What could they tell us of human history instead of spinning those 45s?
The way things are going
In this way, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” while beautifully art directed, is less a story of bored vampires isolated in a world of zombies (their term for us) than of a certain type of hipster artist isolated in a world that doesn’t know or care about art. We’re zombies to Adam and Eve because we’re literally the walking dead: we are creatures who die. We’re zombies to Jarmusch because we have no taste and no soul; we’re the culturally dead.
When Adam and Eve return to Algiers, for example, the nom de passports they use are Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan. You can read this two ways: 1) Adam and Eve, and Jarmusch, are a little precious with their literary references; or 2) Those are the safest names to use in a world full of the culturally dead.
Movie Review: The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears (2013)
The Italian horror/sex genre giallo, popularized by directors like Mario Bava in the 1960s and ’70s, uses elements of nightmare within its narrative but the narrative itself is fairly straightforward. “The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears,” a French-language homage to the genre by Hélene Cattet and Bruno Forzani (“Amer”), is less narrative and more nightmare.
It’s also boring. The way other people’s dreams are boring.
As Dan (Klaus Tange) returns to Paris from a business trip, we see, intercut, a woman involved in kinky sex games gone awry. At home, Dan’s wife, Edwige (whose name is an homage to giallo actress Edwige Fenech), is missing, yet the apartment door is chained from inside. How?
Dan searches, obsessed, anxious. A detective shows up, suspicious. A older neighbor woman in apartment 7 sits in the shadows (with great legs) and talks of how her husband went missing. She blames the apartment above, but when Dan ascends the stairs he’s on the roof, where a naked woman stands on the ledge. They share a cigarette.
By this point, it’s almost a parody of a foreign movie: the sexuality, the incomprehensibility, the dreamscape.
It gets more confusing. Does Dan wake with his wife’s head in his bed? Doe he wake to get slashed in the back? Is he awake? Where does sleeping end and waking begin? Do we care?
Everyone has their own story, even the suspicious detective. We get his in flashback. When we came back to the apartment, Dan asks, straight-faced, “What has it got to do with my wife?” I laughed out loud.
The movie, suffused in reds and greens, is as repetitious as hell, and includes many closeups of male eyes in panic or desire, and women, losing clothes or encased in fetishistic gloves, forever out of reach. I found a few lines and images in the second half intellectually stimulating but it wasn’t enough, and the resolution was awful: clouding what felt like a rare insight.
Larger question: Why are we getting all of these arthouse versions of exploitation flicks? They were part of my “11 Worst Movies and Five Worst Trends of 2013,” and they still seem with us.
-- This review originally appeared in shorter form in the Seattle Times.
Movie Review: The Immigrant (2013)
I think of the word “traduced” when I think of this movie. As in: Someone must have traduced Ewa C., for without having done anything wrong she found herself in America one fine morning.
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa Cybulska, a Polish immigrant arriving in America in 1921 with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), who is suffering from tuberculosis and thus taken out of line at Ellis Island and placed into quarantine. She disappears into the bowels of an uncaring, faceless bureaucracy. Ewa, meanwhile, is traduced: declared a woman of low morals because of a shipboard incident. But she is saved from disappearing into bureaucratic bowels by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who insinuates himself into every situation and exudes ickiness from the get-go. He declares he will vouch for her, does, and off they go into the uncaring bowels of New York City: the lower east side.
Bruno, it turns out (and big surprise), runs a kind of burlesque show. He’s half barker, half pimp, and our concern for Ewa is of a traditional nature: Will she be forced into prostitution? What of her virtue? Oh, what of it? My concern for the movie, meanwhile, was graver: Would this just be a sad, downward-trajectory film or would it veer in unexpected directions? Could it retain our interest and still feel true?
The good news is it’s not simply a downward-trajectory film. Ewa isn’t just a victim and Bruno isn’t just a victimizer; but the prostitution thing still happens. Off camera, mostly.
Unraveled, Ewa’s story is a sad one:
- Her parents were killed during the Great War.
- On the ship to America, she is raped, which is why she is declared “a woman of low morals.”
- Her uncle, who is supposed to meet her at the dock, abandons her when he discovers her new, traduced reputation. When she finds her way to his and his wife’s place in Brooklyn, he hands her over to the cops, who hand her back to Bruno. She’s trapped.
The arrival of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a Houdini wannabe, cousin to Bruno and rival for Ewa’s affections, adds energy and comedy to the story. Ultimately tragedy, too. The cousins fight over her and Emil is killed. For some reason that I can’t quite fathom, Ewa immediately becomes a suspect in his murder. It was Emil’s knife, they had been seen fighting publicly, yet somehow she is suspect. She could wind up in prison. Or worse.
It’s almost the Perils of Ewa. We’re just missing the traintracks.
Two wrongs, two rights
“The Immigrant” does two things wrong. One is that poster. Look at that thing. Who designed it? How incompetent do you have to be to make Marion Cotillard look both airbrushed and unattractive? You airbrush people to make them look more attractive, but she looks better in any frame of this film than she does in this lifeless thing. (Mouse over for a better version of the poster.)
The second thing the movie does wrong—and I hate to mention this because I’m a fan—is Joaquin Phoenix. He does not seem to be the man he’s supposed to be. He’s supposed to be slick but he’s not, a salesman but no, a user of women but how? Instead he gives us his usual, muddled, self-hating Joaquin schtick. This is a character who fended for himself as a kid on the lower east side? Since when?
But the movie also does two things right. First, it cast Marion Cotillard as Ewa. She’s a wonder to watch. She’s not only makes us feel this woman’s vulnerability, her toughness, her dedication to her sister, but she’s beautiful enough that you understand why both men fall in love with her. Yeah, I know: the movies are full of beautiful actresses. But ... Maybe it’s just me. We lust after actresses (Halle Berry, et al.), we get smitten by others (Carey Mulligan, et al.), but she’s the only one that makes my stomach do little flips. I get joy just out of watching her face. You know the line about how you’d pay to hear John Houseman read the phone book? I think I’d pay to watch Marion Cotillard read the phone book.
There’s also the film’s message of forgiveness. Throughout, Ewa is repulsed by Bruno; she despises him. But when she’s wanted for murder (which, of course, he committed), Bruno hides her. The cops beat him and he doesn’t talk. They steal everything he’s saved; ditto. Shortly thereafter, Ewa returns to her aunt’s home to ask for the money to free her sister. She asks this: “Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” She says this. It’s like a break in the clouds:
God has sent me to someone so very lost, someone who made my life a sin. And now, this person suffers for me. So I am learning the power of forgiveness.
“The Immigrant” was written and directed by James Gray, who’s made, among others, “We Own the Night,” “Two Lovers,” and “The Yards.” Those are gritty, “good effort” movies. They’re trying for something and don’t quite get there. You want to like them more. This is another one.