Movie Reviews - 2014 postsTuesday February 20, 2018
Movie Review: The Monkey King (2014)
Well, at least I learned the origin of the Monkey King. Otherwise, this thing was painful.
Is it even possible to tell this story to westerners? I think you have to grow up with it. Although apparently the movie took its critical hits in China, too. It did well at the box office—No. 3 movie for the year—but there was grousing. Replacements were made.
But it's even worse for moviegoers outside of China. Here, for example, is IMDb’s synopsis:
A monkey born from heavenly stone acquires supernatural powers and must battle the armies of both gods and demons to find his place in the heavens.
That ain’t quite it. You ready?
OK. So the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) attacks Heaven but is beaten back the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), who is about to kill the upstart when Jade's beautiful sister (and the Bull Demon King’s lover) pleads for his life. So Jade simply banishes the dude to Earth.
Meanwhile, with most of Heaven destroyed, the Goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin, Miss World 2007) turns her body into crystals to rebuild it. One of those crystals lands on Mount Huaguo and becomes a monkey in a bubble, who, for a second, bonds with a fox/girl, before her paw is burned.
You still with me?
Cut to: Several years later. Monkey (now Donnie Yen, “Ip Man,” “Rogue One”) is an annoying, chattery thing, who, after grabbing after a butterfly, falls a great distance. He survives, the butterfly does not. This saddens him. So when Master Puti (Hai Yitian), one of the Ten Great Sāvakas of Gotama Buddha, brings the butterfly back to life, Monkey wants to learn the trick and agrees to be his student. Puti gives Monkey a name: Sun Wukong.
Sun is a quick study, gets into it with other students, but eventually the Master spirits him away, shows him a bit of his future, then let him to return to Mount Huaguo, where the other monkeys—all of whom, including an oddly long-nosed one, look like extras on a bizarre British children's show—are amazed at his new powers. But what if he leaves them? Won’t they be defenseless? So Wukong visits an underground kingdom and takes everything the Dragon King throws at him. He winds up with: 1) a suit of armor, 2) weapons for the monkeys, and 3) a new staff. But he causes a massive tidal wave in the process, the Dragon King complains to Heaven, and the Jade Emperor sends a guard, Nezha, to arrest him. They battle. And then...
Wait, by this point, Wukong has reunited with fox girl, Ruxue (Xia Zitong), who’s been sent there by the Bull Demon King; and it’s BDK who kills Nezha, earning Wukong’s gratitude. BDK also tells him he belongs in Heaven. Monkey King is intrigued, but he mostly wants to learn about immortality because he doesn’t want Ruxue and the monkeys to die. That’s why he goes.
In Heaven, the Jade Emperor is amused by him and makes him a stable boy; everyone else is less amused, sees him as impertinent, and fights him. Much shape-shifting occurs. No one is who they seem. But after battling through hell (almost literally—a molten fiery place), Monkey King returns home ... to find all of the monkeys and Ruxue slaughtered. He went away to find immortality for them but in doing so sealed their fate. Worse, they are killed because of him. Bull Demon King tells him it was the soldiers of Heaven who did it, and MK buys it, and, enraged, attacks Heaven; but of course it was BDK who did the killing so Monkey would do his bidding.
Cue big final battle.
- Master Puti is killed by BDK
- BDK is turned into an actual one-eared bull by the Jade Emperor
- The Monkey King, as punishment, is buried under the Five-Finger Mountain for 500 years. Or until “Monkey King 2.”
All of this insanity is exacerbated by the bad CGI and a lousy lead performance from Donnie Yen. Sorry. Love him. But he’s not the right dude to play Monkey.
The hero with one face
So what does it all mean? Fuck if I know.
The entire movie is really preamble. “The Monkey King” is the first part of the great 16th-century classic of Chinese literature, “Journey to the West,” which contains four parts and 100 chapters, and whose ostensible protagonist, Tang Sanzang, hasn’t even been introduced yet. “West,” whose truncated, translated version is called “The Adventures of Monkey,” is an episodic adventure story about Tang, a young Buddhist scholar traveling west to bring back scriptures, and encountering various evils along the way. His traveling companions include Monkey King, a half-pig creature and a river ogre. The evils they encounter include spider-women. This story has been made into paintings, plays, movies. Over and over again.
But in the original preamble, Monkey King falls from grace because of hubris, not because he’s tricked into attacking Heaven. I guess modern China, like modern Hollywood, wants its obvious heroes and villains. The hero is always the hero, even when he's in the middle of his hero's journey. Joseph Campbell is turning over in his grave. Or smiling wistfully.
Movie Review: Sa Jiao Nu Ren Zui Hao Ming (2014)
Something gets lost in translation. Right away.
The Chinese title is “Sa Jiao Nu Ren Zui Hao Ming” or, roughly, “Flirty women are happiest,” but reducing this to the English title, “Women Who Flirt” isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s the concept of sa jiao, which doesn’t really have an English translation. “To flirt” is probably the best we’ve got. Except in the west, both women and men flirt. But sa jiao? That’s for women and children. It’s women sounding like children to get something they want.
It can be freakin’ annoying.
There’s a great example of it here that had me laughing out loud. Our lead, Angie (Zhou Xun), a financial analyst, whose longtime friend, colleague, and secret love, Marco (Huang Xiaoming), is now involved with this flirty tease of a Taiwanese girl, Hailey (Sonia Sui). So her friends urge her to go on dates of her own. They’re disastrous, of course. It’s a montage, and one guy actually talks about taking a dump in the middle of the street—I forget why—and she looks at him and says, “Tao yan,” or “I hate you.” She says this to all of her dates. Later, her friends ask her how she says it, and she replays it for them—straight—and they’re like, no, and school her on the sa jiao way of doing it: turning the fake whining and pouting up to 11. Tao yan-awwwww. They keep doing it until she tries it. It becomes a game. It made me laugh. It made me flash back. When I lived in Taiwan, I heard that a lot.
As for the movie, yeah, no. It’s one of those rom-coms where everyone is so awful you don’t want anyone to wind up with anyone.
Zhou Xun needs a date
First, we have to get past the notion that someone as beautiful as Zhou Xun has to work to get a man to notice her. It’s like one of those Hollywood movies where Michelle Pfeiffer can’t get a date. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t begin to cover it.
So you immediately dislike Marco for not noticing either Angie’s otherworldly beauty or her interest. He sees her as, like, “a dude.” He keeps repeating this like it’s wisdom, but all I could think was, “What special brand of idiot is this?”
The girl he chooses instead isn’t half the beauty Zhou Xun is. Plus, it turns out, she’s wholly malicious. Like soap-opera malicious. She only picks up Marco—on a busride in Taiwan—because during the ride, despite her best efforts, he can’t stop talking about Angie and she wants to see what type of woman (who’s absent) can usurp her (who’s present). She’s not even interested in Marco. She gets involved in this long-distance relationship for weeks and months just to spite a woman she’s never seen.
Then there’s Angie herself, hung up on the doofus Marco, and going out of her way to win him. It’s a role that’s really beneath the dignity of Zhou Xun.
Hide and seek
A couple of moments aren’t bad. During the big confrontation between Angie and Hailey, the soundtrack music uses spaghetti western motifs, while the villainess’ dialogue anticipates Donald Trump:
Angie: Are you crazy? Love’s not a competition.
Hailey: That’s what the losers say. And I’m not a loser.
We also get this nice piece of advice from Marco’s father: “Do you know why kids like to play hide-and-seek? Because they want to be found.” That’s sweet. Although true? It’s probably the joy of the chase, the tension between being lost and being found.
Most of it, though, is beyond stupid. It’s both too timid (our leads) and shockingly crude (Angie’s friends). Marco finally comes to his senses and of course has to run to Angie, like all the Harrys and Jerrys before him, and win her over. And in front of her friends. Which he does! Which causes them to tear up! And we get this epiphany from him about sa jiao that took 90 excruciating minutes to realize:
After a while, all that sweet talk gets really annoying.
Actually, sooner than that.
Movie Review: Labyrinth of Lies (2014)
If you’re debating which movie to see on the 1950s investigations that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65—and who isn’t?—you can always compare how each did at the German Film Awards. “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” in which Bauer captures Adolf Eichmann with the help of Mossad, was nominated for five Lolas and won four, including best film, direction and screenplay. A year earlier, this one, in which a prosecutor unsuccessfully pursues Josef Mengele, was nominated for four Lolas and won null.
Which seems about right to me.
“Labyrinth of Lies” is a procedural, but for the first 40 minutes we wait for the young, handsome, by-the-book prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), working in Frankfurt in the late 1950s, to come up to speed. As in: He has to learn that the Holocaust happened.
That this generation of Germans didn’t know about the Holocaust, or Auschwitz, comes as a bit of a shock. It certainly demonstrates the necessity of the Auschwitz Trials; but it’s also dull. It’s like waiting for the hero to figure out the sky is blue.
The conflict, too, is by-the-book. Radmann’s colleagues mock his pursuit, but the bossman, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), is on his side so he keeps going. An American functionary ridicules his search but respects his diligence enough to bring him a cup of coffee. Ex-Nazis lurk everywhere, smirking in the shadows. A journalist, Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), hounds him to do more, then partners with him in doing more, then is dropped by him when it’s discovered that he, the journalist, was a 17-year-old guard at Auschwitz. Radmann winds up getting drunk and losing his way and losing his way-hot girlfriend (Friederike Becht). He goes from knowing nothing about the Holocaust to knowing nothing about forgiveness. He becomes unreasonable. We know he’ll come around.
We know too much because too many scenes are clichés. Radmann has a nightmare in which he pursues Mengele through creepy, lab hallways, spins him around, then wakes up before seeing his face. After he discovers his own father was a Nazi, he has the same dream, but this time, we know, it’s his father’s face he’ll see. We know that when he begs off after a bedridden friend, Simon (Johannes Krisch), asks him to say the kaddish at Auschwitz for his daughters, he’ll find time to do it in the end. He does, with Gnielka, whom he forgives, as we knew he would. And as they walk along the Auschwitz fences, away from the camera, we know Radmann will put his hand on Gnielka’s back as a sign of reconciliation.
One moment sticks with me. When Radmann has that nightmare, in quick shots, he sees his face in multiple mirrors as if it had been experimented on by Mengele: swollen eyes sewn shut, etc. The morning after I watched the film, I woke up thinking of that, and more, thinking of Simon’s twin girls: imagining their horror and helplessness. They knew little of this world before they were turned into human lab rats. The movie needed more of the horror I felt for them, and for us.
Movie Review: Laggies (2014)
I wanted to like it.
It’s set in Seattle, and directed by one of our own, Lynn Shelton, who’s super pretty. I liked the scene in the trailer where Megan (Keira Knightley) twirls the “Tax” sign to stir up business for her accountant father, Ed (Jeff Garlin). No one in the movie gets super powers, nothing blows up but relationships. I wanted to like it.
But I got a bad vibe early.
It begins with found footage, a senior prom escapade from 10 years earlier. Four girls get drunk, get naked, swim in a skanky hotel pool. They laugh. They’re having an adventure.
Cut to today, where three of the four are soft and self-satisfied in motherhood and matrimony. Only Megan feels like this isn’t for her.
We’re supposed to sympathize because her friends are silly and have bad taste. She’s also, of course, with the wrong guy, Anthony (Mark Webber). You can tell he’s the wrong guy because he’s dull and has a receding hairline. He talks up a “personal development seminar” on Orcas Island in which you choose an animal to help with your behavorial patterns. His is a shark—a reminder to keep going or sink. And it works. After 10 years, he finally proposes to Megan, but he does it at the wedding of their friend. Surely a breach in decorum.
What finally propels Megan out of this rut? It’s partly the proposal, and partly seeing her father making out with the bride’s mother in the reception parking lot. Betrayal! At 28! So, pretending she’s heading to Orcas, she instead gets caught up with high schoolers, led by Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz). First she buys them booze. Then she pretends to be Annika’s mom for a parent-teacher conference. Then she’s staying in Annika’s bedroom.
Thank god Sam Rockwell shows up.
Sam Rockwell, lifeguard
He’s Annika’s father, Craig, and his role here is almost like his role in “The Way Way Back”—except instead of playing a lifeguard offering life advice (and friendship) to a wayward teenage boy, he’s a divorce lawyer offering life advice (and eventually love) to a wayward twentysomething girl. He adds pizzazz and jazz to the movie. He asks pointed questions and delivers blunt truths:
Craig: I get that this can sometimes be sensitive information for a woman, but how old are you?
Megan: I'm ... in my 20s.
Craig: And why are you sleeping over at my house? Or I guess the larger question is: Why are you hanging out with my daughter?
Megan: It's kind of hard to explain.
Craig: I bet.
Megan: No, I mean, I've never really tried to. Not even to myself.
Craig: I like hearing things better when they're not rehearsed.
He’s the movie’s most interesting character.
I’ve said it before: Some of the best on-screen portraits of men in recent years have come from women. Here, it’s not just director Shelton but screenwriter Andrea Seigel. And it’s not just Craig but Anthony. He’s dull, yeah, but he’s loyal. He’s stolid—like Gandolfini in “Enough Said,” and Adam in “Girls.” It’s the women who are flighty and backbiting and hard-to-please. I’m surprised this isn’t mentioned more when critics, particularly male ones, encourage getting more female voices out there. Yes, this is good for women, but I think it’s even better for men. Because they like us, they really like us.
Sadly, we don’t spend enough time with Craig. It’s more about Megan, who’s meh, and Annika, who has adolescent issues and mommy issues. Bethany (Gretchen Mol, underused), a catalogue model, left a long time ago. She has a good line when Megan and Annika visit her and she wonders to Megan in the kitchen what Annika expects:
Megan: That you serve some lemonade and ask her five to ten questions about her life.
Bethany: [Pause] Treat somebody badly enough you just assume they'll be happy to let you go.
Fighting the momentum
The resolution should be intriguing. I think we’re all propelled along pathways, and it’s easy to give in to the momentum and intertia, and it’s hard to get on a new path. So the question is: How does Megan get on a new path?
Well, after she begins a relationship with Craig, Annika discovers Megan’s engagement ring and feels betrayed. So does Craig. Then Megan does a good deed for the girl but returns to Anthony and her old life. And that’s the end.
Kidding. She and Anthony are about to elope to Vegas when he makes a fatal mistake. He takes a selfie of the two of them at the boarding gate and sends it to “the group,” their friends with bad taste. And that’s when Megan knows she can’t be with him; that’s when she gets off that pathway and onto the one that leads back to Craig.
So she begins with movie directionless and with the wrong guy and ends the movie directionless and with the right guy. Progress, I suppose.
Movie Review: Copenhagen (2014)
Copenhagen deserves better.
British actor Gethin Anthony (Renley Baratheon of “Game of Thrones”) plays William, an American who travels to the titular city to: 1) deliver a letter from his now-dead father to his never-seen grandfather, and 2) screw hot girls.
He’s the kind of twentysomething who thinks it’s the height of hilarity to make blow-job motions next to a sleeping man on a train. He thinks it’s his right to keep dinging the bell on the hotel lobby desk even though the concierge is on the phone two feet away. He’s thoughtless, self-centered, and angry that his friend Jeremy (Sebastian Armesto) brought along his girlfriend Jennifer (Olivia Grant). He assumed this was “a guys trip”; he assumed it was all about him. Even with Jennifer, he assumes it’s all about him. “You wanted to fuck me first,” he says to her at the hotel bar. Classy.
The next day she and Jeremy leave. Would that we could. Then William meets a Danish girl, Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), a waitress at the hotel who accidentally spills coffee on the letter he’s supposed to deliver. They argue. She sends him to the wrong place in town. They meet again and argue some more. Then she decides to help.
So we get it. It’s about an asshole who becomes a better person because of a good woman.
Except she’s not a woman. She’s 14 years old.
Once William finds this out—40 minutes into the 90-minute movie—he backs off, right? Yes and no. Mostly he just gets more petulant. Because he likes her.
But he still backs off, right? Sexually? Right?
Yes and no. They get topless and make out in his hotel room, but he stops there. Hansen was 19 or 20 during filming but I still had to cover my eyes during these scenes. The ick factor was strong. It doesn’t help that we like her but despise him.
Question: How do you make an asshole in a movie sympathetic? Or at least interesting? However you do it, writer-director Mark Raso doesn’t. Is it because Anthony is a Brit doing an American asshole? That he gives us the surface but nothing deeper? That Anthony's a Baratheon?
All I know is I had zero tolerance for this character. As a result, we’re kind of annoyed that Effy falls for him. And as a result, when William finds out that his grandfather had been a Nazi collaborator during the war, and that he went to prison for it, and that he’s still alive, well, it’s more amusing than dramatic. Serves you right, dickhead.
But of course that’s how William “grows” in the end. Throughout, he’s an angry young man because of daddy issues; after confronting his grandfather, the former Nazi—who should’ve been near 90 but seems like a fit 70-year-old—he realizes his own father’s daddy issues were much, much worse. So he develops a kind of empathy.
Sadly, by this point, we have none for him. Effie is so good she makes William better, but William is so annoying he makes us worse.