Movie Reviews - 2015 postsMonday April 09, 2018
Movie Review: Lost in Hong Kong (2015)
Thought: If you’re going to make a movie that’s also an homage to the great Hong Kong flicks of your youth, make a better one.
“Lost in Hong Kong” was China’s fifth-biggest film of 2015, grossing $234 million, but I struggled to get through it. It’s a comedy and I hardly laughed. It’s an adventure but I wasn’t intrigued until the last half hour—when the goal switched from trying to reunite with an impossible long-lost first love (emphasis on impossible) to fleeing dirty cops whose latest misdeed your dingbat brother-in-law has unknowingly filmed.
I didn’t buy it from the get-go.
In the mood for 成 龙
In 1994, a college student, Xu Lai (director Xu Zheng), wearing flannel and long hair, but looking like a pudgy 40-something wearing flannel and long hair, lectures on Van Gogh to his classmates:
This painting, The Sower, is why I want to be a painter. Of course, one day I hope that me and my loved one can go to the place in the painting, Arles in the Provence, open a studio, and create art together, and bear testimony to love.
The class erupts in applause—real or derisive, I can’t tell—while two girls immediately try to chat him up. One is tall, thin, gorgeous and sure of herself (right after his talk, she presents on Andy Warhol), and the other is shorter and mousier, wearing big glasses and bangs. He winds up going out with the tall one, Yang Yi (supermodel Du Juan), but every time they try to kiss disaster strikes: library stacks fall like dominoes, etc. Then she’s leaves for an arts program in Hong Kong and he’s bereft. That’s when the second one, Cai Bo (Zhao Wei of “Mulan,” “Red Cliff” and “Shaolin Soccer,” among others), makes her move. Her father runs a brassiere shop, Xu winds up designing bras for him, he and Cai Bo get married, life goes on. But in his heart he holds onto the dream of the artist’s life in Arles. With Yang Yi.
Twenty years later he’s on a trip to Hong Kong, where his in-laws pester him about why he and Bo haven’t been able to conceive yet, while his wife’s idiot younger brother, Lala (Bao Bei’er), in the midst of making a documentary about the family, pesters him about filming the real him. Xu relents to the request, but his real goal for the day is attending the art exhibition across town of Yang Yinow an internationally acclaimed artist.
Of course, everything gets in the way of a reunion. It's as if fate, or the filmmakers, are against him. But it's mostly Lala. He pursues Xu with a ferocity that would put Javert to shame. Then two cops investigating a murder also get on his tail; it turns out they’re the murderers and they need Lala’s videocam, which contains evidence of the crime.
Throughout, we get nice homages to classic Hong Kong cinema. Richard Ng shows up in an elevator. Yang Yi’s hotel room is 2046, as in the Wong Kar-wai film, whose “Chungking Express” Xu and Yang Yi watched as college students. My favorite reference is when Xu and Lala go over a bridge and onto a double-decker bus, and the cops say, “Who do they think they are—Jackie Chan?” A minute later, Xu winds up hanging off the bus by an umbrella—as Jackie did in “Police Story.”
A longer list of the homages can be found here.
Over the top
Wasn’t enough. I found the film painful. And not in a Ricky Gervais, “Well, at least we’re learning something about humanity” kind of pain. No, just pain. Xu is way too put-upon but we don’t even sympathize with him because his goal is so absurd. He didn’t really have a shot with Yang Yi back in college. And now? Now that she’s internationally acclaimed? And looks like this? Good god, man, your wife is out of your league. Count your blessings. Which is, of course, the long-delayed lesson in the end.
Then there's Lala, whom you just want to slug. Why in these very successful Chinese buddy capers (Cf., the “Detective Chinatown” series) must one character be uber-calm and the other obnoxiously over-the-top? Isn't there another way to do opposites?
We get a good ending sequence on top of a high-rise Hong Kong construction project, but it doesn’t make up for the pain.
Movie Review: Detective Chinatown (2015)
It goes on too long, one of the leads is way, way over-the-top, and the solution to the crime is a bit icky for a comedy; but “Detective Chinatown” isn’t bad for a foreign comedy. I laughed a lot. It helps to know Chinese culture a little.
Or does it? At the beginning, when Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) is disconsolate after failing the police entrance exam, his mom consoles him by suggesting a week’s vacation in Thailand, where he can stay with a relative: “He is your great-aunt’s husband’s cousin’s wife’s nephew!” she says. Sure, if you know the Chinese concept of relationships, guanxi, (关 系)—basically using any connection, particularly familial ones, to get ahead—that gets a laugh. But every culture has something similar, right?
On the other hand, knowing Chinese wouldn’t hurt. Example: Qin’s third cousin once removed, whom his mom claims is the “No. 1 detective in Chinatown,” is named Tang Ren, which seems to be a play off of tang ren jie (唐 人 街), the Chinese for “Chinatown.” How it plays? I have no idea.
Is it also an in-joke that the movie is set in Thailand and Tang Ren is played by Wang Baoqiang, one of the leads in “Lost in Thailand,” China’s No. 1 box-office hit of 2012? You’d have to be in the culture to know that, and I’m over here in Seattle. And using that whole “No. 1” thing: Are they playing off the Chinese stereotype embodied in Charlie Chan, et al., or is this the language/cultural distinction that led to that stereotype? I’m guessing the latter. But again: 我 不 知 道。
中 国 夏 洛 克
The distant relative turns out to be no detective—officially or otherwise. He just scams old ladies who want their missing dogs returned and acts as informant for a sloppily dressed police sergeant, Kon Tai (Xiao Yang). Otherwise, he drinks, plays mahjong, and spies on his pretty landlady, Xiang (Tong Liya). He gets facials and permanents and lies about his age—saying he was born in the’90s when his craggy face indicates ’70s. (Wang was born in ’84 but they make him look older.)
Qin is the opposite: fresh-faced, Beatle-banged, tie-wearing, and so quiet Tang asks him if he’s mute. But it turns out he’s super-smart in that almost-ADD way of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes: the smoking with the right hand but tobacco stains on the left, plus dirt under the fingernails, indicating ... whatever. He’d be derivative if his character wasn’t the opposite of Cumberbatch’s Holmes: young rather than middle-aged; innocent rather than cynical; polite rather than impolite. He’s the nice Chinese boy with the super brain. He’s the new smart China to Tang’s crass older version.
The case they get involved in is Hitchcockian: an innocent man accused of a horrific crime. The innocent man is actually Tang himself, and the mystery isn’t bad:
- A man named Sompat is murdered in his apartment/studio
- There’s only one way in
- Street cameras indicate that the last to go in and out was Tang, who went in empty-handed and came out with a package
- No one else ever came out
Tang claims/insists he left the package in a garage next to a van. He never saw anyone in the van. He never saw his client.
The murdered man, it turns out, was also involved in a gold heist, and his partners, working for local crimelord Mr. Yan (King Shih-Chieh), assume he double-crossed them with Tang ... and then Tang double-crossed him. So, along with the hapless police, the gang, in the person of three hapless toughs, are also pursuing our heroes for most of the movie. But thanks to Qin’s brain and Tang’s survival instincts, they elude both and figure it all out.
Ready? The crimes are unrelated. (I like that.) The gold is still hiding in plain sight in the studio—within a Buddhist statue. As for the murder? That’s more convoluted.
Sompat’s son, it turns out, went missing a year ago, so Sompat parked himself at a coffee shop near his son’s former high school to spy on the kids to figure out what he could figure out. He thought one girl, Snow (Zhang Zifeng), was responsible—I forget why—and he winds up raping her. She writes about it in her journal, which her step-father finds; so the step-father plots to murder Sompat. He hidin his studio, killed him, then pretended to be Sompat when Teng arrived for the delivery job. Then, unseen, he got into the delivery box, and via silhouette and prerecorded directive, ordered Teng to pick it up.
In essence, he delivered himself to safety. That’s pretty smart.
He didn’t just do it for revenge for the rape, by the way. He was also in love with his stepdaughter in more than a fatherly way. But why set up Tang for the crime? Not sure. Except he was a perfect foil.
There’s a subplot about a rivalry within the police between the sloppy, incompetent Kon Tai and the handsome Huang Landeng (Chen He), who knows what he’s doing, but is too ready for his Hollywood close-up and keeps falling on his nose—literally. That’s a good bit. But too much time is spent on this rivalry.
Who gets short shrift? The pretty landlady. She’s barely in it.
Plus, just when we think it’s over, it’s not. Qin is on the way to the airport when he has an epiphany. Sompat, he realizes, was gay; so why would he rape Snow? (Why would he rape her anyway?) And he didn’t. Snow invented the rape, and put it in her diary, to set up her stepfather, whom she knew would read it and take action.
But does that mean ... Snow was responsible for the disappearance of Sompat’s kid? Or is she just awful? That’s some nasty shit to end a comedy on: not just murder but incest and rape; but, oh, not rape, just a girl crying rape.
Half an hour shorter would’ve been better, with the lead taking it down a notch. Or two. Or 12. But I love the concept. Two mismatched detectives, repping old and new China, visiting Chinatowns around the world. Does any other culture have this? Pocket representations of the home country in almost every port? Next stop: New York.
Movie Review: Goodbye Mr. Loser (2015)
It’s fascinating watching a time-travel comedy that relies on cultural knowledge without having real knowledge of that culture.
At one point in “Goodbye Mr. Loser,” for example, Xia Luo (Shen Teng), the titular loser, who’s been transported from his sad life in 2016 back to his senior year of high school in 1997 where he can rectify things, is standing in his old room skimming VHS tapes and looking for a singer named Pu Shu. Then he has an epiphany. Pu Shu isn’t famous yet! Neither are his songs. But he knows them. He can sing Pu Shu’s songs, and anyone else’s, and become famous himself!
My thought: Who’s Pu Shu?
But yeah, you still get it. More: I found myself laughing at “Goodbye Mr. Loser.” A lot. Once Luo shows songwriting talent/theft, his principal demands he perform in the school talent show. Cut to: Luo, dressed in Bruce Lee Game-of-Death yellows, leaping around the stage and singing Jay Chou’s 2006 death-metal rap about nunchucks. Cut to: Perky moderator awarding first prize to ... a primary school boy for his song “I Offered Petroleum to My Motherland.”
And how cool that the Chinese movie industry can make this joke now. Does that mean those days are gone? Where kids win awards for idiot (and super dull) propaganda? I’m curious.
The main point is that, despite the cultural dislocation, the comedy travels well. It's other parts that don’t.
Without the Beatles
I never liked the main character. Ever.
During the cold open, sure, when he’s being chased at a wedding by his crazed wife, he seems hapless enough. Then you get the backstory. He’s at the wedding of Qui Ya (Wang Zhi) because 20 years after high school he still has a crush on her. So he shows up, pretends to be rich, is revealed to be a fraud, gets drunk, reads bad poetry to her on bended knee, and—the topper—when his wife, Ma Dong Mei (Ma Li, a standout), shows up and pleads with him to leave with her, we find out she holds down two jobs and he has none.
Dude. Man up.
And what does he do back in ’97? Starts out by making a pass at Qui Ya, mortifying her. Then he demands the seat next to her and stares, while she squirms uncomfortably. He’s like a stalker here. And that’s the least of it. Once he becomes famous (and marries Qui Ya), he turns into a major asshole: yachts, bikini babes, affairs, tantrums, outlandish clothes and hairstyle. At the 2016 wedding, he’d worn a feather in his lapel and been mocked for it, so in his superstar incarnation he wears bigger and bigger feathers. It’s a good gag. But him? He’s just awful.
Not to mention...
OK, so fans in China have noticed similarities between “Finding Mr. Right” and Francis Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” from 1986. I actually had to familiarize myself with “Peggy Sue”’s plot again, since I hadn’t seen it since 1986, but there are similarities—including the whole “stealing the song” idea. In Coppola’s movie, in 1960, Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) gives her then-boyfriend, the hapless Charlie (Nicolas Cage), who’s pining to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, a song with which he can achieve his dream. It’s called “She Loves You.” I remember watching that scene back in 1986 and suddenly getting pissed off. Wait, she’s stealing the Beatles’ song? For this schmuck? So he can become a star? What happens to them? What the hell, Peggy Sue? Who wants to live in a world where the Beatles are usurped by Nicolas effin' Cage?
This movie takes that and times it by 100. Xiao Luo keeps stealing songs. He keeps stealing Jay Chou’s songs. He creates a version of “The Voice,” where, on one episode, a young Taiwanese contestant sings one of his songs, which throws Luo into a rage. Who is it? Jay Chou, of course, unknown in this world, and perplexed by the odd shadow Xia Luo has cast over his life. It’s supposed to be funny but it’s kind of creepy.
Is there comeuppance Xia Luo? Of course, but it’s a little stupid. He comes to realize that he loves (yawn) his old wife, Ma Dong Mei, whom he’d already palmed off on his dopey friend Chun. So he visits their small apartment. He tastes her food again. Most of this bit is so ennervating I could barely watch. But finally he leaves. Back to his riches and fame, which aren’t enough anymore.
Oh yeah, then he’s diagnosed with AIDS. Then he dies. Lesson for everybody.
No place like home
The death, though, releases him from that particular timeline, and, like in a dream, he winds up back in the bathroom of the 2016 grand wedding ballroom where it all began. He’s so grateful to have his old life back—to being Mr. Loser again—that he clings to Dong Mei wherever she goes. But even here, lesson learned, he’s pathetic.
I’d still recommend it for Americans curious about Chinese movies. “Goodbye Mr. Loser” was a huge sleeper hit in China in 2015. Made without stars, it grossed $226 million—the seventh-highest-grossing film of the year, just behind “Jurassic World”—and it’s already spawned a Malaysian knockoff. The Hollywood one, I’m sure, isn’t far behind. Question: Does Coppola get a cut?
Movie Review: Son of Saul (2015)
“Son of Saul” is a relentless, exhausting film that never strays five feet from its protagonist for most of its 107-minute runtime. The camera stays on the back of the head or on the intense, vacant face of Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew and member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. It’s his job to get the arrivals ready for the showers. We see this happening, often blurred, in his peripheral vision. It’s business as usual for the Sonderkommando, who know the end game, yet horror upon horror for the new arrivals, who don’t; who become further dehumanized with every step. They’re herded, stripped, packed in, gassed; their dead bodies dragged and burned, their ashes shoveled into a nearby pond.
One assumes the tight camera shots, the inability to see no further than five feet around us, is a kind of protective device for Saul: how he survives and stays sane. One also expects the camera to open up as his worldview expands; as he finds something to live for.
It does and doesn’t. Because he does and doesn’t.
What he finds is his son, the title character, who is still breathing after being gassed in the showers, making him of interest to Nazi doctors, who then suffocate the boy and order an autopsy. Saul watches all of this, transfixed. His face becomes less vacant, more intense. Then he takes over the task of transporting the body. For a moment, one wonders if the boy is still alive and Saul is trying to save him. The boy isn’t but Saul is still trying to save him. Amid the dehumanization, Saul wants a human moment. He wants a Jewish burial: a rabbi, the kaddish, and a grave. In a world where life has no meaning, he wants one death to have meaning, so he keeps risking everything—stepping outside the rigid procedures of the Sonderkommando—to make it so, even as his fellows, their time short-lived, plot an escape. He lets burial get in the way of escape.
The longer this goes on, the more insane—even selfish—it seems. “You failed the living for the dead,” he's told afterwards.
It also feels like the purest form of sanity. And he almost makes it happen. He finds a rabbi amid the arrivals and hides him. He cuts his beard—the way leering Nazis did in posed photographs in the ’30s and ’40s. He actually makes it outside the camp with the body and the rabbi, and he’s pawing at the dirt, and the rabbi begins the kaddish: “Blessed and sanctified be God’s...” he says, but can’t go on. The kaddish is a prayer that acknowledges God’s sovereignty, which the rabbi can no longer do. It’s a prayer in times of mourning but not in times of insanity. This world is insane. As is Saul.
Because the boy isn’t his son. Saul doesn’t have a son. So what is he doing? What is the meaning of his machinations throughout the film?
I think we get a glimpse of it in the end. After Saul loses the body in the rapids and follows the others to a farmhouse to rest before continuing on, he spies, in the doorway, a small boy. Not Jewish. A fat, blonde, Polish kid. The enemy, really. And Saul smiles at him. Beatifically. The camera holds on Saul’s face, with something like glory shining in his eyes. Because the kid is the future in a world that seems to have none? Because all kids are sons of Saul now? Or is it because his appearance signifies Saul’s impending death, which he welcomes? It’s the last shot we see of him before German troops surround the farmhouse and begin the offscreen slaughter.
Directed by László Nemes, written by Nemes and Clara Royer, “Son of Saul” is a unique Holocaust film for raising questions rather than answering them. It's also exhausting. Everyone should see it but I doubt I'll see it again.
Movie Review: The Intern (2015)
A 70-year-old widower named Ben answers an ad for a senior intern (65+) at an internet startup in Brooklyn, charms the people he works with, calms the high-strung founder, Jules (Anne Hathaway), and empowers her in business while helping fix her marriage.
And this charming, calming influence is played by ... Robert De Niro.
Most of the movie is as improbable as most movies, but I draw the line at an avuncular De Niro. The movie really needed a Michael Caine or a Morgan Freeman; someone with a twinkle. As great an actor as De Niro is, he comes off stiff and sarcastic here. He comes off as a Know-It-All.
I get it: Casting De Niro probably helped the movie get made. But it's also why the movie never had a chance.
They really like us
On its surface, the concept seems part of that odd, mini-trend of making uplifting comedies out of social anxieties: “Identity Thief” for identify theft; “The Internship” for career obsolescence in the digital age. Now ageism.
Except unlike those movies, where the joke is on the victim, Ben is our straight man. He needs a little help to get up and going, but mostly he dispenses needed advice to the hapless kids: about women, apartments, traffic routes, clothes, handkerchiefs. He’s never wrong and everyone is fascinated by him. Everyone’s surprised that this older guy is competent. (Sub in “black” for “older,” by the way, and good luck with that pitch.) It’s Grandfather Knows Best.
There’s a saccharine child, Jules, who is tough to take. There’s an affair, Jules’ husband, that needs to be confronted. It’s the story of the successful businesswoman with a wreck of a personal life. But Ben understands and nurtures. He fixes. A desk full of unwanted crap? He cleans it up. Jules mistakenly sends a nasty email to her mom? He organizes a break-in to delete the email. Mommies are catty around the career woman? He puts them in their place.
“The truth is,” she tells him, “something about you makes me feel calm, or more centered.”
That turns out to be the mini-trend this movie is a part of: men as the calm, rational center of movies written and directed by women. (See: James Gandolfini in “Enough Said”; Sam Rockwell in “Laggies”; Jake Lacy in “Obvious Child” and “Girls.”)
It’s a Nancy Meyers movie (“It’s Complicated”; “What Women Want”), which is almost interchangeable with a Nora Ephron movie. Brooklyn is idyllic, leafy and sparsely populated; classic movies are always on TV. It’s both clean in the present and nostalgic for the past. And a massive lie.
Where have all the good men gone?
Hathaway is good. She’s moving in a movie that does the opposite of move me. Her “buried alone” speech is funny, and reminded me of Meg Ryan’s “almost 40” bit in “When Harry Met Sally.”
She also gives a talk to Ben and the boys (her employees) after too many drinks at the local bar, that is worth examining. It’s about What Happened to Men:
We all grew up during the “Take your daughter to work day” thing, right? So we were always told we could be anything, do anything. And I think guys got—maybe not left behind—but not quite as nurtured, you know? I mean, we were the generation of “You go, girl.” We had Oprah. And I wonder sometimes how guys fit in. They still seem to be trying to figure it out. They’re still dressing like little boys. They’re still playing video games. How, in one generation, have men gone from guys like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford to... Take Ben, here. A dying breed. You know? Look and learn, boys.
This is interesting. I think it's getting at something that is true in our culture: a kind of white female privilege.
- Extended childhood knows no gender boundaries.
- Jules says this to her employees? Is she tone deaf?
- It feels like Nancy Meyers’ observations rather than Jules’.
- In the ’70s, people were saying, “How could we have gone from John Wayne to Jack Nicholson?”
Seriously: Jack Nicholson a model for manhood? The guy pounding the steering wheel and picking on the waitress in “Five Easy Pieces”? Why not just pick Jake La Motta as your nostalgic model for manhood? Why not Travis Bickle? “A dying breed. Look and learn, boys.”