Movie Reviews - 2015 postsMonday October 16, 2017
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.”
Movie Review: Women He's Undressed (2015)
How do you dramatize in a documentary without archival footage? You’ve already got talking heads, photos, voiceovers. What else? How do you make the story come alive?
In his “Civil War” series, Ken Burns takes old photos and pans across them; it works. In “Tower,” Keith Maitland recreates scenes (and talking heads) via animation; it works. In “Women He’s Undressed,” Gillian Armstrong hires an actor (Darren Gilshenan) to play the subject, Australian-born costume designer Orry-Kelly, who clothed some of Hollywood’s greatest stars in its Golden Age. And it doesn’t work. Sorry. He talks directly to the camera, often, or exclusively, from a rowboat with KIAMA (the village in Australia where he was born) painted on the side. It’s supposed to be funny and theatrical but feels cheesy and cheap. I waited out these moments rather than anticipating them.
Armstrong also withholds any photos of the Kelly until the end, when we get a rash of them, along with his speech at the Academy Awards in 1961, accepting for “Some Like It Hot,” his third. It’s a nice revelation but feels like a cheat. It makes you realize Orry-Kelly is missing for most of his own doc.
Motorboat > rowboat
What a life: Australia to New York in the early 1920s, Broadway to Hollywood in the early 1930s. He was roommate/lover of Archie Leach/Cary Grant in Greenwich Village, and, unlike Grant, never hid who he was in the more circumspect, less open (not exactly liberal) Hollywood of the 1930s. Of course, unlike Grant, his career didn’t depend on being heterosexual. As a costume designer, particularly of female stars, he was all but expected to be gay.
And what actresses he helped clothe! Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell (unmentioned here), Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland (unmentioned), Cyd Charisse, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda. What movies he worked on: all the weepy Bette Davis melodramas, “Angels with Dirty Faces” (unmentioned), “Casablanca,” “An American in Paris,” “Oklahoma!,” “Auntie Mame,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gypsy.”
In the 1930s, he did gowns for the dames in the tough-guy Warner Bros. studio; in the 1940s he moved on to Fox. There was a gap in the early 1950s—no work between ’52 and ’55—which usually means blacklist but meant detox for him. Kelly was a nice guy but a mean drunk.
Most of the talking heads are other costume designers (Ann Roth is particularly good) and a few actresses he dressed. My favorite, by far, is Jane Fonda, who talks with amazement about Kelly’s dresses for Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot”: how they made the most of her most; how she seemed nude but wasn’t. She adds that she’s not a lesbian but those dresses make you wanna ... And here she does the motorboat: shaking her head, vibrating her lips, imagining herself in Monroe’s cleavage.
If I liked Jane Fonda before, I worship her now.
Watching, I kept thinking we needed a good doc on costume designers, the way we have “Visions of Light” for cinematography and “Casting By” for casting directors.
I’d also like a serious, in-depth look at homosexuality in Hollywood. It’s a helluva story: How gay actors/writers/directors helped create masculine archetypes for America and the world.
Start your engines.
Movie Review: Truman (2015)
“Truman,” winner of five Goya Awards, including best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and original screenplay, may be the most charming movie about death I’ve seen.
It’s “My Dinner with Andre” if Andre were about to die, and the story were spread over four days in Madrid (and Amsterdam) rather than one night in Manhattan. Death hovers close, but it’s handled with a wistful shrug. It’s the asshole in the room, and the other two combat it with a shared secret and a twinkle in the eye.
Few do that twinkle better than Ricardo Darin, the Argentinian actor of “El secreto de sus ojos,” who plays Julián, a theater actor, who has decided to bypass the latest round of chemotherapy and accept his fate. Now he’s working out the details, including finding a home for his beloved bullmastiff, Truman, who is named—one assumes from his wall art—after Truman Capote. Is there a double meaning in the title? Not just the dog but Julián? The movie’s True Man? I know: the movie’s in Spanish and the pun is in English. Still.
‘Yes, you did’
I always want to be wondering in movies and “Truman” has us wondering from the start. Who is this guy? Where is he? Minnesota? Canada? I thought this was a Spanish movie. Where is he traveling and why?
He’s Tomás (Javier Camara), going from Canada back to Madrid to visit his friend Julián and possibly talk him back into chemotherapy. Well, that’s what Julián’s cousin, Paula (Dolores Fonzi, hot), hopes.
But after an early effort goes poorly, Tomás more or less drops the subject. He’s an agreeable sort and why waste the four days? The last days they’ll be together? Early on, Julián turns to Tomás and tells him what he loves about him: that he does the favor for the favor; he doesn’t expect payback. Tomás nods and accepts this. Then, beautifully, Julián asks, “So what do you like about me?” Tomás struggles at first, then answers from the heart; and the answer is in the way the question was asked: It’s Julián’s straightforward nature.
The exchange resonates throughout the movie as we see Tomás paying for almost everything (and expecting nothing in return) and Julián confronting not only death but the people around him. A couple he knows from the theater ignores him at a restaurant—because death: icky—but he can’t ignore them. He greets them at their table, and when the man says he didn’t see Julián, Julián responds, without heat, “Yes, you did.” Here’s what I love: Later that day, Julián, too, ignores a man at a restaurant. (I know: a lot of restaurants—it’s Madrid.). Years before, Julián schtupped the guy’s wife, so Julián doesn’t want to deal with him. But the man has a lovely new fiancée, he’s forgiving, c’est la vie. There’s still some hurt in his face, but their conversation is grown-up and rooted in the knowledge that life is short.
I think I probably got most emotional when Julián leaves Truman with the lesbian couple so their adopted son can “try him out.” The look on Truman’s face, and on Julián’s: neither wants this. Pets always kill me because we can’t tell them why things are happening; we’re left with the emotional component. We’re as helpless as they are. A close second: the good-bye from Julián’s son, Nico (Oriol Pla, hot), in Amsterdam. Julián was unable to tell his son that he was dying, but the hug let us know that Nico knew.
We anticipate a lot of the third-act stuff: Paula and Tomás sleep together; Tomás takes Truman back to Canada with him. I didn't mind guessing all this. There's an inevitability to things. Watching, we feel our own inevitable deaths on a deeper level while being reminding of what makes life worth living.