Movie Reviews - 2016 postsWednesday July 18, 2018
Movie Review: My Beloved Bodyguard (2016)
I was intrigued by the description on Netflix, where the American title is simply “The Bodyguard”:
A retired security officer with dementia befriends a little girl whose father is running from the mob. To save her, his old skills start to kick in.
I envisioned a combo of “Gran Torino” and “The Bourne Identity.” Ordinary old dude, suddenly ... POW! ... and all the bad dudes are on the ground, and all the townsfolk are looking at him in amazement.
And starring Sammo Hung? How can it be bad?
First off, everyone already knows about the martial arts skills. “Old Ding? Yeah, he’s a former Center Security Bureau officer. Bad dude. Way up there. Now he’s losing it. Too bad.” We get a female voiceover explaining everything. Everything. It’s awful. Can no one write scenes? Dialogue?
Second, there’s the way he’s losing it. He’s going to identify the movie’s leering villain, Choi (Feng Jia-yi), but during the police lineup can’t remember his face. He forgets his key, but it’s on a string around his neck. It’s all rather sanitized. Plus Sammo, bless his heart, isn’t actor enough to pull it off. He just stands there, blinking. A better director might’ve helped him out but he’s the director—his first movie since “Once Upon a Time in China and America” in 1997.
The sideplots and side characters suck, too. His doctor (Feng Shaofeng of the “Monkey King” movies) tells him all of his organs are failing and he needs multiple operations; then he smiles and says, “I’m joking. Other than your memory issues, you’re fine.” Funny, doc. Always good to joke with a dementia patient. A neighbor lady, Mrs. Park (Li QinQin), keeps making a play for him, but her age and neediness (and his reluctance) are played for laughs. There’s a recurring bit with three old men sitting on the sidelines and commenting upon the proceedings, and they’re played by old Hong Kong mainstays Tsui Hark, Dean Shek and Karl Maka. It should be great stuff—like the three old men in “Do the Right Thing”—but something either gets lost in translation or it wasn’t good to begin with.
But the biggest problem? The girl Sammo is supposed to save. Good god, she’s obnoxious.
Her name is Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), and she runs away from her gambling, good-for-nothing father (Andy Lau) to hang with Ding. How does she lay low? She puts on his old Chinese guard outfit, with all the medals, and pretends to be a headless ghost. He tells her not to wear it. Three times. “Fat men are supposed to be funny!” she yells before pouting and stomping off. At night, he gently fixes the wound on her forehead (from her father?) and in the morning she’s repaid his ministrations by fixing a bandage on his forehead with the words “Serves you right” and a frowny face. They pass an ice cream stand. “Buy one for me!” she yells. They go fishing; she complains he catches too many fish. He looks at her with love but she was nails on a chalkboard to me.
The plot. Andy Lau owes the local gangster gambling debts so agrees to do a job: steal a bag from Russian mobsters across the border. He does, but with the Russians in pursuit, and Choi refuses to forgive the debt—if he was ever going to—so Andy keeps the bag. Now he’s got Chinese and Russian gangsters after him.
One night, Choi’s men show up at Ding’s place, grab the girl, and demand to know where the father is. Here’s our moment. We’re finally going to get what we came for. But it takes Ding forever to move. It’s less “Bourne” and more slow-mo. Once a fight finally happens, he breaks bones. I’ve never seen a martial arts movie with more bone snapping in the soundtrack. Is the little girl amazed? Nah, she faints. Then the authorities move her to nearby relatives. But they can’t stand her (see?), so she flees back to Ding, who keeps buying her ice cream.
Then she goes missing.
I should add there’s a dull backstory about Ding losing his granddaughter. One day, they went out and only he came back. Maybe that was the beginning of his dementia? We’re never sure. But his daughter never forgives him, nor he himself. Trying to protect this horrible brat, the movie suggests, is his way of making amends.
And that’s why he confronts Choi. Using a newspaper photograph, Ding hobbles around town until he finds the autoshop that is the front for gambling operations run by Choi, and he demands to know what they’ve done with the girl. When they give him nothing, he fights and breaks limbs. They keep coming at him with knives rather than guns. (One gun and he’s done.) Then the Russians arrive, start killing the Chinese, and the main bad Russian dude take a swipe at him. This may be my favorite part of the movie. He looks back, does a double-take (how could he have missed?) and takes several, more serious swipes. And still misses. Then the battle is engaged. Ding takes them all out. He risks life and limb to find the girl.
Guess where she is? Oh, at a friend’s house. She just never bothered to tell anyone.
Old “Three Dragons” costar Yuen Biao makes an appearance as a friendly cop to whom Ding shows a tape recorder that includes Choi’s bragging confession for murder. But it’s blank. Either Ding never turned it on or he erased it. Here’s the weird thing: By the time he shows the recorder, Choi is already dead. So it doesn’t matter that it’s blank. But the movie treats it like it’s a sad thing with consequences.
Ding winds up living with the girl, who, as she matures, takes care of him in his dotage and dementia. She’s the narrative voiceover, of course.
Look again at that plot description at the top of this review. Someone can still make a good movie of that. But this isn’t it. Not nearly.
Movie Review: Riphagen (2016)
“Riphagen” is the story of Dries Riphagen (Jeroen van Koningsbrugge), a real-life Dutch gangster who stole from and betrayed and sent to the gas chambers more than 200 Jews in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. He's the anti-Schindler.
And he gets away in the end. It’s infuriating.
Not because he gets away. Because several people, including our ostensible hero, Jan (Kay Greidanhus), have the drop on him and let him talk his way out of it. Again and again. And again. Three times, by my count.
The real story is both sobering and damning. It’s about how opportunists survive and thrive, relying on the naiveté or opportunism or helplessness of others. The filmmakers reduce this to B-movie shtick. They fuck it up.
A confederacy of Dutchies
First, we don’t even find out that Riphagen was a gangster. That his nickname was “Al Capone.” That he joined the anti-Semitic National Socialist Dutch Workers’ Party prior to Nazi occupation. I had to look all that up.
Maybe we don't get any of this because the movie begins with the conceit that Riphagen might be helping Jews. He discovers an older Jewish woman in an attic, sets her up in an apartment, takes her out for meals, tells her a sob story about how his Jewish wife was killed, decks an anti-Semite in her presence, and in this manner, and despite the fact that he’s a dead ringer for Lex Luthor, her suspicions slowly turn to trust. So much so that she brings in other Jewish friends who entrust their money and lives to him. And when he gets it all? That’s when he betrays them.
As we knew he would.
Seriously, even if we don’t know the history going in (as I didn’t), it’s how the movie is sold. “Riphagen” is about “a Dutch traitor” who helped “round up Jews.” So when he does, it’s not exactly a shock. Plus isn’t Riphagen infamous enough in the Netherlands that the beginning conceit is wasted on them? Wouldn’t it be like Norway making a movie called “Quisling” whose big reveal is that, hey, he collaborated with the Nazis! Quisling! Of all people!
The movie keeps mixing real-life events/people with fictional elements—but not in that good E.L. Doctorow way:
- Anna Raadsveld (a Kim Darby lookalike) plays Betje Wary, a weepy-eyed Jewish girl pressured by Riphagen into betraying her friends in the Dutch underground. The real Betje seems more calculating.
- Sieger Sloot plays Frits Kerkhoven, a member of the Dutch underground during the war and the Dutch secret service after, who is fooled by Riphagen. The real Frits seems less of a rube. Apparently he helped smuggle Riphagen to Belgium; then in Spain he brought him suit and shoes lined with diamonds. He aided and abetted.
Our hero, as far as I know, is fictional. Jan is a handsome, big-eyed, worried-looking kid, who is both cop and member of the Dutch resistance. He’s part of a (real life) raid on a printing plant in The Hague. Then he’s part of a (fictional) romance with Betje that goes nowhere. He makes out with her, she’s confused by a fake badge he has, she begs off. So he just goes home to his beautiful wife. Wait, what? Then Riphagen forces a teary-eyed Betje to betray everyone. She does, teary-eyed. Resistance members like Charley Hartog are killed (this happened, too), so Jan goes into hiding. After the war, he emerges, pursues Riphagen, gets the drop on him, but talks too much and only wounds him. But Riphagen plays it like he’s dead.
Half the movie is a postwar battle between Wim Sanders (Michel Sluysman) and Louis Einthoven (Mark Reitman) over control of the National Security Service. Both are historical personages. For some reason, here, Sanders has it in for Jan and trusts Riphagen. The real Sanders, I believe, tried to use Riphagen, the way Riphagen knew he would. In other words, Riphagen sold himself as what he was, a traitor, because that way Sanders knew he had useful information.
In the movie, it’s just stupid. Jan searches for Betje, who can prove his innocence and Riphagen’s villainy, but Frits finds her first, then, like a doofus, leaves her alone near Riphagen ... who threatens her life. So of course she gets panicky and teary-eyed again. But why? War is over, girlfriend. One word and Riphagen is hanging. One word from you. You have the power. Instead, with tapes rolling, she blames ... herself. I wanted to slap my forehead. Or her.
Eventually Riphagen reveals his villainy to all—ha ha!—knowing the politicians can’t own up to their ineptitude without destroying their careers. So they make matters worse: Sanders actually drives Riphagen to Belgium. Thankfully, Jan pursues, gets the drop on him, is ready to shoot. He tells him to get on his knees. Me: “C’mon. Pull the trigger already. Or just shoot him in the knees. That’ll make him bend, right? And that way you won’t have to worry that he’ll suddenly overpower you and strangle you and kill y—
Don’t cry for him
So the fictional Jan dies while the real Riphagen gets away—first, we’re told, to Spain, then Argentina, where he became friends with the Perons. All of that seems more interesting than the fictional stuff we’re given; where everyone but Riphagen is an idiot.
Maybe they were? The afterword also mentions that the Dutch government finally put a bounty on Riphagen ... in 1988. Late much, Holland? They discover he'd died in a Swiss sanitarium in 1973. Apparently he spent the ’60s having a swinging time in Spain, Germany and Switzerland. Way to stay on top of things, Europe.
Koningsbrugge has a powerful presence, Greidanhus is a handsome kid, and the raw material for a good/great movie is here. This ain't it.
Movie Review: Paterson (2016)
You assume going in that the title character of “Paterson” is a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver: “Girls,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”); but the title character could also be where he lives, Paterson, New Jersey, a working class town that is the home, or at least a home, to American poets: William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Costello.
The movie, a week in the life of the bus driver, is a veritable love letter to the city. Every ride on every bus is a history lesson into one of its famous residents. On Monday two black kids talk “Hurricane” Carter. On Wednesday two white kids (the now-teenage stars of “Moonrise Kingdom”) discuss Italian anarchist and assassin Gaetano Bresci. There are clippings of other famous residents behind the bar at the little dive Paterson goes to every night, and it seems our bus driver can't sit anywhere in town without someone wanting to talk poetry with him. Is this a Paterson, N.J. thing? Because it's not an American thing. Not in my lifetime.
Paterson, the character, is oddly disconnected. So is Paterson, N.J., seemingly, from the worst aspects of modern life. There are no addicts on these buses, no homeless, no one who raises their voice. Everyone's so fucking polite. One day the bus breaks down, and the kids on it are docile and helpful, and the old folks on it are worried but reassured. Two guys talk girls, but pathetically rather than predatorily. They tell stories of “hot girls” who were interested in them and how, well, they just didn’t follow through. The guys didn't. They had work the next day or some such. They had excuses.
No one really follows through in this movie. It’s oddly sexless. It’s an old man’s rhythm, and I guess writer-director Jim Jarmusch is an old man now.
The Jarmusch Variations
Here’s Jarmusch on “Paterson”:
I wanted to make this little structure to be a metaphor for life: that every day is a variation on the day before or the day coming up. They’re just variations.
Well, he did that. Every day, Paterson wakes up between 6 and 6:30 next to his hot, enthusastic, often annoying girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), kisses her, then trundles down for coffee and Cheerios and to think his thoughts, which wind up as poems in his secret notebook. Then it’s off to work. It’s early autumn, jacket weather, but always pleasant; no rain, wind, or blinding sun. At the terminal, Donnie (Rizwan Manji), Paterson’s colleague and/or supervisor, wakes him from his poetry reverie with complaints about his own life; then it’s the drive. Evenings, Paterson returns to their small house with the crooked mailbox out front to hear Laura’s latest enthusiasms: what she’s painted black and white; how she wants to make a mint selling cupcakes; how she wants to learn guitar and become a great country singer in Nashville like Tammy Wynnette. After dinner, he takes their English bulldog Marvin for a walk and always winds up at the local bar, where Paterson nurses a beer, chats with the bar’s owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and where we get another installment of Everett’s pathetic attempts to win over Marie (William Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon, respectively).
At times, I liked the day-to-dayness of it, its appreciation of small things and moments and just being, but more often I felt trapped. The movie is insular to the point of suffocation. Does Paterson have other friends? Does Laura? How did they meet? He was in the military once—we see the photo. So is this mundaneness designed to protect him from the drama he experienced there? I wondered if Paterson felt as suffocated by his life as I did; if he was going to snap. Nope. It’s Everett who snaps. He pulls a gun on Marie, propeling Paterson into action, into saving the day. But the gun is a prop, Everett’s pulled it before, and Paterson’s heroism is completely unnecessary. It’s a neutered moment in a movie—a life—full of them.
Half an hour in, I figured if anything was going to “happen” it would be one of two things:
- Early on, a local tells Paterson that his dog is an expensive breed, the type that gets dognapped, so be careful. Paterson isn’t, leaving Marvin tied up outside the bar. So maybe Marvin gets napped?
- Laura pleads with Paterson to make copies of his poems before something happens to them and they’re lost forever. So maybe something happens to the poems?
It’s the latter. And it’s telegraphed.
On Saturday, Laura’s cupcakes are a hit at the farmers market, so they celebrate by going out to dinner and then to a 1932 horror film, “Island of Lost Souls,” one of the first cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” But Paterson leaves his notebook on the couch and when they return it’s chewed to bits by Marvin. Sunday, and the rest of the movie, is how Paterson deals with this loss. He finds that it matters to him. Serendipitously, at the Great Falls of Paterson, his favorite place, he runs into a Japanese tourist, a poetry lover who has traveled to Paterson because of Williams’ five-book series, “Paterson”; and after a slow conversation, the tourist gives Paterson a new blank notebook. Alone again, Paterson writes a new poem about the musical lyric “Or would you rather be a fish?” I actually liked that poem. It's the only poem of his that I liked.
And that’s pretty much it.
As you can tell, the movie didn’t do much for me. That Japanese tourist, despite carrying a book of translated poetry, says, “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on,” and that’s what “Paterson” felt like to me. Its main character seems to be in a fugue state, and the movie puts us into a kind of fugue state, too. It’s not just disconnected; there seems to be a real fear of connection in it. It’s almost a horror film: an island of lost souls.
Movie Review: Denial (2016)
So the Holocaust still happened. Good to know.
I’m not sure who “Denial” is supposed to appeal to. The protagonist, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), is unlikeable; her advocates, the solicitor/barrister team of Anthony Julius and Richard Rampton (Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson), aren’t given enough screentime to be interesting; and overall there’s just not much drama. Most of the drama, in fact, is provided by the unreasonableness of the protagonist, who favors emotional arguments in court over legal ones—but even this kind of drama only goes so far. Let’s face it: Hollywood, with its love of happy endings, isn’t going to make a movie in which a Holocaust denier wins.
Some background: In 1996, David Irving (Timothy Spall), a British scholar on Hitler and a recent Holocaust denier, sued Lipstadt for libel for the depiction of him (as a liar, etc.) in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust.” He sued her in British court, where libel laws favor plaintiffs. In U.S. courts the onus is on the plaintiff to prove libel, while in British courts it’s on the defendant to prove it wasn’t. So she and her team have to prove Irving a liar. Which they do. Many times over.
The scenes in the courtroom are supposedly taken verbatim from the trial transcript. Would that the rest of the movie was; we might have had something. As is, there's nothing. Seriously. There's no depth to any of the characters, there's little drama, we don't even get a clear idea of what about the Holocaust can be proven and what can't. When in doubt, writer David Hare (“The Reader”) and director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) simply send Lipstadt out jogging. I think we get four or five such scenes. It’s not an answer. To anything.
The creepiest thing about all of this? Many of the user reviews of the film on IMDb.com have been written by obvious Holocaust deniers. Some samples, without copy-edits:
- “I was not a Holocaust Denier ever but after watching the movie I became one. Not because of the historical facts exposed in the movie but I saw how the whole Holocaust saga had been hijacked by Jewish agenda.”
- “Irving,a famous best selling author,started having problems getting book contracts after the academic Deborah Lipstadt wrote about him giving him the Orwellian label of “denier”. He began to be blacklisted and his income was suffering and his response was to seek some justice.“
- ”David Irving is an extremely intelligent, well educated man. His work is very, very well researched. That is why they felt compelled to make this (really bad) movie about him, to try and discredit him."
What a shame a better movie slamming them and their man wasn’t made. They deserve it. They need to crawl back under their rocks and stay there.
Movie Review: American Pastoral (2016)
In May 1997, I gave “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth a mixed review for The Seattle Times and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Oops? Nah. I still think I got it right. I think the Pulitzer and National Book Award committees do what the Academy does with the Fondas and Pacinos and Scorsese of the world: Here’s your award for the lesser thing because we forgot to give it to you for the greater thing. The greater thing for Roth was “Goodbye, Columbus,” “Portnoy,” and the Zuckerman trilogy, particularly “The Ghost Writer.”
The complaint I had about “Pastoral” is the complaint I would have about subsequent award-winning Roth novels, including “I Married a Communist,” “The Human Stain,” “The Plot Against America.” The subjects were fascinating: mid-century American puritanism/fascism. I just thought Roth’s writing talent had diminished. He replaced dialogue with diatribe. He got boring. Roth of all writers.
But shouldn’t that bode well for the movie version? The subject is still in place, after all, and the filmmakers—writer John Romano (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) and first-time feature director Ewan McGregor—can replace the diatribe with dialogue. In a way, they have to. It’s a movie.
But they blew it with the casting—particularly McGregor casting himself as Seymour “Swede” Levov. The towering, broad-shouldered, Jewish-American athlete of 1940's Weequahic High in Newark, New Jersey, was suddenly replaced with a tiny Scot.
The story is pretty much the same. It’s the tension of generations and decades. It’s the story of the political pendulum and how we keep swinging it, or on it, or getting cut by it.
The leftist corrections of the 1930s led to the McCarthyism of the early ’50s, which led to left-wing radicalism of the late ’60s and early '70s, which led to Reagan—who began to dismantle the leftist corrections of the 1930s. That’s my summation. Here, the ’50s is less Red Scare than idyll. It’s the American Eden from which we find ourselves banished. By both time and inclination, apparently.
In my review for The Times, I wrote:
The Swede seeks the American dream but gives birth to the American nightmare: a stuttering daughter who, in the counterculture ’60s, blows up their small-town postal station as a protest against the Vietnam War. It’s as if Mel Brooks sired Robert Redford, who sires Squeaky Fromme.
Or: It’s the first-generation American giving birth to the All-American giving birth to the anti-American.
In both novel and movie, the father, Lew (Pete Riegert), is loud, opinionated, very Jewish, and interesting; half the time I wanted to follow him around. The son is blond and bland, beautiful and dutiful. The daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning) starts out ultra-sensitive, becomes desensitized through politics, then, after all the trauma and tragedy, returns to the ultra-sensitivity of Jainism. She goes from crying about the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk half a world away, to killing her neighbors, to not wanting to harm microbes. So how did that second step occur? That’s the question the movie skirts. It just happens. She’s young and full of rage and easily indoctrinated into radical Weather Underground-style politics.
But this leads to a problem: We never really care about her, so we don’t really care about her father’s frantic search for her. He’s an innocent searching for innocence in a dirty world, and finding a dirty world. Shocking.
Turns out all the women around the Swede are all horrible human beings. His daughter commits acts of terrorism. His beauty-queen wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), retreats into facelifts and blankness and affairs with lesser men. His daughter’s radical colleague, Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry, quite good), connives and taunts and spreads her legs for Swede. Meanwhile, his daughter’s shrink (Molly Parker—always playing someone you want to punch in the face) not only gives horrible advice but hides Merry and directs her to the underground ... where she is repeatedly raped and abused.
The only decent woman in the entire movie is Swede’s assistant at the Newark glove-making plant, Vicky (Uzo Aduba, “Crazy Eyes” from “Orange is the New Black”), who sticks by him through it all. But even she has that odd moment when they’re handing out coffee and nosh to National Guardsmen during the Newark riots and she lectures the teeniest soldier on his responsibilities. She replaces dialogue with diatribe.
The Swede’s story is bookended by the 45th class reunion of Weequahic High—where Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), learns what happened to the idol of his youth—and the Swede’s funeral a day later. As Zuckerman is giving his thoughts via voiceover, a taxi pulls up, a blonde-haired woman gets out, and, as the camera follows her from behind, she slowly makes her way to the casket. Everyone stares. Is it or isn’t it?
Doesn’t matter. It doesn't resonate either way. If it's Merry, what does that mean? That she forgives her father? For what? That she forgives herself? Why? That she’s come to dance on his grave? One final act of self-renunciation? Who is she? In the end, a pawn in the game. Less the radical left’s than Roth’s.