Movie Reviews - 2017 postsTuesday January 15, 2019
Movie Review: Borg vs. McEnroe (2017)
Turns out some of my 1970s heroes were the opposite of what I thought they were.
Back then, Steve Martin seemed the hippest host of the hippest show on television; but then you read his autobiography, “Born Standing Up,” and realize what an absolute square he was. He was such a square that while others were marching for civil rights, or against the war in Vietnam, he was doing magic tricks at Knotts Berry Farm. That’s like writing online movie reviews during the Trump era.
And if there was anything we knew about five-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg, it was this: He was emotionless. Borg’s smiling face appeared on the cover of Time magazine in June 1980, and I remember adults commenting on how odd it looked. Borg didn’t smile. He was a tennis machine. He was an ice machine.
Not so much, it turns out.
Did anyone else think of “The Natural? At the end of that movie, Roy Hobbs, an old, hobbled man of 39, fresh from the hospital, faces a blonde-haired, strong-armed boy from the farmland. He faces his younger self, in other words. In a perverse way, that’s Borg here. The revelation—both in “Borg vs. McEnroe” and the excellent HBO documentary “Fire and Ice”—is that as a very young man Borg wasn’t ice; he was fire. He was so passionate, so determined to win, he kept running into trouble. To succeed in Sweden, he had to learn to subsume his rage. And he did. Maybe if he’d grown up on Long Island, like McEnroe, he could’ve let loose.
Did anyone else think of Philip Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson”? In that novel, Roth’s doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, is a huge success, a literary lion, but he’s also just received a deathbed curse from his father and can’t write anymore. He has constant backpain—perhaps psychosomatic—and dreams of going to med school and becoming the nice Jewish doctor every parent wants. At the least, he wants a different job. At most, he wants to be a different person.
That’s Borg as the movie starts. Early on, we see him duck into a café in France to avoid fans. The man running the place doesn’t recognize him, which, given his celebrity status, not to mention his distinctive, iconic look—long hair, headband, eyes close together—was like not recognizing Ali in his prime. But it’s a relief for Borg. Hanging in the café, he pretends to be an electrician named Rune. He pretends to be his father. Anything other than being himself.
Borg, here, is not too cold; he’s too hot. The superstitions of sports fans are nothing next to him. Wade Boggs (eating chicken every lunch for 20 years because the first time he did it he went 4-4) is a piker in comparison. Borg has to do everything the same way: stay at the same hotel, ride in the same car, and on the same side, eat the same foods. All of that was necessary to get him to the top and so he has to keep doing it. Because the only place he can go from there is down. And that’s death. What does his coach, Lenert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), say? It’s first or nothing for him. Second or third might as well be 1,000th. “When he starts losing,” Bergelin says, “it’s over.”
Excellent casting, by the way. Sverrir Gudnason is Bjorn Borg’s physical doppelganger and Shia LaBeouf is John McEnroe’s temperamental one. In a way, LeBeouf’s is beyond typecasting. He’s like meta-typecasting. It would be a joke if it weren’t so perfect.
As doppelgangers go, Gudnason is slightly better looking than Borg and a whole lot older. He was about 39 when this was filmed. Whereas Borg in 1980—when most of this is set? After winning four straight Wimbledons and going for his fifth, and seeming like the grand old man of tennis? I was shocked when I found out. He’d just turned 24 years old. He won his first Wimbledon at 19 and his last at 24 and he retired at 26.
Anyway, that’s the dynamic. Each man isn’t quite who he seems to be on the court or in the press. McEnroe is studied and measured, Borg is seething behind his mask. He’s a bit of an asshole; he pushes everyone away. He mocks his coach. “What are you going to do—drone on about your lousy three quarter finals?” he says. Those were crowning achievements for Bergelin, but to Borg it’s not No. 1 so it might as well be nothing. “When did it stop being fun?” his girlfriend asks him. The movie, Swedish, makes McEnroe seem healthy in comparison.
They’re almost the same. They’re battling each other, sure, but they’re also battling us.
“Everyone acts like this is easy,” Borg complains privately. “You don’t understand what it takes to play tennis,” McEnroe says publicly.
Is this dynamic enough to sustain a feature-length film? Yes.
Did I want more? Yes.
Stockholm is closer to Minnesota than Long Island
I’d forgotten that McEnroe won the mythic 18-16 tie-breaking set. Borg was up two sets to one, and he had seven match points, and McEnroe beat back each one, and won the set, and forced the fifth. What I would’ve liked from the movie? A greater sense of how Borg culled up what reserves he had to win. How do you come back from that? How do you not tumble? He didn’t. Is it glorious—not tumbling—or is it part of the same psychosis? You can’t tumble because that’s death. He’s beating back death.
For what it’s worth, I was a Borg guy when all of this was going on; I hated McEnroe. I suppose I should’ve been rooting for the American, just on principle, but it wasn’t even a question. The way Borg did it, unsmiling and professional, is the way I thought you did it. It was Bud Grant and Harmon Killebrew. You didn’t celebrate when you hit a homerun or scored a touchdown, you just bowed your head and trotted the bases or back to the bench. You were almost embarrassed. In this way, Stockholm was closer to Minnesota than Long Island. Still is.
Borg won the 1980 battle but McEnroe won the war. The McEnroes of the world are everywhere now. What I thought was the norm is now a quaint anomaly. I miss it.
Movie Review: Hitler's Hollywood (2017)
What was cinema like under the Nazi regime, run by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels? And how did it differ from what Hollywood did and does?
You’ve already won me over. I’m there.
Sadly, I was frustrated throughout “Hitler’s Hollywood.” Writer-director Rüdiger Suchsland and narrator Udo Kier keep philosophizing unnecessarily rather than laying the groundwork and giving us context. It’s like a Nazi Film 101 class taught by a philosophy TA who insists on talking about his interpretations of the movies without actually teaching you the subject.
Death becomes them
Example: Kier must tell us a dozen times that Nazi cinema had a fascination with, and almost longing for, death. “A mythical yearning for death,” he says at one point. He says it’s tied to a Nazi regime that “did not celebrate life but a cult of death.”
The following narration, part of that discussion, comes about eight minutes into the nearly two-hour doc:
- “What is this German’s dream of death?” This German? The actress/character on screen? Or Germany generally? Wait, is this a mistranslation?
- “Nazi cinema seemed to be fascinated by death.” Yes, you’ve mentioned that.
- “Drowning in scenes of yearning for death.” OK.
- “It was in the glamorous mise-en-scene of death...” C’mon. Stop it.
- “... that cinema came close to the regime.” Yes, you’ve mentioned that.
- “Every death was a happy death in Nazi cinema.” Every death? It’s not even true among the scenes you’ve shown us.
- “Often absurdly kitsch.” [Sigh.]
- “What kind of nation was it that needs poets to be able to kill and to die?” What poets? Weren’t we just talking kitsch?
- “What is this German’s dream about?” This German again.
- “They clearly dreamed of ideals...” Ah, they. So “this German” is a mistranslation. Or something.
- “... of a safe family life, of unspoilt nature, of a sound home. Nazi cinema created an artificially perfect world: tradition and entertainment.” Aren’t artificially perfect worlds often what cinema is? Isn’t that MGM in the ’30s? So how did Nazi cinema differ?
- “What is striking about Nazi cinema....” Ah, here we go! Yes? Yes?
- “... is a total lack of irony.” Huh.
- “Instead there is a rather forced cheerfulness: that German laughter that the world was soon to fear. An era that in retrospect is not so amusing...” Nor at the time, Udo.
- “...appears in films as a time of constant, if rather strained, good humor.”
This is a particularly bumpy portion, but the narration throughout invariably confuses rather than enlightens. Might as well get Dieter from “Sprockets” to narrate.
The narration actually contradicts the title. It was Goebbels’ Hollywood. He approved everything, had sway and say over every aspect of every movie. Thus the dilemma for German filmmakers who weren’t fascists: “How do you smuggle in your message?” Or more bluntly: “Can you make something for this regime that doesn’t benefit the regime?” It’s a dilemma similar to what Hollywood filmmakers go through, but with much more at stake.
(BTW: I just laid out the dilemma more plainly than the doc does.)
At least the doc lays out the other aspect of the discussion:
According to [German film theorist Siegfried] Kracauer, cinema is a seismograph of its time, an indicator of the cultural subconscious of an era. Cinema knows something that we don’t know. It has an underlying meaning that can be exposed. If that is true, and we believe that it is, what does Nazi cinema reveal about the Third Reich and its people?
That’s asked about 15 minutes in. Then the doc goes about not answering the question. Unless the answer is the aforementioned: “death.” Or is deeper than that? Self immolation? And is the doc suggesting that Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union—surely his most self-destructive move—is an example of this? That the Nazis didn’t simply yearn to exterminate others but themselves, too? Is that their new mea culpa? “We‘re not that bad! We wanted to kill us, too!”
I still learned a few things. Before decamping to Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman made a German film, “Die vier Gesellen,” in 1938, about four female graphic designers trying to make it in the big city. It seems fairly innocuous but the German filmmakers are unforgiving:
Bergman later wanted to sweep this under the carpet. She said she declined an invitation to have tea with Goebbels. That was all she would say. Six years later, Bergman played an anti-Fascist in “Casablanca.” It was a sort of atonement.
The doc is even worse toward Douglas Sirk, whose real name, I learned, is Hans Detlef Sierck. Here’s what they say of him:
Having had a smooth ride for years in Nazi Cinema, he went on to shoot his melodramas in Hollywood.
That’s almost libel compared to Sirk's Wikipedia entry:
Sirk left Germany in 1937 because of his political leanings and his Jewish (second) wife, actress Hilde Jary. ...
His ex-wife joined the Nazi party and because of Sirk's re-marriage to a Jewish woman was able to legally bar him from seeing their son, who became one of the leading child actors of Nazi Germany. ... He died as a soldier [on the Soviet front] on 22 May 1944.
Some smooth ride.
The Wiki entry is actually what I wanted from the film. I.e., What happened to all of these German actors and directors? Did they survive the war? If so, how? If they were male, how did they not go to war? Veit Harlan, who directed the most anti-Semitic of the Nazi films, “Jud Suss,” also directed, in 1944/45, as the Third Reich was ending, “Kolberg,” about a German town’s refusal to capitulate to Napoleon’s army. The extras numbered in the thousands. How were these extras not at war? What battles behind the scenes—between Goebbels and who?—allowed them to remain in the movie?
Touch my monkey
The best thing you can say about “Hitler’s Hollywood” is that it’s an often tedious primer on German cinema of the era. But some of the images are indelible: the dance in “Paracelsus”; the Technicolor blonde in the white bathing suit riding a white horse in the surf in Harlan’s “The Great Sacrifice”; Baron Munchausen riding a cannonball through the air in Von Baky’s 1943 film. (Cf., American superheroes and rockets.) The doc also explains “Jud Suss” better than the doc on “Jud Suss.”
But I might’ve begun this way. It’s a passage from James Chapman’s book “Cinemas of the World”:
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
Begin there, then go to Kracauer. Ask: What does the escapist entertainment still reveal—about Germany, about Goebbels, about the Nazis? And what did anti-Nazi auteurs like Georg Wilhelm Pabst manage to smuggle through nonetheless?
Leave “Sprockets” at home.
Movie Review: Chasing the Dragon (2017)
The first fight fooled me into thinking this movie might be more than it is.
Early on, our four heroes—OK, one hero, Ho (Donnie Yen of “Ip Man”), and his three nondescript pals—newly and illegally arrived in Hong Kong from China in 1960, are talking about making money by fighting, so I assumed they meant a competition: rings, rules, etc. Ho would shine (he’s Ip Man, after all), and from there, who knows? But that’s all wrong. They’ve lent their services to a local gang, fighting another local gang, under the watchful eyes of corrupt police. In this free-for-all, Ho does shine, but not in the usual martial-arts movie manner. The movements aren’t crisp and super-choreographed; they’re messy and sloppy. It looks like a real fight.
That fact, plus the period nature of the piece—Hong Kong from roughly 1960 to 1974—made me think they (director Wong Jing, some mucky-muck in the Chinese film industry) wanted something more like a Scorsese picture rather than the typical Hong Kong actioner.
They didn't get it.
“Chasing the Dragon” (追龍) is the story of how a half-corrupt cop, Lui Lok or Lee Rock, (Andy Lau, reprising the role he played in the 1990s), and a halfway-decent crook (Ho), band together to “save” Hong Kong from more nefarious forces. It’s basically the rise and fall of a drug dealer.
Problems? Some of the film’s shorthand. We first see Ho being decent to a little girl, Alva, bringing her a bowl of congee; and though they owe their landlords money, he surreptitiously hands a nerdy kid a few bills for his tuition. See? He’s decent. The nerdlinger turns out to be his kid brother who gets hooked on the drugs Ho peddles, while the girl turns into a beauty whom Ho uses to infiltrate the police dept. She winds up dead, he winds up a vegetable.
The filmmakers also screw up the period nature. More oddly, they actually get it right except for our main characters. We see them arriving in Hong Kong—where, we’re told, everything was super-corrupt before 1974—so I assumed, based on their period hairstyles and the fact that Ho is smoking pot, that it was 1974. It’s not; it’s 1960.
Here’s how they look in 1960:
And here’s everyone else:
I hate this kind of thing. I wrote about it recently. Details matter. The hairstyles of 1974 are not interchangeable with the hairstyles of 1960. That change is in fact the story, and to ignore it, or get it wrong, is to fuck up the story.
In that opening brawl, Ho also knocks out a corrupt British cop, Hunt (Bryan Larkin), and nearly gets beaten to death in prison for it. Lee Rock saves him so the two have this bond. Later, Ho returns the favor and gets his kneecap bashed in; he winds up with a lifelong limp. We suspected this might happen because in the intro he calls himself “Crippled Ho,” which is the name he goes by for the second half of the film. The Chinese are nothing if not politically incorrect in this manner. See “Piggy” (Kent Cheng) and “Chubby” (Ben Ng). See screen legend Sammo Hung, who is still called “Fatty.”
As our heroes rise through the various layers of gangsters and corrupt cops, Rock becomes more cautious, Ho less so. He wants revenge: against the gangster who crippled him; against Hunt, who is generally awful and racist. The film wants revenge. It lays the blame for the corrupt situation at the feet of the British imperialists, even though the organization that helped clean up Hong Kong, the ICAC, or Independent Commission Against Corruption, was formed in February 1974 by the British governor. You almost want the movie to be about them. But such a movie might be less xenophobic, and xenophobia is the watchword of Chinese cinema now.
This movie meanders. We never really know who Ho is. He's just a series of gestures that don't add up to a complete character. We get moments of melodrama (the kid brother becoming a vegetable), moments of suspense (will Rock’s family make it out?), and a Han Soloish surprise return by Rock (to save Ho yet again). There’s a final rooftop confrontation between Ho and Hunt, but Rock intervenes. You think he’s talked him back from the ledge. But after the two heroes look into each other’s eyes, and Ho says “You’ve been a good brother,” he fires two shots back, without looking, and kills Hunt. That’s a good scene. Also handled well is Rock’s reaction. He sighs, takes his own gun, shoots himself in the shoulder, then wipes it clean and puts it in Hunt’s dead hand. The camera pulls back. The music wells. Then the movie reminds us one more time that all of this was all the result of British imperialism.
“Chasing the Dragon,” with its double meaning, is, I found out, a remake of the 1991 film “To Be Number One,” which was highly acclaimed: It won best picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards, beating out both “Once Upon a Time in China” and—interestingly— Andy Lau’s “Lee Rock,” about the character he plays here. Its Chinese name, by the way, isn’t “To Be Number One.” It’s 跛毫 or Bo hao: “Crippled Ho.”
This one was kind of acclaimed, too. It was nominated for six Hong Kong awards (including picture), and won two (cinematography, editing). But I’m surprised it got that far. It’s not that good.
Movie Review: Wajib (2017)
A father and his estranged son spend a day hand-delivering wedding invitations in present-day Nazareth and resurrect old wounds.
That’s about it. “Wajib” is faces and conversation and history. There’s humor, disgust, and love for one’s city and family and self. There’s politics. (There’s always politics.) It’s episodic. We watch two men doing the same thing over and over, and writer-director Annemarie Jacir (“When I Saw You”) has to advance the story through each of these episodes. It’s the kind of non-plot that should weary us as much as the repetition of the day wearies our protagonists.
I was rapt.
Talking of a different film, Jeffrey Wells recently wrote, “Plus the father-and-son roadtrip formula has been done to death.” Consider “Wajib” its resurrection.
My son, the doctor
How cool, by the way, that I could identify with part of it? After college graduation in the late 1980s, I lived for a year in Taiwan, and when I returned everyone kept asking me how I liked Thailand. I must’ve had this conversation a dozen times:
A: “How was Thailand?”
Me: “I was in Taiwan.”
A: “Oh? I thought you were in Thailand.”
Me: “No, I’m pretty sure it was Taiwan.”
That’s the experience of Shadi (Saleh Bakri), a tall, handsome 30ish architect who returns to Nazareth from living abroad to help with the wedding of his younger sister. As they make the rounds of extended family and friends, he’s constantly greeted with questions about how he likes America. “How’s America?” He corrects with a small smile: “Italy.” They also ask how his medical practice is going and when he’s returning to Nazareth—since they hear he’s thinking of coming back. “There’s some good hospitals here,” one man tells him helpfully. “I’m an architect,” Shadi explains helplessly.
Blame Dad for this latter confusion.
We first see Dad, Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri), waiting in the passenger’s side of a car and sneaking a cigarette as the day begins. He seems a go-along-to-get-along type. A scamp (with lion’s head) in winter.
The son is more militant. He eyes Israeli soldiers at a falafel shop and is living with the daughter of a PLO bigwig of the ’70s. At the same time, he views his homeland with an expatriate’s (and architect’s) eye. Doesn’t anyone pick up garbage? Why do people ruin their beautiful buildings with cheap blue tarps? His father calls him a snob—and he is—but he’s not wrong. There’s a ying-yang to it. He misses the warmth and the humus, but he doesn’t really fit in anymore. Europe has ruined him—and not just because of the man-bun and pastel pants.
Through the early part of the day, his father is trying to get his son interested in the myriad women they meet. How about this one? Or that one? His son tells him he has a girlfriend, Nada, whom the father calls Salma. We’re not sure if he dislikes her, her militant father, or simply want his son closer to home.
The son thinks he can win arguments the way he can in Europe. For one delivery, they park in a spot for paying customers at a stand of useless gimcracks. The son says just five minutes; the dude doesn’t budge. The son grows frustrated. Then the father walks over, picks up a teddy bear, buys it. Now they’re paying customers. Later, the father tries to give the bear to a kid—a former West Bank kid—who’s selling cheap shit along a busy street. The kid walks away; he knows cheap shit when he sees it. You get the feeling Jacir could’ve made a movie just about this stuffed animal.
Beyond the norm, father and son have two main points of contention:
- The son’s suggestion to postpone the wedding if the mother, living in America, and caring for her dying husband, can’t make it.
- The father’s insistence on inviting a Jewish colleague who—the son says—fingered him back in the day, forcing him into exile.
Initially I was with the son on both. Then the conversation deepens, and other voices—chiefly the bride-to-be’s—are added, and my feelings shifted about the former. But never on the latter. The father seems to be doing it to curry favor with the powerful, and the son is beyond adamant that the man is secret service. We never find out who’s right but we get a sense of who’s wrong.
Both men are handsome, with beautiful eyes, and their interaction is impeccable. Watching, I kept thinking, “It’s like they’ve done it together for a lifetime.” Turns out they have. The actor Saleh Bakri is the actor Mohammed Bakri’s son.
“Wajib” is specific and universal, funny and human—often painfully so. There's not a false note. The day is long, tempers cool with the evening, but nothing is really resolved. It’s just another round of forgiveness and understanding that never seems to stretch far enough but maybe covers what we can while we can.
Movie Review: The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful (2017)
In modern Taipei, a high-powered female official with a prosthetic leg leaves a high-powered meeting while the news cameras record her phone conversation outside. What is she saying? No one is sure. They obsess over it. Then we cut to two blind, traditional storytellers, who, in sing-songy Taiwanese, begin to chant the tale we’re about to see.
“The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful,” which was nominated for seven Golden Horse awards (Taiwan’s Oscar), and won three, including best picture, is basically an art-house version of a female-driven soap opera. Imagine “Dynasty” remade by Jonathan Glazer.
The Tang sisters—the eldest Ning-Ning (Wu Ke-Xi), and the youngest Chen-Chen (Vicki Chen)—along with their mother, Madame Tang (longtime Hong Kong action star Kara Wai), constitute, it seems, the three titular possibilities. Which one is bold, which corrupt, which beautiful.
Since we first see Ning having sex and smoking opium with two men in the little cottage in the back of their estate, and within the watchful eyes of her innocent, younger sister, we assume she’s the corrupt. Or maybe she’s the bold? Maybe it’s the mother who’s corrupt, since the mother counsels the youngest to treat the cattiness of her cousin, Pien-pien (Wen Chen-ling), with a calm and an impenetrable smile—as we see Madame Tang do with the powerful ladies at a dinner later that evening.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all, idiot, since “The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful” is simply the U.S. title.
Right. What was I thinking? The Chinese title is “血觀音,” or “Xue guan yin.” Guan yin is the Bodhisattva associated with compassion and known in the West as “The Goddess of Mercy.” Xue is blood. So ... “Blood Goddess of Mercy” or “Blood Bodhisattva” maybe. Yeah, the three English adjectives don’t have much to do with it other than adding a soap opera patina.
对不起。Forgive all the throat clearing.
Anyway, these are our main characters:
- The icy geniality of Madame Tang
- The licentious rebellion of her eldest daughter, Ning
- The wide-eyed innocence and voyeurism of her youngest daughter, Chen
Every powerful family in their circle seems to have a similar set-up of icily polite women. The men in the movie are mostly nonexistent. If they’re there, they’re there to be manipulated.
The land speculation scheme involving the Tangs threatens to burst open after a local legislator and his Japanese wife are murdered, and Pien lies in a coma. A stable boy, who was involved with Pien, is the main suspect.
The whole thing is needlessly confusing—at least for me. Chen waits by Pien’s side at the hospital. Because the Tangs care? Because they want her quiet—or dead? Meanwhile, Madame sends Ning to turn the head of the by-the-numbers cop investigating matters. She brings him a Bodhisattva; she charms him. Or does he charm her?
Best served cold
The biggest threat to the Tangs, though, is themselves. Everything the mother wants hidden, the eldest daughter wants revealed—including the biggest cover-up of all: the fact that Chen isn’t Ning’s sister but her daughter. Shades of “Chinatown.” It’s a long-ago scandal that was swept under the rug by a subterfuge that couldn’t last.
In the end, Ning tries to escape; but her mother’s reach is long. And brutal.
The movie itself is a bit long and brutal. The stable boy’s 11th-hour rape of Chen, and her attempt at suicide by throwing herself off the train, seem unnecessary to me. The latter at least explains the prosethetic leg at the beginning. The modern, high-powered official, we learn, is Chen, and she’s leaving the high-powered meeting to go the bedside of her mother. Madame Tang, now aged, in pain, and near death, has a DNR but her daughter tears it up. Out of love? No. The opposite. She wants her mother to live with the pain. She wants to watch her twist in the wind. It’s a brutal, satisfying end to an otherwise too complex tale.