Movie Reviews - 2018 postsTuesday May 21, 2019
Movie Review: Sink or Swim (2018)
In France they call it “Le Grand Bain,” or “The Big Bath,” and it’s basically “The Full Monty” meets that great 1985 SNL skit about men's synchronized swimming starring Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. A a group of out-of-shape, middle-aged underdogs get involved in synch swimming because nothing else is going right with their lives. It’s got some French nuance, yes, but also nasty/snooty relatives out of central casting who get told off twice by our heroes—the second time to cheers from the Seattle Internatonal Film Fest crowd. Then it gets even more Hollywood. In an international competition in Norway, our heroes not only go the distance (see: “Rocky”), not only win (“Rocky II”), but win over the foreign crowd (“Rocky IV”).
Kind of disappointing.
Afterwards, my wife called it a pretty good feel-good movie, and she’s right, but even she was shocked when I told her it got nominated for 10 Cesars last year (including best director and best film), and won one (best supporting actor).
You get a story...and you get a story
It begins well, with a voiceover from our lead, Bertrand (Mathieu Amalric), a depressive, unemployed father of two, talking about the circles at the beginning of life (earth, sun, womb, etc.), and the squares at the end of it (casket, tombstone, etc.), before getting into the whole “can’t fit a square peg into a round hole” bit. Then our story begins. With him.
Today’s the day Bertrand is supposed to begin work again, or apply for a job, or something, after a year or two fighting depression. His kids don’t respect him, his wife, Claire (Marina Fois), is losing patience, and he’s got that hopeless faraway look in his eyes that Amalric can do standing on his head. Then he sees a flyer about a men’s synchronized swim team and tears off one of the phone-number stubs.
Why is this the answer to his ennui? He tries to explain it to the chain-smoking, alcoholic, but still quite lovely female instructor, Delphine (Virginie Efira), who was once a competitive synch swimmer herself, but he doesn’t have the words. Maybe the screenwriters don’t, either. They just need the thing to happen for the movie to move forward.
Delphine’s team is already full of men for whom life didn’t turn out as planned:
- Laurent (Guillaume Canet, the French Patrick Dempsey), who has a hair-trigger temper, a son who stutters (because of dad’s hair-trigger temper), and a mother suffering dementia
- Marcus (Benoit Poelvoorde) is an unethical scamp whose pool/hot tub business is about to go bankrupt
- Thierry (Philippe Katerine, our Cesar winner) is a quiet, good-natured sort whom everyone, particularly Marcus, takes advantage of
- Simon (Jean-Hugues Anglade), who has self-published 17 rock CDs without success, works in a lunchroom in the high school his superpretty daughter, Lola (Noée Abita), attends, and lives in an RV...but not down by the river
- Basil (comedian Alban Ivanov) has been denied a mortgage because he’s too old at 38. That’s pretty much all we know about him. He's kind of one-note
- Avanish (Balasingham Thamilchelvan) is also one-note: He doesn't speak French, but Basil responds to his comments as if everyone understands
I thought the movie's focus would be Bertrand but it is a true ensemble. We see Laurent’s wife and child leave him. We see him visiting his addled, abusive mother in a home, then bring her home to live with him—where she, in her dementia, continues to verbally abuse him. At least there’s that; at least she doesn’t get better because he puts in the effort. We don't get that lie.
We see Marcus struggle to keep his business afloat, going so far as to burn a company van to collect the insurance, but not realizing he’d stopped paying the insurance months earlier. Not a bad bit.
Simon plays a rock concert for geriatrics while Thierry is abused by jocks at the pool where he works. Oh, and Delphine isn’t just a chain-smoker who wound up in AA through the love a good man. No, she's actually stalking that man, a married man, who pleads angrily to leave him alone. An interesting turn. For a time, she’s replaced by Amanda (Leila Bekhti), a martinet in a wheelchair, who whips them in shape. Well, “shape.” They’re still fairly doughy at the end.
Is this too many storylines? Each gets a bit but none goes deep. Some are played for laughs, some for pathos. Bertrand goes to work for his asshole brother-in-law in a sad furniture shop, takes his abuse with an increasingly astonished look in his eyes, until we get a worm-turns moment when he tells him exactly what he thinks of him, his furniture and the shop. Then they take it outside. Cut to: A shot of the two of them, through the window, silently and ineptly grappling with one another. That was good; that made me laugh. It’s when Bertrand’s wife, who hasn’t exactly been supportive of her husband, tells off her snooty sister in a grocery store—to actual cheers from the SIFF crowd—that I began to shake my head. Make it funny or go home.
All of it leads to a male synch competition in Norway, which somehow they‘re able to enter as the French national team. The other teams are young, fit and well-financed, while our guys are not, not and not. They’re in a sweaty panic; but then they perform perfectly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, to be honest. That they wouldn’t embarrass themselves mostly. But the movie has them win the whole thing. They come back to their small northern town with gold medals.
The sure thing
Apparently this French version, and a British version starring Rob Brydon that came out the same year, were both inspired by a 2010 documentary, “Men Who Swim,” which IMDb describes thus:
A humorous and poignant film about a group of middle-aged men who find unlikely success as members of Sweden's all-male synchronized swim team
A Hollywood version seems inevitable, but who to cast? In the French version, because the men are over-the-hill, their best days back in the 1980s, they cast actors who were stars in the ’80s. That would make sense for the Hollywood version, too, and there’s a host of options: John Cusack, Matthew Broderick, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez, on and on. If you allowed Delphine to be older, Holly Hunter would be perfect.
I just hope Hollywood's version is less Hollywood than the French one.
Movie Review: More Than Blue (2018)
In any love story, the real question for the writer is “How do you keep the lovers apart?” Because the lovers together are pretty boring. Answers have varied through the centuries: family, class, race, homophobia, early death.
The couple in “More Than Blue,” K (Jasper Liu) and Cream (Chen Yi-han), have elements of the last one—early death, his—but that’s not where the drama is. The drama is in withholding this information from her.
No, that’s not even it. The drama is in how he decides to make everything right for her once he’s gone. And the answer to that is a little fucked up.
The 10 year itch
They meet cute. In high school (played by Chih Tian-hsih and Pipi Yao), he’s sad and withdrawn, she’s bold and insouciant. One day, because he’s sad and withdrawn, he runs superhard around the school track, then lays down on a bench catching his breath. Rebellious and smoking a cigarette against school rules, she comes up to him and blows smoke in his face. He coughs, she laughs. She’s forward, he’s confused. Then a school official approaches, she hands him her cigarette and scrams. He gets in trouble. “Cute.”
She’s the active force in their relationship. She initiates the intro, the follow up, dates. She initiates the first kiss. When she finds out he lives alone (because his father recently died of cancer and his mother split), she suggests they live together (because she, too, is alone). And in this manner—through high school, college and music industry jobs—they live together and love together.
Wait, back up. They don’t really love together. At one point, 10 years in, she’s talking to a friend, Bonnie (Emma Wu), and admits that she and K have never had sex. Bonnie, a superannoying pop star who speaks in the third person, is horrified, and gives the usual shitty advice girls give each other: She tells Cream to find another man to make K jealous. She does. She finds a dentist, Yang You-xian (Zhang Shu-hao). Problem? He’s engaged.
Meanwhile, K’s cancer has worsened and the doc gives him a year to live. How does he spend that time? Living life to the fullest with the woman he loves? Nah. First, he hires some private detectives to look into Dr. Yang to see if he’s a right guy. They come back with a squeaky clean report except for the engagement. So K has them look into the fiancée, Cindy (Chen Tingni), too. Turns out she's cheating on him, they get photos, and K sends them to Dr. Yang. That’s right. He’s trying to break up a couple so the woman he loves can marry a man she was only using to make him jealous.
That’s some fucked-up shit.
But wait! There’s more. Eventually Dr. Yang proposes, Cream accepts, and K helps her pick a wedding dress. Then she makes him try on a groom’s outfit. Then she has their picture taken together—each obviously in love with the other, each saddened by the events they’ve set in motion. Then we see them walking down the aisle together. As bride and groom? Of course not. K is giving away the bride to Dr. Yang. The camera lingers on a sad close-up of him placing her hand into Yang’s; then he leaves the building, the story, this life.
That’s some fucked-up shit.
But wait! There’s more. You see, K wasn’t the only one with secrets. We find out—via flashback—that Cream knew that K was dying. We also find out via another flashback that Dr. Yang knew that Cream really loved K, not him. So what’s the reason these two went along with the charade? What is Cream thinking? “The man I love—who obviously loves me—is dying, and wants me to marry a man I don’t love ... so I’ll do it? Because even though I initiated every step in our relationship I can’t initiate this last one—where we talk about loving each other?” And what’s Dr. Yang excuse? “Yes, my fiancée loves another man; but I must marry her anyway because...?”
But wait! There’s more.
Sadder than sadness
For a time, we think K just dies somewhere alone. Not true. Via another flashback, we see Cream going to the hospital and finally confronting him about everything. (He cries—because I guess his secret is out, or because she loves him so much, or who the fuck knows.) Then she brings him home. Their home. Yes, she leaves Dr. Yang. And she and K take a photo together on the couch. And as they wait for the timer, K’s head slowly, irrevocably slumps onto hers.
At this point I’m thinking it’s like a fucked-up version of “Gift of the Magi”:
- I’m dying so I got you a husband
- I left my husband because you’re dying
Except then I think she dies. Right? I think his gravestone includes her name as well. (It flashed by quickly, sorry.) And Dr. Yang looks at it and cries. He sobs ... for himself? The sadness of the world? The fact that he lost his hot cheating fiancée to this idiot scheme?
“More Than Blue” is based on a 2009 Korean film of the same name—both in English and in the original. The Korean version translates as “A Story Sadder than Sadness” as does the Chinese: 《比悲伤更悲伤的故事 》. This version opened last November in Taiwan and broke the opening weekend box-office record, then became the highest-grossing domestic film of the year. It’s now playing in Mainland China, where it’s grossed $120 million and counting.
None of this exactly shocks me. Thirty years ago in Taiwan, when I lived there, sappy/weepy was big: Air Supply (particularly “All Out of Love”), George Michael (particularly “Careless Whisper”), and the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour as time-crossed lovers who are united in death. Or something. That whole “lives of quiet desperation” thing Thoreau warned us about? The Chinese find it glorious.
Movie Review: Creed II (2018)
It’s really more like “Rocky III,” isn’t it?
Yes, “Rocky IV”’s Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) returns with a chip on his shoulder and a superpowerful son, Viktor (newcomer Florian Munteanu, hunky), who grew up in the hardscrabble streets of Ukraine, knowing only fighting. But with the help of an African-American promoter who greases gears only to slip back into the shadows—so not exactly Don King—they challenge the new heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the man Ivan killed in the ring, to a title match. That’s the external drama. It’s “sins of the fathers.” And it’s all about “Rocky IV.”
The internal drama, which is most of the movie, is cut exactly from “Rocky III.” They don’t use the phrase—which has become a cliché and was silly to begin with—but Adonis loses the eye of the tiger. Meaning his motivations for the fight are muddy; his head isn’t right.
Which is weird in itself. Motivation? How about revenge, motherfucker?
I was surprised to see the film wasn’t directed by Ryan Coogler but Steven Caple, Jr., who has one feature film to his credit: “The Land,” a 2016 indie. Maybe that’s why the movie doesn’t work. Also Sylvester Stallone has a writing credit?
Actually, who are the writers? The story is by Sasha Penn, who’s mostly a producer with no feature-film writing credits, and Cheo Hodari Coker, who is also first-listed on IMDb as a producer but at least wrote some “Luke Cage” episodes. Screenplay is by Stallone and someone named Juel Taylor—his first. Most of his credits are in Sound: editor, mixer, boom operator.
So it’s mostly non-writers writing this thing. And it shows.
Another reason why it doesn’t work? It brings an indie aesthetic to a genre film. You can do this successfully—as Coogler did with “Creed,” where I wrote, “Coogler opens the windows on this universe without knocking anything over; he just lets the fresh air in.” Well, Caple and company close it again. The movie feels muted to me, and stale.
It begins with our hero winning the title. He’s successful, feted, in love. The small stuff that worked in “Creed”—the back and forth between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson)—is dullsville here. He proposes, awkwardly, and they visit his mom-but-not-mom, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Raschad), who figures out Bianca is pregnant before Bianca does. There’s a lot of this parents-know-best stuff in the movie. Then they worry the baby will be deaf like the mother but should they worry because isn’t she great? Plus Bianca has her music career that nobody watching gives a shit about. That’s a truly painful subplot—never more so than before the final fight in Russia when Bianca precedes the Creed contingent by live-singing a lukewarm melody. I couldn’t even watch; I was embarrassed for everybody involved. I was embarrassed for my country. We rule the world in pop culture and this is what you bring?
Hey does the movie ever give a good explanation why Adonis’ reaction to the Drago challenge is so nothing? Why isn’t he angry? Because he didn’t know his father? Because he resented his father? Because in a short span he’s become too comfortable? The fight arrives 45 minutes in, so we know Adonis will lose. He does and doesn’t. He’s crushed in three rounds, with broken ribs and internal bleeding, but the final blow comes after he’s been knocked down, a violation, so he retains the title. Sure. But all of it is very Clubber Lang in “Rocky III.”
In that movie, Rocky had to get back his tiger-eye by leaving his expensive mansion and training with black fighters in the mean streets of LA. This time, it’s the LA gyms that are too comfortable. So Rocky, who refused to train Adonis for the first fight, drives him into the desert, where they train with ... Mexicans, I guess? Illegals? Who knows? Where is this odd training ground in the middle of nothing? Is it based on anything beyond some weirdo macho fantasy? It’s also close to cultural appropriation: We need your anger over everything you’ve never had so we can battle someone who never had anything.
The fight scenes are done well, with Adonis slipping in and out of Drago’s punches. I also like Ivan’s story. They give him a kind of dignity and humanity he never had in the cartoonish “IV.” My favorite scene is probably when he shows up at Adrian’s—which is juxtaposed with Adonis learning of the Drago challenge via TV—and he’s subtly threatening. “Because of you, I lose everything. Country. Respect. [Pause] Wife.” It’s a ghost returning with bad thoughts. It’s scary. Good god, who knew Dolph Lundgren could act?
I particularly like him noting all the memorabilia on the wall:
Ivan: Nice pictures.
Rocky: Yeah, they’re okay.
Ivan: No pictures of me.
Rocky: No. There’s no pictures of that.
For Rocky, they’re reminders of tragedy. To Ivan, it’s just another example of him being erased from history.
Main character wanted, preferably single
Most of the rest is sadly dull. Bianca is ... who cares. But this is the bigger problem: Who is Adonis? What is he like? Who are his friends? He has no posse here, no bodyguards, no one beyond Rocky, Bianca and Mrs. Huxtable. Yes, he wants to box—determinedly—then he wants to marry. And beyond that?
Think of the personalities in the “Rocky” series. Start with Rocky, a garrulous nice guy from the neighborhood—too nice to even be a small-time thumb breaker for a local mob boss—so nice and talkative he even tries to give life lessons to teenage girls and gets “Screw you, creepo!” for his troubles. Or how about Apollo in the bigger-than-life mold of Muhammad Ali—talking in rhyme (“Be a thinker, not a stinker”), and taking care of business both in and out of the ring. How about Paulie—sleazy Paulie? Or Mick? Or Duke?
Who is Adonis? What is Creed’s creed—beyond trying to prove himself in the shadow of his famous father? It’s nothing. There’s nothing there.
Movie Review: Robin Hood (2018)
They keep mucking it up. Year after year, attempt after attempt.
First they gave the lead to an American who fumbled around with a British accent before giving it up entirely; then it went to an actor in his late 40s when it was an origin story about Robin’s early years. That one, with Russell Crowe, ended as the rob-the-rich legend began—anticipating sequels, no doubt. But it was poorly reviewed (43% on RT), and while its box office wasn’t bad ($105 domestic, $325 worldwide), no sequels came.
This one, too, anticipates sequels—ending, again, with Robin escaping into Sherwood to start the legend. But the reviews were damning (15%) and the box office more so ($30 domestic, $84 worldwide). Sequels seem unlikely. When will Hollywood learn? It keeps giving us throat-clearing as feature films and is surprised when we don’t show up.
Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), who was fat and comic relief, is now thin and comic-relief—and not funny. There is no Alan-a-Dale or Much, the Miller’s Son. There is no King Richard or Prince John. It’s just Guy of Gisborne (Paul Anderson) who works for the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), who works for the Vatican (F. Murray Abraham), which is trying to overthrow the British throne.
Here are the two biggest changes. John Little is now a Muslim warrior, Yahya (Jamie Foxx), who owes a debt to Robin and thus follows him back to England. He’s basically John Little + Morgan Freeman’s Azeem. He’s actually the driving force here. While Robin would wallow in sorrow for losing Marian—she married Will Scarlett (Jamie Dornan) when he was presumed dead in the Crusades—it’s John/Yahya who shakes sense into him. Not only does he help Robin hone his archery skills, he masterminds the entire robbing-from the-rich, giving-to-the-poor conceit. He’s basically Simon Cowell to Robin’s One Direction.
Meanwhile, Will Scarlet, Robin’s right-hand man in the Errol Flynn version, not only cuckolds him here, but he’s an accommodating politician who, once he realizes Marian still loves Robin, turns to the dark side. By the end, he becomes the new Sheriff of Nottingham. It’s supposed to shock, but the way the film industry plays with our legends now it’s as meaningful as a face turning heel in the WWE. Plus it’s setting up sequels that will never arrive. It’s sad.
But it’s not the worst of it. This, to me, is the worst of it. They’re the first words we hear in the film, via voiceover from Friar Tuck:
So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen
- The history wouldn’t bore me; in fact, it would be so, so welcome
- Yes, I would like to know what year it was
The reason he can’t tell us the year is there isn’t one. This thing is an amalgamation of centuries. It should be Middle Ages, right, Robin Hood and all, but most of the movie is set in a Nottingham township built around what appears to be 19th-century industrial mining. People wear leather coats and jackets, the parties are like raves, and there’s an early version of a roulette wheel and craps table. For a time, I thought, Oh, so is it updating Robin into the 19th century—like Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”? Or into the 20th per Ian McKellen’s “Richard III”? Except: Crusades: 1095-1492. So what’s up?
Elton and Ray
What’s up is that first-time screenwriters Ben Chandler and David James Kelly, and director Otto Bathurst (“Peaky Blinders,” three episodes), don’t seem to give a shit about history. They toss centuries into a blender and serve us the result with a hipster smile.
God, the hipsterism. “The Hood.” The clothes and the parties and the modern language and sensibilities. The camera shots—a la “Dark Knight”—that confuse rather than clarify. Is it a fight or is it jazz hands? You decide.
At the least, we got the actors who played Ray Charles and Elton John starring in the same movie. Shame they weren’t playing Ray Charles and Elton John.
As for the history of cinematic Robin Hoods, this isn't a bad place to start. Hope it doesn't bore you.
Movie Review: Boy Erased (2018)
At some point, I asked my wife what she thought was going to happen. Jared (Lucas Hedges) will obviously escape the “Love in Action” gay conversion therapy group, I said, and be out and proud. But what about his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe)? How will they react? Who will support him?
She: I think his mom will be OK with it; I think his dad will have a harder time.
At some point, I also said: I think this Cameron kid is going to die. He’ll probably kill himself.
And is that really Flea? Yes. Yes, it is.
Sometimes when you know what’s going to happen in a movie you still enjoy it. Not here. “Boy Erased” is an odd, careful little movie. Way too careful.
I admire Joel Edgerton for adapting, directing, and casting himself in this movie—about a subject wholly worth dramatizing—from a true-life memoir. It just doesn’t resonate.
BTW: If “Boy Erased” is an accurate representation of gay conversion therapy, then, ethical issues aside, simply in practical terms, gay conversion therapy is pretty fucking stupid.
How do Christian parents who don’t want their sons to be gay stop them from being gay? They remove them from their normal routines and put them in close quarters with a bunch of similarly aged boys who are also repressing every sexual urge they have. Then they make sure they don’t jack off so there’s no sexual release. There’s just sexual tension—day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute.
I don’t get the batting cage, either. I get it for the boys. It’s the dipshit version of gay conversion therapy—if there’s another kind—since it’s supposed to be about making them manly. So why bring the girls? Why mock the one girl who can’t swing the bat? By your lights, isn’t that a good thing?
The movie opens on the day Jared starts his therapy. It’s supposed to be for 12 days but he later finds out he might wind up there as long as a year. Because it might take that long or because they want the money? Does he get to decide or do his parents? Or neither?
In there with him is the girl who can’t swing a bat and gets hit by a baseball. Her father soon picks her up, threatening legal action. There’s also the handsome kid with a cut over his nose, and, later, a black eye. No one asks where his injuries came from—not even Jared. My favorite is Gary (Aussie pop star Troye Sivan), who gives Jared the following advice:
Play the part. Show ’em it’s working. You’re getting better. [Pause] Fake it until you make it, right? You don’t want to end up in one of those houses for any length of time. I’ve heard the stories and they’re not good.
Who’s saying this? A kid with dyed blonde hair, curls on top, for whom gaydar meters ring off the charts. Shouldn’t Jared have been honest? “Wait, you think you’re fooling them? At least I can swing a bat, dude.”
Also: “You don’t want to wind up in one of those houses” seems to indicate the real drama is there; but we never get there. Instead, a lot of the movie is flashback to Jared’s two gay encounters: the first, which is near rape; the second, which is sweet. Then the accusation that reaches his parents, and the admission: “I think about men. I don’t know why. I’m so sorry.” His father, a Baptist minister who runs a successful car dealership, is so shocked by this his left eyelid twitches. Twice. You can see it in the trailer. It’s my favorite part of the movie. I don’t how Russell Crowe can do that—act that. An eye twitch? It’s on another level.
Besides the batting cages, what does the therapy actually consist of? Well, the head man, Victor Sykes (Edgerton), tells the kids all the answers are in the Bible. They also do the usual gather-the-chairs-into-a-circle confessional. Then there’s role playing: You’re supposed to pretend an empty chair is your dad and say why you hate him. Jared doesn’t hate his dad, so, with the help of mom, he breaks free, but he never tells his dad why he breaks free. “Dad, they wanted me to hate you.” He never says that. He never helps his case.
Then it’s four years later, he’s living up north, and, during a visit, he finally has it out with dad: “I’m gay and I’m your son, and neither of those things are going to change,” etc. We get real-life photos of the family, learn Jared has a husband, then learn Victor Sykes also has a husband. So the warden escaped the prison, too. Next gay conversion therapy movie should probably be a comedy.
Last summer, this had awards buzz; then everyone saw it and the buzz died. It did manage to get 81% on Rotten Tomatoes—I assume, on the strength of the subject matter. It’s a movie you’re supposed to like. I wanted to like it, too.