Movie Reviews - 2018 postsFriday July 05, 2019
Movie Review: What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018)
Rob Garver’s “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is a mostly laudatory documentary, with many of Kael’s fans and friends and relatives among the talking heads. So why did I like and respect her a little less afterwards?
I didn’t know about the Paulettes, for example. I mean I knew there were young critics she championed, and who emulated her idea about what makes a critic great; but I didn’t know she actually tried to rally them toward her opinion of a film. That’s some bullshit. That’s PR and propaganda. But of course she thought a true critic was a propagandist, and anyone who didn’t act accordingly wasn’t a true critic. Good god. Imagine. There’s way too much fucking propaganda in the world already. Just say what’s true and get off the stage.
Taking stuffing out of Straw
Then there’s the auteur controversy. In 1963, Kael helped make a national name for herself by tackling Andrew Sarris’ article on, and love of, the French auteur theory, disparaging the notion, the academic stuffiness of it all, and Sarris himself. I should read the piece someday—the back and forth of it. According to Richard Brody—with whom, I have to add, I rarely agree—she got a lot wrong. For one, she thought most directors labeled auteurs came out of tough-guy genres like film noir. She wrote:
Can we conclude that, in England and the United States, the auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence—that period when masculinity looked so great and important but art was something talked about by poseurs and phonies and sensitive-feminine types?
Not only is this factually wrong (Minnelli, Sirk and Ophüls were also labeled auteurs early on), but it just feels wrong. She’s basically saying men are trying to prove their manhood by championing the word auteur.
More, as the documentary delineates, she disparaged auteurism even as she spent a career touting auteurs: Peckinpah, Scorsese, Altman, Godard, De Palma. Most of these guys were macho, too. Her above description on teenaged masculinity could fit every Sam Peckinpah movie.
What the doc misses is that she didn’t exactly champion everything by a favorite director. She was no auteur whore. I’ve always loved this opening from her 1972 review of Altman’s “Images”:
Robert Altman is almost frighteningly nonrepeititve. He goes out in a new direction each time, and he scores an astonishing fifty percent—one on, one off. M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller has now been followed by Images. I can hardly wait for his next movie.
The doc treats her as an absolutist, full of hyperbole, and misses the balance in her reviews. That’s the toughest thing for a critic to do, really. It’s easy to love or disparage a thing (particularly disparage a thing), but to delve into it and sort the bad from the good takes work. Look at her take on Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” I loathe it, she likes it, but she’s not blind to its faults. She actually nails Peckinpah better than the people who loathe him:
It’s a work of integrity, but it’s not a work of major intelligence. ... [Machismo] has been the obsession behind most of Peckinpah’s other films; now that it’s out in the open, his strengths and follies are clearly visible. His intuitions as a director are infinitely superior to his thinking.
Was she mean? God, yeah. She attacked director David Lean in person and made him think about giving up movies—because she disliked, of all films, “Lawrence of Arabia.” (She thought there was too much of T.E.’s masochism and not enough on the British scholar.) She never had a kind word to say about George Roy Hill or Robert Redford. She never held back. You know the punch Ali never threw against Foreman? Kael threw it all the time. She wanted bodies on the canvas and blood on the walls.
Was she an opportunist? Apparently she sometimes waited on a review, sussing out the critical norm before blasting in from an unexpected angle. At the same time, we’re told, she reviewed and lauded “Last Tango in Paris” before it had any critic’s screenings; she paid for her ticket and saw it with the New York film fest crowd. Her review helped make the movie.
At this point, given “Last Tango”’s revisionist problems, I expected to get into sexual politics, the #MeToo of it all, but the doc doesn’t go there. It mentions she liked movies with sexual violence—where men are strong and women are subjugated—but it doesn’t go further. One of the talking heads even suggests she would’ve thrived in the modern age, with her bon mots transformed into tweets. Seriously? Her reviews were essays. She liked to go on and on. She wanted room and modern print doesn’t give you room—let alone Twitter.
I think she would’ve hated social media. It was her voice that mattered. All those others clawing at her? She would’ve been horrified. Plus, I gather, the #MeToo folks would’ve seen her as the enemy, and vice-versa. The doc treats her as a feminist icon—the lone woman in the room where it happens—but she never seemed much for movements. Let alone hashtags.
For all the problems I had with “What She Said,” I’d see it again—if only to immerse myself in a period when writing and film mattered; when there were adults in the room, arguing about adult things.
Movie Review: A Family Tour (2018)
It should be a wonderful moment.
At a hotel in Taichung, Taiwan, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), a film director who’s been exiled from Mainland China and now lives in Hong Kong, is seeing her mother—traveling with a tour group—after five long years apart. The meeting is outside a hotel and includes her husband and 4-year-old son. It should be heartfelt. It isn’t It’s stilted and slightly awkward, and then it’s interrupted by the tour director, who leads the mother away. The mother is walking with a cane, but the tour director still rushes her through the hotel lobby. The sense of violation is immediate—maybe particularly for me, since my own mother suffered a stroke three years ago and we’ve been dealing with issues of mobility ever since. At that moment, I was really hating on the tour director.
Turns out she isn’t that bad. In fact, she allowed this meeting, and others, to happen, despite risk to herself. What we’re witnessing is the long arm of authoritarian rule. Even in another country—ostensibly the same country—it can come between a parent and child.
“A Family Tour” (Chinese title: 自由行 or zi you xing, or, basically, “Travel Without a Tour Group”) generally isn’t my kind of movie. We get a lot of long, still takes of stilted conversation and parsimonious information. It can get dull. Several times I had to slap my cheeks to stay awake. But the stuff beneath the surface is powerful. I left the theater moved and saddened.
The intersection of history and governments helps—that whole dynamic between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and what belongs to whom and by how much.
It’s also autobiographical with an interesting gender reversal. Just as Yang Shu has been exiled from Mainland China for her work, so the film’s director, Shanghai-born Ying Liang was exiled after the 2012 premiere of his film, “When Night Falls,” which was based on a real-life incident: a man was arrested and beaten for riding a bicycle without a license and responded by killing six police officers. Authorities took offense. He now lives in Hong Kong.
It’s also about a film festival (in Taichung) that I saw at a film festival (in Seattle). That’s ostensibly why Yang is there: to be honored at the fest. But she brings along husband and son for the secretive meetings with the mother. They can’t travel with the tour group but they can meet up at where the group is going. The tour guide warns against seeming too friendly, or familial, with each other; but others on the tour assume they’re family anyway. It’s in the way they talk to each other and in the way they don’t.
Mom shows Yang Shu a tape of the authorities questioning her and her husband after Shu fled. They’ve been Skyping with each other, sure, but this is new info. But why did she bring it? Just because? Because she blames her daughter? Her husband is now dead, and his graved is being moved. Development. Oh, and their house is being torn down, too. Development, we’re told. Is it? Or is it punishment for the traitorous daughter? Does mother know and isn’t saying? Does she not know and assumes? We certainly don’t and neither does Shu.
Who knows what and assumes what is part of the mystery. The daughter is often prickly, often ready to start a fight, maybe because she feels she’s done nothing wrong; the mother is often distant, and polite, and mostly interested in her grandson. Maybe because she feels her daughter did do something wrong? Or is it because she’s at the end—she’s dying—and doesn’t have much fight left?
The authoritarian government looms over every meeting but it’s the people at the meeting, filled with human foibles and buried resentments, who can’t make it work. It would’ve been easy for Ying Liang to make this a heroic film. He chose a better path.
Movie Review: The Fall of the American Empire (2018)
Couldn’t this have been called anything? It only really makes sense if “American Empire” is a metaphor for greed, or shady international finance, or something, and even then it doesn’t quite work, because that stuff doesn’t fall. It thrives, but for the other side. I'm reminded a bit of Vonnegut's “Cat's Cradle.” See the cat? See the cradle? Here it‘s: See the fall? See the empire? See the American?
Oh, wait. So this is a set piece to Denys Arcand’s “The Decline of the American Empire” (1986)? Which also didn’t have much to do with the American empire’s decline.
Oh, wait. Apparently this could have been called something else, since the IMDb bio page for one of its stars, Maripier Morin, the hottie prostitute, says the following:
She stars in Le Triomphe de l’Argent, her first big role on the silver screen. The highly anticipated movie is directed by Oscar-winning director Denys Arcand.
That’s actually a better title.
Oh, wait. It’s certainly a more accurate title. But better? Would I have seen it at the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival if it were called “The Triumph of Money”? Maybe not.
Oldest profession, oldest cliché
So: A hapless Montrealer, Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry), too book-smart for his own good, who works a short-pants delivery job despite the wealth of western civilization in his head, is parked in a parking lot when a heist goes awry—gangsters stealing from gangsters—and, amid the blood and carnage, two gym bags full of money are just sitting there, exposed, on the pavement, for the taking. Our man stares at them, mouth agape, for a beat, two, four, and then shoves them in his delivery van behind some boxes. Police arrive, question him, let him go. At home, he’s smart enough to take the gym bags through the front doors, since the company is notified whenever he opens his back doors. Then he’s dumb enough to use a small fraction of the money to hire a high-class prostitute, Aspasie (Morin).
Initially, he’s intrigued because her hooker name is the same as an ancient Greek philosopher. Then he’s intrigued because she looks like she looks and does what she does. Then he falls in love with her. With a prostitute. World’s oldest profession? How about world’s oldest cliché.
At least she’s not scamming him—she’s interested in what he’s doing. He’s got a good heart, and wants to help people, and this opens up her heart. It’s another gender reversal—the man making the woman a better person, cf., 《北京遇上西雅图》—but is it believable? I didn’t believe it.
Meanwhile, forces are gathering against him/them. The cops (Maxim Roy and Louis Morissette) show up at Pierre-Paul’s house as Aspasie is leaving, and they know her, and they know how much she costs, so they’re wondering how a deliveryman can afford a prostitute who charges more than his monthly wage? Now he’s their No. 1 suspect. They also warn him that this is gang money, and they’re going to want it back, but Pierre-Paul stays the course. He aligns with Sylvain “The Brain” Bigras (longtime Arcand collaborator Rémy Girard), a convict who knows money, but not enough of it, so they contact an old customer of Aspasie’s at a high-end investment firm, Maître Wilbrod Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), who knows how to launder money internationally. Initially he’s reluctant; then he takes it on.
Meanwhile, the gang is going after suspects in the brutal fashion of gangs. The surviving robber is beaten, handcuffed behind his back, and then hoisted into the air until his shoulders tear and give way. Brutal. I had to turn away. Then the man who planned the robbery, and who owned the store that was robbed, and acts oddly untouchable, is touched: Going to his car, he’s shot in the head. Also brutal. We fear for Pierre-Paul and the rest.
Nice to be nice to the nice
How does one legally get rid of millions? It can’t physically cross the border; so they find people with money internationally, who generally can’t touch it, and trade that for the cash. Then Wilbrod routes the international money to this country and that. It goes to South Africa, then Britain before winding up in, of course, Switzerland. The exchanges for the paper money occur even as the cops close in.
The best scenes are in the beginning (Pierre-Paul’s speech about being too smart to be successful—look for it soon on YouTube), but I like how it ends. In that, it just ends. We think both cops and gangsters are after our hero, and the cops nearly nab him, so we wait for the other shoe to drop. It never does. There’s no confrontation with the bad guys. How often does that happen in the movies? When we give up that possibility? Imagine Tarantino turning that down, for example. Our heroes turn the financial tables to benefit the downtrodden and get away with it. That’s fun.
But there’s a liberal squishiness to the movie I found a bit much: about the homeless; about Pierre-Paul giving coin to panhandlers; about good things happening to good people. It’s a nice thought. As nice as a beautiful prostitute falling in love with your sorry ass.
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.