Movie Reviews - 2015 posts
Thursday August 23, 2018
Movie Review: Ip Man 3 (2015)
In the first two “Ip Man” movies, our hero (Donnie Yen) fights Chinese martial arts rivals for the first half, then a foreign devil (a Japanese general, a British boxer) for the second.
“3” seems like it’ll be more of the same. It’s 1959, Chinese gangsters are trying to take over the school where Ip Man’s son goes, and the gang leader is played by Mike Tyson.
Ip Man also has a Wing Chun rival, Cheung (Zhang Jin), the father of a boy his son fights then befriends. Cheung pulls a rickshaw but he’s training to be a martial arts master, and he’s got a massive chip on his shoulder. He wants what Ip Man has. At one point, the two talk about Wing Chun teachers and grandmasters. Ip Man is gracious. He says strengths and weaknesses in anyone are normal. Then Cheung ratchets it up:
Cheung [sharply]: How about you, Master Ip?
Ip [smiles]: I’m just a dabbler.
Cheung: If we have the chance, let’s have a friendly match.
Ip [nods]: Sure.
Actually he doesn’t just nod. First he shakes his head, then he nods. It’s like, “This again?” It’s a good, weary moment.
My assumption: Ip Man will fight Cheung in the first half, then they’ll team up to take on Mike Tyson and his gang in the second.
Scratch that. Reverse it.
Do they reverse it because Mike Tyson is more beloved in China than I realized? Here’s an excerpt from “Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China” by Peter Hessler (much recommended). Hessler and his cab driver, Yang, are talking sports in the spring of 2001, as China is vying for the 2008 Olympics:
He told me that Mike Tyson was his favorite American athlete, because the boxer has Chairman Mao’s face tattooed on his arm.
“Why do the Chinese people like Tai Sen?” Driver Yang asked rhetorically. “Because he likes China. If he likes China, China likes him. And he understands China.”
“Does Tyson really understand China?” I asked.
Driver Yang said, “If he doesn’t understand China, why would he put a tattoo like that on his arm?” That was an excellent question and I had no response. Driver Yang smiled. “Tai Sen read four of Chairman Mao’s books while he was in prison,” he said. “I saw it on television.”
Sadly, switching who Ip Man fights in the final act makes for a worse movie.
Gangster Tyson demands that his lieutenant, Sang (Patrick Tam), take the school. Why do they need it? It’s never said. But Sang has two weeks to get it done.
(BTW: I used to think gangsterish eminent domain was just a facile plot device in Chinese movies but apparently it happens. The Chinese legal system is still in its infancy, and relationships (guanxi) generally trump rule of law—particularly if wheels are greased. People get tossed off their land all the time. Back then, too, Hong Kong was notoriously corrupt.)
Sang is kind of the comic-relief gangster—all red shirt and swagger and not much else. To get the school, he:
- tries to force the principal to sign over the property—but Ip Man intervenes
- chains up the school—but the chains are broken
- sets the school on fire and tries to kidnap the principal—but Ip Man and Cheung intervene
Finally, he and his gang actually kidnap the children and put them in cages (shades of Trump!), forcing Ip Man to arrive at their shipyard hideout and kowtow to save his son’s life. By this point, Cheung has been coopted—he’s taken money to beat up Sang’s former teacher, Master Tin (Hong Kong mainstay Leung Ka-Yan)—but Sang, stupidly, has also kidnapped Cheung’s son. Cheung arrives to free him, glances with apparent shame at Ip Man kowtowing, but is ready to leave. A look from his son forces him to return to help Ip Man battle dozens of gangsters in a battle royale, choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, that almost makes the movie worth it. When it’s all done, the hapless Hong Kong police, personified by Inspector “Fatso” Po (Kent Cheung), finally arrive, as well as the Hong Kong press, personified by Editor Lee (Babyjohn Choi). The latter makes a hero out of Ip Man, exacerbating Cheung’s resentment. The former articulates the movie’s underlying theme: It’s all the foreigners’ fault.
Even as Sang has his corrupt foreign boss, Inspector Po has his. In fact Po’s boss is in league with Sang’s. The Chinese are just pawns in the game. “You know the foreign devils run Hong Kong,” he tells Ip Man. Ip Man does. But he provides the silver lining for China circa 2015: “All these things we do aren’t for today but for tomorrow.”
Anyway, Tyson now dismisses the incompetent Sang, brings in a Muay Thai fighter (Sarut Khanwilai), and we have a good elevator fight scene reminiscent of (or ripped off from) “Drive.” From there, Ip Man finally confronts Tyson, who, sporting man that he is, makes a deal: If Ip Man lasts three minutes with him, he’ll stop bothering him. He does. And that’s that. The school is now safe.
What’s the rest of the movie about? The rise of Cheung (aided by Editor Lee), and the fall of Ip Man’s wife, Wing-sing (Lynn Hung), who is usually an annoyance in these films—forever urging Ip Man away from the story we came to see. Here, too. She actually slaps him after he rescues their son—because he’s not putting family first. Well, also because she’s dying from cancer. Once he knows this, he takes care of her. As Cheung rises, and calls out Ip Man, Ip Man ignores it all to look after his wife.
Indeed, as “Ip Man 2” recalled “Rocky IV” (hero battles foreign giant after the giant kills colleague/friend), “Ip Man 3” recalls “Rocky II.” Wife doesn’t want husband to fight, she gets sick, he cares for her/sits by her bedside, then she says, in essence, “Hey, why don’t you fight?” Adrian says that All-American phrase: “Win!” Wing-sing is less succinct and sweeter:
Wing-sing: You spend every day with me. It makes me so happy. But I could be happier. ... If it weren’t for my sickness, would you have taken his challenge?
Ip Man [pause]: Yes.
Wing-sing: That’s the Ip Man I love. I’ve taken the liberty of setting a date with him. I haven’t heard you practice in ages. Can I hear that sound again? Just you and me?
So the final battle. How does Ip Man win? With a three-inch punch, which his disciple, Bruce Lee, will make famous throughout the world. Then his wife dies—as she did in real life.
Enter/exit the Dragon
You know who really gets short shrift in this movie? Bruce Lee. And they have the perfect actor to play him. Yes, Chan Kwok-Kwan (“Shaolin Soccer,” “Kung Fu Hustle”) was 40 at the time of filming, rather than 19, as Lee would’ve been in 1959, but just look. 你看：
Pretty amazing, right? And he was all but promised at the end of “2.” But we only see him twice: In the beginning, trying to join Ip Man’s Wing Chun school but seemingly rejected; and later, when Ip Man needs to learn the cha-cha so he can dance with his wife. (Lee, of course, was also the cha-cha king of Hong Kong.) That’s when we learn that Ip Man, holding the door for Lee, wasn’t ushering him out by letting him in. Lee misunderstood. But then so did I; so did everybody. To be honest, in the opening scene, Ip Man comes off as a bit of a dick. It starts the movie off on the wrong foot.
China TV did create a 50-part miniseries starring Chan as Lee—available for streaming, like the “Ip Man’ series, on Netflix—but it’s cheap by American standards, and often dull. What a shame. I can’t imagine another actor this good, whose kung fu is this good, and looking this much like Bruce Lee, coming down the pike anytime soon.
Monday April 09, 2018
Movie Review: Lost in Hong Kong (2015)
Thought: If you’re going to make a movie that’s also an homage to the great Hong Kong flicks of your youth, make a better one.
“Lost in Hong Kong” was China’s fifth-biggest film of 2015, grossing $234 million, but I struggled to get through it. It’s a comedy and I hardly laughed. It’s an adventure but I wasn’t intrigued until the last half hour—when the goal switched from trying to reunite with an impossible long-lost first love (emphasis on impossible) to fleeing dirty cops whose latest misdeed your dingbat brother-in-law has unknowingly filmed.
I didn’t buy it from the get-go.
In the mood for 成 龙
In 1994, a college student, Xu Lai (director Xu Zheng), wearing flannel and long hair, but looking like a pudgy 40-something wearing flannel and long hair, lectures on Van Gogh to his classmates:
This painting, The Sower, is why I want to be a painter. Of course, one day I hope that me and my loved one can go to the place in the painting, Arles in the Provence, open a studio, and create art together, and bear testimony to love.
The class erupts in applause—real or derisive, I can’t tell—while two girls immediately try to chat him up. One is tall, thin, gorgeous and sure of herself (right after his talk, she presents on Andy Warhol), and the other is shorter and mousier, wearing big glasses and bangs. He winds up going out with the tall one, Yang Yi (supermodel Du Juan), but every time they try to kiss disaster strikes: library stacks fall like dominoes, etc. Then she’s leaves for an arts program in Hong Kong and he’s bereft. That’s when the second one, Cai Bo (Zhao Wei of “Mulan,” “Red Cliff” and “Shaolin Soccer,” among others), makes her move. Her father runs a brassiere shop, Xu winds up designing bras for him, he and Cai Bo get married, life goes on. But in his heart he holds onto the dream of the artist’s life in Arles. With Yang Yi.
Twenty years later he’s on a trip to Hong Kong, where his in-laws pester him about why he and Bo haven’t been able to conceive yet, while his wife’s idiot younger brother, Lala (Bao Bei’er), in the midst of making a documentary about the family, pesters him about filming the real him. Xu relents to the request, but his real goal for the day is attending the art exhibition across town of Yang Yinow an internationally acclaimed artist.
Of course, everything gets in the way of a reunion. It's as if fate, or the filmmakers, are against him. But it's mostly Lala. He pursues Xu with a ferocity that would put Javert to shame. Then two cops investigating a murder also get on his tail; it turns out they’re the murderers and they need Lala’s videocam, which contains evidence of the crime.
Throughout, we get nice homages to classic Hong Kong cinema. Richard Ng shows up in an elevator. Yang Yi’s hotel room is 2046, as in the Wong Kar-wai film, whose “Chungking Express” Xu and Yang Yi watched as college students. My favorite reference is when Xu and Lala go over a bridge and onto a double-decker bus, and the cops say, “Who do they think they are—Jackie Chan?” A minute later, Xu winds up hanging off the bus by an umbrella—as Jackie did in “Police Story.”
A longer list of the homages can be found here.
Over the top
Wasn’t enough. I found the film painful. And not in a Ricky Gervais, “Well, at least we’re learning something about humanity” kind of pain. No, just pain. Xu is way too put-upon but we don’t even sympathize with him because his goal is so absurd. He didn’t really have a shot with Yang Yi back in college. And now? Now that she’s internationally acclaimed? And looks like this? Good god, man, your wife is out of your league. Count your blessings. Which is, of course, the long-delayed lesson in the end.
Then there's Lala, whom you just want to slug. Why in these very successful Chinese buddy capers (Cf., the “Detective Chinatown” series) must one character be uber-calm and the other obnoxiously over-the-top? Isn't there another way to do opposites?
We get a good ending sequence on top of a high-rise Hong Kong construction project, but it doesn’t make up for the pain.
Saturday March 17, 2018
Movie Review: Detective Chinatown (2015)
It goes on too long, one of the leads is way, way over-the-top, and the solution to the crime is a bit icky for a comedy; but “Detective Chinatown” isn’t bad for a foreign comedy. I laughed a lot. It helps to know Chinese culture a little.
Or does it? At the beginning, when Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) is disconsolate after failing the police entrance exam, his mom consoles him by suggesting a week’s vacation in Thailand, where he can stay with a relative: “He is your great-aunt’s husband’s cousin’s wife’s nephew!” she says. Sure, if you know the Chinese concept of relationships, guanxi, (关 系)—basically using any connection, particularly familial ones, to get ahead—that gets a laugh. But every culture has something similar, right?
On the other hand, knowing Chinese wouldn’t hurt. Example: Qin’s third cousin once removed, whom his mom claims is the “No. 1 detective in Chinatown,” is named Tang Ren, which seems to be a play off of tang ren jie (唐 人 街), the Chinese for “Chinatown.” How it plays? I have no idea.
Is it also an in-joke that the movie is set in Thailand and Tang Ren is played by Wang Baoqiang, one of the leads in “Lost in Thailand,” China’s No. 1 box-office hit of 2012? You’d have to be in the culture to know that, and I’m over here in Seattle. And using that whole “No. 1” thing: Are they playing off the Chinese stereotype embodied in Charlie Chan, et al., or is this the language/cultural distinction that led to that stereotype? I’m guessing the latter. But again: 我 不 知 道。
中 国 夏 洛 克
The distant relative turns out to be no detective—officially or otherwise. He just scams old ladies who want their missing dogs returned and acts as informant for a sloppily dressed police sergeant, Kon Tai (Xiao Yang). Otherwise, he drinks, plays mahjong, and spies on his pretty landlady, Xiang (Tong Liya). He gets facials and permanents and lies about his age—saying he was born in the’90s when his craggy face indicates ’70s. (Wang was born in ’84 but they make him look older.)
Qin is the opposite: fresh-faced, Beatle-banged, tie-wearing, and so quiet Tang asks him if he’s mute. But it turns out he’s super-smart in that almost-ADD way of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes: the smoking with the right hand but tobacco stains on the left, plus dirt under the fingernails, indicating ... whatever. He’d be derivative if his character wasn’t the opposite of Cumberbatch’s Holmes: young rather than middle-aged; innocent rather than cynical; polite rather than impolite. He’s the nice Chinese boy with the super brain. He’s the new smart China to Tang’s crass older version.
The case they get involved in is Hitchcockian: an innocent man accused of a horrific crime. The innocent man is actually Tang himself, and the mystery isn’t bad:
- A man named Sompat is murdered in his apartment/studio
- There’s only one way in
- Street cameras indicate that the last to go in and out was Tang, who went in empty-handed and came out with a package
- No one else ever came out
Tang claims/insists he left the package in a garage next to a van. He never saw anyone in the van. He never saw his client.
The murdered man, it turns out, was also involved in a gold heist, and his partners, working for local crimelord Mr. Yan (King Shih-Chieh), assume he double-crossed them with Tang ... and then Tang double-crossed him. So, along with the hapless police, the gang, in the person of three hapless toughs, are also pursuing our heroes for most of the movie. But thanks to Qin’s brain and Tang’s survival instincts, they elude both and figure it all out.
Ready? The crimes are unrelated. (I like that.) The gold is still hiding in plain sight in the studio—within a Buddhist statue. As for the murder? That’s more convoluted.
Sompat’s son, it turns out, went missing a year ago, so Sompat parked himself at a coffee shop near his son’s former high school to spy on the kids to figure out what he could figure out. He thought one girl, Snow (Zhang Zifeng), was responsible—I forget why—and he winds up raping her. She writes about it in her journal, which her step-father finds; so the step-father plots to murder Sompat. He hidin his studio, killed him, then pretended to be Sompat when Teng arrived for the delivery job. Then, unseen, he got into the delivery box, and via silhouette and prerecorded directive, ordered Teng to pick it up.
In essence, he delivered himself to safety. That’s pretty smart.
He didn’t just do it for revenge for the rape, by the way. He was also in love with his stepdaughter in more than a fatherly way. But why set up Tang for the crime? Not sure. Except he was a perfect foil.
There’s a subplot about a rivalry within the police between the sloppy, incompetent Kon Tai and the handsome Huang Landeng (Chen He), who knows what he’s doing, but is too ready for his Hollywood close-up and keeps falling on his nose—literally. That’s a good bit. But too much time is spent on this rivalry.
Who gets short shrift? The pretty landlady. She’s barely in it.
Plus, just when we think it’s over, it’s not. Qin is on the way to the airport when he has an epiphany. Sompat, he realizes, was gay; so why would he rape Snow? (Why would he rape her anyway?) And he didn’t. Snow invented the rape, and put it in her diary, to set up her stepfather, whom she knew would read it and take action.
But does that mean ... Snow was responsible for the disappearance of Sompat’s kid? Or is she just awful? That’s some nasty shit to end a comedy on: not just murder but incest and rape; but, oh, not rape, just a girl crying rape.
Half an hour shorter would’ve been better, with the lead taking it down a notch. Or two. Or 12. But I love the concept. Two mismatched detectives, repping old and new China, visiting Chinatowns around the world. Does any other culture have this? Pocket representations of the home country in almost every port? Next stop: New York.
Monday October 16, 2017
Movie Review: Goodbye Mr. Loser (2015)
It’s fascinating watching a time-travel comedy that relies on cultural knowledge without having real knowledge of that culture.
At one point in “Goodbye Mr. Loser,” for example, Xia Luo (Shen Teng), the titular loser, who’s been transported from his sad life in 2016 back to his senior year of high school in 1997 where he can rectify things, is standing in his old room skimming VHS tapes and looking for a singer named Pu Shu. Then he has an epiphany. Pu Shu isn’t famous yet! Neither are his songs. But he knows them. He can sing Pu Shu’s songs, and anyone else’s, and become famous himself!
My thought: Who’s Pu Shu?
But yeah, you still get it. More: I found myself laughing at “Goodbye Mr. Loser.” A lot. Once Luo shows songwriting talent/theft, his principal demands he perform in the school talent show. Cut to: Luo, dressed in Bruce Lee Game-of-Death yellows, leaping around the stage and singing Jay Chou’s 2006 death-metal rap about nunchucks. Cut to: Perky moderator awarding first prize to ... a primary school boy for his song “I Offered Petroleum to My Motherland.”
And how cool that the Chinese movie industry can make this joke now. Does that mean those days are gone? Where kids win awards for idiot (and super dull) propaganda? I’m curious.
The main point is that, despite the cultural dislocation, the comedy travels well. It's other parts that don’t.
Without the Beatles
I never liked the main character. Ever.
During the cold open, sure, when he’s being chased at a wedding by his crazed wife, he seems hapless enough. Then you get the backstory. He’s at the wedding of Qui Ya (Wang Zhi) because 20 years after high school he still has a crush on her. So he shows up, pretends to be rich, is revealed to be a fraud, gets drunk, reads bad poetry to her on bended knee, and—the topper—when his wife, Ma Dong Mei (Ma Li, a standout), shows up and pleads with him to leave with her, we find out she holds down two jobs and he has none.
Dude. Man up.
And what does he do back in ’97? Starts out by making a pass at Qui Ya, mortifying her. Then he demands the seat next to her and stares, while she squirms uncomfortably. He’s like a stalker here. And that’s the least of it. Once he becomes famous (and marries Qui Ya), he turns into a major asshole: yachts, bikini babes, affairs, tantrums, outlandish clothes and hairstyle. At the 2016 wedding, he’d worn a feather in his lapel and been mocked for it, so in his superstar incarnation he wears bigger and bigger feathers. It’s a good gag. But him? He’s just awful.
Not to mention...
OK, so fans in China have noticed similarities between “Finding Mr. Right” and Francis Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” from 1986. I actually had to familiarize myself with “Peggy Sue”’s plot again, since I hadn’t seen it since 1986, but there are similarities—including the whole “stealing the song” idea. In Coppola’s movie, in 1960, Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) gives her then-boyfriend, the hapless Charlie (Nicolas Cage), who’s pining to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, a song with which he can achieve his dream. It’s called “She Loves You.” I remember watching that scene back in 1986 and suddenly getting pissed off. Wait, she’s stealing the Beatles’ song? For this schmuck? So he can become a star? What happens to them? What the hell, Peggy Sue? Who wants to live in a world where the Beatles are usurped by Nicolas effin' Cage?
This movie takes that and times it by 100. Xiao Luo keeps stealing songs. He keeps stealing Jay Chou’s songs. He creates a version of “The Voice,” where, on one episode, a young Taiwanese contestant sings one of his songs, which throws Luo into a rage. Who is it? Jay Chou, of course, unknown in this world, and perplexed by the odd shadow Xia Luo has cast over his life. It’s supposed to be funny but it’s kind of creepy.
Is there comeuppance Xia Luo? Of course, but it’s a little stupid. He comes to realize that he loves (yawn) his old wife, Ma Dong Mei, whom he’d already palmed off on his dopey friend Chun. So he visits their small apartment. He tastes her food again. Most of this bit is so ennervating I could barely watch. But finally he leaves. Back to his riches and fame, which aren’t enough anymore.
Oh yeah, then he’s diagnosed with AIDS. Then he dies. Lesson for everybody.
No place like home
The death, though, releases him from that particular timeline, and, like in a dream, he winds up back in the bathroom of the 2016 grand wedding ballroom where it all began. He’s so grateful to have his old life back—to being Mr. Loser again—that he clings to Dong Mei wherever she goes. But even here, lesson learned, he’s pathetic.
I’d still recommend it for Americans curious about Chinese movies. “Goodbye Mr. Loser” was a huge sleeper hit in China in 2015. Made without stars, it grossed $226 million—the seventh-highest-grossing film of the year, just behind “Jurassic World”—and it’s already spawned a Malaysian knockoff. The Hollywood one, I’m sure, isn’t far behind. Question: Does Coppola get a cut?
Wednesday July 20, 2016
Movie Review: Son of Saul (2015)
“Son of Saul” is a relentless, exhausting film that never strays five feet from its protagonist for most of its 107-minute runtime. The camera stays on the back of the head or on the intense, vacant face of Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew and member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. It’s his job to get the arrivals ready for the showers. We see this happening, often blurred, in his peripheral vision. It’s business as usual for the Sonderkommando, who know the end game, yet horror upon horror for the new arrivals, who don’t; who become further dehumanized with every step. They’re herded, stripped, packed in, gassed; their dead bodies dragged and burned, their ashes shoveled into a nearby pond.
One assumes the tight camera shots, the inability to see no further than five feet around us, is a kind of protective device for Saul: how he survives and stays sane. One also expects the camera to open up as his worldview expands; as he finds something to live for.
It does and doesn’t. Because he does and doesn’t.
What he finds is his son, the title character, who is still breathing after being gassed in the showers, making him of interest to Nazi doctors, who then suffocate the boy and order an autopsy. Saul watches all of this, transfixed. His face becomes less vacant, more intense. Then he takes over the task of transporting the body. For a moment, one wonders if the boy is still alive and Saul is trying to save him. The boy isn’t but Saul is still trying to save him. Amid the dehumanization, Saul wants a human moment. He wants a Jewish burial: a rabbi, the kaddish, and a grave. In a world where life has no meaning, he wants one death to have meaning, so he keeps risking everything—stepping outside the rigid procedures of the Sonderkommando—to make it so, even as his fellows, their time short-lived, plot an escape. He lets burial get in the way of escape.
The longer this goes on, the more insane—even selfish—it seems. “You failed the living for the dead,” he's told afterwards.
It also feels like the purest form of sanity. And he almost makes it happen. He finds a rabbi amid the arrivals and hides him. He cuts his beard—the way leering Nazis did in posed photographs in the ’30s and ’40s. He actually makes it outside the camp with the body and the rabbi, and he’s pawing at the dirt, and the rabbi begins the kaddish: “Blessed and sanctified be God’s...” he says, but can’t go on. The kaddish is a prayer that acknowledges God’s sovereignty, which the rabbi can no longer do. It’s a prayer in times of mourning but not in times of insanity. This world is insane. As is Saul.
Because the boy isn’t his son. Saul doesn’t have a son. So what is he doing? What is the meaning of his machinations throughout the film?
I think we get a glimpse of it in the end. After Saul loses the body in the rapids and follows the others to a farmhouse to rest before continuing on, he spies, in the doorway, a small boy. Not Jewish. A fat, blonde, Polish kid. The enemy, really. And Saul smiles at him. Beatifically. The camera holds on Saul’s face, with something like glory shining in his eyes. Because the kid is the future in a world that seems to have none? Because all kids are sons of Saul now? Or is it because his appearance signifies Saul’s impending death, which he welcomes? It’s the last shot we see of him before German troops surround the farmhouse and begin the offscreen slaughter.
Directed by László Nemes, written by Nemes and Clara Royer, “Son of Saul” is a unique Holocaust film for raising questions rather than answering them. It's also exhausting. Everyone should see it but I doubt I'll see it again.
Monday June 27, 2016
Movie Review: The Intern (2015)
A 70-year-old widower named Ben answers an ad for a senior intern (65+) at an internet startup in Brooklyn, charms the people he works with, calms the high-strung founder, Jules (Anne Hathaway), and empowers her in business while helping fix her marriage.
And this charming, calming influence is played by ... Robert De Niro.
Most of the movie is as improbable as most movies, but I draw the line at an avuncular De Niro. The movie really needed a Michael Caine or a Morgan Freeman; someone with a twinkle. As great an actor as De Niro is, he comes off stiff and sarcastic here. He comes off as a Know-It-All.
I get it: Casting De Niro probably helped the movie get made. But it's also why the movie never had a chance.
They really like us
On its surface, the concept seems part of that odd, mini-trend of making uplifting comedies out of social anxieties: “Identity Thief” for identify theft; “The Internship” for career obsolescence in the digital age. Now ageism.
Except unlike those movies, where the joke is on the victim, Ben is our straight man. He needs a little help to get up and going, but mostly he dispenses needed advice to the hapless kids: about women, apartments, traffic routes, clothes, handkerchiefs. He’s never wrong and everyone is fascinated by him. Everyone’s surprised that this older guy is competent. (Sub in “black” for “older,” by the way, and good luck with that pitch.) It’s Grandfather Knows Best.
There’s a saccharine child, Jules, who is tough to take. There’s an affair, Jules’ husband, that needs to be confronted. It’s the story of the successful businesswoman with a wreck of a personal life. But Ben understands and nurtures. He fixes. A desk full of unwanted crap? He cleans it up. Jules mistakenly sends a nasty email to her mom? He organizes a break-in to delete the email. Mommies are catty around the career woman? He puts them in their place.
“The truth is,” she tells him, “something about you makes me feel calm, or more centered.”
That turns out to be the mini-trend this movie is a part of: men as the calm, rational center of movies written and directed by women. (See: James Gandolfini in “Enough Said”; Sam Rockwell in “Laggies”; Jake Lacy in “Obvious Child” and “Girls.”)
It’s a Nancy Meyers movie (“It’s Complicated”; “What Women Want”), which is almost interchangeable with a Nora Ephron movie. Brooklyn is idyllic, leafy and sparsely populated; classic movies are always on TV. It’s both clean in the present and nostalgic for the past. And a massive lie.
Where have all the good men gone?
Hathaway is good. She’s moving in a movie that does the opposite of move me. Her “buried alone” speech is funny, and reminded me of Meg Ryan’s “almost 40” bit in “When Harry Met Sally.”
She also gives a talk to Ben and the boys (her employees) after too many drinks at the local bar, that is worth examining. It’s about What Happened to Men:
We all grew up during the “Take your daughter to work day” thing, right? So we were always told we could be anything, do anything. And I think guys got—maybe not left behind—but not quite as nurtured, you know? I mean, we were the generation of “You go, girl.” We had Oprah. And I wonder sometimes how guys fit in. They still seem to be trying to figure it out. They’re still dressing like little boys. They’re still playing video games. How, in one generation, have men gone from guys like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford to... Take Ben, here. A dying breed. You know? Look and learn, boys.
This is interesting. I think it's getting at something that is true in our culture: a kind of white female privilege.
- Extended childhood knows no gender boundaries.
- Jules says this to her employees? Is she tone deaf?
- It feels like Nancy Meyers’ observations rather than Jules’.
- In the ’70s, people were saying, “How could we have gone from John Wayne to Jack Nicholson?”
Seriously: Jack Nicholson a model for manhood? The guy pounding the steering wheel and picking on the waitress in “Five Easy Pieces”? Why not just pick Jake La Motta as your nostalgic model for manhood? Why not Travis Bickle? “A dying breed. Look and learn, boys.”
Monday June 13, 2016
Movie Review: Women He's Undressed (2015)
How do you dramatize in a documentary without archival footage? You’ve already got talking heads, photos, voiceovers. What else? How do you make the story come alive?
In his “Civil War” series, Ken Burns takes old photos and pans across them; it works. In “Tower,” Keith Maitland recreates scenes (and talking heads) via animation; it works. In “Women He’s Undressed,” Gillian Armstrong hires an actor (Darren Gilshenan) to play the subject, Australian-born costume designer Orry-Kelly, who clothed some of Hollywood’s greatest stars in its Golden Age. And it doesn’t work. Sorry. He talks directly to the camera, often, or exclusively, from a rowboat with KIAMA (the village in Australia where he was born) painted on the side. It’s supposed to be funny and theatrical but feels cheesy and cheap. I waited out these moments rather than anticipating them.
Armstrong also withholds any photos of the real Kelly until the end, when we get a rash of them, along with his speech at the Academy Awards in 1961, accepting for “Some Like It Hot,” his third. It’s a nice revelation but feels like a cheat. It makes you realize Orry-Kelly is missing for most of his own doc.
Motorboat > rowboat
What a life: Australia to New York in the early 1920s, Broadway to Hollywood in the early 1930s. He was roommate/lover of Archie Leach/Cary Grant in Greenwich Village, and, unlike Grant, never hid who he was in the more circumspect, less open (not exactly liberal) Hollywood of the 1930s. Of course, unlike Grant, his career didn’t depend on being heterosexual. As a costume designer, particularly of female stars, he was all but expected to be gay.
And what actresses he helped clothe! Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell (unmentioned here), Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland (unmentioned), Cyd Charisse, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda. What movies he worked on: all the weepy Bette Davis melodramas, “Angels with Dirty Faces” (unmentioned), “Casablanca,” “An American in Paris,” “Oklahoma!,” “Auntie Mame,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gypsy.”
In the 1930s, he did gowns for the dames in the tough-guy Warner Bros. studio; in the 1940s he moved on to Fox. There was a gap in the early 1950s—no work between ’52 and ’55—which usually means blacklist but meant detox for him. Kelly was a nice guy but a mean drunk.
Most of the talking heads are other costume designers (Ann Roth is particularly good) and a few actresses he dressed. My favorite, by far, is Jane Fonda, who talks with amazement about Kelly’s dresses for Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot”: how they made the most of her most; how she seemed nude but wasn’t. She adds that she’s not a lesbian but those dresses make you wanna ... And here she does the motorboat: shaking her head, vibrating her lips, imagining herself in Monroe’s cleavage.
If I liked Jane Fonda before, I worship her now.
Watching, I kept thinking we needed a good doc on costume designers, the way we have “Visions of Light” for cinematography and “Casting By” for casting directors.
I’d also like a serious, in-depth look at homosexuality in Hollywood. It’s a helluva story: How gay actors/writers/directors helped create masculine archetypes for America and the world.
Start your engines.
Saturday June 11, 2016
Movie Review: Truman (2015)
“Truman,” winner of five Goya Awards, including best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and original screenplay, may be the most charming movie about death I’ve seen.
It’s “My Dinner with Andre” if Andre were about to die, and the story were spread over four days in Madrid (and Amsterdam) rather than one night in Manhattan. Death hovers close, but it’s handled with a wistful shrug. It’s the asshole in the room, and the other two combat it with a shared secret and a twinkle in the eye.
Few do that twinkle better than Ricardo Darin, the Argentinian actor of “El secreto de sus ojos,” who plays Julián, a theater actor, who has decided to bypass the latest round of chemotherapy and accept his fate. Now he’s working out the details, including finding a home for his beloved bullmastiff, Truman, who is named—one assumes from his wall art—after Truman Capote. Is there a double meaning in the title? Not just the dog but Julián? The movie’s True Man? I know: the movie’s in Spanish and the pun is in English. Still.
‘Yes, you did’
I always want to be wondering in movies and “Truman” has us wondering from the start. Who is this guy? Where is he? Minnesota? Canada? I thought this was a Spanish movie. Where is he traveling and why?
He’s Tomás (Javier Camara), going from Canada back to Madrid to visit his friend Julián and possibly talk him back into chemotherapy. Well, that’s what Julián’s cousin, Paula (Dolores Fonzi, hot), hopes.
But after an early effort goes poorly, Tomás more or less drops the subject. He’s an agreeable sort and why waste the four days? The last days they’ll be together? Early on, Julián turns to Tomás and tells him what he loves about him: that he does the favor for the favor; he doesn’t expect payback. Tomás nods and accepts this. Then, beautifully, Julián asks, “So what do you like about me?” Tomás struggles at first, then answers from the heart; and the answer is in the way the question was asked: It’s Julián’s straightforward nature.
The exchange resonates throughout the movie as we see Tomás paying for almost everything (and expecting nothing in return) and Julián confronting not only death but the people around him. A couple he knows from the theater ignores him at a restaurant—because death: icky—but he can’t ignore them. He greets them at their table, and when the man says he didn’t see Julián, Julián responds, without heat, “Yes, you did.” Here’s what I love: Later that day, Julián, too, ignores a man at a restaurant. (I know: a lot of restaurants—it’s Madrid.). Years before, Julián schtupped the guy’s wife, so Julián doesn’t want to deal with him. But the man has a lovely new fiancée, he’s forgiving, c’est la vie. There’s still some hurt in his face, but their conversation is grown-up and rooted in the knowledge that life is short.
I think I probably got most emotional when Julián leaves Truman with the lesbian couple so their adopted son can “try him out.” The look on Truman’s face, and on Julián’s: neither wants this. Pets always kill me because we can’t tell them why things are happening; we’re left with the emotional component. We’re as helpless as they are. A close second: the good-bye from Julián’s son, Nico (Oriol Pla, hot), in Amsterdam. Julián was unable to tell his son that he was dying, but the hug let us know that Nico knew.
We anticipate a lot of the third-act stuff: Paula and Tomás sleep together; Tomás takes Truman back to Canada with him. I didn't mind guessing all this. There's an inevitability to things. Watching, we feel our own inevitable deaths on a deeper level while being reminding of what makes life worth living.
Thursday June 09, 2016
Movie Review: The Brand New Testament (2015)
It’s a little like “Amelie”: A young girl (10 instead of 20-something) fixes the situations of the small, sad people in her city (Brussels rather than Paris), and we get a happy ending with a bit of magic. The difference is the girl is the literal daughter of God so the magic is often real. But the movie itself is much less magical.
Nice premise, so-so execution. God (Benoît Poelvoorde, “Man Bites Dog”) is a dick and lives in Brussels with his wife, the Goddess (Yolande Moreau, “Seraphine”), a put-upon Edith Bunker-type, and daughter, Ea (Pili Groune), a little spitfire who hates the old man and relies upon the counsel of her older brother, J.C., who hides in her room as a statuette.
God, or Dieu, spends his days in his office down the hall, a massive room with files expanding into the heavens, and, in the center, a small table with a single computer on it. There, cackling to himself, he creates laws for all of the petty annoyances of the world, such as:
- the phone always rings when you’re in the bathtub
- a jelly sandwich always falls jelly-side up
- the other line always moves faster
Except: 1) it doesn’t (and this seems like a pre-cellphone joke anyway); 2) it doesn't; 3) logically impossible since the law applies to all of humanity, including the people in the faster-moving line.
No mention of things beyond petty annoyances. Like Hitler. This is a comedy.
So one day, after the Old Man beats Ea (offscreen, this is a comedy), she decides to stick it to him. She sneaks into his office, releases everybody’s death dates, and freezes his computer (the source of his power); then she escapes through a laundry chute to Brussels, where she plans to put together the new testament of the title while gathering six apostles. Angry, Dieu follows but never gets close.
The death dates provide some good bits, particularly an “extreme” kid who is supposed to live another 70 years, and who keeps testing it by jumping out of higher and higher windows. (someone breaks his fall; he lands in a truck carrying sand, etc.). I also like the interaction between Dieu and a priest, who becomes so angry he winds up choking God.
But the apostle thing falls flat. She’s not gathering converts to spread the Word, she’s just fixing lives:
- One man follows birds to the Arctic Circle, where he meets an impossibly pretty Eskimo girl.
- A self-described sex maniac, who became that way when he saw a beautiful German girl at the age of 9, is reunited with her in middle age.
- A lonely older woman (Catherine Deneuve) leaves her businessman husband for a gorilla. A real gorilla.
- A guy who wants to kill people falls in love with the first apostle, a pretty girl with a fake arm, and they become a couple and he stops wanting to kill people.
Love love love. There is no problem in the world so difficult that an ordinary/ugly man uniting with a beautiful girl won't solve it.
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Bad things keep happening to Dieu, who ends up working a factory job in Uzbekistan. Good things happen to everyone else. When the Goddess is cleaning in the office, she reboots the computer that resets everyone’s death dates. She also gets on the computer and begins to change the world for the better, starting with the sky.
Me: Not the sky!!
Yep. She makes it all flowery. She takes away gravity. She projects her bad taste onto the world.
It's supposed to be a happy ending but it felt a little frying pan/fire to me.
Tuesday May 31, 2016
Movie Review: Disorder (2015)
Alice Winocour’s “Disorder” (original, better title: “Maryland”) is my kind of thriller: drenched in atmosphere and ambiguity. We don’t who the woman is, or how she feels about the hero, or if the hero is even the hero. He could be the villain. We keep guessing. Our minds are engaged.
For most of the movie, we don’t even know what war Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts, excellent) has returned from (Afghanistan, it turns out), or what’s the matter with him (some form of PTSD), or if he will return to battle (he wants to). When he gets a security gig from fellow soldier Denis (Paul Hamy), we, and he, don’t know who they’re guarding.
Bodyguard or liability?
Imad (Percy Kemp) is rich and powerful, and high-ranking men keep drifting away from the party to talk in private. But none of the tropes of thrillers are engaged. Vincent doesn’t form a special bond with Imad, or his wife, Jessie (Diane Kruger), whom he, and we, notice at the party, wearing a backless dress. It’s Diane Kruger after all. It’s wow. Does her beauty distract him from doing his job? Does his PTSD? His ears keep ringing; he keeps putting cold water on the back of his neck. For most of the movie, Schoenaerts feels like a mass of coiled, helpless anger. He’s the guard who needs guarding.
At the gate, for example, filling in for Denis, he stops a guest trying to enter: someone not on the list, who, after impatiently getting clearance, calls Vincent a moron and flips him off. When Denis returns, Vincent immediately searches for this guy, and finds him in the middle of an argument in an upstairs room with Imad. When the guest rises, threateningly, Vincent enters the room asking if he’s needed. He isn’t, but Imad wants him close by. Is this our bonding moment? No. Imad simply wants to know how much Vincent has heard. Nothing, he says, but we don’t know whether to believe him. More, we don’t know if Vincent pursued the man because he was suspicious of him or just pissed off. Was he looking to protect or to fight?
There’s been a lot of buzz over the last few years, particularly in the U.S., about the need for women directors and writers: women-created stories. Is this a good example of that? A perspective of men that women in particular are good at portraying? Our unknowability, our silences; the strength that might protect or hurt.
The next morning Denis asks Vincent if he’d like to stick around to guard the wife for a few days. Why Vincent? The Hollywood trope would be because he’s “the best,” or because Imad (or, better, Jessie) asked for him specifically, seeing something specialin him. Here it’s because Denis knows he needs the gig—he might not be returning to the war. So it’s out of a kind of pity. Or maybe Vincent is being set up? Why does Jessie and her son, Ali (Zaid Errougui-Demonsant), need guarding anyway?
On the way to the beach, in a traffic jam, Vincent guns the engine and veers into oncoming traffic to avoid, he says, someone following them. Is this the bodyguard or the PTSD talking? At the beach, she’s still angry with him, and he drifts, and then wanders. What is he seeing? Something real? At this point, he feels like a liability.
Until the attack in the parking lot—and even then it’s not handled with Jason Bourne-style efficiency. It’s messy, as it should be, and afterwards the police are more interested in who they are rather than who their attackers were.
Imad, it turns out, is an arms dealer, he's been arrested at the Swiss border, and his empire crumbles swiftly. The estate, called Maryland, which was the setting of a glamorous party just a few days earlier, quickly becomes abandoned: by servants, friends, cops. Vincent stays. Does Jessie have somewhere she can go? Not really. A friend in Canada, she says. Are people still trying to attack her? Why? Denis is called in as backup. Can he be trusted?
That’s what I loved about this movie—the constant questioning against a genuinely thrilling backdrop. It’s a star movie—Schoenaerts and Kruger shine. There’s an early scene, where Vincent is riding a bus, lost in thought, then wakes up and realizes where he is—past his stop. Just that, but Schoenaerts does it so well. He’s the real deal. If we didn’t already know that from “Bullhead,” “Rust and Bone” and “The Drop.”
Lady or tiger?
The ending is ambiguous, too: a kind of lady-or-the-tiger ending.
In the final assault—and we never find out who’s assaulting the home, or why—Vincent lives up to the job description: He saves Jessie, Ali, even Denis. But he can’t stop. He slams an attacker's head against an unbreakable glass table until it’s basically mush. Jessie sees this, and he sees she sees. He had planned on going with them all the way to Canada (to protect, to be husband and father?) but here seems to realize it wouldn't work. He’s gruff with the boy, charmless with Jessie. He’s only needed when things go wrong. He asks Denis to take them to the airport.
But then Jessie returns, puts her arms around him, says his name. Screen goes dark. Directed by.
It’s the tiger. To me, the embrace is in his mind. More, it’s his raison d’etre, the reason he’s done all of this. For her. As if we didn’t know that already. I mean, just look at her.
Monday May 30, 2016
Movie Review: The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015)
“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is a solid-enough historical drama, with a meaty, central performance by Burghart Klaussner. It sheds some light on: the capture of Adolf Eichmann; the prevalence of Nazis in prominent roles in postwar West Germany; the politics of the Cold War. It makes Mossad seem slightly ineffectual. We learn—or I learned anyway—about the title character, the Jewish district attorney of Hessen in Frankfurt during the 1950s and ’60s, who was instrumental in bringing about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65.
But it’s too neat. It feels like writer-director Lars Kraume bends history to fit a cleaner, less-interesting narrative.
And what’s with the casting? The role of a male transvestite is played by a woman: Lilith Stangenberg. So certain segments of the audience don’t get squeamish during love scenes? Aren’t we honoring a homosexual hero here?
The question the movie turns on
Bauer is that hero, and for a time his homosexuality, all but repressed, is seen by his enemies as a way to bring him down; but ultimately it may be his zealousness in pursuit of justice.
Early on, via letter from Argentina, Bauer finds out where Adolf Eichmann is hiding, and he wants to extradite him and put him on trial in Germany. He wants to force Germany to confront its past. The problem: Who does he share this information with? “No one, from Bonn to Washington, wants Eichmann on trial,” Bauer tells Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld of “Phoenix”), his one loyal assistant. “My own agency is enemy territory.
So he goes to Israel/Mossad. Two problems: 1) sharing intel with a foreign government is a treasonous offense; and 2) Mossad hears the intel and shrugs. Like Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men,” they want a second source, and they leave that up to Bauer. (He finds it in an interesting place: the HR department at Mercedes-Benz.)
Both friends and enemies accuse Bauer of being obsessed with Eichmann but it’s a shame the movie isn’t similarly obsessed. Instead, we keep meandering into the Angermann subplot: the slow revelation that he’s gay; testing the waters in the transvestite bar; the beginning of something with Victoria (Stangenberg), then being traduced to the authorities. Bauer’s enemies, Paul Gebhardt and Ulrich Kreidler, both ex-SS, strike a deal with Angermann: Give them proof that Bauer is working with Mossad and Angermann’s crime, his career-ending scandal, will go away.
That’s what the movie turns on: this question. Earlier, Bauer told Angermann his own tale of capitulating to power. In 1920, Bauer, only 17, became the youngest district judge in 1920, and by 1933 he and Kurt Schumacher were leaders of the Social Democratic Party; but a May general strike against the Nazis went nowhere and they were put into a concentration camp, where Schumacher remained for the entirety of the war. Bauer got out in 1933. He wrote something nice about the Nazis in the paper, fled to Denmark, then Sweden. His capitulation spared him the Holocaust but it gnawed at him. In the movie he says it’s the great embarrassment of his life.
Angermann avoids that embarrassment by turning himself in. But we don’t see the consequences of that act of courage, just the act, which makes the courage seem easy. It makes you wonder why more people don’t have such courage, and I would argue that, per Frederick in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” that’s the wrong question. The better question is: The few who have it, how do they have it? A good discussion on this topic can be found in Eyal Press’ 2012 book “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times.” Essentially Press argues that’s it’s often conservatives who believe in the original system who stand up to power, rather than rebels. It’s people who believe in the myth rather than cynics who know the shitty way the world runs.
Losing by winning
Anyway, Mossad gets Eichmann (as we know), Germany refuses to extradite him so he goes on trial in Israel (as we know), and Bauer, fired up again by Angermann’s loyalty and bravery, becomes more determined to put Germany on trial. We hear about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in an afterword, yet that business seems more interesting than what we’ve just watched—particularly since Bauer wasn’t happy with its outcome. He said the trials supported the “wishful fantasy that there were only a few people with responsibility ... and the rest were merely terrorized, violated hangers-on, compelled to do things completely contrary to their true nature.”
This movie, nominated for five German Film Awards, ends with a fierce determination to exact justice; the reality is messier and more interesting. A movie in which Bauer lost by winning might’ve resonated.
Saturday May 28, 2016
Movie Review: Ma Ma (2015)
I’m having trouble articulating the utter absurdity of Julio Medem’s “Ma Ma,” starring Penelope Cruz: its icky mix of tragedy and wish-fulfillment fantasy; the glory of Woman as life hands her lemons from which she makes a lemon-scented cathedral.
Bear with me. And remember: I’m just the messenger here.
What Magda wants
As the movie opens, Magda (Cruz), whose husband has just left her for one of his philosophy students, is told by her handsome, friendly, singing gynecologist, Julian (Asier Etxeqneia), that she has stage-3 breast cancer in one breast. She will lose it. There will be chemo. She will lose her hair. Deep breath.
Immediately afterwards, at her son’s futbol game, she meets Arturo (Luis Tosar), a bald, bearded, bushy-eyebrowed scout for Real Madrid, who, as he’s praising her son’s futbol skills, receives a phone call that there was a car accident and his daughter is dead and his wife in a coma. He faints. Magda to the rescue! She gets him to the hospital, then visits him daily after her own chemotherapy treatments. He’s forever collapsing, she’s forever strong. Eventually she loses her hair and her breast, he loses his wife, then she and he, with her son, Dani (Teo Planell), travel to the coast for a vacation, where he and she, on the second day, kiss on the beach.
Cut to: the following January. By now she’s married to Arturo and her hair has grown back into a cute pixie cut, though Penelope—sorry, Magda—keeps covering it with an awful wig. Girls. Plus she and Arturo haven’t had sex yet; he has trouble getting it up. Plus, though Dani likes Arturo, he’s acting weird around her, because of the breast thing.
She mentions all of this in passing to Julian at a follow-up appointment, during which he finds, oops, more cancer, stage 4 now and incurable. He gives her six months to live.
So she sues the quack for a million euros.
Kidding. She quietly informs Arturo that she’s going to die, then quietly demands they have sex on the couch. Somehow the added pressure, not to mention tragic circumstances, helps. The deed is done, and shortly thereafter, hey, she’s going to have a baby.
Sadly, the baby dies in utero when she dies of cancer after five months. It’s quite gruesome.
Kidding. The ever-upbeat Magda just wants three things from the rest of her days:
- a girl
- to live long enough to give birth to this girl
- no, to live long enough to hold this girl in her arms
Guess which one of those things doesn’t happen? Right: None of them.
Wait, I didn’t even get into the Natasha thing, did I? Oh god.
OK, so the movie actually opens on a frozen tundra, where, during the credit sequence, a small blonde girl, 5 maybe, slowly makes her impassive, dead-eyed way toward the camera. Later we see a framed photo of this girl on Julian’s desk. His daughter? No. It’s the girl that Julian and his wife are thinking about adopting from Siberia. Magda encourages it because she says yes to life. But Julian eventually says no to his wife and the girl. So the girl stays in Siberia yet remains in the picture because Magda keeps imagining her in everyday situations. Dani is in the backseat talking futbol, and there’s the impassive blonde girl next to him. They’re all frolicking in the ocean, and there’s the dead-eyed blonde girl swimming around them. It’s super creepy but I don’t know if the movie recognizes it as super creepy. I think the movie sees it as somehow beautiful. More of Magda’s great yesness.
Nothing else happens with Natasha, by the way. Magda just keeps imagining her, then names her own daughter “Natasha” in her honor, but for all we know the real Natasha remains parentless and frozen, not to mention dead-eyed, in Siberia. Sorry, kid.
The movie does one thing I like. At different times, it shows us a close-up of Magda’s heart pumping away. Like during the first kiss with Arturo, it thumps harder. And during the first (and only?) sex with Arturo, it thumps really hard. Then at the end, after the baby is delivered via cesarean section, it thumps steady as we hear mother being united with daughter. Then it slows. Then it stops. Then the screen goes dark.
“Well,” I thought. “Nice ending anyway.”
Except the movie doesn’t end there. It gives us an overhead shot of the now-dead Magda staring straight into the camera with the mastectomy scar on her right side and the newborn baby quivering in her left arm.
And that’s not the end of it, either. We get an epilogue, maybe four months later, in which the three men in Magda’s life, Dani, Arturo, and Julian, the handsome, singing, housecall-making gynecologist quack, gather around the baby, feed it a bottle, and sing the song Julian sang to Magda at the beach, something like “Eso es vivir,” which lists off all the things life is about. It’s “Three Men and a Baby.” It’s all the life that the upbeat death of Magda has created. More, because Magda has told Dani that the soul is eternal, and that after she dies she’ll stay near him, he thinks the baby is Magda reincarnated. And he calls the baby “Mama.”
That’s some fucked-up shit right there.
People keep calling this movie “inspiring” but for me it just inspired an urge to run out of the theater. Screaming.
Thursday April 28, 2016
Movie Review: Concussion (2015)
There’s a good story here but this isn’t it.
A man of science discovers something horrible about a powerful American business and tries to push past PR and corporate lawyers to get word out. In the process he’s harassed, belittled, besmirched. He’s an ordinary man under extraordinary pressure, but ultimately, through perseverance, and sacrifice, and the good works of a few others, the word gets out. And the world changes a little for the better.
That’s a good story. It’s “The Insider,” after all. So why doesn’t it work here?
It should actually work better here, since, in “The Insider,” Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) battles Big Tobacco, an institution many rely upon but nobody loves. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is going up against football. He’s a foreigner telling America that their favorite sport is killing their favorite sons—and maybe their own sons. He’s going up against a corporation that “owns a day of the week,” as his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), tells him. He should have half the country against him. He should have every goombah on every street corner getting in his face. He, and we, should feel immense pressure.
Nope. The movie blows it from the beginning.
Seven degrees of Will Smith
We’re introduced to Dr. Omalu when he’s an expert witness in a nondescript trial and he’s asked to state his credentials. First, he mentions a degree from Nigeria. Suspect, right? Like an email from a Nigerian prince. But then he mentions another degree, and another, each more impressive than the last. Many are from America, one is from the UK. He has to keep interrupting the (opposing?) counsel to, in effect, toot his own horn. Then he looks at the jury with a self-satisfied smile.
Wow, is that wrong. Have him be slightly embarrassed at least. Or have someone else mention the degrees. It’s such a tone-deaf scene that our hero, who is supposed to be modest and circumspect, comes off as annoying.
Omalu makes his living as a quirky Pittsburgh coroner who listens to R&B while dissecting the dead; he talks to the dead to find out their secrets. He’s got the respect of the head of the department, Dr. Wecht, but not so much from his immediate superior, Sullivan (Mike O’Malley), who fumes meaninglessly on the sidelines. Is Sullivan racist? Just an asshole? Who knows? He’s a straw man.
Then one of Pittsburgh’s favorite sons, former Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse wearing a Frankenstein forehead), winds up on Omalu’s table after killing himself at the age of 50, and Omalu, through extensive research, including using $20,000 of his own money for tests, discovers a new form of brain trauma. He names it “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” or CTE, and his findings are subsequently published in a medical journal. That’s when the harassment from the NFL begins.
How is this harassment dramatized? Well, Omalu gets a few angry phone calls. He’s yelled at by an NFL official. His wife, Prema (the impossibly beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw), pregnant with his child, is followed in her car—maybe—and then has a miscarriage. The harassment should be menacing, all-encompassing, but it feels like wisps of nothing.
Mostly, the NFL just doesn’t listen to him. This exchange is indicative:
Wecht: Did you think the NFL would thank you?
Wecht: What for?
Omalu: For knowing.
I like that, but it’s not exactly dramatic. In “The Insider,” Wigand actually suffered. He lost his job, his wife, his home, his self-esteem. The FBI harasses him. His journalistic counterpart, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), wonders over this. He makes accusations in the form of questions—maybe Brown & Williamson has former agents on its payroll, and maybe current agents have been promised cushy jobs, and maybe he should start investigating—and he gets them to back off. Here, the FBI harasses ... Dr. Wecht. They indict him on 84 counts. A title card at the end tells us he was ultimately exonerated but ... did he do it? Is it bullshit? Is Omalu so clean they can’t touch him?
Seriously, if the government is in cahoots with the NFL, as implied, why doesn’t immigration go after him? He’s not even a citizen until 2015. Instead, he and his impossibly beautiful wife simply leave Pittsburgh for So Cal—but not before the well-mannered Omalu takes an axe to a wall at his home in frustration. And in poignant slow-motion.
Are you ready for some football?
Is writer-director Peter Landesman (the underrated “Parkland”) not director enough for this? Is Smith not actor enough? Did Sony’s corporate hand get too involved?
I liked the scene at the University of Pittsburgh where Dr. Steve DeKosky (excellent cameo by Eddie Marsan) realizes the validity of Omalu’s findings—and their repercussions. I liked Brooks throughout. I liked looking at Mbatha-Raw.
But the movie is heavy-handed in all the wrong places, and goes out of its way not to alienate football fans and the NFL. Every other character has to talk about how beautiful football is. Every other scene contains some take on America—mostly how great we are. The story is about a horrifying way that American football and American business is fucked up, and the movie keeps patting these villains on the back.
Friday April 01, 2016
Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 (2015)
And so it ends with a whimper. Mine.
Yes, we’re finally done with this thing that began four years ago, when we were all so much younger and smarter. Now we can step back and see the glorious arc that is “The Hunger Games” tetralogy:
- Part 1: Katniss becomes reluctant hero.
- Part 2: Katniss becomes reluctant symbol.
- Part 3: Katniss becomes reluctant soldier.
- Part 4: Katniss reluctantly chooses which boy she loves during a revolution.
Did anyone else think about Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” watching this? In “Sleeper,” Woody wakes up in the future, becomes part of a rebellion, led by Erno, against the tyrannical “Leader,” who—Woody finds out—has been completely destroyed save for his nose, which the Powers That Be are saving for a cloning experiment. Woody steals the nose and gets away with the girl, Diane Keaton, who still believes in Erno’s rebellion. At the end, Woody tells her: “Don’t you understand—in six months we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose!”
Erno here is Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of the rebellion, which is being orchestrated by former “Hunger Games” showrunner Plutarch Heavensbee. Since Plutarch is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died two years ago, he can only do so much in this movie. That said, Hoffman dead is still a better actor than Liam Hemsworth alive.
So: Revolution at hand, Coin sends Katniss into the Capitol with a team of favorite TV show characters:
- Remy Danton, “House of Cards”
- Margaery Tyrell, “Game of Thrones”
- Foggy Nelson, “Daredevil”
- Dr. Valentin Narciss, “Boardwalk Empire,” et al.
- Ro Laren, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” et al. (I've missed you)
Plus the two boys she must choose between: Thor’s brother, Gale, who is tall, handsome and dull; and little Peeta, who is forever in need of saving, and who has been brainwashed by the government and now wants to kill Katniss. What’s a girl to do?
Their mission? To film heroics that will incite the masses. It’s also implied that Coin actually wants Katniss dead. One less obstacle to power, she supposes.
The team journeys across empty cityscapes, outraces a flood of oil (don’t ask), are assumed dead, aren’t, hide underground, are attacked by slimy creatures, and in the end Katniss and Gale wear hoodies and join the Capitol folks in the long walkup to the presidential palace, where the evil Pres. Snow (Donald Sutherland, the best thing in the series) is encouraging everyone to gather. Then bombs fall and many people die, including Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields), who is the reason Katniss sacrificed everything in the first place. The bombs are blamed on Pres. Snow but we find out, bit by bit, that the rebellion did it. It was Coin, who declares herself interim president, sets up a “Hunger Games” for the Capitol’s children, and lets Katniss kill Snow in the public square with bow and arrow. She introduces her, standing on a platform 100 feet behind Snow, right in the line of fire.
You see where this is going, right? Katniss steals Erno’s nose. The mob then kills Snow on its own.
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1” is not all horrible. Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair is good, but he dies in the tunnels (shame), while Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson, also interesting, aren’t given enough to do (again). I love it when Snow is giving a speech but his broadcast is usurped by Pres. Coin—a sign of her power—and she quotes Snow on Katniss: “A face 'picked from the masses' he called her,” she says. “Plucked,” he corrects, if only to himself.
Another good bit: As Peeta recovers, he keeps asking Katniss what’s real/not real. I.e., what truly happened to him and or what was he programmed to believe happened? She keeps telling him: real/not real. Then after all the shit goes down, and Gale reveals himself to be a simple-minded soldier (or something), Katniss winds back in District Whatever with Peeta, and then in bed with Peeta; and since he's a sensitive sort, we get this exchange:
Peeta: You love me: Real or not real?
Katniss: [Pause] Real.
Hey, that's actually a nice ending!
Except it fades back in. Idiots. We fast-forward several years to when Peeta and Katniss have two kids and play with them outdoors. He’s by a stream, she’s under a tree. She looks even more distant than before, less “there.” I guess it’s supposed to be peaceful? She says some unnecessary lines in voiceover. Then “The Hunger Games,” which grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide, finally, mercifully, joins the ranks of The Fallen.
Wednesday February 17, 2016
Movie Review: 45 Years (2015)
On the Monday morning before her 45th wedding anniversary, which will be celebrated with friends on Saturday, Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) goes for a walk in the flat fields of the English countryside with her dog Max, says hello to the postman, a former student, then greets her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), still unshaven and in his bathrobe, in the kitchen. One of the letters in her hand is for him. The contents of it will affect the next five days, and taint their previous 45 years.
“They found her,” he says.
From the trailer I thought the missing person was their daughter, but it’s Katya, his first love. In 1962, he’d been hiking with her in the Swiss Alps when she’d fallen into a fissure. Thanks to global warming, the glacier melted enough that her body, perfectly preserved, was visible if unreachable. It’s a good metaphor for first loves—preserved in ice, irretrievable—and in her late 70s Kate suddenly finds herself competing with a woman 50 years younger; with all of that cold perfection.
Variations in e minor
Their relationship changes subtly and immediately. Geoff tries to probe the depths of his feelings in solitude, which causes Kate to try to get closer. Biscuits in the backyard? Tea? Camera placement highlights this. In the frame, we often see her face, not his. Sometimes we don’t see him at all, as if he isn’t there anymore. In a way, he’s not. He’s visiting the attic in the middle of the night, going into town, mumbling to himself on park benches. Is he returning to Switzerland to see her body? He would like to, but at his age he can’t climb that mountain anymore. Another good metaphor for the past. So he stays where he is; but a fissure develops.
Like themes in a song, we keep getting variations on that awful moment in 1962. Geoff tells Kate he’d hired a guide, a German, who’d fancied himself a Jack Kerouac type. (Kate laughs, knowing how much Geoff dislikes Kerouac—which makes me like Geoff all the more.) Katya spoke German, too, Geoff no, so you get a sense of Geoff being left behind. He allowed himself to be left behind, literally; the other two hiked ahead. He talks about hearing Katya laugh, and how, in his jealousy, he hated her in that moment. Then he heard her cry out as she fell.
What Kate doesn’t explore (the movie either) is how much guilt Geoff must feel about all of this. If he hadn’t been sulking, he would’ve been walking with them; and if he’d been walking with them, would she have died? Is that what he’s doing on the park bench? Arguing against Katya? Kerouac? Himself?
A few days later, we get another variation when Geoff is in town and Kate ascends into the attic. I like how her dog Max whimpers as she prepares to go up, as if he knows there’s danger there, as if he knows this is not regular behavior. He knows the man goes up the ladder, not the woman. But up she goes, into his past. I also like how, in the opening credits, white type against a black screen, we hear a whirring and a clicking. I thought, “Slides?” Yes. After going through his old notebook, its pages mottled and thickened by age, she views the slides he’s been viewing. It’s a great, silent scene: the blurred images of Katya on the right side of the screen, with Kate on the left, in focus, and hardening. She and Geoff have very few photos of themselves—her call—and no kids. Now she discovers Geoff has all of these photos of Katya, perfectly preserved; and in the slides, it’s obvious that Katya was pregnant when she died. So it’s not just his old love that’s forever frozen in the Alps but his unborn child. The slides contain the beginning of a life he tragically didn’t lead. Which makes Kate what? The life he tragically did?
(The pregnancy revelation does raise questions. Why were they hiking in the mountains if she was pregnant? And why the jealousy? Would Kerouac really have come on to a pregnant woman? Would Geoff really have been so jealous? Pregnancy is a different dynamic—woman as mother rather than sex object—so skews things a bit, even as it deepens them.)
More things in their careful world are changing. Each day, the first thing we first see is Kate walking the fields with Max. But by Thursday, no, and Friday she wakes to a note next to her: “I’ve taken the bus into town. Sorry.” Saturday, the day of their anniversary celebration, Geoff wakes her up with tea and breakfast. Now he’s the one trying to get close again—like biscuits in the backyard—and later we get an interlude. She’s digging in the garage and comes across some J.S. Bach sheet music. “Found it!” she calls out. Then she goes into the living room and plays it. But in the entire scene, we never see or hear Geoff. She’s calling out to no one, playing for no one.
How I knew
The Bach is an anomaly. The music we get for most of the movie, and which plays at their anniversary celebration, is ’60s pop. It’s “true love” music: “The only one for me is you/And you for me/So happy together,” etc. That night, in fact, they dance to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by the Platters, which is about as lush and romantic a pop song as there is:
They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied
Something here inside
Cannot be denied
But it’s the opposite of romantic here. By now Kate knows, or feels, that she’s not the true love of the song, so she hardens and stiffens in Geoff’s arms, even as he (compensating?) gets looser, loopier. You could say she’s dancing to some other woman’s song on some other woman’s anniversary. Because 45 years? Who does a black-tie celebration for that? That’s why the title of the movie is so perfect. The big one is the 50th, and that’s Katya’s. It’s been 50 years since she died. Is nothing Kate’s? Even their names: “Katya” is exotic, romantic; “Kate,” in comparison, can’t help but sound quotidian. It doesn't compare.
For all of the movie’s quiet power, though, I found myself disappointed in Kate. Almost everyone has their (albeit less tragic) past love, their Katya on ice, and part of aging, part of wisdom, is to accept that, and them. It’s to not buy into the bullshit of the pop song. Charlotte Rampling usually plays smarter, more wordly women.
Even so, “45 Years,” written and directed by Andrew Haigh (HBO’s “Looking”), from a short story by David Constantine, is the epitome of the quiet-but-powerful movie. It’s about what ties us to the past, and what divides us in the present. It’s the unknowability of the heart, and of the other person. It’s the misstep that isn’t righted.
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