Movie Reviews - 2017 posts
Wednesday April 15, 2020
Movie Review: Spielberg (2017)
Has anyone ever disparaged something as “So-and-So ’s Folly” and been right? The infamous historical example is the 1867 purchase of Alaska by Secretary of State William H. Seward, dubbed “Seward’s Folly,” when, in terms of cost (2 cents an acre), resources (oil, etc.), and global strategy (imagine the Cold War with Russia owning Alaska), it was anything but. It was the best thing Seward did. It was a better thing than his detractors ever did.
Then there's “Hammond's Folly.” In 1960, legendary Colubmbia Records talent scout John Hammond agreed to record a young folksinger, whose first album sold only 5,000 copies. The folksinger was dubbed “Hammond's Folly.” The folksinger was Bob Dylan.
“Sheinberg’s Folly“ is similar. Sid Sheinberg was the head of Universal Television in the late 1960s when he saw a short film called “Amblin” and thought the 20-year-old director had talent. He signed him to a 7-year contract and put him to work, directing episodes of “Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law,” “Marcus Welby,” “Columbo,” “Savage,” etc. At 20, he even directed movie legend Joan Crawford in an episode of “Night Gallery.” But many in the industry thought he was a novelty. They dubbed him “Sheinberg’s Folly.”
You already know the punchline. “Sheinberg’s Folly” was Steven Spielberg, the most successful director in movie history.
Sheinberg, by the way, seems like a mensch. “If you come with us,” he told young Steven, “I will support you as strongly in failure as in success.” Spielberg adds: “And he was true to his word.” (Although how much failure did Steven have?) He’s also the guy who sent the 1982 book “Schindler’s Ark,” along with its glowing New York Times review, to Spielberg, telling him he should make it into a movie. Me, watching: Was Sheinberg ever wrong? Maybe we should get a documentary on him.
The main lesson here is you should probably think twice before dubbing anything anyone's folly.
I don’t think Susan Lacy’s documentary calls Spielberg the most successful director in movie history, as I just did, but it’s not even a contest. If you adjust for inflation—meaning asses in seats—no one compares. He has two movies in the all-time top 10 (“E.T.” and “Jaws”) and no one else has more than one. He has three movies in the top 20 (add “Jurassic Park”) and no one else has more than two. He has four movies in the top 25 (add “Raiders”) and no one still has more than two. He tapped into us. He knew what we wanted.
Maybe because we were what he wanted?
Spielberg was a Jewish kid in gentile Phoenix, Arizona, who just wanted to fit in. “Steve did not want to be Jewish,” his sister Anne says, “because it made us too different from everybody. And the ‘Father Knows Best’ family is an assimilated family. And I think he really yearned for that.”
Did he yearn for it so much he wound up creating it on film? Or creating what he thought we might like? As the outsider, he’d studied us more than we’d studied ourselves. Maybe that’s why he nailed it almost every time.
He was a nerd, uninterested in sports, and bullied, but he found respite in filmmaking. Key quote:
The second I finished a movie, I wanted to start a new one. Because I felt good about myself when I was making a film. But when I had too much time to think, all those scary whispers would start up.
What’s your follow-up to that? I have half a dozen. Spielberg says this at 70, so I’m curious if it was still true. If not, when did it stop being true? What were the scary whispers and did they change over the years? But no follow-ups here. Or maybe the follow-ups went nowhere and were cut? You never know. That happens a lot.
That said, I kept wanting the doc to dig deeper or connect dots. His scientist father was often absent, his free-spirit mother was more like a sibling, and his siblings were all girls. So what effect did the absence of men or authority figures have?
How old was he when his parents divorced? No idea. They split because his mother fell in love with the father’s best friend, but for years the father took the blame. Steven didn’t know the full story until he was an adult. Compare his early strong single moms—Melinda Dillon in “Close Encounters,” Dee Wallace in “E.T.”—with the single father saving his kids from an alien attack in “War of the Worlds” or the father pining for his wayward wife in “Catch Me If You Can.” It’s an old story: sensitive boys sympathizing with their mothers and as adults identifying with their fathers.
Eventually, of course, the Jewish kid who escaped into fantasy fled to the fantasyland that other Jews created in Hollywood. The legend is he took a Universal tour bus, left to go to the bathroom, waited until the bus left, then wandered around the lot. How did he stay? How did he not get tossed?
The first time he felt like an insider, he says, is when he became friends with the other, eventual, most-respected directors of the era—Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Brian DePalma—but even here he was kind of the outsider in the group. It sounds like George hung more with Francis, Marty with Brian. The Zoetrope boys were long-haired rebels, taking on the system. Not Steven. “Steven was always a creature of the studio,” Francis says. “And his thinking and his methodology went that direction. And he became a master of it.”
Has a doc been made about these five? That’s an insanely talented group. I get a little Lennon-McCartney vibe here. They relied on each other, yes, but also one-upped each other. In the early ’70s it was all Francis: “Godfather,” “The Conversation,” “Godfather II,” Marty made “Mean Streets” (critically acclaimed) while George did “American Graffiti” (critically acclaimed and hugely popular). In’75, Steven changed Hollywood entirely with “Jaws (popular/critical) and two years later George one-upped him with “Star Wars.” It was never the same after that. By the end of the decade, the center couldn’t hold. Francis and Marty were making serious art (“Apocalypse Now” and “Raging Bull”) while George and Steven were busy updating another genre of Saturday afternoon kids serials: “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Was George more kid than Steven? Spielberg’s first two huge hits—“Jaws” and “Close Encounters”—are actually fairly adult films. There’s a complexity in each. We get politics (beyond imperial senates) and family strife (beyond wanting to go into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters). Then Steven bombed with “1941” and was depressed for a year until George pulled him out of it by asking him to direct “Raiders.”
I like the talking heads on Spielberg’s gifts as a director.
- David Edelstein: Right off the bat, it was clear that no one moved the camera like Steven Spielberg. … Who knows where that came from?
- Martin Scorsese I: Steven’s able to walk into a room, look for a second or two, say, “Here. Move that here. Give me a 25mm here. Put it this way. Face forward. Move it. Silhouette here. Two takes, three takes, that’s enough, thanks.”
- Martin Scorsese II: His strength is really the ability to be able to tell a story, in pictures, instinctively. I sometimes watch his pictures on TV without the sound. Just to see pictures.
Not for nothing, but I could listen to Martin Scorsese talk about movies forever.
Maybe the most prescient take was Pauline Kael’s in her review of “Sugarland Express.” She said it was one of the most phenomenal debuts in the history of film, and compared his feel for the medium to Howard Hawks. She also wondered whether there was great depth to go with it.
And is there? The’80s is when his output became split between summer popcorn flicks (the three Indiana Jones movies) and adult-themed films (“The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Always”). He even divided his DPs accordingly: Douglas Slocombe for Indy, Allen Daviau for “E.T.,” “Color,” and “Empire.” But even his adult-themed movies weren’t that deep. Here’s Tom Stoppard, who wrote “Empire”:
For me, it ultimately shaded into an unnecessary softness or sentimentality. I don’t know where it comes from, but he likes and enjoys sentiment. It’s part of him.
Six times during his career—most successfully in 1993—Spielberg released two movies in the same calendar year: a popcorn flick in the summer and an adult-themed movie in the winter. It’s like a look into a bifurcated soul:
|1989||Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade||Always|
|1993||Jurassic Park||Schindler's List|
|1997||The Lost World: Jurassic Park||Amistad|
|2002||Minority Report||Catch Me If You Can|
|2005||War of the Worlds||Munich|
|2011||The Adventures of Tintin||War Horse|
Oddly, when he tried to combine them in “Hook,” he bombed. If there’s a movie that seems tailor-made for Spielberg, it’s the tale of the adult who forgot he was Peter Pan and then tapped into that boyish magic again. Instead, it’s a mess of a movie and garnered the lowest Rotten Tomatoes scores of any of his films. For the curious:
- lowest RT score: “Hook” (28%)
- lowest IMDb score: “1941” (5.8)
- lowest domestic box-office after he became big: “Empire of the Sun” ($22 million)
- lowest annual box-office ranking: “Munich” (62nd)
That last stat is both sad and amazing. It’s sad because “Munich” is so good—to me, his best this century. It’s amazing because, while it's his low point, most filmmakers would give their left one to have the 62nd-biggest movie of the year.
The amen corner
The documentary credits his second marriage to Kate Capshaw with his growth as an artist and his acceptance of his Jewishness. Again, not enough is done with this. It took a shiksa to help him embrace his heritage? Because she was embracing his? Assimilating into it? “Wait, I want to be you, but—oh, you want to be me? OK.”
Question: Did he grow as an artist? He keeps going historical anyway. He’s become like your dad watching the History Channel. He’s given us World War II from the perspective of: a kid in the Japanese camps; Jews in a Polish ghetto/concentration camp; Americans on D-Day. He’s delved into the U.S. Civil War (“Lincoln”), World War I (“War Horse”), the Cold War (“Bridge of Spies”), the War on Terror (“Munich”), the war against the press (“The Post”). His popcorn movies, meanwhile, have gotten darker and more dystopian: “A.I.,” “Minority Report,” “War of the Worlds,” “Ready Player One.” But there’s still a love of sentiment in all of this. Even in the best of his 21st-century output, “Munich,” he lingers on the World Trade Center in a way he didn’t need to; he still thinks he needs to hold our hand.
How many movies set in the future has Spielberg made? Probably fewer than you think. At the least, it’s fewer than I thought—just three: “A.I.,” “Minority Report,” and “Ready Player One.” None are very good. All are dystopian. I don’t think he’s made for dystopias.
You know what he’s made for? Movies set in contemporary times in which ordinary people confront the extraordinary. Sometimes that extraordinary is benevolent (“Close Encounters,” “E.T.”); sometimes not (“Jaws,” “Jurassic Park”). But the ordinary people need to be amazed by what they see. As we are. We are them.
I enjoyed this doc. I’ve seen it twice now. It’s in his corner a little too much but how can you blame them? It’s a helluva corner.
|YEAR||MOVIE||IMDb||RT%||Dom BO||Ann Rnk|
|1974||The Sugarland Express||6.8||n/a||$7||n/a|
|1977||Close Encounters of the Third Kind||7.6||95%||$135||3|
|1981||Raiders of the Lost Ark||8.4||95%||$248||1|
|1982||E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial||7.8*||98%||$435||1|
|1984||Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom||7.6||85%||$180||3|
|1985||The Color Purple||7.8||81%||$98||4|
|1987||Empire of the Sun||7.8||76%||$22||53|
|1989||Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade||8.2||88%||$197||2|
|1997||The Lost World: Jurassic Park||6.6||52%||$229||3|
|1998||Saving Private Ryan||8.6||93%||$217||1 **|
|2001||A.I. Artificial Intelligence||7.2||74%||$79||28|
|2002||Catch Me If You Can||8.1||96%||$165||11|
|2005||War of the Worlds||6.5||75%||$234||4|
|2008||Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull||6.1||78%||$317||3 ***|
|2011||The Adventures of Tintin||7.3||74%||$78||44|
|2015||Bridge of Spies||7.6||91%||$72||42|
|2018||Ready Player One||7.5||72%||$138||24|
* I don't get the IMDb rating for ”E.T.“ IMDb users rank it eighth among Spielberg's feature films. It's way behind ”Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,“ for example. I thought it was more beloved than that? Interestingly, if you drill down, the lowest rating comes from 18-29 year-old females (7.6) and the highest comes from 45+ females (8.3).
** ”Saving Private Ryan“ is the fifth and last Spielberg movie to be the biggest box-office hit of the year. The others: ”Jaws,“ ”Raiders,“ ”E.T.“ and ”Jurassic Park.“ Has any other director come close to this? Cameron's got three, Lucas three.
*** Spielberg has had 14 movies rank among the 10 biggest box-office hits of the year, and his last ”Indiana Jones" movie was the last time that happened. If you break it down by decade, it goes: two in the 1970s, five in the 1980s, five in the 1990s, and two in the 2000s. The 2010s is the first decade where this never happened.
Tuesday January 15, 2019
Movie Review: Borg vs. McEnroe (2017)
Turns out some of my 1970s heroes were the opposite of what I thought they were.
Back then, Steve Martin seemed the hippest host of the hippest show on television; but then you read his autobiography, “Born Standing Up,” and realize what an absolute square he was. He was such a square that while others were marching for civil rights, or against the war in Vietnam, he was doing magic tricks at Knotts Berry Farm. That’s like writing online movie reviews during the Trump era.
And if there was anything we knew about five-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg, it was this: He was emotionless. Borg’s smiling face appeared on the cover of Time magazine in June 1980, and I remember adults commenting on how odd it looked. Borg didn’t smile. He was a tennis machine. He was an ice machine.
Not so much, it turns out.
Did anyone else think of “The Natural? At the end of that movie, Roy Hobbs, an old, hobbled man of 39, fresh from the hospital, faces a blonde-haired, strong-armed boy from the farmland. He faces his younger self, in other words. In a perverse way, that’s Borg here. The revelation—both in “Borg vs. McEnroe” and the excellent HBO documentary “Fire and Ice”—is that as a very young man Borg wasn’t ice; he was fire. He was so passionate, so determined to win, he kept running into trouble. To succeed in Sweden, he had to learn to subsume his rage. And he did. Maybe if he’d grown up on Long Island, like McEnroe, he could’ve let loose.
Did anyone else think of Philip Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson”? In that novel, Roth’s doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, is a huge success, a literary lion, but he’s also just received a deathbed curse from his father and can’t write anymore. He has constant backpain—perhaps psychosomatic—and dreams of going to med school and becoming the nice Jewish doctor every parent wants. At the least, he wants a different job. At most, he wants to be a different person.
That’s Borg as the movie starts. Early on, we see him duck into a café in France to avoid fans. The man running the place doesn’t recognize him, which, given his celebrity status, not to mention his distinctive, iconic look—long hair, headband, eyes close together—was like not recognizing Ali in his prime. But it’s a relief for Borg. Hanging in the café, he pretends to be an electrician named Rune. He pretends to be his father. Anything other than being himself.
Borg, here, is not too cold; he’s too hot. The superstitions of sports fans are nothing next to him. Wade Boggs (eating chicken every lunch for 20 years because the first time he did it he went 4-4) is a piker in comparison. Borg has to do everything the same way: stay at the same hotel, ride in the same car, and on the same side, eat the same foods. All of that was necessary to get him to the top and so he has to keep doing it. Because the only place he can go from there is down. And that’s death. What does his coach, Lenert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), say? It’s first or nothing for him. Second or third might as well be 1,000th. “When he starts losing,” Bergelin says, “it’s over.”
Excellent casting, by the way. Sverrir Gudnason is Bjorn Borg’s physical doppelganger and Shia LaBeouf is John McEnroe’s temperamental one. In a way, LeBeouf’s is beyond typecasting. He’s like meta-typecasting. It would be a joke if it weren’t so perfect.
As doppelgangers go, Gudnason is slightly better looking than Borg and a whole lot older. He was about 39 when this was filmed. Whereas Borg in 1980—when most of this is set? After winning four straight Wimbledons and going for his fifth, and seeming like the grand old man of tennis? I was shocked when I found out. He’d just turned 24 years old. He won his first Wimbledon at 19 and his last at 24 and he retired at 26.
Anyway, that’s the dynamic. Each man isn’t quite who he seems to be on the court or in the press. McEnroe is studied and measured, Borg is seething behind his mask. He’s a bit of an asshole; he pushes everyone away. He mocks his coach. “What are you going to do—drone on about your lousy three quarter finals?” he says. Those were crowning achievements for Bergelin, but to Borg it’s not No. 1 so it might as well be nothing. “When did it stop being fun?” his girlfriend asks him. The movie, Swedish, makes McEnroe seem healthy in comparison.
They’re almost the same. They’re battling each other, sure, but they’re also battling us.
“Everyone acts like this is easy,” Borg complains privately. “You don’t understand what it takes to play tennis,” McEnroe says publicly.
Is this dynamic enough to sustain a feature-length film? Yes.
Did I want more? Yes.
Stockholm is closer to Minnesota than Long Island
I’d forgotten that McEnroe won the mythic 18-16 tie-breaking set. Borg was up two sets to one, and he had seven match points, and McEnroe beat back each one, and won the set, and forced the fifth. What I would’ve liked from the movie? A greater sense of how Borg culled up what reserves he had to win. How do you come back from that? How do you not tumble? He didn’t. Is it glorious—not tumbling—or is it part of the same psychosis? You can’t tumble because that’s death. He’s beating back death.
For what it’s worth, I was a Borg guy when all of this was going on; I hated McEnroe. I suppose I should’ve been rooting for the American, just on principle, but it wasn’t even a question. The way Borg did it, unsmiling and professional, is the way I thought you did it. It was Bud Grant and Harmon Killebrew. You didn’t celebrate when you hit a homerun or scored a touchdown, you just bowed your head and trotted the bases or back to the bench. You were almost embarrassed. In this way, Stockholm was closer to Minnesota than Long Island. Still is.
Borg won the 1980 battle but McEnroe won the war. The McEnroes of the world are everywhere now. What I thought was the norm is now a quaint anomaly. I miss it.
Saturday October 06, 2018
Movie Review: Hitler's Hollywood (2017)
What was cinema like under the Nazi regime, run by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels? And how did it differ from what Hollywood did and does?
You’ve already won me over. I’m there.
Sadly, I was frustrated throughout “Hitler’s Hollywood.” Writer-director Rüdiger Suchsland and narrator Udo Kier keep philosophizing unnecessarily rather than laying the groundwork and giving us context. It’s like a Nazi Film 101 class taught by a philosophy TA who insists on talking about his interpretations of the movies without actually teaching you the subject.
Death becomes them
Example: Kier must tell us a dozen times that Nazi cinema had a fascination with, and almost longing for, death. “A mythical yearning for death,” he says at one point. He says it’s tied to a Nazi regime that “did not celebrate life but a cult of death.”
The following narration, part of that discussion, comes about eight minutes into the nearly two-hour doc:
- “What is this German’s dream of death?” This German? The actress/character on screen? Or Germany generally? Wait, is this a mistranslation?
- “Nazi cinema seemed to be fascinated by death.” Yes, you’ve mentioned that.
- “Drowning in scenes of yearning for death.” OK.
- “It was in the glamorous mise-en-scene of death...” C’mon. Stop it.
- “... that cinema came close to the regime.” Yes, you’ve mentioned that.
- “Every death was a happy death in Nazi cinema.” Every death? It’s not even true among the scenes you’ve shown us.
- “Often absurdly kitsch.” [Sigh.]
- “What kind of nation was it that needs poets to be able to kill and to die?” What poets? Weren’t we just talking kitsch?
- “What is this German’s dream about?” This German again.
- “They clearly dreamed of ideals...” Ah, they. So “this German” is a mistranslation. Or something.
- “... of a safe family life, of unspoilt nature, of a sound home. Nazi cinema created an artificially perfect world: tradition and entertainment.” Aren’t artificially perfect worlds often what cinema is? Isn’t that MGM in the ’30s? So how did Nazi cinema differ?
- “What is striking about Nazi cinema....” Ah, here we go! Yes? Yes?
- “... is a total lack of irony.” Huh.
- “Instead there is a rather forced cheerfulness: that German laughter that the world was soon to fear. An era that in retrospect is not so amusing...” Nor at the time, Udo.
- “...appears in films as a time of constant, if rather strained, good humor.”
This is a particularly bumpy portion, but the narration throughout invariably confuses rather than enlightens. Might as well get Dieter from “Sprockets” to narrate.
The narration actually contradicts the title. It was Goebbels’ Hollywood. He approved everything, had sway and say over every aspect of every movie. Thus the dilemma for German filmmakers who weren’t fascists: “How do you smuggle in your message?” Or more bluntly: “Can you make something for this regime that doesn’t benefit the regime?” It’s a dilemma similar to what Hollywood filmmakers go through, but with much more at stake.
(BTW: I just laid out the dilemma more plainly than the doc does.)
At least the doc lays out the other aspect of the discussion:
According to [German film theorist Siegfried] Kracauer, cinema is a seismograph of its time, an indicator of the cultural subconscious of an era. Cinema knows something that we don’t know. It has an underlying meaning that can be exposed. If that is true, and we believe that it is, what does Nazi cinema reveal about the Third Reich and its people?
That’s asked about 15 minutes in. Then the doc goes about not answering the question. Unless the answer is the aforementioned: “death.” Or is deeper than that? Self immolation? And is the doc suggesting that Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union—surely his most self-destructive move—is an example of this? That the Nazis didn’t simply yearn to exterminate others but themselves, too? Is that their new mea culpa? “We‘re not that bad! We wanted to kill us, too!”
I still learned a few things. Before decamping to Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman made a German film, “Die vier Gesellen,” in 1938, about four female graphic designers trying to make it in the big city. It seems fairly innocuous but the German filmmakers are unforgiving:
Bergman later wanted to sweep this under the carpet. She said she declined an invitation to have tea with Goebbels. That was all she would say. Six years later, Bergman played an anti-Fascist in “Casablanca.” It was a sort of atonement.
The doc is even worse toward Douglas Sirk, whose real name, I learned, is Hans Detlef Sierck. Here’s what they say of him:
Having had a smooth ride for years in Nazi Cinema, he went on to shoot his melodramas in Hollywood.
That’s almost libel compared to Sirk's Wikipedia entry:
Sirk left Germany in 1937 because of his political leanings and his Jewish (second) wife, actress Hilde Jary. ...
His ex-wife joined the Nazi party and because of Sirk's re-marriage to a Jewish woman was able to legally bar him from seeing their son, who became one of the leading child actors of Nazi Germany. ... He died as a soldier [on the Soviet front] on 22 May 1944.
Some smooth ride.
The Wiki entry is actually what I wanted from the film. I.e., What happened to all of these German actors and directors? Did they survive the war? If so, how? If they were male, how did they not go to war? Veit Harlan, who directed the most anti-Semitic of the Nazi films, “Jud Suss,” also directed, in 1944/45, as the Third Reich was ending, “Kolberg,” about a German town’s refusal to capitulate to Napoleon’s army. The extras numbered in the thousands. How were these extras not at war? What battles behind the scenes—between Goebbels and who?—allowed them to remain in the movie?
Touch my monkey
The best thing you can say about “Hitler’s Hollywood” is that it’s an often tedious primer on German cinema of the era. But some of the images are indelible: the dance in “Paracelsus”; the Technicolor blonde in the white bathing suit riding a white horse in the surf in Harlan’s “The Great Sacrifice”; Baron Munchausen riding a cannonball through the air in Von Baky’s 1943 film. (Cf., American superheroes and rockets.) The doc also explains “Jud Suss” better than the doc on “Jud Suss.”
But I might’ve begun this way. It’s a passage from James Chapman’s book “Cinemas of the World”:
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
Begin there, then go to Kracauer. Ask: What does the escapist entertainment still reveal—about Germany, about Goebbels, about the Nazis? And what did anti-Nazi auteurs like Georg Wilhelm Pabst manage to smuggle through nonetheless?
Leave “Sprockets” at home.
Thursday July 26, 2018
Movie Review: Chasing the Dragon (2017)
The first fight fooled me into thinking this movie might be more than it is.
Early on, our four heroes—OK, one hero, Ho (Donnie Yen of “Ip Man”), and his three nondescript pals—newly and illegally arrived in Hong Kong from China in 1960, are talking about making money by fighting, so I assumed they meant a competition: rings, rules, etc. Ho would shine (he’s Ip Man, after all), and from there, who knows? But that’s all wrong. They’ve lent their services to a local gang, fighting another local gang, under the watchful eyes of corrupt police. In this free-for-all, Ho does shine, but not in the usual martial-arts movie manner. The movements aren’t crisp and super-choreographed; they’re messy and sloppy. It looks like a real fight.
That fact, plus the period nature of the piece—Hong Kong from roughly 1960 to 1974—made me think they (director Wong Jing, some mucky-muck in the Chinese film industry) wanted something more like a Scorsese picture rather than the typical Hong Kong actioner.
They didn't get it.
“Chasing the Dragon” (追龍) is the story of how a half-corrupt cop, Lui Lok or Lee Rock, (Andy Lau, reprising the role he played in the 1990s), and a halfway-decent crook (Ho), band together to “save” Hong Kong from more nefarious forces. It’s basically the rise and fall of a drug dealer.
Problems? Some of the film’s shorthand. We first see Ho being decent to a little girl, Alva, bringing her a bowl of congee; and though they owe their landlords money, he surreptitiously hands a nerdy kid a few bills for his tuition. See? He’s decent. The nerdlinger turns out to be his kid brother who gets hooked on the drugs Ho peddles, while the girl turns into a beauty whom Ho uses to infiltrate the police dept. She winds up dead, he winds up a vegetable.
The filmmakers also screw up the period nature. More oddly, they actually get it right except for our main characters. We see them arriving in Hong Kong—where, we’re told, everything was super-corrupt before 1974—so I assumed, based on their period hairstyles and the fact that Ho is smoking pot, that it was 1974. It’s not; it’s 1960.
Here’s how they look in 1960:
And here’s everyone else:
I hate this kind of thing. I wrote about it recently. Details matter. The hairstyles of 1974 are not interchangeable with the hairstyles of 1960. That change is in fact the story, and to ignore it, or get it wrong, is to fuck up the story.
In that opening brawl, Ho also knocks out a corrupt British cop, Hunt (Bryan Larkin), and nearly gets beaten to death in prison for it. Lee Rock saves him so the two have this bond. Later, Ho returns the favor and gets his kneecap bashed in; he winds up with a lifelong limp. We suspected this might happen because in the intro he calls himself “Crippled Ho,” which is the name he goes by for the second half of the film. The Chinese are nothing if not politically incorrect in this manner. See “Piggy” (Kent Cheng) and “Chubby” (Ben Ng). See screen legend Sammo Hung, who is still called “Fatty.”
As our heroes rise through the various layers of gangsters and corrupt cops, Rock becomes more cautious, Ho less so. He wants revenge: against the gangster who crippled him; against Hunt, who is generally awful and racist. The film wants revenge. It lays the blame for the corrupt situation at the feet of the British imperialists, even though the organization that helped clean up Hong Kong, the ICAC, or Independent Commission Against Corruption, was formed in February 1974 by the British governor. You almost want the movie to be about them. But such a movie might be less xenophobic, and xenophobia is the watchword of Chinese cinema now.
This movie meanders. We never really know who Ho is. He's just a series of gestures that don't add up to a complete character. We get moments of melodrama (the kid brother becoming a vegetable), moments of suspense (will Rock’s family make it out?), and a Han Soloish surprise return by Rock (to save Ho yet again). There’s a final rooftop confrontation between Ho and Hunt, but Rock intervenes. You think he’s talked him back from the ledge. But after the two heroes look into each other’s eyes, and Ho says “You’ve been a good brother,” he fires two shots back, without looking, and kills Hunt. That’s a good scene. Also handled well is Rock’s reaction. He sighs, takes his own gun, shoots himself in the shoulder, then wipes it clean and puts it in Hunt’s dead hand. The camera pulls back. The music wells. Then the movie reminds us one more time that all of this was all the result of British imperialism.
“Chasing the Dragon,” with its double meaning, is, I found out, a remake of the 1991 film “To Be Number One,” which was highly acclaimed: It won best picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards, beating out both “Once Upon a Time in China” and—interestingly— Andy Lau’s “Lee Rock,” about the character he plays here. Its Chinese name, by the way, isn’t “To Be Number One.” It’s 跛毫 or Bo hao: “Crippled Ho.”
This one was kind of acclaimed, too. It was nominated for six Hong Kong awards (including picture), and won two (cinematography, editing). But I’m surprised it got that far. It’s not that good.
Thursday July 05, 2018
Movie Review: Wajib (2017)
A father and his estranged son spend a day hand-delivering wedding invitations in present-day Nazareth and resurrect old wounds.
That’s about it. “Wajib” is faces and conversation and history. There’s humor, disgust, and love for one’s city and family and self. There’s politics. (There’s always politics.) It’s episodic. We watch two men doing the same thing over and over, and writer-director Annemarie Jacir (“When I Saw You”) has to advance the story through each of these episodes. It’s the kind of non-plot that should weary us as much as the repetition of the day wearies our protagonists.
I was rapt.
Talking of a different film, Jeffrey Wells recently wrote, “Plus the father-and-son roadtrip formula has been done to death.” Consider “Wajib” its resurrection.
My son, the doctor
How cool, by the way, that I could identify with part of it? After college graduation in the late 1980s, I lived for a year in Taiwan, and when I returned everyone kept asking me how I liked Thailand. I must’ve had this conversation a dozen times:
A: “How was Thailand?”
Me: “I was in Taiwan.”
A: “Oh? I thought you were in Thailand.”
Me: “No, I’m pretty sure it was Taiwan.”
That’s the experience of Shadi (Saleh Bakri), a tall, handsome 30ish architect who returns to Nazareth from living abroad to help with the wedding of his younger sister. As they make the rounds of extended family and friends, he’s constantly greeted with questions about how he likes America. “How’s America?” He corrects with a small smile: “Italy.” They also ask how his medical practice is going and when he’s returning to Nazareth—since they hear he’s thinking of coming back. “There’s some good hospitals here,” one man tells him helpfully. “I’m an architect,” Shadi explains helplessly.
Blame Dad for this latter confusion.
We first see Dad, Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri), waiting in the passenger’s side of a car and sneaking a cigarette as the day begins. He seems a go-along-to-get-along type. A scamp (with lion’s head) in winter.
The son is more militant. He eyes Israeli soldiers at a falafel shop and is living with the daughter of a PLO bigwig of the ’70s. At the same time, he views his homeland with an expatriate’s (and architect’s) eye. Doesn’t anyone pick up garbage? Why do people ruin their beautiful buildings with cheap blue tarps? His father calls him a snob—and he is—but he’s not wrong. There’s a ying-yang to it. He misses the warmth and the humus, but he doesn’t really fit in anymore. Europe has ruined him—and not just because of the man-bun and pastel pants.
Through the early part of the day, his father is trying to get his son interested in the myriad women they meet. How about this one? Or that one? His son tells him he has a girlfriend, Nada, whom the father calls Salma. We’re not sure if he dislikes her, her militant father, or simply want his son closer to home.
The son thinks he can win arguments the way he can in Europe. For one delivery, they park in a spot for paying customers at a stand of useless gimcracks. The son says just five minutes; the dude doesn’t budge. The son grows frustrated. Then the father walks over, picks up a teddy bear, buys it. Now they’re paying customers. Later, the father tries to give the bear to a kid—a former West Bank kid—who’s selling cheap shit along a busy street. The kid walks away; he knows cheap shit when he sees it. You get the feeling Jacir could’ve made a movie just about this stuffed animal.
Beyond the norm, father and son have two main points of contention:
- The son’s suggestion to postpone the wedding if the mother, living in America, and caring for her dying husband, can’t make it.
- The father’s insistence on inviting a Jewish colleague who—the son says—fingered him back in the day, forcing him into exile.
Initially I was with the son on both. Then the conversation deepens, and other voices—chiefly the bride-to-be’s—are added, and my feelings shifted about the former. But never on the latter. The father seems to be doing it to curry favor with the powerful, and the son is beyond adamant that the man is secret service. We never find out who’s right but we get a sense of who’s wrong.
Both men are handsome, with beautiful eyes, and their interaction is impeccable. Watching, I kept thinking, “It’s like they’ve done it together for a lifetime.” Turns out they have. The actor Saleh Bakri is the actor Mohammed Bakri’s son.
“Wajib” is specific and universal, funny and human—often painfully so. There's not a false note. The day is long, tempers cool with the evening, but nothing is really resolved. It’s just another round of forgiveness and understanding that never seems to stretch far enough but maybe covers what we can while we can.
Tuesday June 19, 2018
Movie Review: The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful (2017)
In modern Taipei, a high-powered female official with a prosthetic leg leaves a high-powered meeting while the news cameras record her phone conversation outside. What is she saying? No one is sure. They obsess over it. Then we cut to two blind, traditional storytellers, who, in sing-songy Taiwanese, begin to chant the tale we’re about to see.
“The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful,” which was nominated for seven Golden Horse awards (Taiwan’s Oscar), and won three, including best picture, is basically an art-house version of a female-driven soap opera. Imagine “Dynasty” remade by Jonathan Glazer.
The Tang sisters—the eldest Ning-Ning (Wu Ke-Xi), and the youngest Chen-Chen (Vicki Chen)—along with their mother, Madame Tang (longtime Hong Kong action star Kara Wai), constitute, it seems, the three titular possibilities. Which one is bold, which corrupt, which beautiful.
Since we first see Ning having sex and smoking opium with two men in the little cottage in the back of their estate, and within the watchful eyes of her innocent, younger sister, we assume she’s the corrupt. Or maybe she’s the bold? Maybe it’s the mother who’s corrupt, since the mother counsels the youngest to treat the cattiness of her cousin, Pien-pien (Wen Chen-ling), with a calm and an impenetrable smile—as we see Madame Tang do with the powerful ladies at a dinner later that evening.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all, idiot, since “The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful” is simply the U.S. title.
Right. What was I thinking? The Chinese title is “血觀音,” or “Xue guan yin.” Guan yin is the Bodhisattva associated with compassion and known in the West as “The Goddess of Mercy.” Xue is blood. So ... “Blood Goddess of Mercy” or “Blood Bodhisattva” maybe. Yeah, the three English adjectives don’t have much to do with it other than adding a soap opera patina.
对不起。Forgive all the throat clearing.
Anyway, these are our main characters:
- The icy geniality of Madame Tang
- The licentious rebellion of her eldest daughter, Ning
- The wide-eyed innocence and voyeurism of her youngest daughter, Chen
Every powerful family in their circle seems to have a similar set-up of icily polite women. The men in the movie are mostly nonexistent. If they’re there, they’re there to be manipulated.
The land speculation scheme involving the Tangs threatens to burst open after a local legislator and his Japanese wife are murdered, and Pien lies in a coma. A stable boy, who was involved with Pien, is the main suspect.
The whole thing is needlessly confusing—at least for me. Chen waits by Pien’s side at the hospital. Because the Tangs care? Because they want her quiet—or dead? Meanwhile, Madame sends Ning to turn the head of the by-the-numbers cop investigating matters. She brings him a Bodhisattva; she charms him. Or does he charm her?
Best served cold
The biggest threat to the Tangs, though, is themselves. Everything the mother wants hidden, the eldest daughter wants revealed—including the biggest cover-up of all: the fact that Chen isn’t Ning’s sister but her daughter. Shades of “Chinatown.” It’s a long-ago scandal that was swept under the rug by a subterfuge that couldn’t last.
In the end, Ning tries to escape; but her mother’s reach is long. And brutal.
The movie itself is a bit long and brutal. The stable boy’s 11th-hour rape of Chen, and her attempt at suicide by throwing herself off the train, seem unnecessary to me. The latter at least explains the prosethetic leg at the beginning. The modern, high-powered official, we learn, is Chen, and she’s leaving the high-powered meeting to go the bedside of her mother. Madame Tang, now aged, in pain, and near death, has a DNR but her daughter tears it up. Out of love? No. The opposite. She wants her mother to live with the pain. She wants to watch her twist in the wind. It’s a brutal, satisfying end to an otherwise too complex tale.
Thursday June 14, 2018
Movie Review: The Taste of Betel Nut (2017)
Have I ever seen a revenge tale in which the revenge comes first? In “The Accused” we see the crime at the end, rather than the beginning, but that one’s hardly a revenge tale in the traditional sense. Jodie doesn’t take the law into her own hands; she gets a lawyer.
Here we see the revenge first. Li Qi (Yu Shen Shi) is a gentle man who works with dolphins and seals at a small Sea World-type show in Hainan, China. We watch him wordlessly go through his paces. Now he feeds the critters; now he puts on clown makeup; now he takes it off like Glenn Close in “Dangerous Liaisons.” It’s nighttime and he gazes at the ocean. What is he thinking? There’s viritually no dialogue. Then it’s daytime and we watch him follow a fat man with dyed blonde hair from a crowded marketplace to a broken-down area where Blondie hangs with peers and chickens. Qi hangs back with ... is that a steel pipe in his hand? Or a long knife? When Blondie goes to investigate a squawking rooster, Qi makes a move.
At this point, director Hu Jia cuts the action and the screen goes dark for a second. When it returns, Qi’s face is covered with Blondie’s blood. No more clown makeup.
That’s the act of revenge. The rest of the movie is why it was necessary.
I didn’t much like “The Taste of Betel Nut,” by the way. The lack of dialogue at the beginning? That’s throughout. The movie is mostly quotidian atmosphere. We get few clues as to what is happening when. And why. Like what’s going on with the guy walking in the ocean? Periodically, we get underwater shots of his legs. Is something going to happen to him? Is he the reason for the revenge? Only later do we realize these are like chapter breaks—but why underwater shots, and why of a man’s legs, I have no clue.
The story comes by and by. Qi lives with Ren Yu (Zhao Bingrui), a brash, handsome, generally half-naked kid who runs a karaoke biz on the beach at night. He’s told he looks like Leslie Cheung, the movie star, and he kind of does: full lips, lidded eyes. He’s also generally irresponsible. Qi quietly plays the wife role in their relationship.
Into their little community comes Bai Ling (Yue Yue), the daughter of the woman who serves meals on the beach at night. Qi kind of lights up around her, she kind of lights up around Ren Yu. Classic love triangle. Does she know about Qi and Ren Yu? That they’re a kind of couple? One night, after a wedding, the three get drunk, chew betel nut, whose properties, they’re told, make your body tingle and make it tough to breathe. “Like love,” Bai Ling says. Afterwards the three have their threeway.
In the aftermath, for a day or so, it’s awkward. Then Bai Ling suggests an adventure, and they take a boat to get lunch. At the bar, while the boys are outside, a group of jerks, including Blondie, come on to her with crude comments, and she tosses a cup of tea into Blondie’s face. He’s about to slug her when Ren Yu breaks a bottle over his head, and off they all run, chased by eight or nine jerks. They get away. But because of the opening, we know they’ll return. We know something bad will happen.
While we’re waiting for it, we get the back-and-forth of the love/sex triangle. Bai Ling wants to be Ren Yu’s girlfriend, he says no, she kisses Qi, then runs off and kisses Ren Yu passionately. She’s about to leave for school again when she and Ren Yu go missing. The cops show Qi footage from a security camera on a bridge: eight motorcyclists, including Blondie, force them to stop, beat Ren Yu unconscious, and take Bai Ling away. Ren Yu winds up in a coma; Bai Ling’s naked, bound and beaten body washes up on the beach. It’s horrifying. It's suddenly just horrifying. But now we know why the blood at the beginning.
The ending is ambiguous. Qi is walking toward their rooftop apartment, through the billowing, drying sheets on the clothesline, and sees a young man with a shaved head (and scars there, as if beaten there) staring out at the water. The young man turns and smiles. It’s Ren Yu. Alive? Or is this just Qi's wish? Or is Qi dead now, too, attacked by the gang after he killed Blondie, and this is a kind of wishful afterlife? Ren Yu is welcoming him to heaven.
Again, I can’t really recommend “Betel Nut.” I wanted less mood, more character. Or more interesting characters. I wanted some fucking dialogue.
But placing the act of revenge at the beginning of the movie was well done. It’s almost as if we don’t get the revenge. The images that linger are the crimes, so horrific and needless.
Thursday May 31, 2018
Movie Review: The Third Murder (2017)
I say “spoilers” but, really, how can I spoil what I can’t fathom? There’s nothing to spoil here because there are so few answers. It’s legal procedural as M.C. Escher painting. Every step seems to lead us somewhere, but, scratching our heads, perplexed, we simply wind up right back where we started.
The movie opens with a murder. In the grassy fields near a river, Misumi (Koji Yakusho) takes a wrench and beats in the head of his former factory boss. The blood splatters Misumi’s cheek; then he splatters the corpse with gasoline and sets it aflame. Later, he confesses to the crime. Open and shut? Seemingly. But we’re two minutes in. As the movie progresses, we wonder if what we’ve watched is a thing that even happened.
Do the right thing
Our protagonist, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), is brought in by Misumi’s first attorney to help with the case. He’s the son of a judge—the same judge who 30 years earlier was lenient with Misumi during his first murder trial—and he’s, you know, doing lawyerly things. He’s looking for ways to get his client off or his sentence reduced. He wants to avoid the death penalty.
Apparently this was the impetus for the film. Here’s director Hirokazu Kore-eda:
I was talking to a friend, who is a lawyer, and ... I asked him “What was it that he did?” and he said, “We’re there to make adjustments to the conflict interest.” I mean, I don’t know if addressing the conflict of interest is more of a common way of thinking in the west, but many people in Japan believe that the court is the space in which the right thing is done and the truth is pursued. So there was a gap between what the lawyer was telling me and how the Japanese public perceives it.
You could argue it’s the difference between the movie version of the world and the reality, which is why Kore-eda decided to make a movie that dealt with that reality. Or, really, that began with that reality—using the best facts in your client’s best interests—and then ... not. Here’s what he asked himself:
“Okay, what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?”
It takes us a while to get there. The movie is masterfully atmospheric. You know how a film clings to you afterwards? Walking home, every sentence my wife said seemed to float in the air, pulsating with potential meaning, until disappating and leaving nothing behind; just a residue of meaninglessness. That’s what much of the dialogue, much of the movie, felt like to me.
Is Misumi crazy or wise? Is he malicious or protective? Did he kill the factory boss because he had debt, because he was fired, because the boss’ wife asked him to, because the boss’ daughter, Sakie (Suzie Hirose), wanted him to?
At one point, Misumi seems to commune with, and read the mind of, his attorney after the two hold up hands against the plastic partition separating them. So is he an empath? Later, Sakie implies something similar. She says Misumi sensed she wanted her father dead—since he was molesting her—and that’s why he killed him. And yet we hear nothing more of his empathic abilities. They‘re raised to be forgotten.
Or how about the thing with the birds? If he didn’t kill the factory boss, then why mercy-kill his own birds beforehand while setting one free? Why bury them in the backyard beneath a cross of stones? And what does it mean that the burned body at the crime scene also formed a neat, perfect cross? Or that the movie ends with Shigemori standing at a literal crossroads?
My wife thought Misumi hadn’t committed the murder. She felt he was simply covering for Sakie. That’s why he kept changing his story and motives: to protect her. Sure, I said. Except 30 years earlier, he’d committed another murder in another city, and the prosecutor there said he kept changing his story, too. Changing the story to protect Sakie can’t be the answer because it’s what he’s always done. We’ve just gone in circles. We’re back on M.C. Escher’s steps.
The truth will not out
To be honest, I can't even pinpoint what the title refers to. The earlier murder was a two-fer, so is the factory boss the third? Or is Misumi himself the third murder? He’s an innocent man doomed to be executed by the state, which isn’t interested in a search for truth.
I admit I liked “The Third Murder." From the beginning, I felt in the hands of a master. What’s fascinating, too, is that Kore-eda seems to have upended his original purpose. Disappointed by the reality of the Japanese legal system, he wanted to make a movie about a lawyer who did search for the truth, who was what we envisioned a lawyer to be. And what happened? His client got screwed and the truth wasn’t outed. Indeed, the more he searched for the truth, the further it got from him. And from us.
Monday May 21, 2018
Movie Review: A Man of Integrity (2017)
Iranian writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof likes opposites. He began his 2011 film “Goodbye” with someone saying hello, and he begins “A Man of Integrity” with the title character, Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), engaged in an illicit activity: fermenting alcohol inside watermelons and hiding them below the floorboards in his small shack on his fish farm in northern Iran.
Immediately, two men appear asking about the watermelons. They search, can’t find them, but take away a rifle whose permit is expired. Are they cops or private contractors? At the outset we think the former but by the end we’re not so sure.
We’re not sure of a lot throughout the film.
Sleeping with the fishes
Where’s the “integrity” of the title? Here: Rather than pay a bribe to a bank official to delay mortgage payments, Reza sells his car and tries to do it legit. Things get worse from there. It’s like Serpico refusing the bribe; the corrupt in power no longer trust him. They need him to be one of them. And if he isn’t one of them, he must be excised.
That's when the fish in his fish farm begin to die. Eyes burning, Reza tracks things to Assad, his neighbor. He’s in the midst of pulling up the chains of a dam which may have kept fresh water from them when a figure appears over his shoulder. Next thing we know, Assad has a broken arm and Reza is in jail for assault. Frustrations now mount for Reza’s wife, Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee). Reza is supposed to be released after 24 hours, but there’s always a delay, or new rules or new charges, or prematurely closed offices. She brings in her brother to help navigate the corrupt system, and even then it takes five days. Finally back in his own bed, Reza, the next morning, awakens to fresh horror: birds swooping on his farm, attracted by the scent of dead fish. They’ve been poisoned.
For a time, I wondered what the movie would become. Would we simply watch Reza’s downward trajectory? From refusing to leave his farm to agreeing to sell it to being offered half of what it's worth? Or nothing? At every turn, the straightjacket is tightened. His wife is the head of a school, which Assad’s daughter attends, from whom she finds out Assad’s arm was never broken. Hadis sends a message to Assad through the girl. Assad sends a message back: He pulls the girl from the school.
I kept wondering about the watermelon-fermented wine seen in the first act. Was that a way out? No. It’s for Reza’s personal use—even though it’s been prohibited for Muslims in the Islamic Republic since 1979. He takes it to an underground spring—a literal man cave—where he drinks and rests and thinks. And plots.
Akhlaghirad has a handsome, powerful presence. His eyes burn. They burn in part because he can’t see a way out as a man of integrity; so he becomes its opposite. It’s a movie of escalations. Reza is trapped so he traps the well-connected Assad by framing him for drug use. Assad, from prison, engineers a response: He burns down Reza’s house. Reza then uses a corrupt prison guard to bring him poisoned drugs. Assad is killed, and, at his funeral, Reza attends and stares down his children with those burning eyes.
An offer he can’t refuse
“A Man of Integrity,” which won “Un Certain Regard” at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is beautifully art-directed but often slow-moving, and it uses a verbal shorthand to explain complex Iranian societal matters. For an outsider like me, much has to be guessed at, and even now, writing this, I’ve often got my hands in the air. One review mentioned that Reza was a former univeristy professor. When did that come up? And in what period was the movie set? Is it contemporary, or is that news footage of Khomeni on TV?
So what kind of movie does “Integrity” become? It’s a lose-by-winning movie. Reza wins but he doesn‘t. In winning, he loses. Just as Michael Corleone, in “Godfather Part III,” tries to raise his family above the corruption, only to find greater corruption among the legitimately powerful, so Reza, by defeating Assad, wins the admiration of the powerful and corrupt, and, in a final irony, is offered Assad’s position. Reza wants to be a man of integrity but the corrupt machine doesn’t allow it; and in the end he’s offered a prime spot in that very corrupt machine. It’s an offer he can’t refuse.
Friday May 18, 2018
Movie Review: The Bookshop (2017)
The sad ending made me happy but otherwise I don’t get this movie. I don’t get why it was chosen to open the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival, particularly without anyone (director, star, best boy) in attendance. I don’t get how it was nominated for 12 awards, and won three (best film, director and adapted screenplay), at the 32nd annual Goya awards in Madrid, Spain earlier this year. I don’t get what the point of it is. Books are good? People are bad? Bad things happen to good people when bad people force the issue? Sure. Also when bad people don’t force the issue.
Here’s the story, reduced:
- Good woman opens bookshop
- Bad woman machinates against her
- Bookshop goes out of business
Main thought, afterwards: Do you even need the bad woman? Why not:
- Good woman opens bookshop
- Nobody gives a shit
- Bookshop goes out of business
That’s more indicative of the world, isn’t it? Imagine if more movies followed this trajectory. All of us might be a little wiser, and a little less paranoid.
Don’t fuck with arts center patrons
The good woman is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a widow who loves books and wants to share her love by opening a bookshop on the Suffolk coast of England in 1959. What is she doing in Hardborough, Suffolk? I assumed she was there with her husband, who recently died, and she was trying to figure out how to give the rest of her life meaning. Nope. Halfway through, we find out her husband died 16 years earlier in the midst of World War II. So what has she been doing all of this time? And was she already on the Suffolk coast or did she move there? She seems like an outsider. Maybe that’s just the nature of readers.
The bad woman is Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson). Problems arise when Florence buys “The Old House,” a damp property, for her bookshop, because Gamart wanted it for an arts center.
Believe it or not, that’s the conflict. As Florence gets her bookshop up and running, and acquires friends and allies, chiefly the town’s big, reclusive reader, Edmond Brundish (Bill Nighy, who has all the best lines), Violet, from within her upper-middle class walls, and with her own allies, machinates against her. Christine (Honor Kneafsey), the bright, curly-haired girl who helps in the bookshop, and who improbably hasn’t read anything until Florence arrived, is made to work in another bookshop. Something about child labor laws. So Milo North (James Lance), Violet’s smug, closeted confidante, offers his services. For some reason, Florence accepts. Now the fox is in the henhouse.
Truly, though, the big blow for Florence is when Violet gets her nephew, a government official, to pass a law allowing the government to buy “The Old House” from under Florence. Meanwhile, because of Milo’s internal machinations, the building is declared unfit for human occupation—even though Florence lives there—and they don’t pay her anything for it.
Actually, the bigger blow happens earlier. Brundish becomes adviser and friend to Florence. She gets him to read Ray Bradbury, for example, and he advises her on whether or not “Lolita” is a good novel and she should sell it. (It is, she should.) He’s old money, too, in this sleepy town, where you’re either working class or don’t seem to do any work at all, and eventually he comes out of his shell and confronts Violet. Over tea, he tells her what a nasty piece of work she is. Nice! Then, on the walk home, he suffers a heart attack. Bummer! Now Florence has no allies and enemies pounce.
Well, she has one ally left.
A lantern in the first act...
As Florence is leaving Hardborough for good, via boat, defeated, Christine pops up on the pier with the lantern she’s always carried, and, in the distance, Florence sees “The Old House” on fire. It’s Christine’s revenge on Violet's vengeful spirit. And it’s at that point we learn our narrator throughout the film (Julie Christie) was actually Christine, grown up and running her own bookshop. Florence’s legacy lives! Books live! The whole thing is supposed to add a touch of sweet to the bitter.
Except it feels false. If the building goes up in flames just as Florence is leaving, how is she not be blamed, and pursued, and imprisoned? And where is she leaving to by boat— Belgium? In the acclaimed novel written by Penelope Fitzgerald, she leaves by train, bowing her head in shame, according to The New Yorker, “because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.”
That line is key to me. Wasn’t Florence’s bookshop a doomed enterprise from the beginning—even without Violet? And isn’t grown-up Christine’s bookshop a doomed enterprise in the Internet/Amazon age? The movie's focus on Violet covers up the bigger problem: It's less the machinations of a few than the indifference of most. Not to mention our own sad dreams.
Wednesday May 02, 2018
Movie Review: Kung Fu Yoga (2017)
There’s a moment midway through “Kung Fu Yoga” (“功 夫 瑜 伽”) that warmed my heart.
Our hero, Prof. Jack Chan (Jackie Chan), the most famous archeologist in China (“one of them,” he always responds with modesty), is in a high-end hotel in Dubai, where he’s just fooled a friend, a rich Chinese businessman, into buying a stolen Indian artifact for $160 million so it can be studied rather than privatized and coveted. Except now several toughs start a fight on the stairs leading to the second floor of the lobby; they want the artifact, handcuffed to the wrist of the businessman, and pull him away. Jackie fights the others, sending two of them tumbling down the stairs, and then jumps over a railing to protect his friend. Except it’s more than a jump. He piourettes. He kicks his back leg up to twist around and land and keep moving and fighting. All in one swift motion.
It’s that slippery grace we’ve seen onscreen for more than 40 years. And at age 62 (his age when “Kung Fu Yoga” was filmed), Jackie can still bring a bit of it.
Which is good because the movie, directed by longtime Chan collaborator Stanley Tong (“Supercop”), is a mess. An expensive, well-produced mess.
ESL, Lesson 2
It was supposed to be a joint production between China and India, but at the last moment the Indian partners, Viacom 18, backed out, as did Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who was set to play the film’s villain, Randall. He was replaced by Sonu Sood, who is meh but does his best with lines like the following—the first words the movie’s villain says to the movie’s hero:
Some call it “destiny.” Some may call it “meant to be.” But I call it “I make it happen.”
All of this in English, by the way. The Chinese characters speak Chinese, but when the Indian co-stars arrive everyone communicates in the international realm of stilted English. We get painful intros out of an ESL reader:
Ashmita: Nice to meet you, Profesor Chan. Your reputation precedes you ...
Jackie: Call me Jack.
Xiaoguang: Doctor, how are you?
Ashmita: I’m good. Thank you.
Xiaoguang: I’m Zhu Xiaoguang, Professor Chan’s T.A.
Ashmita: You’re Zhu Xioaguang? Your thesis is brilliant!
(Jackie, next time your films need help with English dialogue, 打 电 话 给 我。我 帮 您.)
It doesn’t help, either, that we first see Ashmita (Bollywood newcomer Disha Patani) walking toward us in luxuriant-haired slow mo, while, on the soundtrack, angelic music plays. It’s reminiscent of what they did back in the day with Spanish beauty Lola Forner in “Wheels on Meals” (1984)—except that was used to comic effect, since it provoked dopey, slack-jawed looks from both Jackie and Yuen Biao. This? It’s just dopey. Jackie’s Prof. Chan now, 62, and can’t get be the slack-jawed youth. Plus he has 40 years on the girl: He was born in ’54, Patani in ’92. Yet somehow she’s the one who holds onto his hand a beat too long? And Americans think Hollywood has problems with this shit.
Past the intros, the movie is set in three places:
- The Kunlun mountains of Tibet, where the Magadha treasures, tributes from India to the Tang dynasty, were lost in 647 A.D., and are now found 30 meters below the icy surface
- Dubai, where Jack’s friend’s son, fortune hunter Jones (Aarif Rahman), absconds with the Diamond of Magadha, which is the key that unlocks the entire Magadha treasure
- India, where that treasure is finally unlocked.
All of these places are gorgeous. (Temple of Thuban, here I come!) Each place has its chases and fights, and they’re not bad, just not “Supercop” good. The whole thing is a little like “Fast & Furious” but by way of Jackie’s “Operation Condor” movies.
There are good bits. In Dubai, Xiaoguang and company arrive in front of the hotel late for the car chase when a visiting westerner assumes Xiaoguang is the carhop and hands him his keys. “We’ve got a car!” he shouts. I like the Indian fights with the rope and the snake. I like “Never touch a woman’s hair!” and Jackie getting all “Eighteen strokes to subdue the dragon” on the villain. Old Hong Kong mainstay Eric Tsang shows up in a minor role, and both male supporting actors have personality. Aarif is dynamic, while Zhang Yixing, AKA Lay of the hugely popular boyband Exo, who plays Xiaoguang, has self-effacing comic timing for such a pop sensation.
But the movie takes too long to get up-to-speed, and too many characters are added unncessarily—including Ashmita’s T.A., Kyra (Amra Dastra), who’s mostly there as potential love-interest for Jones. The reveals, meanwhile, are less than revealing. Oh, so Kyra isn’t Ashmita’s T.A. but her sister? Sure, why not? Oh, Ashmita is really a princess? Sure, whatever. “Truthfully,” we’re told, “she is the 68th generation descendant of Prince Gitanjali of Magadha.” And, oh no, crap, here she comes in slow-mo with angelic music again.
A Bollywood ending
The final scenes take place in a deep Indian cavern, where they find a gold temple, and where Jackie gives Randall about a thousand chances to do the right thing.
“This is passion, devotion, dedication,” Jackie says of the temple. But Randall and his thugs simply try to strip it of its jewels. “Respect history!” Jackie tells them. They don’t. He sheds light on a gold Buddha and everyone bows, but Randall is bowing to the gold more than the Buddha. He’s enthused about the chests full of treasure until his men discover they’re just full of ancient scrolls about medicine and Buddhism and throw them on the ground. “This is the knowledge and wisdom to help people live better lives!” Ashmita tells him. Right. So what’s it doing in an underground cavern?
All of this leads to the final big battle. Jackie breaks out the classic gong fu moves, and both Ashmita and Jones prove themselves adept. The fight’s almost over when Indians in the usual maroon/gold flowing religious robes show up out of nowhere. For a second, I thought they’d lived there all these years, but apparently not. Apparently they just wandered in? As reps of the people? To whom all of this belongs? It’s absurd but it stops the fight. Jackie and Randall look at each other. They walk down the stairs. Then, in Bollywood fashion, everyone breaks out into song and dance.
For all that, the movie killed at the Chinese box office (and died at the Indian one). It grossed US$250 million during Chinese New Year 2017—Jackie’s biggest haul by far. Was it the international settings? The high production values? The Bollywood stars? Sad to say, I think it was mostly the kid from the boy band. Brought the girls in.
For what it’s worth, Jackie, I came for you—the greatest movie star in the world.
Jackie: “One of them.”
Monday April 16, 2018
Movie Review: Molly's Game (2017)
Whenever I watch anything scripted by Aaron Sorkin I find myself channeling Eliza Doolittle:
Words Words Words
I’m so sick of words
I get words all day through
First from him, now from you
Is that all you blighters can do?
And I’m a writer.
Sorkin does love to hear himself go on, doesn’t he? It was the part I never bought about “The West Wing”: the hyper-articulateness of it all. It’s certainly refreshing to hear in a dumbed-down world but it leaves a false aftertaste. His characters all sound similar, for one. They also have all the answers. No one’s searching, they already know, so the conversations are less Socratic than Sorkinic. They simply rush headlong through their stats, data, anecdotes. Cf., that opening scene of “The Newsroom,” which so many love but which is a bit fish-in-a-barrel for me. Can a brother get a pause? My kingdom for an um.
I actually found myself laughing out loud near the end of “Molly’s Game” when our protagonist’s father, Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner), who drove his daughter to succeed and then drove her away, shows up at the 11th hour while she’s making a speed-skating ass of herself at the Central Park rink. He walks her over to a park bench for a better-late-than-never father-daughter talk, which begins this way:
I’m going to give you three years of therapy in three minutes.
So Sorkin. If it were any more Sorkin it would explode from self-importance.
As for the great lesson the great man has come to impart? It’s about how our hero, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-caliber freestyle ski champion, wound up where she wound up: on federal trial in New York for running a high-stakes poker game with as much as a $250k buy-in, and surrounded by some of the worst of the wealthy worst: Wall Street execs, Russian mobsters, etc. This was after running a similar game in LA surrounded by douchebag Hollywood celebs and skeevy hangers-on. Wasn’t she planning to go to law school? How did she wind up on trial for her freedom?
She offers up an answer, “drugs,” but he waves it off.
Larry: You didn’t start with drugs until the end. They weren’t the problem, they were the medicine. No. It was so you could control powerful men. Your addiction was having power over powerful men.
Molly: That’s really what you think?
Larry: No. I know it for sure.
Also so similar. To what her attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) does. The men in the movie are there to suss out the real her—the her she keeps hidden. She even keeps it hidden from Charlie when she’s begging him to take her case. It’s up to him to suss out why he should.
See, Molly had a debt sheet (money gamblers owed her) worth millions, and she could have sold it but didn’t. She sold other things: her clothes, her car, but not this thing worth the most. Why? Because she couldn’t be sure how the buyers might collect—whose thumbs or legs might be broken. Whose lives might be ruined. She couldn’t do that. Because she’s a good person. So he has to take the case.
Hell, she could’ve gotten a $1.5 million advance on a book deal if she’d only named the Hollywood names in her poker game, including, here, Mr. X (Michael Cera), whom everyone assumes is Tobey Maguire, and not just because he’s played by Cera. She couldn’t do that, either. She only named the names already in the public record. For which she got a $30k advance. Bit of a hit there.
Even to the feds, whose sphere she entered only because of the Russian mobsters and Wall Street execs and Ponzi schemers at her table, men who quickly gave up her name to save their own asses, she refuses to name names. “She’s got the winning lottery ticket,” Jaffey says, “and won’t cash it!” Because she has integrity. Because her name is her name. Because she’s a good person.
Except ... wouldn’t the world be better off if she had given up the Russians and Ponzi schemers? Don’t we want to see that? Them behind bars?
More, doesn’t this contradict what her father sussed out about her? Dad says she turned bad because she wants to control powerful men; Jaffey says she’s good because she won’t give up powerful men. The only way that’s not a contradiction is if she doesn’t give them up because she wants to maintain control over them; she wants to keep them in her back pocket and maintain some kind of hold over them. In which case, she’s hardly the good person Jaffey (and Sorkin) make her out to be.
“Molly’s Game” was released last fall in the midst of the #MeToo movement, and many critics thought it was indicative of that movement: a powerful woman standing up for herself amid scummy men. But it’s actually the opposite of that movement. She has the goods on bad men and lets them off. She accuses no one. For all the words Sorkin gives her, he doesn’t give her those.