erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2014 posts

Saturday May 02, 2020

Movie Review: Discovering James Cagney (2014)


More like “Misdiscovering James Cagney.” A lot of what we hear in this documentary is dubious; some of it is just plain wrong.

Amazon doesn’t help. From its site:

And you can’t even watch whatever that amalgamation is. But the real one is available, just with the title oddly transposed: 

Once it began, and I heard the four British talking heads, all critics, I assumed I was in for a sharp, across-the-pond appreciation of Cagney from a time when he was alive. But I quickly realized this wasn’t from 1970; Amazon got the date wrong. And while there’s appreciation, it’s not exactly sharp.

Bells went off when Neil Norman talked up the film that made Cagney famous:

He got the role of the good guy in a film called “The Public Enemy.” What’s interesting about that is another actor was playing the villain—the gangster. And when the producers and the director looked at the first rushes they realized they’d cast it the wrong way around. So they reversed the roles. James Cagney became the gangster in “Public Enemy.” And the rest is history.

Good guy? What good guy? They’re both gangsters. One is just the lead gangster. Worse, Wendy Mitchell, editor at Screen International, says the exact same thing:

Thank god they switched him from playing the nice guy to playing the gangster.

Is there a British cut that makes Edward Woods’ character a good guy? I can’t even imagine how you’d do that. They’re lifelong pals and lifelong crooks. Unless they think Cagney was first cast as older brother Mike, played by Donald Cook? If so, they’re wrong.

It gets worse. The narrator tells us Cagney received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for “Angels with Dirty Faces.” It was a lead actor nomination. He’s the lead in “Angels.” Norman then talks about the “morally redemptive” ending to the film:

It involves a gangster who has to go to the electric chair. … He’s been a hero to the Dead End kids throughout and they think that he’s going to go bravely. But at the end, of course, he just collapses and falls and they can see him for the coward that he probably is.

What a misread. Father Connolly (Pat O’Brien) asks Rocky/Cagney to act the coward on the way to the chair so he won’t remain a hero-martyr to the kids, and Rocky dismisses him. Turn yella? It’s taking away the one thing he’s got left. But then he does it anyway. Connolly knows the sacrifice his friend is making—the supreme sacrifice. That’s why we get the close-up of him. That’s why he tears up. That’s why the movie resonates.

All four critics dismiss “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as pap, but Mitchell mentions its popularity in the states: “You can see it on TV every Fourth of July now.” You can? Film writer Ian Nathan talks up the incongruity of teaming Cagney with Doris Day—two opposite screen personas— in “The West Point Story,” and how well they worked together. Except every scene they show, Cagney is opposite Virginia Mayo. I don’t think they ever show Doris Day.

Why did Cagney quit movies after “One, Two, Three” in 1961? Derek Malcolm, critic with the London Evening Standard, says it was because he didn’t get along with director Billy Wilder. According to Cagney, co-star Horst Buchholz was the bigger problem. How good was Cagney when he returned for a small role in “Ragtime” in 1981? “Such was his performance,” Ian Nathan announces, “that he would get an Oscar nomination.” No, Ian. There was no Oscar nomination for Cagney for “Ragtime.” No Golden Globe or BAFTA nom, either. Nada. Good god, people. Is there no fact-check in Britain? No IMDb?

The 42-minute doc, directed by Lyndy Saville, turns out to be part of a “Discovering” series on movie stars that was created in mid-2010s Britain. They made more than 100 in two years. They churned them out. It shows.

Posted at 10:20 AM on Saturday May 02, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Friday September 27, 2019

Movie Review: John Wick (2014)


If you’re going to do a revenge flick, a puppy and a ’69 Mustang are good reasons to seek it.

I’d been hearing about “John Wick” for years, the chorus growing louder as the box office receipts to its sequels grew larger: from $43 million for the first, to $92 for the second, to, this year, $171.

It’s certainly atmospheric and moody—but not crushingly so. It’s got a light touch and even vague humor. The Continental Hotel, for example, which is owned by Winston (Ian McShane of HBO’s “Deadwood”) and run by the impeccable Charon (Lance Reddick of HBO’s “The Wire”), is not just a landing spot for criminals on the run, a “safe place,” as it were, where no one can do business on the premises; it’s almost otherworldly. Particularly from Reddick, you get an Overlook Hotel vibe.

The whole thing, of course, is otherworldly in the way of Hollywood crime/gangster movies. These people live in a world not like ours. You take care of 12 assassins in your house, calmly make a “dinner reservation” for 12, and superefficient cleanup men arrive to remove the evidence. Cops are not a factor. The rule of law is not a factor.

What these men have instead of the law is a code. “No business at the Continental” is just one aspect of it. It’s throughout. Who do you trust? And who are the ones who just get sloppy? 

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
First to get sloppy is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), son of Russian crime boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist of “The Girl with...” movies). He’s at a gas station, sees John Wick (Keanu Reeves) filling up his ’69 Mustang, asks about it, offers to buy it. Not for sale. But he doesn’t leave well enough alone. He insults him in Russian but John knows Russian and answers in kind before driving off. But Iosef still doesn’t leave well enough alone. He and his two doofus friends break into John’s home in the middle of the night, kill his puppy, steal his car, but they leave him alive.

Quick question: How do they find out where he lives without finding out who he is? Because who he is is the main thing. These guys thought they attacked Clark Kent, and I assumed they’d realize, by and by, no, they attacked Superman. But it’s not by and by. Everyone tells them: Hey, fucksticks, that was Superman! Then everyone waits for Superman to crash through the wall.

I missed the by and by of it, to be honest. I like the dawning realization.

Wick isn’t just Superman but a grieving Superman. He was once assassin for Viggo but asked out to marry the love of his life, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), whom we mostly see in iPhone videos and dreamy flashbacks. She dies of a disease. He’s distraught. Then he get the puppy in the mail—a final gift from his now-dead wife so he’ll have something to love again. That’s what Iosef and his friends kill.

The first to let them know who they fucked with is Aurelio (John Leguizamo), who runs an underworld autoshop. They want new VIN numbers, etc., for the ’69 Mustang, but he recognizes it, asks where they got it, then decks Iosef and orders him out of his shop. Aurelio lets Viggo know. Then Viggo lets his son know.

Does Viggo have more honor than Iosef or is he just smarter? Viggo knows his son is in the wrong but it’s still his son. So the 12 assassins. Nope. Then a $2 million bounty, which, given the stakes, seems skimpy. Why not $100 million since you stand to lose everything? Eventually Viggo hires Marcus (Willem Dafoe), a sniper, whom we first saw in that most clichéd of action-movie scenes—at the outskirts of a funeral holding an umbrella in the rain. Marcus takes the money, follows Wick around, but he’s more guardian angel than assassin. He uses rifle shots to alert John or take down enemies. He’s got a code, too.

One who doesn’t have a code? Another assassin, Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki). She attacks John in his room at the Continental, but he gets the upper hand and leaves her with a colleague, Harry (Clarke Peters of HBO’s “The Wire”); then she gets the upper hand on Harry. I like how we assume she’ll be the assassin trailing John for the rest of the movie, as in James Bond, but they don’t even have a final confrontation. Winston takes care of her. She didn’t follow rules.

All of this makes me think a littlel of Don Corleone: “Women and children can be careless but not men.” This movie is playing into that. It’s wish fulfillment for older men, really. The young are idiots who play video games and trash talk, while women don’t have a code or don’t follow it. They’re careless. Real men are older, talk little, and drink bourbon. They do their job and got your back and clean up the mess.

Like ‘Ip Man’ but not
Apparently a lot of thought went into the fight choreography. I couldn’t pause without Amazon Prime informing me, via IMDb, that in this fight Keanu uses this martial arts style while his opponent uses that one. But it ain’t Hong Kong. There’s little beauty in it. 

There is, however, a purity and simplicity. Like in “Ip Man,” which reduced the kung fu flick to its essence, “John Wick” does the same with revenge fantasies. There’s not much that’s extraneous.

Did I enjoy it? Not really. It’s not my thing. Guns aren’t my thing, nor the Russian mob. Look at the poster above. Keanu isn't in focus, the gun is. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know. 

Posted at 12:59 PM on Friday September 27, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Tuesday February 20, 2018

Movie Review: The Monkey King (2014)


Well, at least I learned the origin of the Monkey King. Otherwise, this thing was painful.

Is it even possible to tell this story to westerners? I think you have to grow up with it. Although apparently the movie took its critical hits in China, too. It did well at the box office—No. 3 movie for the year—but there was grousing. Replacements were made.

But it's even worse for moviegoers outside of China. Here, for example, is IMDb’s synopsis:

A monkey born from heavenly stone acquires supernatural powers and must battle the armies of both gods and demons to find his place in the heavens.

That ain’t quite it. You ready?

The Monkey King American reviewOK. So the Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok) attacks Heaven but is beaten back the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), who is about to kill the upstart when Jade's beautiful sister (and the Bull Demon King’s lover) pleads for his life. So Jade simply banishes the dude to Earth.

Meanwhile, with most of Heaven destroyed, the Goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin, Miss World 2007) turns her body into crystals to rebuild it. One of those crystals lands on Mount Huaguo and becomes a monkey in a bubble, who, for a second, bonds with a fox/girl, before her paw is burned.

You still with me?

Cut to: Several years later. Monkey (now Donnie Yen, “Ip Man,” “Rogue One”) is an annoying, chattery thing, who, after grabbing after a butterfly, falls a great distance. He survives, the butterfly does not. This saddens him. So when Master Puti (Hai Yitian), one of the Ten Great Sāvakas of Gotama Buddha, brings the butterfly back to life, Monkey wants to learn the trick and agrees to be his student. Puti gives Monkey a name: Sun Wukong.

Sun is a quick study, gets into it with other students, but eventually the Master spirits him away, shows him a bit of his future, then let him to return to Mount Huaguo, where the other monkeys—all of whom, including an oddly long-nosed one, look like extras on a bizarre British children's show—are amazed at his new powers. But what if he leaves them? Won’t they be defenseless? So Wukong visits an underground kingdom and takes everything the Dragon King throws at him. He winds up with: 1) a suit of armor, 2) weapons for the monkeys, and 3) a new staff. But he causes a massive tidal wave in the process, the Dragon King complains to Heaven, and the Jade Emperor sends a guard, Nezha, to arrest him. They battle. And then...

Wait, by this point, Wukong has reunited with fox girl, Ruxue (Xia Zitong), who’s been sent there by the Bull Demon King; and it’s BDK who kills Nezha, earning Wukong’s gratitude. BDK also tells him he belongs in Heaven. Monkey King is intrigued, but he mostly wants to learn about immortality because he doesn’t want Ruxue and the monkeys to die. That’s why he goes.

In Heaven, the Jade Emperor is amused by him and makes him a stable boy; everyone else is less amused, sees him as impertinent, and fights him. Much shape-shifting occurs. No one is who they seem. But after battling through hell (almost literally—a molten fiery place), Monkey King returns home ... to find all of the monkeys and Ruxue slaughtered. He went away to find immortality for them but in doing so sealed their fate. Worse, they are killed because of him. Bull Demon King tells him it was the soldiers of Heaven who did it, and MK buys it, and, enraged, attacks Heaven; but of course it was BDK who did the killing so Monkey would do his bidding.

Cue big final battle.


  • Master Puti is killed by BDK
  • BDK is turned into an actual one-eared bull by the Jade Emperor
  • The Monkey King, as punishment, is buried under the Five-Finger Mountain for 500 years. Or until “Monkey King 2.”

All of this insanity is exacerbated by the bad CGI and a lousy lead performance from Donnie Yen. Sorry. Love him. But he’s not the right dude to play Monkey. 

The hero with one face
So what does it all mean? Fuck if I know.

The entire movie is really preamble. “The Monkey King” is the first part of the great 16th-century classic of Chinese literature, “Journey to the West,” which contains four parts and 100 chapters, and whose ostensible protagonist, Tang Sanzang, hasn’t even been introduced yet. “West,” whose truncated, translated version is called “The Adventures of Monkey,” is an episodic adventure story about Tang, a young Buddhist scholar traveling west to bring back scriptures, and encountering various evils along the way. His traveling companions include Monkey King, a half-pig creature and a river ogre. The evils they encounter include spider-women. This story has been made into paintings, plays, movies. Over and over again.

But in the original preamble, Monkey King falls from grace because of hubris, not because he’s tricked into attacking Heaven. I guess modern China, like modern Hollywood, wants its obvious heroes and villains. The hero is always the hero, even when he's in the middle of his hero's journey. Joseph Campbell is turning over in his grave. Or smiling wistfully.

Posted at 08:16 AM on Tuesday February 20, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Saturday July 22, 2017

Movie Review: Sa Jiao Nu Ren Zui Hao Ming (2014)


Something gets lost in translation. Right away.

The Chinese title is “Sa Jiao Nu Ren Zui Hao Ming” or, roughly, “Flirty women are happiest,” but reducing this to the English title, “Women Who Flirt” isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s the concept of sa jiao, which doesn’t really have an English translation. “To flirt” is probably the best we’ve got. Except in the west, both women and men flirt. But sa jiao? That’s for women and children. It’s women sounding like children to get something they want.

It can be freakin’ annoying.Women Who Flirt: Sa jiao nu ren zui hao ming: western review

There’s a great example of it here that had me laughing out loud. Our lead, Angie (Zhou Xun), a financial analyst, whose longtime friend, colleague, and secret love, Marco (Huang Xiaoming), is now involved with this flirty tease of a Taiwanese girl, Hailey (Sonia Sui). So her friends urge her to go on dates of her own. They’re disastrous, of course. It’s a montage, and one guy actually talks about taking a dump in the middle of the street—I forget why—and she looks at him and says, “Tao yan,” or “I hate you.” She says this to all of her dates. Later, her friends ask her how she says it, and she replays it for them—straight—and they’re like, no, and school her on the sa jiao way of doing it: turning the fake whining and pouting up to 11. Tao yan-awwwww. They keep doing it until she tries it. It becomes a game. It made me laugh. It made me flash back. When I lived in Taiwan, I heard that a lot.

As for the movie, yeah, no. It’s one of those rom-coms where everyone is so awful you don’t want anyone to wind up with anyone.

Zhou Xun needs a date
First, we have to get past the notion that someone as beautiful as Zhou Xun has to work to get a man to notice her. It’s like one of those Hollywood movies where Michelle Pfeiffer can’t get a date. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t begin to cover it. 

So you immediately dislike Marco for not noticing either Angie’s otherworldly beauty or her interest. He sees her as, like, “a dude.” He keeps repeating this like it’s wisdom, but all I could think was, “What special brand of idiot is this?”

The girl he chooses instead isn’t half the beauty Zhou Xun is. Plus, it turns out, she’s wholly malicious. Like soap-opera malicious. She only picks up Marco—on a busride in Taiwan—because during the ride, despite her best efforts, he can’t stop talking about Angie and she wants to see what type of woman (who’s absent) can usurp her (who’s present). She’s not even interested in Marco. She gets involved in this long-distance relationship for weeks and months just to spite a woman she’s never seen.

Then there’s Angie herself, hung up on the doofus Marco, and going out of her way to win him. It’s a role that’s really beneath the dignity of Zhou Xun.

Hide and seek
A couple of moments aren’t bad. During the big confrontation between Angie and Hailey, the soundtrack music uses spaghetti western motifs, while the villainess’ dialogue anticipates Donald Trump:

Angie: Are you crazy? Love’s not a competition.
Hailey: That’s what the losers say. And I’m not a loser.

We also get this nice piece of advice from Marco’s father: “Do you know why kids like to play hide-and-seek? Because they want to be found.” That’s sweet. Although true? It’s probably the joy of the chase, the tension between being lost and being found.

Most of it, though, is beyond stupid. It’s both too timid (our leads) and shockingly crude (Angie’s friends). Marco finally comes to his senses and of course has to run to Angie, like all the Harrys and Jerrys before him, and win her over. And in front of her friends. Which he does! Which causes them to tear up! And we get this epiphany from him about sa jiao that took 90 excruciating minutes to realize:

After a while, all that sweet talk gets really annoying. 

Actually, sooner than that. 

Posted at 10:31 AM on Saturday July 22, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 17, 2016

Movie Review: Labyrinth of Lies (2014)


If you’re debating which movie to see on the 1950s investigations that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65—and who isn’t?—you can always compare how each did at the German Film Awards. “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” in which Bauer captures Adolf Eichmann with the help of Mossad, was nominated for five Lolas and won four, including best film, direction and screenplay. A year earlier, this one, in which a prosecutor unsuccessfully pursues Josef Mengele, was nominated for four Lolas and won null.

Which seems about right to me.

Labryinth of Lies“Labyrinth of Lies” is a procedural, but for the first 40 minutes we wait for the young, handsome, by-the-book prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), working in Frankfurt in the late 1950s, to come up to speed. As in: He has to learn that the Holocaust happened.

That this generation of Germans didn’t know about the Holocaust, or Auschwitz, comes as a bit of a shock. It certainly demonstrates the necessity of the Auschwitz Trials; but it’s also dull. It’s like waiting for the hero to figure out the sky is blue.

The conflict, too, is by-the-book. Radmann’s colleagues mock his pursuit, but the bossman, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), is on his side so he keeps going. An American functionary ridicules his search but respects his diligence enough to bring him a cup of coffee. Ex-Nazis lurk everywhere, smirking in the shadows. A journalist, Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), hounds him to do more, then partners with him in doing more, then is dropped by him when it’s discovered that he, the journalist, was a 17-year-old guard at Auschwitz. Radmann winds up getting drunk and losing his way and losing his way-hot girlfriend (Friederike Becht). He goes from knowing nothing about the Holocaust to knowing nothing about forgiveness. He becomes unreasonable. We know he’ll come around.

We know too much because too many scenes are clichés. Radmann has a nightmare in which he pursues Mengele through creepy, lab hallways, spins him around, then wakes up before seeing his face. After he discovers his own father was a Nazi, he has the same dream, but this time, we know, it’s his father’s face he’ll see. We know that when he begs off after a bedridden friend, Simon (Johannes Krisch), asks him to say the kaddish at Auschwitz for his daughters, he’ll find time to do it in the end. He does, with Gnielka, whom he forgives, as we knew he would. And as they walk along the Auschwitz fences, away from the camera, we know Radmann will put his hand on Gnielka’s back as a sign of reconciliation.

One moment sticks with me. When Radmann has that nightmare, in quick shots, he sees his face in multiple mirrors as if it had been experimented on by Mengele: swollen eyes sewn shut, etc. The morning after I watched the film, I woke up thinking of that, and more, thinking of Simon’s twin girls: imagining their horror and helplessness. They knew little of this world before they were turned into human lab rats. The movie needed more of the horror I felt for them, and for us.

Posted at 04:59 AM on Wednesday August 17, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Friday September 04, 2015

Movie Review: Laggies (2014)


I wanted to like it.

It’s set in Seattle, and directed by one of our own, Lynn Shelton, who’s super pretty. I liked the scene in the trailer where Megan (Keira Knightley) twirls the “Tax” sign to stir up business for her accountant father, Ed (Jeff Garlin). No one in the movie gets super powers, nothing blows up but relationships. I wanted to like it.

But I got a bad vibe early.

It begins with found footage, a senior prom escapade from 10 years earlier. Four girls get drunk, get naked, swim in a skanky hotel pool. They laugh. They’re having an adventure.

LaggiesCut to today, where three of the four are soft and self-satisfied in motherhood and matrimony. Only Megan feels like this isn’t for her.

We’re supposed to sympathize because her friends are silly and have bad taste. She’s also, of course, with the wrong guy, Anthony (Mark Webber). You can tell he’s the wrong guy because he’s dull and has a receding hairline. He talks up a “personal development seminar” on Orcas Island in which you choose an animal to help with your behavorial patterns. His is a shark—a reminder to keep going or sink. And it works. After 10 years, he finally proposes to Megan, but he does it at the wedding of their friend. Surely a breach in decorum.

What finally propels Megan out of this rut? It’s partly the proposal, and partly seeing her father making out with the bride’s mother in the reception parking lot. Betrayal! At 28! So, pretending she’s heading to Orcas, she instead gets caught up with high schoolers, led by Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz). First she buys them booze. Then she pretends to be Annika’s mom for a parent-teacher conference. Then she’s staying in Annika’s bedroom.

Thank god Sam Rockwell shows up.

Sam Rockwell, lifeguard
He’s Annika’s father, Craig, and his role here is almost like his role in “The Way Way Back”—except instead of playing a lifeguard offering life advice (and friendship) to a wayward teenage boy, he’s a divorce lawyer offering life advice (and eventually love) to a wayward twentysomething girl. He adds pizzazz and jazz to the movie. He asks pointed questions and delivers blunt truths:

Craig: I get that this can sometimes be sensitive information for a woman, but how old are you?
Megan: I'm ... in my 20s.
Craig: And why are you sleeping over at my house? Or I guess the larger question is: Why are you hanging out with my daughter?
Megan: It's kind of hard to explain.
Craig: I bet.
Megan: No, I mean, I've never really tried to. Not even to myself.
Craig: I like hearing things better when they're not rehearsed.

He’s the movie’s most interesting character.

I’ve said it before: Some of the best on-screen portraits of men in recent years have come from women. Here, it’s not just director Shelton but screenwriter Andrea Seigel. And it’s not just Craig but Anthony. He’s dull, yeah, but he’s loyal. He’s stolid—like Gandolfini in “Enough Said,” and Adam in “Girls.” It’s the women who are flighty and backbiting and hard-to-please. I’m surprised this isn’t mentioned more when critics, particularly male ones, encourage getting more female voices out there. Yes, this is good for women, but I think it’s even better for men. Because they like us, they really like us.

Sadly, we don’t spend enough time with Craig. It’s more about Megan, who’s meh, and Annika, who has adolescent issues and mommy issues. Bethany (Gretchen Mol, underused), a catalogue model, left a long time ago. She has a good line when Megan and Annika visit her and she wonders to Megan in the kitchen what Annika expects:

Megan: That you serve some lemonade and ask her five to ten questions about her life.
Bethany: [Pause] Treat somebody badly enough you just assume they'll be happy to let you go.

Fighting the momentum
The resolution should be intriguing. I think we’re all propelled along pathways, and it’s easy to give in to the momentum and intertia, and it’s hard to get on a new path. So the question is: How does Megan get on a new path?

Well, after she begins a relationship with Craig, Annika discovers Megan’s engagement ring and feels betrayed. So does Craig. Then Megan does a good deed for the girl but returns to Anthony and her old life. And that’s the end.

Kidding. She and Anthony are about to elope to Vegas when he makes a fatal mistake. He takes a selfie of the two of them at the boarding gate and sends it to “the group,” their friends with bad taste. And that’s when Megan knows she can’t be with him; that’s when she gets off that pathway and onto the one that leads back to Craig.

So she begins with movie directionless and with the wrong guy and ends the movie directionless and with the right guy. Progress, I suppose.

Posted at 07:46 AM on Friday September 04, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Thursday August 27, 2015

Movie Review: Copenhagen (2014)


Copenhagen deserves better. 

British actor Gethin Anthony (Renley Baratheon of “Game of Thrones”) plays William, an American who travels to the titular city to: 1) deliver a letter from his now-dead father to his never-seen grandfather, and 2) screw hot girls.

He’s the kind of twentysomething who thinks it’s the height of hilarity to make blow-job motions next to a sleeping man on a train. He thinks it’s his right to keep dinging the bell on the hotel lobby desk even though the concierge is on the phone two feet away. He’s thoughtless, self-centered, and angry that his friend Jeremy (Sebastian Armesto) brought along his girlfriend Jennifer (Olivia Grant). He assumed this was “a guys trip”; he assumed it was all about him. Even with Jennifer, he assumes it’s all about him. “You wanted to fuck me first,” he says to her at the hotel bar. Classy.

Copenhagen movieThe next day she and Jeremy leave. Would that we could. Then William meets a Danish girl, Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), a waitress at the hotel who accidentally spills coffee on the letter he’s supposed to deliver. They argue. She sends him to the wrong place in town. They meet again and argue some more. Then she decides to help.  

So we get it. It’s about an asshole who becomes a better person because of a good woman.

Except she’s not a woman. She’s 14 years old.

Once William finds this out—40 minutes into the 90-minute movie—he backs off, right? Yes and no. Mostly he just gets more petulant. Because he likes her.

But he still backs off, right? Sexually? Right?

Yes and no. They get topless and make out in his hotel room, but he stops there. Hansen was 19 or 20 during filming but I still had to cover my eyes during these scenes. The ick factor was strong. It doesn’t help that we like her but despise him.

Question: How do you make an asshole in a movie sympathetic? Or at least interesting? However you do it, writer-director Mark Raso doesn’t. Is it because Anthony is a Brit doing an American asshole? That he gives us the surface but nothing deeper? That Anthony's a Baratheon? 

All I know is I had zero tolerance for this character. As a result, we’re kind of annoyed that Effy falls for him. And as a result, when William finds out that his grandfather had been a Nazi collaborator during the war, and that he went to prison for it, and that he’s still alive, well, it’s more amusing than dramatic. Serves you right, dickhead.

But of course that’s how William “grows” in the end. Throughout, he’s an angry young man because of daddy issues; after confronting his grandfather, the former Nazi—who should’ve been near 90 but seems like a fit 70-year-old—he realizes his own father’s daddy issues were much, much worse. So he develops a kind of empathy.

Sadly, by this point, we have none for him. Effie is so good she makes William better, but William is so annoying he makes us worse. 

Posted at 09:19 AM on Thursday August 27, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 05, 2015

Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)


Twenty years ago, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) became an international star by playing a scheming young woman, Sigrid, who takes advantage of her older boss and lover, Helena, in Maloja Snake, a play and then film by Wilhelm Melchior.

In the first part of Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Maria, accompanied by her super-competent personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), takes the train to Zurich to accept an award for Melchior, who, they hear en route, dies at home. A heart attack. So there is sadness, mourning and regret amid public ceremonies. Maria also reverses herself and agrees to take the role of Helena in a London revival of Maloja Snake by director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger).

Clouds of Sils MariaIn the main part of the movie, Maria and Valentine stay at Melchior’s place in Sils Maria, and rehearse and argue over Maloja Snake. Maria has trouble seeing herself as Helena, since Helena is the weak one in the play; she has trouble even liking Helena. There are echoes between the women in the play and the women rehearsing—except that Maria, the employer and artist, has power that Helena didn’t, or felt she didn’t, while Valentine struggles to get her views across. She feels her opinions are not respected. Which is why it’s Valentine who disappears on a hike in Sils Maria, echoing the disappearance of Helena in the play. We never find out what happens to either of them, although it’s assumed Helena, the older character, dies (that’s what older characters do), while Valentine simply leaves for a better opportunity (that’s what younger people do).

In the epilogue of the film, Maria is an afterthought in the run-up to the premiere in London, as the gossip machine surrounding the new Sigrid, Hollywood bad girl Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), overwhelms all.

The first part is the most interesting—it has zip and snap amid the close quarters of the train—while the second part is meditative. It’s the epilogue that’s weakest.

Mellifluous vowels vs. nasty consonants
Stewart is a revelation. The film was nominated for six Césars but won only one, for Stewart as supporting, and it’s deserved. She seems real, forthright and vulnerable. She’s subtle and sexy. It’s a role that puts memories of the nothing Bella in the trashbin.

Her character is also an idiot in the way that young people are idiots. She thinks Twitter is the real world, for example, as opposed to an aspect of what passes for the public world at the moment. It came on like that and will be replaced like that.

Much of the movie is about Maria being replaced like that. It’s coming to terms with no longer being Sigrid but Helena, with all that the name implies: classic, ancient, all mellifluous vowels versus the hard, nasty consonants of Sigrid. As Sigrid, Maria never liked Helena, nor the actress who played her, who died a year after the film was released. Old actresses don’t fade away, apparently, they just disappear. (Cf. Debra Winger, Bridget Fonda.)

Here’s the problem. The trashy tabloid world is an easy target and Assayas doesn’t even hit it right. He glances off it. Jo-Ann Ellis has starred in a recent superhero flick, which Valentine defends to Maria, but when we (they) finally see it, replete with 3-D glasses, it’s like a low-budget, 1970s version of a superhero flick, with tinfoil outfits and awful haircuts and dialogue. There’s so much to lampoon in modern movie culture, in our love of the superhero, but it helps if you’ve know what you’re lampooning. I got the feeling Assayas has seen none of it.

Plus Jo-Ann’s lover is a famous novelist? Let me quote Gore Vidal in 1992: “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.”

How sweet to be a cloud
A common Assayas theme is whither culture, French or otherwise, in this Americanized and Hollywoodized world, but he’s handled it better elsewhere (“L’heure d’ete,” particularly). We were young once, and serious, and now things have gotten away from us. And look who (or what) is powerful.

But “Sils Maria” doesn’t quite click. Its use of the Maloja Snake, the cloud formation in the Alps, is both heavy-handed and slightly incomprehensible, and the film doesn’t do what it does: coalesce into a distinct form.

Posted at 07:19 AM on Wednesday August 05, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Monday July 06, 2015

Movie Review: Yves Saint Laurent (2014)


In the entire history of film and television, according to, French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent has only been portrayed three times: Ian McKellen in an episode of “Saturday Night Live” in 2002; then two feature-length French biopics in 2014. After years of famine, in other words, the feast. A model’s diet—but more purge than binge. Basically “Truman Capote writing ‘In Cold Blood’ in two 2005 feature films” all over again.

Yves Saint LaurentThe other YSL movie, “Saint Laurent” starring Gaspard Ulliel, focuses on the designer during his jet-set heyday from 1967 to 1976. This one, starring Pierre Niney, starts in ’57 in Oran, Algeria, where Laurent was born and raised, and it ends about the same time as the other, 1976, when Laurent pulled himself out of his coke-addled stupor to reimagine Russian peasant garb—ushanka hats, linen dresses, and shawls and scarves—as haute couture. How he did this we don’t know. As with most of his creations in the movie, they’re just there. Then there’s applause. Then someone says he’s a genius. Répéter.

A lot of knowledge is assumed here so it’s good I watched it with Patricia, who knows something about fashion and design. I didn’t know, for example, that the Russian fashion show was a watershed event for Laurent—his 61st home run, so to speak. P hadn’t heard of his first model-muse, Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon, César nominee, and hot), but definitely knew the second, Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin), who has a smaller and more meaningless role. Does she even speak a line of dialogue? She’s haught instead of hot.

This “Yves Saint Laurent” was nominated for seven Césars, winning one (best actor for Niney), and it’s nicely photographed (by Thomas Hardmeier), but it’s not a particularly good movie. When we first see YSL he’s already the heir apparent at Dior. How did he get there? Then Dior dies and YSL takes over. Then he’s conscripted into the French military, but the movie keeps things vague. The Wikipedia entry on YSL gives us more drama:

Saint Laurent was in the military for 20 days before the stress of hazing by fellow soldiers led to him being admitted to a military hospital, where he received news that he had been fired by Dior. This exasperated his condition, and he was transferred to Val-de-Grâce military hospital, where he was given large doses of sedatives and psychoactive drugs, and subjected to electroshock therapy. Saint Laurent himself traced the history of both his mental problems and his drug addictions to this time in hospital.

Most of the movie is about his relationship with longtime companion and business partner Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne), who helps him set up his own fashion house. In fact, the movie becomes more about Bergé than Laurent. We see events through his eyes. As Laurent grows from timid genius to outlandish jet-setter, Bergé displays the patience of Job. He tries to protect Laurent and is accused of controlling him. Laurent cheats on him incessantly, and falls in love with another man, but Bergé takes it all with preternatural calm (and some connivance). Does Bergé ever go with Laurent to the clubs? Does he want to? Meanwhile, the reason YSL is relevant—fashion—gets short shrift in favor of nightclubbing and descent into addiction, which is never (never ever, screenwriters) interesting.

How about a conversation on the basics of fashion? Why this dress is beautiful and that one isn't? Why this fashion show succeeded and that one didn't? “Yves Saint Laurent” is the second French movie I’ve seen in a month where I wanted a little philosophical discussion from the French and didn’t get it. What's going on here? Are they trying to overcome their stereotype by offering its opposite? Come back to the boulangerie, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Posted at 04:30 AM on Monday July 06, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Wednesday June 10, 2015

Movie Review: Excuse My French (2014)


They say comedies don’t travel, and “Excuse My French,” a controversial, coming-of-age comedy that did well at the Egyptian box office last year, is an example of how this is true. And how it isn’t.

It’s true because a lot of the jokes don’t translate (Ex: the “No Offense” nickname), or western audiences won’t find them funny (ogling the hot teacher, Miss Nelly, along with her subsequent offscreen molestation).

It isn’t true because Hani’s situation is universal. I related anyway. 

In 1975, the year after my parents divorced, I graduated from the safe confines of Burroughs Elementary School and was bussed across town to Bryant Junior High, where I got picked on mostly because I was 1) smart, 2) small, and 3) white.

Excuse My FrenchHani Adel (Abdallah Peter, who has a Fred Savage thing going on) switches schools because his father dies suddenly and his mother can no longer afford private school. So he attends a public middle school for boys, where he is picked on mostly because he is 1) smart, 2) small, and 3) Christian.

Actually scratch that third one. It doesn’t come into play until the third act. Besides, as boys around the world know, the first two are bad enough.

The wolf and the sheep
The film has a mild Wes Anderson vibe to it: a lot of head-on shots for comic effect; a lot of small figures at the center of the frame.  

Hani’s school has a mild anarchic vibe to it. As his mom drops him off, the first thing he hears—from a passing kid—is how hot his mom is. At assembly, the school bully, Aly, keeps shouting down the adult speakers. He rules from the back of the classroom, while Hani can’t find a seat until he has to settle for front and center with another small kid, Mo’men, who becomes his friend.

(Sidenote: Do the kids stay in the same classroom all day while the teachers rotate? I got that sense. It’s the opposite in the states.)

Every early step for Hani is a misstep. He begins an answer with “No offense, but ...” and gets nicknamed “No Offense.” (I still don’t get it.) He thinks he can win over the kids with wordplay, then with science experiments, then by reciting the Koran. He’s elected class president but only because he’s perceived as controllable. (“May God help you,” Mo’men tells him after the election.) In the schoolyard, he’s constantly given the Darwinian lessons of life by a small, moustache-wearing teaching assistant: there are wolves and sheep and he is a sheep. The assistant shows him the room of the damned, which includes a kid who ratted on his classmates to his mom. Hani feels trapped.

But he’s nothing if not determined and resourceful. For a moment, he wins some measure of popularity with futbol and rapping prowess. But after Miss Nelly’s molestation, he’s determined to stand up to at least one bully—Ally—and does. For that, he gets beaten up, and for that his mom drags him back to school to accuse and complain. Since she’s wearing a cross, his cover is blown; and since his mom ratted, he winds up in the room of the damned. Even Mo’men abandons him. 

But even here he’s determined. His mom wants to immigrate to Canada but he refuses. He gives up tennis for judo, then, during Ramadan, takes a Nutella sandwich to school to provoke classmates who are fasting. It works. He and Aly get into a fight, he gets his ass kicked, but the other kids seem turned off by Aly’s triumphalism. For a moment I thought the movie was going to go “Cool Hand Luke” on us in a way that didn’t sense here. (Hadn’t Aly always been a chest-beating doofus? Why turn away from him now?) But that’s not the way it goes. Hani stands up again, throws dirt in Aly’s eyes, and pummels him. The kids cheer. They put Hani on their shoulders and a half dozen surround the defeated Aly and kick him. Both boys are punished by standing in the schoolyard and holding their hands in the air for an extended period. “Part of Hani was happy for being punished,” the narrator tells us. Those are the last words we hear.

If all of this seems odd and vaguely brutal, well, it is. I liked that part of it.

Spotting one a mile away
“Excuse My French” is based upon the middle-school experiences of writer-director Amr Salama—who also wrote and directed the award-winning “Asmaa,” about an Egyptian woman suffering from AIDS—and the appeal to me isn’t in what’s familiar but what’s not; in what feels particularly foreign.

It’s basically a feel-good comedy but there’s not a lot to feel good about. Yes, Hani triumphs. But not before one teacher is molested, another has his face slashed, and all joy is drained from Hani’s initially exuberant face. By the end, he’s constantly on guard, his face screwed up into a wary scowl. There’s something that feels true about that. The joys you have to give up in order to simply survive. Salama doesn’t sugarcoat it the way Hollywood would.

He also doesn’t sugarcoat the Muslim/Christian dynamic. “I can spot one a mile away,” Mo’men says of Christians, not knowing he’s saying it to one who’s a foot away. Even better is how Hani is treated once his cover is blown: as a nonentity by most, and with condescending kindness by the administration. How great is that? Somewhere, we’re all victims of both discrimination and its flip side—political correctness. Another universal.

If anyone from Egypt has seen the movie, I would love to hear your thoughts. And your translations of the jokes I missed. Also, why is it called “Excuse My French”?

Posted at 06:34 AM on Wednesday June 10, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Friday May 29, 2015

Movie Review: Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains (2014)


We know going in that Kurmanjan Datka (played by the lovely Elina Abai Kyzy for two-thirds of the movie) will unite the 40 tribes of modern-day Kyrgyzstan and become legendary. But as the movie begins, our heroine is just a small, unwanted girl in a 19th-century, mountainous, patriarchal society who doesn’t even get to choose her own husband. So how does she do it? How does she attain power?

Turns out the way Corazon Aquino and Isabel Peron attained power: through the death of their husbands.

Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the MountainsSecond question: What does she do that’s so legendary? According to the film:

  • When she’s a little girl, and her father wants a male heir, it’s prophesied that 1) he won’t get it, and 2) his daughter is worth 100 boys. “Our country will need her tomorrow,” the cave-dwelling seer says. And outside a tiger growls in the high grass.
  • As a young woman, she brings water to a wife falsely accused of adultery when no man in the village will help.
  • In a massive breach of cultural mores, she leaves her first husband, who is rich and weak. And in the river she crosses, a tiger swims.
  • When her second husband is assassinated, and she is targeted by his enemies, she rides her horse off of a cliff and into the river below. Both she and the horse survive. Yes, there’s a tiger there, too.
  • When tribesmen are ready to abandon the notion of unity that her husband had been fighting for, she gives the speech that inspires the tribal leaders to fight for their land. And they win.
  • When Russian soldiers arrive from the North, she gives the speech that inspires the tribal leaders not to fight for their land. And they’re annexed by Russia.
  • When one of her sons is captured for killing Russian soldiers, she attends the hanging and does nothing to prevent it.
  • At the beginning of the 20th century, she gets her picture taken by Russian officer Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who later became leader of Finland.

That’s about it. According to the film. 

Hold ‘em, fold ‘em
I mostly went to see “Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains,” which played at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, because I knew so little about the country. 

Kyrgyzstan is, to put it mildly, interestingly situated. Its people look like Asians, dress like Mongols, practice Islam, and are forever menaced by Russia. According to title cards at the beginning of the film, the country was united in the 9th century but slowly broke apart. It took Kurmanjan to unite it again. I think.

There’s still a lot of things I don’t quite get. Her arranged marriage turns out to be with a weakling, who .... can’t seal the deal on honeymoon night? Is that the implication? And does he send Fatty to take over or does Fatty do this on his own accord when hubby can’t break a stick by the fire? And does Fatty rape her, or is he stopped when she throws water in his face?

The real Kurmanjan fled to China, initially, but in the movie she simply returns to her family, who are ostracized for her impertinence; tribal chiefs are summoned to pass judgment. The local feudal lord, Alymbek Datka (Aziz Muradillayev), also arrives, and he passes judgment: He likes this feisty woman; he takes her for his wife.

But everyone’s got a boss. Apparently the Datka reported to the Kokand khanate, which was made up of the modern-day stans: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan. When Alymbek tries to unite some of the Kyrgyz tribes, he’s assassinated. Then Kurmanjan rallies the troops and they win independence. Then the Russians arrive and they lose independence.

That’s pretty much the movie, and from an outsider perspective it doesn’t quite gel. Kurmanjan is legendary because she allowed Russia to annex their land? But it makes sense in this way, and please forgive the puny analogy, but it’s all I’ve got. For me, whenever I’ve been promoted in a corporate environment, it often feels like I have less power. I should feel the opposite but don’t. The higher I go, the weaker I feel. Maybe here, too. She rose to a level where the opposition was Russia, and to fight Russia was to invite extermination. So she didn’t. She knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.

How a country portrays itself
“Kurmanjan Datka” is not a very good movie but you admire the effort it took to make it. (The Guardian has a good article on why “Queen of the Mountains” was made and the controversies surrounding its production.) And its two leads do have a movie-star presence. Elina Abai Kyzy is beautiful, while Aziz Muradillayev has something of Chow Yun Fat in his calm manner and amused eyes.

Plus it’s always interesting to see how a country portrays itself—particularly one that has had little opportunity to do so.

Posted at 05:47 AM on Friday May 29, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Wednesday May 27, 2015

Movie Review: Meeting Dr. Sun (2014)


When I lived in Taiwan in 1987-88 I became a little obsessed with statues. You’d see them everywhere. Mostly they were of Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang dictator who died in 1975, and whose more benevolent son, Chiang Ching-kuo, died shortly after I arrived. (Black armbands suddenly appeared on everyone.) But nearly as often the statues were of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the 20th century revolutionary leader and first president of the Republic of China, whose 1923 speech on the “Three Principles of the People” was adapted into the Taiwanese national anthem, and who is so revered that both capitalist Taiwan and communist China claim him. Back then, I always wanted to do a photo essay on all of the Chiang and Sun statues in Taiwan. At the least, I wanted a headcount.

I mention all of this because the key artifact in “Meeting Dr. Sun,” the wholly original, humorously deadpan, imperfect-crime caper from Taiwanese writer-director Yee Chih-yen, is, of course, a statue of Sun Yat-sen. This one doesn’t stand in a school courtyard, or on a busy street, or in the middle of Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, but is relegated to a storeroom. And it soon becomes as desired, and as fought over, as the real Dr. Sun.

Yo meiyo
“You have to pay your class dues this month.”  

Meeting Dr. SunThese are the first words we hear in the movie, and we hear them over and over again. It becomes a theme. Not the words but repetition. Repeating phrases is a key element in the film’s deadpan comedy.

The one who’s being hounded with this phrase is nicknamed Lefty (Zhan Huai-Yun)—“as in ‘the left side,’” he says over and over—who is a gangly, slow-moving high school student in Taipei. One day, staring into a storeroom off the school’s gymnasium, he gets an idea and his face breaks into a smile; then he shares this idea—stealing and hocking the statue of Dr. Sun to pay for classes—with three fellow students who also owe money. He tells them this on the streets of Taipei while continually moving them away from potential eavesdroppers: flight attendants leaving a hotel, for example, and an elderly man with a walker; people, in other words, who have absolutely zero interest in what they’re doing. That’s when I first began to laugh.

Lefty is careful about every detail. He knows his team needs masks, so he buys the cheapest ones: plastic versions of a wide-eyed, blue-haired and red-bowed anime girl, whose mouth is stuck in a small “o” of surprise. Then he and his team practice and pantomime the heist. His face lights up with pride as he confirms they need to complete the caper in under an hour—before the one guard on duty stops watching TV and makes his rounds. Then, a complication: Lefty finds a notebook on the campus grounds and realizes that someone else is planning to steal and hock the statue of Dr. Sun.

That someone is nicknamed Sky (Wei Han-Ting), who’s smaller, tougher but not as smart as Lefty—a low bar he doesn’t quite reach. He’s also more conniving. Invited to join Lefty’s gang, he instead steals the equipment so he and his gang can pull off the heist first. Incensed, Lefty’s gang joins them, all eight wearing the same absurd anime masks, all of them needed to move the heavy statue of Dr. Sun. It’s not until they actually get the thing on the truck that they suddenly realize both gangs are present. Confusion and sloppy fighting ensues.

Two China policy
“Meeting Dr. Sun” is rarely laugh-out-loud funny; its humor is more on a constant, delightful simmer. It’s also charming and surprisingly gentle. And metaphoric? Are the gangs fighting over Dr. Sun representative of the two Chinas fighting over his legacy? Is the movie a class argument—what the poor have to do to get a proper education?

Such meaning peeks through. Near the end, there’s a big, two-minute fight scene between Lefty and Sky on the deserted, nighttime streets of Taipei, which is, again, funny, long, exasperating, and surprisingly gentle. As the boys roll around on the greasy ground, punching and kicking and flailing, the statue of Dr. Sun, stuck in the middle of the street, looks down on them as if with a mixture of bemusement and admonishment; and maybe a little shame that it’s come to this. 

Posted at 07:01 AM on Wednesday May 27, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Tuesday March 31, 2015

Movie Review: Listen Up Philip (2014)


Philip, indeed. The title graphics alone—using the font of Philip Roth’s early’70s bestsellers, particularly “Portnoy’s Complaint”—give it away, even if the story hadn’t.

A Jewish-American writer in New York City, with a unique voice and acerbic attitude, leaves his girl and the city to sit at the feet of the great man, who lives in a rustic cabin in the goyishe woods with a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty. But instead of short-story writer Nathan Zuckerman sidling up to E.I. Lonoff, who has a graduate student, Amy, staying with him and his wife (and who may or may not be Anne Frank!), as in “The Ghost Writer,” one of Roth’s best novels, we watch two-time novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), genuflecting before Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who has his daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter), staying with him.

Another difference: Roth is funny.

Listen Up PhilipMore than that. Roth’s characters, from Portnoy to Zuckerman, were nice Jewish boys for whom things (libido and ego, generally) got in the way. There was conflict there. This Philip? Writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s version? We first see him lambast an ex, who is 25 minutes late for a lunchdate at a corner coffeeshop; and rather than feel any sense of guilt, he feels free. He’s the literal “freed-man.” So he acts the dick again with another old friend—a contemporary who didn’t live up to the promise, and who (punchline) is in a wheelchair—and then spends most of the movie in this frame of mind. Zimmerman’s the same way, and initially seems to be warning Friedman in a better direction. I.e., “View the error of my ways,” as Lonoff essentially tried to warn Zuckerman. But Zimmerman is worse than Friedman. He’s cantankerous, his talents aren’t what they were, he rails at friends and family. Even as he basks in Friedman’s admiration, he has to take him down a peg. He and his friend Norm get the 25-year-old Scotch; Friedman gets the 10. Zimmerman is forever telling him, “I did it better.” Friedman, who abuses others’ niceties, accepts this abuse. It’s his idol, after all.

There’s a vague argument in the movie that for these writers to create their art they have to distance themselves from the rest of humanity, who are, more or less, chatter, interruptions, annoyances; and maybe in so doing (I’m extrapolating here), in distancing themselves, they plant the seeds of their own destruction, eventually losing the necessary elements, the necessary humanity, to continue to create their art. Actually, scratch that second part. It’s not here. And normally I’d like that. Our popular stories are full of comeuppance for men behaving badly when the real world shows us the opposite—that success almost requires ruthlessness. So it would be nice if our art owned up to that unpalatable observation, and “Listen Up Philip” kinda does. Zimmerman has his great successes, Friedman will have his.

But that leave us with ... what? Again, where is the conflict? Roth gives us the tension between nice and venal, and that drives his narratives, while Friedman is Zuckerman laced with Mickey Sabbath (sans the sex), and so never particularly interesting. He says little that’s witty or insightful. He doesn’t grow, doesn’t shrink. This is a great novelist? He seems more Hollywood/movies than New York/novelist. He ends the film as he began it, walking the streets of New York, alone, bumping into people, with successes ahead and a scowl on his face. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with him, let alone 90. 

Posted at 06:48 AM on Tuesday March 31, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Friday March 13, 2015

Movie Review: The Salvation (2014)


“The Salvation,” a Danish film set in the American west of the 1870s, is a purer western than most Hollywood westerns.

An Easterner (way east: Denmark) and war veteran (the Second Schleswig War, 1864) winds up in the Old West, where he loses wife and child in brutal fashion and seeks revenge. The town is full of cowards, the mayor/undertaker and sheriff/minister are either weak or collaborators, and the villain who runs things is surrounded by henchmen, bullies and rapists.

Each trope is slightly skewed yet powerfully realized. The film’s foreign pedigree helps with both. Hollywood westerns are all about revenge but the work of prolific Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (“In a Better World”) is about the consequences of revenge; the consequences of standing up to a brutal world. What happens when you match the world’s brutality with your own? Doing so, in Hollywood’s version, is necessary and clean and usually the end of the movie; for Jensen, it’s necessary but never clean and usually the beginning of the movie. Sunsets are a Hollywood contrivance.

The Salvation with Mads MikkelsenThere’s a moment 60 minutes into this 90-minute film that’s indicative of why it works. Jon, the Dane (Mads Mikkelsen), has been strung up in the courtyard of the villain, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but rescued by his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), and both are pursued through the countryside by Delarue’s brutal men. Does Jon even know he’s been rescued? He’s out cold for most of it, and his brother has to leave him behind with a rifle. When Jon wakes, he crawls to a pond, drinks, then hears horses approaching. He crawls behind a rock again, grabs his rifle, waits in a panic. The horses go past. He sees that. He also sees they’re dragging something behind them. Peter. Dead.

At this point, the camera closes in on Jon’s face, and on the pain he feels. The music doesn’t well up; it’s quiet, soft. There’s no sudden determination in his eyes at the end, either. Just pain. The whole scene makes you wonder what our westerns would’ve been like if men like Clint Eastwood had been better actors, or had a touch of humanity in their performances.

Stagecoach II
The first 20 minutes are tough to take, by the way.

A prologue tells us that Jon and his brother Peter (Miakel Persbrandt), following the defeat of Denmark to Prussia/Austria in the Second Schleswig War, left for America, and created a life in the town of Black Creek. Then Jon sends for his wife and son. He first mistakes a woman alighting from the train as his wife but she’s actually behind him; we see her first. On the stagecoach, she tells him in Danish, “You not only look like them, you sound like them.” “You will, too,” he replies consolingly, but she doesn’t mean it as a compliment. And in the stagecoach, two men will prove her right. If John Ford’s stagecoach was a microcosm of civilized society, the version by Jensen and director Kristian Levring is the opposite.

Later in the movie, imprisoned in town, Jon will be chastised by the Sheriff/Minister of Black Creek, Mallick (Douglas Henshall), thus: “If you’d just shown a little compassion for Delarue’s brother instead of killing him, then Mrs. Borowski and Mr. Whisler and Joe No Leg, they’d still be here.” Except he does show compassion. That’s the problem. Even after the two men pull a gun on him and try to rape his wife in front of him (and her son), and Jon gets the upper hand on them, he doesn’t kill them immediately. He shows that little bit of compassion, little bit of civilized behavior. And because of that, it all goes wrong. Lester (Sean Cameron Michael) puts a knife to the boy’s neck, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) grabs the wife again, and Jon is forced to put down his gun. Then he’s kicked out of the stagecoach and into the black night.

He tries to catch the coach, but nobody can outrun horses. Even so, he’s able to follow its tracks to a deserted area, and finds bodies along the way: the stagecoach driver; his son. And there’s the coach next to the woods, with Lester standing guard, rocking back and forth.

Welcome to America.

The revenge is swift. That was unexpected. Lester gets it in the forehead, Paul runs out of the stagecoach, pants between his legs, is shot down. He pleads for what he didn’t truly appreciate before: mercy. “She’s not dead!” he cries. “She’ll be fine!” But Jon keeps pumping his rifle until there are no bullets, and no life, left; then he goes to the stagecoach. We don’t see what he sees; just that he sees it.

This should be the end, right? Twenty-five minutes in. Instead, there are consequences: As alluded, Paul is the brother of Delarue, who runs the town, and who exacts revenge (until the true killer can be found) by taking two lives for his brother’s life: an old woman and a drunk. Not content, he also kills Mr. Whisler, husband and father. The town elders simply watch. The Mayor/undertaker, Keane (Jonathan Pryce), is actually in collusion with Delarue, who, it turns out, isn’t bullying the town simply from pleasure; he’s driving people out so Standard Atlantic Oil Company can buy up all the land. There’s a reason the town’s called Black Creek: the stuff bubbles up from the ground. “It’s that sticky oil,” Jon says later in the movie, by way of explanation for all the bad that’s happened. “Delarue believes it’s gonna be worth thousands.”

I love that. Thousands.

Ancient ruins
It all plays out the way we expect but it’s really well-done. The sheriff/minister not only captures Jon for the murder of the two men, not only chastises him for his lack of mercy, but justifies his own collusion in the name of the Lord. “Your death is going to bring us some time,” he says. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice a single sheep to save the rest. I’m just a shepherd guarding the flock.” In an Eastwood movie, Mallick would’ve been brought low in some way; he would’ve realized the error of his ways; he would’ve embarrassed himself. Here, even to the end, he’s allowed to see himself as the shepherd, the hero. He’s even given the last line of the movie.

In the end, Jon leads an assault on Delarue’s place with the grandson of Mrs. Borowski. The kid tries, but he’s no soldier. But Jon has another partner: Madelaine (Eva Green), the mute widow of Delarue’s brother. Except despite all the fine feelings he has for his brother, Delarue rapes her, and after she tries to flee, he gives her to his men to rape and kill. That’s about when Jon begins his assault and kills everyone but (of course) Delarue. And he’s about to be (of course) killed by Delarue when (of course) Madelaine puts a big hole through Delarue. And in the smoldering aftermath, the Sheriff/Minister arrives to survey the damage and praise the survivors. Except he’s rebuffed, and so offers these parting words to our two heroes: “May the Lord have mercy on both your souls,” he says.

That’s the last line of the movie. Well, last spoken line. As the movie ends, the camera pulls back, and we see all the wooden oil wells on the property, looking like ancient ruins, or newfound gods.

Question: What exactly is the salvation of the title?

Posted at 05:29 PM on Friday March 13, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Wednesday February 04, 2015

Movie Review: The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)


“The Internet’s Own Boy” has the advantage of a good title and a great subject.

Aaron Swartz (no “ch”?) was born in 1986 and was 10 when the Internet took off; as a prodigy, he took off with it. He co-founded Reddit, helped develop RSS, founded Demand Progress. By the time he was 15 he counted among his friends Lawrence Lessig, Harvard professor and social activist, and Timothy Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. He was part of the open source movement and helped stop SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” which could have shut down websites charged with copyright infringement and thus had a chilling effect on the Internet as we know it. In 2008, he downloaded millions of court documents from PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which charges 8 cents per page, but ultimately wasn’t charged himself, since the documents were supposed to be free. In 2010, he did the same with academic journals from JSTOR, a digital repository, via an unguarded network switch at MIT. That act was more problematic. He was charged and indicted on wire fraud and computer fraud, among the 13 charges eventually leveled against him. After plea deals fell through, he took his life on Jan. 11, 2013. He was 26.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron SwartzThe doc is a good primer on who Swartz was and what he stood for, but it fails for me in its final third because of one word:


That word keeps getting tossed around—in the “... so the government cracked down on Swartz” sense—but its meaning is vague. Are we talking about: 1) Stephen Heymann, assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, who was apparently interested in a career-making case against Swartz; 2) various fed departments, such as Homeland Security, which were determined to make an example of Swartz, a benevolent figure, in its losing battle against digital terrorism; 3) corporate-governmental collusion, which didn’t appreciate Swartz’s SOPA work; or 4) Pres. Obama himself, whose administration has looked less kindly upon whistleblowers than even the Bush administration?

All of the above are either said or implied. Mostly implied. There’s no attempt to parse out who exactly is doing or saying what. It’s sloppy work. Talking head and Salon columnist David Sirota implicates Pres. Obama, but shortly after the Obama administration stands with Swartz against SOPA; dramatically, it makes little sense.

I actually found myself wanting to engage with the people on the screen, or at least writer-director Ben Knappenberger (“We Are Legion”), over both hacktivism and the open source movement. A wide-open Internet is all well and good for those who can write code, and make a million dollars off of sites like Reddit, as Swartz did. At the same time, entire professions are being wiped out via digitization and the “free” exchange of ideas. At least be aware that this is happening.

I also don’t get hacktivists who are shocked, shocked when their hacking inspires fear and retribution. For most people, they are wizards. Whether they are good or bad wizards is irrelevant to those who don’t have the power, and who suddenly feel very, very vulnerable.

Again, “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a good title and a not-bad primer. I just wanted less romanticization of hactivism, and less demonization (or at least more clarification) of something called “government,” which, after all, started the internet in the first place.

Posted at 07:26 AM on Wednesday February 04, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  
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