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The Night Manager (2016)
Don't Kid Yourself
Contains spoilers. This is truly second-rate Le Carre, his first post-Cold War effort, when he was clearly groping for what to do next. The big idea here is (surprise) that the international arms dealers are Bad People. That, and many liberties taken by the adaptors have resulted in nothing more than a blood-and-explosion filled James Bond popcorn fest dragged out two episodes too long. Olivia Colman and Tom Hollander are terrific. Hugh Laurie is tedious with his Penetrating Stare, which passes here for acting.Tom Hiddleston is pretty but so wooden you could use him to kill vampires Lovely locations. Most plot turns are hardly credible, as is the ending. Le Carre was noted for his bleak view of the espionage business, and there is some of that here: the good guys are of course being sabotaged by bent members of their own government. But I don't see here what Le Carre was noted for, his ambiguity and his small and painful victories. Instead, we get all Bondy at the end: the bad guy is destroyed, the good guy gets the babe (a leggy blonde who doesn't talk much) and a $300 million bank account.
Beatriz at Dinner (2017)
Well-Dressed Gliberal Bullsh*t
Beatriz at Dinner offers single combat in a gilded cage between 1%er Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and 99%er: Beatriz (Salma Hayek). Beware! The dice, like Beatriz, are loaded, the setup formulaic, the game, as Bernie Sanders would say, is rigged. Beatriz, a Mexican healer in L.A., is steeped in every holistic therapy, hot-stone massage and ancient healing technique you can think of, and more. Her car breaks down at the remote home of rich client Cathy, who invites-—insists-— that she stay for a dinner with her husband and their 1%er guests, never mind that B. is clad in faded jeans and a T-shirt, never mind that it's a formal affair for plutocrats; never mind that B. couldn't possibly fit in and should never have been asked. Guest-of-honor Strutt (gee, could the name be a heads-up?), is a developer notorious for playing hardball with unions and politicos, and usually winning. B., drinking steadily, responds by informing Strutt, and everyone else, of her moral superiority: she's spiritually advanced; she's stressed from helping so many patients; her village was destroyed in some long-ago development boondoggle; her family was dispersed; she knows the planet is dying; and a neighbor killed her goat. In short, filled with resentment and alcohol. Also spite: to a guest who had kidney stones she recommends 'remedies' that would have made him sicker--the kind of thinking that leads to James T. Hodgkinson. Strutt, for his part, is rich and insensitive, and he shot a rhinoceros. This movie is not a tirade but a slow-motion inanimated feature, a lecture rich in the virtue-signaling Hollywood loves so well. Suffice to say you'll have time to speculate on why the wonderfully odd Chloë Sevigny is wasted in her dinky little role. There are two endings. The first, a dream-vs.-reality job, is a cheat plain and simple. The second develops so slowly you know what's coming, so can leave early and beat the traffic.
Plane Resurrection (2016)
Great Blend of History and Technics
This series visits six planes and plane restorers in England, and the focus is on World War II types: a Spitfire, a Hurricane, A P-51, a Stearman and a Percival Q6, some of them virtually wreckage or 'basket cases' when work began. This last was a civilian business airplane impressed into the RAF early in the war; it's believed it was the airplane that spirited Gen. Charles DeGaulle from France to England, where he headed the Free French government. (There's one outlier: construction of a replica Fokker Triplane.) There's plenty of dope about the business of actual restoration to satisfy any geek, but what gives this series broader appeal is the historical side. Of the two narrators providing background and perspective, it is the on-camera voice who is also a face: Ian McLachlan does a fine job of providing context: the importance of these airplanes to the men fought and died in the air in WWII. The interviews have not been polished and rehearsed to a fare-the-well, or "Hoovered" as the British say. The result is that always you feel that real people are speaking to you. All in all, an excellent series.
Hermia & Helena (2016)
Hermia & Helena are two pining lovers in Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' and that's about the last you'll hear of them in this film about a gaggle of arty 20-somethings rattling between fellowships in New York and home in Buenos Aires. We can't really follow their non-adventures because of the non-existent plot and the long baffling flashbacks. Not that we care. Camila and pals are uncommitted to anything much and they never develop, not even when Camila meets for the first time her father, who abandoned her mother during pregnancy. Their meeting is bland and fruitless; neither notices. There's Style by the long ton, though: a disorienting opening with people flitting in and out of the frame at close range; bits of Shakespeare's text, complete with translator's notes, pasted on screen; big close-ups (the one of the man eating a glazed doughnut is given meaning by overheard cellphone conversations); and like that. A loud ragtime-piano score kept me awake through most of this failed undergraduate film-school project.
Ismach Hatani (2016)
It's Really About Fundamentalist Tyrants--of EVERY Kind
The Women's Balcony is a comedy-drama set in Jerusalem about orthodox Jews but--mirabile dictu!—they're happy Jews, full of life and love and joy. Away dull care! Begone Rama Burshstein! But not for long. When the women's balcony of their synagogue collapses, the congregation's elderly and beloved rabbi is incapacitated, leaving them spiritually rudderless and only too glad to find a temporary substitute. This rabbi is young and handsome, with a commanding presence and more than his share of arrogance; soon it is clear that he doesn't think his adoptive congregants are Jewish enough. No, he begins persuading and eventually bullying the men into adopting ever more restrictive ways; his sophistry soon has them cowed and he expects to also cow the women, whom he relegates to voiceless submission. Some of the women do bend a little under his tyranny, but eventually he goes too far. The film is not about the clash of modern and traditional values (actually, it's more like 19th century vs. medieval values), and it's not at all solely about Jews. This is a tale about the creeping stranglehold of fundamentalist tyranny. Somehow the scriptwriter, Shlomit Nehama, has managed to leaven it with wry and loving humor. Two revealing scenes involve and electric samovar early on and a bowl of fruit salad much later. The finale is a delight.
The Littlest David vs. the Largest Goliath
Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (in limited release but already on Netflix) is a compelling documentary, suspenseful even though the ending is obvious. Joshua is a skinny teenager who somehow manages to in-spire a mass revolt against the Chinese government. The Umbrella Revolution grew out of China's increasing violations of Hong Kong's promised self-rule, such as imposing 'National Education' (i.e., communist orthodoxy) on students and selecting the candidates for elections. This was no quickie protest; it lasted months, but if you remember Tiananmen Square, it was clearly doomed. (If you don't remember, China responded to the 1989 Tiananmen protests with tanks, murdering 2600 protesters with automatic weapons. Mere mention of the event is illegal in China, which set up a surveillance camera to keep one victim's mother from visiting his grave.) Hong Kong's repression never came to that, but the relentless beatings and tear-gassings won in the end. A salutary homework assignment: the Umbrella protesters take risks and have principles while American leftists are coddled by college administrators for denying free speech to any who disagree with them. Discuss.
An Esthetic Born in Ocean Liners and REAL Grand Hotels
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent is part-biography, part revenge and, as one semi-literate critic for a men's clothing magazine put it, 'so fun.' Well, let's say absorbing and enjoyable. Tower grew up luxe under hands-off parents who took him on glamorous travels but usually left him to his own devices, like luggage tagged 'not wanted on the voyage.' And so young Jeremiah began developing a personal esthetic derived from the ocean liners and grand hotels he eagerly explored—their kitchens especially. He perhaps more than Alice Waters put her Chez Panisse on the map and she returned the favor by copying his menus and recipes in her cookbook while giving him no credit at all and only a perfunctory word of thanks. Tower moved on to Stars, his stunning max-luxe celebrity restaurant in San Francisco, then, post-recession, vanished for 15 years until he made the terrible mistake of signing on as Tavern on the Green's second top chef in five months. Bankrupt in 2009, the New York landmark, its gaudiest trap for tourists and suburban wedding planners, had reopened in 2014 under two guys from Philadelphia (!!!). Their expertise came from a crepe restaurant and a lounge noted mostly for its dance floor. (Tower, who split after six months, says they asked him whether lamb had both white and dark meat. As the Philly wonder twins would be on their fourth chef by 2016, I can imagine them ordering sushi medium-rare.) Plenty of top foodies appear in support of Tower: Ruth Reichl, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Martha Stewart and co-producer Anthony Bourdain proclaim him and unrecognized culinary giant, and he himself is a compelling presence. In all a documentary that's good to look at, fascinating in its insider view, and both beguiling and melancholy.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016)
Beware the Bureaucrat with Power and a Hunger for Headlines
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a suspenseful David v. Goliath documentary of family loyalty and stubborn courage facing a gigantic government agency and an ego to match. As follows: Tom Sung emigrated from China at 16 and became in time a citizen, a successful lawyer and a resident of upscale Connecticut. Nevertheless he noticed that 'establishment' banks were happy to take his deposits, but when it came to getting a loan, he didn't, as the saying went in the hateful days of the racist Exclusion Act, 'have a Chinaman's chance.' Sung then took a chance and started his own bank—Abacus Federal Savings. His timing was perfect: new immigration laws in the 1960s meant Chinatown soon had a] plenty of customers for Abacus and b] something besides Cantonese restaurants. He was a genuine positive force among the Chinese population, admired and respected by all. Then about a decade ago low-ranking Abacus personnel were caught falsifying mortgage applications; they were immediately sacked and their misdeeds reported to feds, as required. Mistake, as it turned out. The subprime- mortgage crisis was big news: until then, few Americans used the word 'trillion' for anything but the national debt or the distance from here to Alpha Centauri. Villains included Citibank, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and while some were fined, no one went to jail and most bonuses were paid as usual. Unfortunately for Abacus, new-minted New York D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr., who was as hungry for publicity as NY's Sen. Charles Schumer, saw a chance for headlines and photo ops. Seeking a halo as the sole public avenger of the crisis, Vance charged Abacus with 80 counts of criminal wrongdoing, launching a court battle that ran five years and cost $10 million. Although the major villains had got off lightly as being 'too big to fail,' Vance's target was indeed 'small enough to jail': in size, Abacus was 2600th among U.S. banks. About the size, as it turned out, of David. This is an excellent documentary, suspenseful but lightened with some bursts of humor among the Sung family as they fight for the reputations and their principles.
Crushed Between Principle and Fatherly Love
It's probably better to wait for Netflix on this, a pretty good—but not THAT good—film set in the post-Ceaușescu era, where Eliza is about to realize the dream of her parents: escape from gritty, grubby, backward Romania to a real future in civilized England. She has tentatively won a college scholarship there and needs only to pass her upcoming high-school final to confirm it, but a shattering sexual assault has left her in no condition to take the test, let alone focus sufficiently to pass it. School bureaucrats' refusal to allow a postponement means the scholarship could be lost. The only solution lies in the sordid game of cronyism, bribes, favors and under-table, back-scratch deals that has long been a necessary coping mechanism for people under repressive regimes. Thus the moral crisis for Eliza's father: he's a surgeon, not only good but honest. He won't take bribes, favors and gifts for doing his job (people think he's joking when he refuses their 'incentive money'), but can he, this one time, in these extreme circumstances, dirty his hands just a little to save his daughter's future?
Laavor et hakir (2016)
Yeastily Ethnic But Incredible and Unpalatable
More garden-variety 'critics rave' rubbish, utterly incredible but full of yeasty ethnicity. Dumped by her fiancé just before the wedding, Michal—-desperate, delusory, needy and pathetic-—proceeds nevertheless, insisting that God Will Provide a groom. Did I mention that she's 32 and feels humiliated by her singleness? She even has the chutzpah to put our Lord on a short leash: He must provide no later than the last night of Hanukkah, 20 days away!, because she's already hired the hall. But even the Lord's choices are limited here. Michal is not only orthodox but WAY orthodox, and on top of that wants True Love. Perhaps because 'God helps those who help themselves,' she adds a second string to her bow, a matchmaker-cum- mystic who smears her face with fish guts and says all will be well. Reassured, Michael proceeds to sampling the dinner menu, inviting 200 guests, buying a gown. Intermittently, perhaps because Yahweh is working to rule, she interviews prospective grooms on her own. Now all this is possibly the makings of comedy, particularly of the madcap or screwball kind, but writer-director Rama Burshtein is mostly invested in sadcap and rueball. Laughs are few and mostly polite, the dialogue painful. Interviews with potential grooms are tense with slit-eyed suspicion--not communicative but insinuative, like encounters with the Stasi just before they get out the rubber hoses. Possibly seeking to avoid the crushing dreariness of her 2012 'Fill the Void,' or more likely to pad her sagging story, Burshtein cheats by twice introducing the same red herring. Finally she moves to a slam-bang ending that is both unconvincing to the critical and unsatisfying to the gullible. There's an unattractive hollowness to the story: marriage among Michal's sect (which another IMDb-er informs me is the Haredi (thanks!) is presented as if it were little more than a business transaction, a deal made solely with procreation in mind. Indeed at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, Michal's reliance on the Almighty has fallen so far that she offers to marry a man she's rejected before, an it can't happen only because he's on army duty and can't do the deal that very night. All of this is done over the phone. And yet we're supposed to believe that she wants True Love?
Les cowboys (2015)
Wild West Frenchmen, Runaway Daughter, Long, Hard Chase
A passel of good old boys and girls wrapped in American flags, sheriff's badges and denim are they're doing what comes naturally: hoe-downin' and boot-stompin' and a-signin' sappy hurtin' songs. Then it hits you: they're actually wearing not ten-gallon hats but 38- liter Stetsons because they're all French. Yup, pardner, there's a subset of Frenchmen that is besotted with the Old West (as are Germans with American Indians), and we are delighting in this charming foolishness when it's suddenly clear that Alain's daughter is missing. Alain and his wife are subsequently astounded to learn that she has dropped all her old friends, taken on serious boyfriend, that he's a Muslim, and that he and she have utterly disappeared. Alain's hunt for her becomes increasingly obsessive, violent and dangerous as he is duped or cheated by various Muslim contacts, more or less ignored by the authorities, and frustrated and humiliated at every turn. Save for an enigmatic visit from a fonctionnaire identified only as a government minister from 'the ministry,' everything hangs together; the story is mesmerizing and fraught with tensions. Then circumstances require that Alain's son, Texanly named Kid, take over the hunt. Here begins a series of high- risk scenes and episodes that are equally mesmerizing but devoid of logic or even the remotest likelihood. These are nevertheless convincing in and of themselves, but if you require logic and likelihood, too bad. For example (spoiler!): early on Kid is out of the blue working for an NGO in Somewherestan, where he falls for a fellow do-gooder but leaves her like that on meeting a shabby and dubious American freelance 'fixer' (fabulous John C. Reilly) who's going on horseback with $800,000 in gold to ransom two guys from the Taliban and doesn't trust his creepy local guides and so he gets Kid to ride along as bodyguard by telling him he knows where the sister is and that Kid can get her back. If that won't work for you, beware: things are about to get a lot worse. This didn't bother me; I just rolled with it. But a companion hated every minute and also detected a flash of incest re father and daughter, sparked by their awkward dance at the hoedown and the theme song, 'Tennessee Waltz.' If so, that, like the sudden burst of anti-Muslim sentiment late in the show, is a toss-in that goes nowhere. As for the climax, it's enigmatic and non- credible. Proceed at your own risk.
V luchakh solntsa (2015)
What North Koreans Need Is The Internet
Russian director Vitaly Mansky spent almost a year in Pyongyang shooting a propaganda film about an 8-year-old girl's entry into the Children's Union, the political organization that every NK kid must join. He knew that in the land of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un he would be intensely 'supervised' in every respect; not allowed to film anything on his own; not permitted to talk to the actors; and be required to use the script the North Koreans provided. But his cameras each had two digital recording cards so he could give one, containing 'official' footage, to his bosses while keeping the cameras rolling to surreptitiously record forbidden images. Thus we see stage-managers staging everything, constantly appearing from the wings to coach the actors (usually to be more joyful—and patriotic); other images betray the weight of oppression: the morning public exercises (instructions blare from loudspeakers in the public square); reflexive and repetitive statements by everyone fulsomely praising the Kim dynasty (for heroism, self- sacrifice, generosity, loving care, ad infinitum/nauseam); a decorated Korean War vet (at least three dozen gigantic medals on his tunic) meekly and bewilderedly submitting to the stage-managers' instructions on what to say and how to say it. And then there's Pyongyang itself, a city of three million—but where are all the people? You hardly see them except in singing, forced-smiling packs of school kids, who march or run rather than walk to endless classes on the greatness of the Kims. The city is not only colorless but featureless: no fast food joints, no small businesses, no billboards, no neon, no bustle. Everything is vast, the favorite dimension of tyrants: the squares, the public buildings, the towering bronzes of the holy Kims. A telling shot is of an enormous expanse of asphalt that can be recognized as an intersection only because in its middle stands a lone traffic cop, forlornly waiting for traffic to direct. No one smiles save on command; no one speaks save to praise the 'Generalissimo' or the 'Respected Leader,' and they know absolutely nothing about the world outside North Korea. The film closes with the little girl, Zin-mi, and the scene is heart-breaking as it is horrifying. A teacher frets at her emotionless blank stare and repeatedly insists that she be happy say what makes her happy. Zin-mi is vaguely aware that SOMETHING is required of her but she's not sure how to be happy for the teacher. Finally, after more urging, she reaches desperately into her memory and begins to dully recite the oath she took when joining the Children's Union. It is shattering to realize that you have just watched an eight-year-old child turned into a robot.
Captain Fantastic (2016)
Into the Woods and Off the Grid
Ixnay on the title, which makes it this sound like the tale of some hippy-dippy nonsense. Actually it's the tale—a fairytale--about a rigorous, home-schooling, off-the-grid family: two gorgeous parents and a passel of gorgeous kids, all of them whip-smart and wonderfully fit (one attains manhood by killing a deer single-handed with a knife); all can skin and cook game and harvest edible plants; and none knows anything of the 'outside' until the sudden death of the mother forces them out of their home deep in Oregon's forests and into the strip-mall-supermarket-superhighway world of the southwest, where manifold conflicts arise. Yes, it's a fairytale, but remarkable in several ways. There's little caricature and no smarminess or gooey sentimentality, and even the 'villains' are decent people who have some right on their side, not to mention a wider view of parenting. There are leaps of faith (how do people who live primitive lives with no modern conveniences managed to look so clean and coiffed ALL the time, except when they apply mud camouflage as an aid to assassinating deer?), but you just have to accept them (even the utterly incredible ending). If you do, this good-hearted story will entertain you and earn your respect.
Umimachi Diary (2015)
A New Family Built from the Ruins of Old Ones
Three mostly-grown-up sisters, parentless through divorce and abandonment, grudgingly attend their father's funeral in a village in 'the middle of nowhere' and there meet 13-year-old Suzu, a half- sister they'd never heard of. The widow was the third wife and so wants nothing to do with Suzu, who was born of the second, but the three sisters quickly take to her and impulsively ask her to come live with them and share their larger more urban world and lives: they are, in short, building their own family on parental ruins. The attempt is rife with ups and downs and ins and outs, with concessions and sisterly squabbles and love and generosity and sorrow and sacrifice. Some may find it a bit too sweet; some may find it too long. Others may be grateful for a little sweetness in these days of ugliness and more than willing to 'settle in' to its relaxed pace and many charms. It may be a slight piece of work (you can't ask for a lot of depth in a movie that is based on graphic novel) but it's warm without being sticky, and very nicely done.
Les innocentes (2016)
The Horrors of Liberated Postwar Poland
Poland, immediately after WWII: a highly stressed French Red Cross unit isworking MASH-style to treat and evacuate numerous wounded French soldiers when a desperate Polish nun asks for emergency help. By rule the corpsmen can treat only French military, but by luck and by example the nun moves a young French nurse to break that rule. At the convent she finds that the emergency is that a nun is about to give birth, and with no more help than her sisters' whispered prayers. The subsequent revelations are all convincing and all horrible, especially because the nuns have had to survive--just barely--both the German invaders and their Russian liberators. A.k.a. rapists. This riveting and beautifully filmed story is said to be based on fact. That always makes me want to know more than the 'based on' part. 'Facts are stubborn things,' as John Adams said, to which I add that filmmakers are malleable. They have to make the facts into a story. In this case I felt the wind-up of the story was a high-fructose invention—pat, glib, convenient. Excellent nevertheless.
The Nice Guys (2016)
AViolent Screwball Bromance
This is a bromance bashed up with an action film and whipped into a kind of armed screwball comedy. It stars damned slowly because the critical parts are so far apart, but thereafter it moves along in sprightly fashion, syncopated to much gunfire (the great shootout is the most delightfully non-lethal since 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'). Ryan Gosling plays a professional, licensed private eye who, despite his ineptitude, is rather snooty toward Russel Crowe whose role is that of muscle-for-hire with occasional heart of gold. After the latter whacks the hell out of the former, clinically breaking his arm in the process, they begin to come to an understanding and find they're on, like it or not, the same side of the same absurdly complicated case. Slam-bang: lots of fisticuffs, a couple of killings, enough blood and plenty of mindless fun. Ryan Gosling is especially good.
A Tribute, Overcooked and Underseasoned
Few who are conversant with the F-bomb-laden television of today, not to mention the 'reality' shows and other cynical, let-it-all-hang-out rubbish,can imagine the Ozzie and Harriet Age of American TV. Well, Google it, sonny, and you'll see to your horrow that the airwaves back in the days were also polluted with the likes of 'Gilligan's Island' and 'My Mother, The Car' and lots of other rubbish too fragrant to mention. Then Norman Lear changed everything, or most of it: seeing a relentlessly politically incorrect BBC comedy series called 'Till Death Do Us Part,'about a crusty old crank at war with everything post-1939, he adapted it for Americans. The result was 'All in the Family,' with Archie Bunker and his wife, Edith/Dingbat, son-in-law, Michael/Meathead, and daughter, Gloria wrangling over Vietnam, feminism, race relations and the like—always with sharp humor to match the passion. Launched in 1971, it was a stunning success; it made clear that television executives, who had always claimed to 'give the public what it wants,' had been talking through their hats.(FCC chairman Newton Minow pithily observed that actually, 'the public wants what it gets.'). Lear went on to create several more of the same stripe, all detailed here, such as 'Maude,' 'The Jeffersons,' 'Good Times' and 'One Day at a Time.' All were all popular and many were running at the same time, but none was of 'All in the Family' quality.(Sample wit: Maude says 'You know what I like about you, Archie?' 'What's that?' says Archie. 'Nothing' says Maude. OK, maybe it was 1970s wit.) In all, it seemed for a space of years that Lear WAS television. OK, but one great problem with this documentary is its emotional tone, which is that of hagiography. It suggests strongly that it is not enough to value and appreciate Lear's signal contributions but that the man himself must be regarded as a kind of secular saint, whom we should worship and be grateful too. And so the documentayr skates rather lightly past the facts of his failed marriages (two out of three), that he was an utter vacancy as husband and father (rather like his own parents), scarcely aware of his children and pushing his second wife toward a suicide attempt and eventual $112 million divorce. There's also a very irritating sound track and the directors' pretentious conceit of dividing the 'chapters' of this tale with stagey bits showing Lear today, at 94, communing via a sort of Vulcan mind-meld with a little boy who represents his youthful self, complete with his trademark hat. Just too-too, no? Yes. Lear at 94 is easily moved to tears by all the love and admiration being showered upon him, and the directors can't get enough of them, apparently unaware that a little heartfelt goes a long way. Here it amounts almost to emotional bullying. The running time is 91 minutes. That's by the clock. My keister protests that it was way longer.
Presenting Princess Shaw (2015)
Unlikely Hero Jump-Starts a Struggling Singer's Career
Documentary. Samantha Montgomery, who looks to be in her late 20s/early 30s, lives in ghetto New Orleans. She has and has had a tough, even punishing life; works a low-level nursing-home job; lives alone; and has, let's face it, not much in the way of prospects. She wants to be a star, and she pours her life into her songs and singing anywhere, including at some of the noisiest smoke- blue open-mike dives and dumps imaginable, but mostly to an unseen crowd of followers on YouTube. What happens next can't be mentioned but more important is the heart and courage of the Princess herself. Despite little encouragement save the obligatory kind reflexively offered by Mom and friends, she works hard at her art, remaining consistently and insistently optimistic and open-hearted. And generous, too: doesn't resent her mother's past neglect, is kind and encouraging even to those who want that open- mike chance as much as she does. Stick with this. It's a tad slow in the beginning and the nightclub scenes are ear-pummeling and chaotic; they show you what Princess has to survive.
Ci ke Nie Yin Niang (2015)
Ancient Chinese Secret Not Revealed
The Assassin Review
Maybe If You Were Born in China?
I say that because there's the distinct possibility that native-born Chinese might have the background necessary to comprehend this over- dressed political tale, which is only 105 minutes long but sure seems longer. There are a few splendid visuals—mostly nature scenes— but after that comes the big problem: it's very hard to figure out the who, what, and why. (And sometimes even the where.) The Assassin of the title is Yinniang, a young ninja-like superwoman sent by the nun who raised her to kill the governor of a province that is restless under the emperor's control. Turns out this governor was betrothed to the Yinniang but forced to marry someone else for political reasons. In short, it wasn't his choice, so why does she want to kill him for it? Why does the nun want him killed? No answer. As for the province's conflict with the emperor, that doesn't seem to go anywhere and nothing seems to happen. What's with the mistress faking menstruation? What's with the shaman-type who tries to kill her and then gets six arrows buried in his chest from close range but hardly knows it happened? What's with the guy who is almost buried alive? How long will it take you to realize that the governor's wife and mistress are not the same person? Political Incorrectness Warning: I saw this film with an Asian woman I've known well for more than 40 years. Neither of us could figure out what was going on, in part because, as she said, 'I hate to say this, but they really do all look alike.' That's because with almost no dialogue, few close-ups and most faces overwhelmed by costumes, individuals simply do not emerge. (Yinniang is uniformed in a severe, all-black outfit and the nun is always in white, but everyone else is wrapped or tented in a riot of rich, multi-colored finery.) On top of that, the story is not about people but politics, although there is a obligatory sword fight on the roof. Which brings me to my final question: What's with Chinese directors and swordfights on rooftops, huh?
The Martian (2015)
Human Spirit Triumphs--and Bores
This one really makes me wonder about critic—apparently they're all crazy about this film. I think they're just crazy. This is a sub- ordinary triumph-of-the-human-spirit tale. Here's the plot: An astroteam about to leave Mars for home is beset by a storm so violent that it nearly destroys their rocket. Astronaut Mark Watney is believed killed by flying debris and his body blown away who knows where; the team must leave or die with him. Too late, it's learned that Mark has survived. How to bring him home? The Mars base has food and water for mere months, the next Mars mission is five years away, and the homebound team can't turn back. There ought to be drama by the long ton here, but there isn't. None. The visuals are often pretty good and sometimes better, but they have nothing to support.
There are two overwhelming problems. First, is the gripping space rescue of Apollo 13, which was in addition to the movie Real Life. 'The Martian' is not real life and it ain't real interesting, neither. In the face of Apollo 13, that, you need something better than a fairy tale. Second, this movie is grossly unrealistic. For example, the killer storm has barely scratched the team's base. OK, there's lots of dust and communications with earth are out, but everything else is tickety-boo: lots of tools, a truck with a crane, more solar panels than Solyndra ever dreamt of, yada, yada. Now Mark is a specialist--botanist, in fact--so we can accept that he figures out how to make water from chemicals and dirt from his own feces, and that he uses potatoes from his small food supply to grow a healthy and presumably organic crop. Problem solved! But this happens over and over and over; no challenge too great for our Mark. This botanist patches together a system so he can contact earth; digs up a plutonium- isotope canister to provide extra battery life; finds the escape module left by a previous mission and drives nearly 2000 miles to it in his souped up Mars truck. Does he ever fear? Despair? Give up? (He has no friends or family save his parents, who are mentioned in a throwaway paragraph.) Not our Mark. He just tackles and solves problems one after another, and there are so many of them that the problems themselves become a problem: they're mere busy-work. That is, none of them ever becomes truly critical; we always KNOW they'll be solved. When a second storm destroys his potato crop, Mark should be truly desperate and afraid, but he simply brings out the plastic tarp and duct tape (!!), utterly unfazed (and extremely unconvincing), as if he were assembling Legos. On earth it is not as it is in the heavens. NASA & Co. try to gin up some drama, but their problems too, just melt away. Actually, they're blown away by lots of Macho Management: "But it'll take 6 months!" "You've got 3!" And of course they do it in 3. When the rescue rocket blows up, here comes the Chinese Space Agency with a spare rocket in its pocket. Is there not enough time/fuel/whatever? Enter the team's most junior member; he has a whole new plan on his laptop! In space, where the original team HAS turned around to go back to Mars, there's more Macho Management: "Just work the problem!"
OK, there is some drama when the rescue mission almost loses Mark at the last second, and when the whole business is broadcast live on Jumbotrons all over the entire world. But that's at the end. By then it's too late.
Fehér isten (2014)
Not for Fans of Puppy Bowl XV
No, sir, not at all: this is a horror story full of Stephenking- esque bad dogs, and PETA should love it. Young teen Lilli, child of divorce, has to stay a couple of months with her estranged dad while mom goes out of town for her career. Lilli has no time for Dad and he has not much more for her—and no time at all for her beloved pooch Hagen, whom he kicks out of the car on the side of the road. From here on in things get even less heartwarming as Hagen undergoes a terrible series of misadventures and abuses, ending up at the pound and facing the needle before the big, bloody and pretty damned scary off-the-rails climax. Fabulous to look at; riveting story; don't bring the kids. Actually, the climax, while certainly good enough, could have been better. If you a) see this movie and b) have unfond memories of dog-murdering NFL quarterback Michael Vick, you will surely see that a far more terrifying climax was ready-made but unrecognized. Too bad!
Sorry, but Definitely Second Best
There's lots of what the fine original movie had--great scenery and atmosphere--plus lots of exuberant dancing, and of course a great cast. But this sequel is crippled by an apparent need to wrap EVERYTHING up; as a result there are way too many subplots, and the movie drags-- and eventually bores (much like the Bill Nighy-Judi Dench romance, which ground my teeth). There's inefficient writing: the opening is a completely unnecessary subplot with our hero and Maggie Smith going to the US to raise money to buy a second hotel. This gives Smith an opportunity to be Downton-ishly waspy about bad American tea, but is really a waste of screen time. Other forgettable subplots: the old Randy guy and his two-timing girlfriend, the return of Nighy's evil wife (although here she's as superb a bitch as she is the perfect prig on Downton Abbey). By far the worst has Richard Gere as a hotel inspector who falls for the hero's bitter, bullying, sharp-tongued mom. The writing here is criminally bad and Gere is so wooden you could carve him into a camp stool. This is a case of what the Brits call or used to call 'over- egging the pudding.'
Breath-takingly Dull, But Overlong, Too!
This extremely long and tedious Russian production has been slavishly praised merely because it is an heavyhanded and obvious allegory of life for the Little Guy in Putin's Russia, and I throw in a Spoiler Alert that is hardly necessary: In the first few minutes you learn that Kolya is the L.G., owner of a piece of gorgeous waterfront property that has been in his family for several generations, and that the Big Guy is Vadim, who wants it for a rigged price that is one- sixth of its value, and who is also the greedy, crooked boorish mayor. So you know what happens next: in a long series of legal manipulations, Kolya is repeatedly crushed by Vadim. For lagniappe he is betrayed by his wife and his friends, then, when Vadim decides he'd rather not pay anything for Kolya's land, has him framed for murder. Most male characters in this film are getting stinko a good deal of the time and, save for the fact that Kolya gets progressively drunker, there is no character development. Why would there be? There are no characters here, only cardboard cutouts, and all of them are to one degree or another stupid and cruel. This probably got past Russia's censors because they dozed off, and viewers likewise run that risk. Sole point of interest: when, if ever, will the priest's sermon finally end? Place your bets!
Albert Nobbs (2011)
Oh, No! Another Teaching Moment!
Lovely sets and costumes and yes, Glenn Close is very good at appearing to be nearly lifeless, although to me it's more of an annoyance than a performance. And yes, the abuses and humiliations visited upon Victorian servants are made clear ('Downton Abbey'is heaven by comparison). But face it: this is one of those movies whose scriptwriters want to teach us about suffering and ennoble us by causing us to care. One way you can tell is by anachronistic scriptwriting, as when Nobbs's painter friend, who turns out to be a lesbian disguised as a man, says "You don't have to be anything but what you are." Oh, please. That is utterly out of time. There are other problems. Nobbs wants to marry but is somehow totally unaware of the fact that an overwhelming majority of people want there to be two sexes involved in their marriages. Nobbs is at least 30; has she not eyes to see and ears to hear? Not noticed that ALL of the couples dining, staying and fooling around at the hotel are two-sex couples? That the painter and her wife are the only lesbian couple she's ever run into? He twice spends time pondering the weighty but ludicrous question "Do I tell her (that I'm a woman) before the wedding or after?" And even though he seems to realize that that could be something of a surprise if not shock to the intended bride, and although aware that her painter pal could help out here, she manages (aided by the script's heavy hand) not to ask, despite numerous opportunities. How does Albert decided to marry, anyway? It seems to be mainly because someone told him to, and even fingered a convenient bride. It's not even clear that Nobbs knows the difference between a lesbian relationship and what used to be called a 'Boston marriage,' which involved 2 women living as friends, not lovers. Nor is it clear that Albert wants one or the other. My favorite scene comes when the painter, following up on his 'be who you are' baloney, clads himself and Albert in his wife's dresses (she has a little too-conveniently died, just out of the blue) and the two of the go for a walk on the beach. And lo and behold, it is a LIBERATING moment for Albert:he's wearing a dress! He's BEING WHO HE REALLY IS!! Albert goes running full-tilt down the deserted beach down, looking for all the world as if he's going to take off in a Johnathan Livingston Seagull moment or yell "I'm free! I'm free!"Laugh? I though I'd die. In short, this is a tedious collection of pious thought for right-thinking people, and a complete waste of time.
Deux jours, une nuit (2014)
Tough and Gritty
It's hard to imagine such a situation: your co-workers have to vote on whether you keep your job--or you lose your job and each of them gets a 10000-euro ($1180US at today's rate). But this film and Cotillard especially makes it real. Cotillard's character has already been voted, but her boss is persuaded that the foreman may have tipped the results so he agrees to a re-vote, this one a secret ballot. 16 co-workers have to be convinced. 2 or 3 are already on her side, and to stay she has to win a majority. She's a tough sell. She has just returned to work after a bout of depression, during which the boss realized that the work can be done by 16 people, with a little overtime, just as well as with 17.Over a harrowing weekend Cotillard visits and put her case to the others, and she's a hard sell because most of them could really use the 1000--and the overtime--they're all blue-collar strugglers, and she herself feels unworthy, understands the others' needs very well, and feels as if she's being forced to beg. The ending is pretty powerful and decidedly non-Hollywood, and all in all this is an emotional roller coaster.