Month: June 2014

W./E.

we

This is not the worst movie ever, not even Golden Raspberry worthy, despite what the internets say. To be sure, director and writer Madonna takes pains to contrive a story about two women separated by time, place, temperament, circumstance, social norms – nearly everything, and united only by name and a common dissatisfaction with marriage. She threads the life of Wally Winthrop, a modern day New York socialite, with that of Wallis Simpson, the American divorcée behind King Edward VIII’s 1936 abdication, and holds it all together with the thinnest of gossamer strands.

But even the absence of basic narrative structure can be forgiven by a few things the film does well. There is a picturesque quality about the movie, aided by impressive costuming and production design immaculate to a detail. Madonna aims for something like the visual and nostalgic lushness of Wong Kar-Wai. She better approximates this with the glittery Wallis and Edward storyline, where shots linger like photographic stills. Added to that is Abel Korzeniowski’s bewitching score, which sweeps and swirls with breathless frenzy. His music bathes the picture in pool of melancholy, yearning, and regret.

All make for alluring cinema but most entrancing is Andrea Riseborough’s performance as the Duchess of Windsor. Riseborough dives into the screen, flinty, birdlike, and immediately seizes on Wallis, in much the same way she possessed her role as a young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley. She has an instinct for exposing resolute characters who try tuck away their emotional fragility. Her Wallis is underlined by despair, some of it her own making, and while not quite the seductress history has made her out to be, she isn’t the most gracious personality either. The casual dismissal of her husband (David Harbour) is callous and bares her cold ambition. She pursues with the tenacity of someone who has been wronged and selfishly takes chances where social decorum might give others pause.

Starring opposite Riseborough is a regal James D’Arcy. His performance as King Edward VIII feels like something out of a forgotten film reel, handsomely preserved and radiating a freshness that comes after being shuttered away for so long. Edward glides effortlessly through his duties and his lovers before his infatuation with Wallis arrests his ennui, and he is finally grounded by something, someone, who infuses him with a passion greater than that which comes with the crown. Appropriately, in a movie that is drawn more to Wallis, there is a distance to Edward, but he is almost too obscure a character and his attraction too understated. It is a fault more with the script than with D’Arcy’s performance that Edward remains a hidden part of this tantalizing love story.

A better film would have tightened the focus on this romance, which contains enough drama for a three-part BBC series. However, Madonna, not unlike Wallis, gambled on the public’s generosity and bloats her project by adding a modern day storyline. Wally (Abbie Cornish) functions as her namesake’s counterpart but the two lives hardly converge. Though both characters feel cornered, they differ wildly in desires and predicaments. Wallis’s life is defined by bold persistence, while Wally, who suffocates under the physical and emotional abuse of her husband (Richard Coyle), spends her days drifting through Sotheby’s to view an auction of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s estate. Madonna nevertheless manufactures a relationship and forces the two together in several imagined sequences, but the stories interlock with the grace of a kid smashing non-matching puzzle pieces together.

Part of the problem is that Wally is so poorly defined. Most of her scenes are confined to the auction house where she spends hours inexplicably lingering over crystal goblets and cigarette cases. Even her friends do not understand her kinship with Wallis. Why does she cry when listening to the phonograph? What is she meditating about when she gazes into Wallis’s diamonds? Cornish is given a few moments to add nuance to her character but doesn’t seize on any of these.

She ends up being outshined by Oscar Isaac as security guard Evgeni. He enchants Wally by being everything her husband is not, and she falls easily for the slumming Russian intellectual. Isaac is a study in measured acting, spinning his role from a lusty detail into a compelling character. He crafts an entire life out a few choice lines and searing glances. If Madonna’s hankering to revisit this story, she should make a film about Evgeni. That would be hypnotizing affair.

“Evgeni’s Waltz”

“Charm/Cartier Montage”

“Masterpiece” by Madonna

Released: 2011
Prod: Madonna, Kris Thykier
Dir: Madonna
Writer: Madonna, Alek Keshishian
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac, Richard Coyle, David Harbour, Katie McGrath, Judy Parfitt, James Fox, Laurence Fox, Natalie Dormer, Geoffrey Palmer, Haluk Bilginer, Christina Chong
Time: 119 min
Lang: English, a touch of Welsh
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014

Walking Across Egypt

Walking Across Egypt

Things don’t look good for elderly widow Mattie Rigsbee (Ellen Burstyn). She gets wedged into her rocking chair and can’t come undone until the dogcatcher Lamar (Mark Hamill) drops in three hours later. That’s when she learns that his orphaned nephew Wesley (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is holed up in a nearby juvenile detention center for stealing a car. Prompted by a Sunday sermon to help the least of her brethren, Mattie decides to visit Wesley, bringing him a slice of her famous pound cake and tea.

That, folks, is how beautiful friendships begin, though Mattie’s two children think otherwise. They’ve learned to get on without their mother. Elaine (Gail O’Grady) suggests with syrupy tones that Mattie look into a retirement community, an idea Robert (Judge Reinhold) rejects. But neither are keen on her new acquaintance, who sneaks out of confinement and sweet talks his way into staying over. Mattie’s neighbors (Gwen Verdon, Harve Presnell) are also convinced she’s set herself up for murder.

Of course everyone’s overreacting because the troubled youth in question is played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, whose grittiest role to date is Simba in The Lion King. How threatening can the witty middle kid from Home Improvement be? Not very. Thomas tries like a teacher’s pet to be a menacing delinquent. He slings swear words with abandon and struts around like a slinky. If the part was written for a snuggly Lifetime marathon, he’d get an A. It’s not, but Thomas is skilled in the adorable kid department and pulls enough heartstrings to be effective. (I confess residual teenage affections for JTT.)

The film glides over the reality of juvenile crime and life as a ward of the state by masking those troubles in Southern charm. When Mattie’s quirky neighbors learn that Wesley is staying over for lunch, the couple, concerned for their friend’s safety, park their folding trays and meal in the middle of their front walkway and arm themselves with giant hunting binoculars and a rifle. Wesley’s greatest transgression though is failing to pray before stuffing his face with macaroni salad. A harsher depiction of his experiences in detention or with his family would have made his relationship with Mattie more rewarding to watch, but the filmmakers weren’t really aiming for American History X. No one is ever in danger, even when they seem to be in danger, and that allows Mattie’s story room to breathe.

Burstyn is excellent as an aging woman who is not so much reflecting and regretting her life as she is lonely. Her grasp on reality – that she is not in a position to care for a dog much less a teenager, that her lavender funeral dress beautifully complements the cream lining of the coffin she’s chosen – give her conflicted feelings about Wesley an honesty and depth not always afforded to older characters. It’s a movie about two people who need and find each other, but this is really Burstyn’s show.

Released: 1999
Prod: Lance Tendler, Stan Tendler
Dir: Arthur Allan Seidenman
Writer: Paul Tamasy
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Mark Hamill, Gail O’Grady, Judge Reinhold, Gwen Verdon, Harve Presnell, Pat Corley, Edward Hermann, Dana Ivey
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014

Osaka Wrestling Restaurant (大阪撻一餐)

osaka wrestling restaurant

This movie turns out to be a satisfying treat for weary Hong Kong filmgoers. The industry offers far tastier morsels, but this one is made with lots of heart and that should count for something these days. Timmy Hung and Wayne Lai team up as brothers who cook up an idea for a novelty restaurant after their father, a respected chef, dies and leaves them a large inheritance.

Ricky (Hung) starts out as a glorified kitchen boy at Dragon’s (Law Kar-Ying) restaurant. Everyone heaps on the abuse, and when he gets the chance, he escapes to find his brother, Mike (Lai), who has been working as a chef in Osaka. Despite Mike’s bravado, Ricky can see that things aren’t going so well for his big brother. He gets chased out of his flat when some people come to settle a score, and his estranged wife wants to remarry and relocate their son to Canada.

Since Mike is a fan of Japanese wrestling, he decides to open a themed restaurant in Hong Kong staffed with wrestlers who will serve as waiters and dine-in entertainment. Presumably no one will object to a little sweat sprinkled onto their food. He ends up with a small gang of oddities including a sumo wrestler and someone named Louis Koo. They also hire Kyoko (Ueno Miku), a Japanese reporter stranded in Hong Kong after being fired when someone pushed her into the sea. That someone turns out to be a remorseful Ricky, who dons his wrestling mask to hide his identity. Something about that masked avenger look makes him attractive to Kyoko and sets the couple up for a doomed romance.

Hung isn’t particularly charismatic onscreen, but he has the pleading face of someone whom you’re willing to give a second chance. Lai brings more weight to his role and minimizes the overacting, revealing some touching moments beneath Mike’s boisterous façade. Both do their best to balance sincerity with the movie’s daffy humor, of which there is a lot. Besides bouncing, iridescent clothed wrestlers, Dragon dreams up some low budget schemes to sabotage the restaurant, which is located across the street from his. It’s all a bit of unpretentious fun, akin to a cinematic tea time snack.

Released: 2004
Prod: Sam Leong 梁德森; Yoshida Haruhiko; Matsuyama Hiroshi
Dir: Tommy Law 羅惠德
Writer: Hasegawa Takashi; Ko Cheng-Teng 高井聽; Kamei Noboru; Suzuki Rikako
Cast: Timmy Hung 洪天明; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥; Ueno Miko; Law Kar-Ying 羅家英; Sammo Hung 洪金寶; Tats Lau 劉以達; Chin Ka-Lok 錢嘉樂; Gloria Yip 葉蘊儀; Sam Lee 李燦森; Carlo Ng 吳嘉樂
Time: 92 min
Lang: Cantonese, Japanese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

The Shopaholics (最愛女人購物狂)

shopaholics

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that The Shopaholics is the title of a Hong Kong movie. A little self-reflection never hurt anyone, and Chinese New Year is as good a time as any for a humorous satire on the city’s love of shopping. But just as one must deal with the consequences of blowing thousands on an LV bag, one must accept the pain and shame of squandering 90 minutes on this tedious, mind-numbing film, which offers very little in satire and even less in humor.

Fong Fong-Fong (Cecilia Cheung) is a familiar creature on the Hong Kong scene; she’s never seen a luxury item that she doesn’t love, the effect of being abandoned in a mall when she was a baby. This left her crippled by an obsessive shopping disease, and her flat looks like something out of a high class Hoarders episode. During one of her shopping sprees, she meets Dr. Choosey Lee (Lau Ching-Wan), who specializes in treating people with Fong-Fong’s disorder and who cruelly runs his practice from inside a mall. But while he’s trying to curb people’s spending habits, he suffers from a severe case of indecisiveness that turns even those most mundane situations into agonizing ordeals.

One side effect is his relationship with lovesick Ding Ding-Dong (Ella Koon), which was scuppered by the reappearance of two exes. Just as Fong-Fong and Choosey start to feel attracted to one another, Ding-Dong shows up and he again faces an impossible task. Does he want to be with an irresponsible spendthrift or a insecure cheapskate who also threatens to jump to her death every time she’s unhappy? The love triangle gets more crowded when Fong-Fong runs into bagillionaire Richie Ho (Jordan Chan). He is a kindred spirit with a bad habit of buying everything he doesn’t want. But his tightfisted father has also impressed on him the importance of saving, and Richie vacillates between these two personalities.

There are a few moments of social commentary that serve to explain this wackiness. Several characters assert that such debilitating illnesses are due to the high stress of living in Hong Kong. Besides these cases of ‘shopaholism’ and ‘decidophobia’, they also suffer from gambling, narcolepsy, and unrestrained cursing. The characters are so nutty though that they don’t resemble anyone you would know in real life. They spend most of their time doing crazy things that emphasize their social quirk, even as they collectively attempt to heal themselves. What they really need is a less stressful environment – relaxed working hours, a patched up social safety net, fewer shopping malls.

Instead, the movie suggests that love and marriage will do the trick. That’s a fine message for a Chinese New Year film, but the final scene is really an extended, humorless descent into silliness. Fong-Fong, Choosey, Ding-Dong, and Richie have decided to marry but cannot decide how to partner up. Dr. Phoenix Luk (Paula Tsui), a psychiatrist and queen shopaholic, takes control and sends the four wedding parties running around the city and switching places to try and suss out who likes whom. The characters quickly find out it’s not all fun and games, nor is it enjoyable for the audience. The rapid fire chase is not amusing or clever but exhausting, never mind that the women are being played as pawns. That’s no matter; as long as Hong Kongers are a little batty, someone’s going to laugh about it.

Released: 2006
Prod: Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝; Yang Ying 楊英
Dir: Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝
Writer: Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝; Au Kin-Yee 歐健兒
Cast: Cecilia Cheung 張柏芝; Lau Ching-Wan 劉青雲; Jordan Chan 陳小春; Ella Koon 官恩娜; Paula Tsui 徐小鳳; Law Kar-Ying 羅家英; Ha Chun-Chau 夏春秋; Wong Tin-Lam 王天林; Maggie Siu 邵美琪; Stephanie Che 車婉婉; Amy Kwok 郭藹明
Time: 93 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

The Game of Their Lives

game of their lives

The 2014 World Cup is in full swing and Americans are abuzz with characteristic optimism about their chances, again. So now would be the time to revisit the 1950 U.S. team’s stunning 1-0 victory against England at the last World Cup hosted by Brazil. It’s a real life underdog story ripe for retelling, and David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo, the pair behind sports classics Hoosiers and Rudy, give it the big screen treatment. They fumble this one, though not as badly as Spain, and take an inspiring blueprint then drain it of color and excitement.

Like their previous efforts, The Game of Their Lives is rooted in Midwestern heroes – our lads hail from the great city of St. Louis (said with hometown pride) – who overcome the odds. One big difference and a major handicap, however, is that the movie lacks an identifiable protagonist, someone on whom the audience can readily project these underdog sentiments. It may be a testament to the democratic spirit of America that the film should remain focused on the team rather than any individual; or it could be poor storytelling.

Anspaugh and Pizzo do highlight several players from the 1950 squad, most of whom came from the Italian section of St. Louis called the Hill. Frank Borghi (Gerard Butler) gets the most screentime as a skilled keeper and de facto leader while Gino Pariani (Louis Mandylor) and Charlie Colombo (Costas Mandylor) add some working class heft. They make a likable team, but not much happens dramatically to anchor their characters. Frank doesn’t want to join the family business and be an undertaker for the rest of his life and Gino’s upcoming wedding conflicts with the World Cup. The experience of serving in the war also weighs heavily on a few players, who find refuge in soccer. These could easily be recurrent issues. Instead, such concrete personal dramas are quickly dispensed with or ignored in favor of a broader ill-defined struggle.

The St. Louis boys must first try out for the national team, and personalities clash when the waspy east coasters, led by Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley), blaze in with their fancy uniforms and college education. For awhile, the movie shifts into a cultural clash as the rough, parochial St. Louis players butt heads with the New Englanders, who favor a more streamlined style of play. Bahr’s not the primary foe though; he’s American after all. Team USA must put their differences aside if they have any hopes of beating their biggest enemies – England, personified by its smug captain, Stanley Mortensen (Gavin Rossdale), and national apathy.

At this point, the movie pivots again into the film that Anspaugh and Pizzo might have wanted all along. Love of game and country meld into one as the sport becomes a stirring testament to American values. A wise local tells one of the players, “You wanna know why soccer is the world’s greatest sport?…All you need is a ball and an open space. You don’t need fancy equipment and special fields; you don’t have to be big or strong or tall. It’s the most democratic of all sports, the people’s game.” Frank adds, “No one knows who we are, no one expects anything from us. Deep down, we know we’re a little more than that.” How American, to think that everyone’s the underdog and that we’ve all got a fighting chance.

Such inspiring words, at least to a home audience, are all this movie every really amounts to, however. Even the presence of John Rhys-Davies and Patrick Stewart in the lackluster roles of the coach and a reporter help little. Anspaugh also fails to deliver visuals that capture the grittiness and desperation of competition, something he did so well in his previous films. The climactic game between the U.S. and England was shot on location in Brazil but might as well have been an intramurals match played at a municipal field. If we want a rousing, exhilarating World Cup atmosphere, let’s just all watch the World Cup.

Alt Title: The Miracle Match
Released:
2005
Prod: Howard Baldwin, Karen Elise Baldwin, Greg Johnson
Dir: David Anspaugh
Writer: Angelo Pizzo
Cast: Gerard Butler, Wes Bentley, Jay Rodan, Gavin Rossdale, Costas Mandylor, Louis Mandylor, Zachary Ty Bryan, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Richard Jenik, Nelson Vargas, Nino Da Silva, John Harkes, Bill Smitrovich, Terry Kinney, Patrick Stewart, John Rhys-Davies
Time: 101 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014