Month: May 2015

Hot Summer Days (全城熱戀熱辣辣)

hot summer days

There’s a heat wave in the Pearl River Delta, and it’s pushing folks to the limit. The TV station’s frying eggs on car hoods, Mister Softee’s auctioning off ice cream cones, and there’s a lottery just to claim a spot on the beach. But crazy things happen when the temperature hits 48° (that’s 118°F), and one side effect is a lot of really sweaty people. Which may be why the movie features ten, give or take a few, beautiful stars in all their skin-glistening glory. The film is not so much about the summer heat as it is about heat of romance, but it still offers plenty of opportunities to showcase its actors basting in the South China humidity. If you’re watching on a boiling June day, it may be some comfort to know that you aren’t the only one soaking through your undergarments.

Hot Summer Days gets things off to a fiery start with a Latin-infused intro that could easily be mistaken for a Supernatural-era Carlos Santana music video. The pulsating beats eventually cool down but not the temperature, and the omnibus film’s many protagonists suffer under the scorching sun. A pianist (Rene Liu) and a chauffeur (Jacky Cheung) both end up in the hospital after passing out from heat stroke and then begin a text message romance. A young man (Jing Boran) pursues a factory girl (Angelababy) who agrees to go out with him if he waits for her at noon for the next 100 days. A food writer (Vivian Hsu) and a sushi chef (Daniel Wu) try to rekindle an old romance, and a fashion photographer (Duan Yihong) acts like a diva towards his model (Michelle Wai) and assistant (Fu Xinbo) and ends up going blind. About the only one who seems to welcome the heat wave is an air conditioner repairman (Nicholas Tse), but he has problems with his father (Gordon Liu) and has a run-in with a mysterious motorcyclist (Barbie Hsu).

Not content to stop there, writers Wing Shya and Tony Chan also include a pair of talking fish because this is just that sort of overstuffed movie. It tries to cover all the romantic bases, but like these kinds of ensemble films, weak storylines are made more obvious by good ones. Besides the CGI fish, it wouldn’t hurt to excise the somber sushi lovers or the remorseful cameraman. Vivian Hsu is bright but Wu fails to register much emotion even in her cheerful presence. Duan also seems to be overcompensating for his costars and doesn’t get much help from Wai or Fu in his character’s road to redemption.

The remaining stories do register, however, and the film’s ruminations on love are acutely felt. Though Hot Summer Days is too much of a patchwork to leave a cohesive message or even sentiment, there are some fine performances and tender moments to savor. Nicholas Tse, for all his personal distractions, is shaping up to be one of Hong Kong’s finest actors, certainly the bonafide star of his generation. His character is irreverent, resentful, and arrogant but faced with his own shortcomings, is gentle, vulnerable, and deeply changed. Some of the film’s most honest scenes are when he looks wordlessly on at his estranged father and his strong-willed companion. Gordon Liu and Barbie Hsu are able partners to Tse, and the trio turns out an effective vignette.

Jacky Cheung and Rene Liu are another couple that shows strength in measures. Both characters pretend to be a little more in text than they are in life and end up trying to balance disappointment with the hope of love. Their story is neither depressing nor over idealistic, and they capture a mature relationship in its promising, nascent stage. Perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum is the story of persistence and young love. It has a silly start, and I half-expected Jing to plant himself outside the factory windows with a large boombox thrust triumphantly, or defiantly, in the air. That didn’t happen, and instead both his and Angelababy’s characters experience a quieter revolution, one that leaves them less innocent than they were at the start of the summer. Just like this movie, their love, however brief, ultimately satisfies.

“Hot” (熱辣辣) – theme song by Jacky Cheung

Released: 2010
Prod: Fruit Chan 陳果; Paul Cheng 鄭振邦
Dir: Tony Chan 陳國輝; Wing Shya 夏永康
Writer: Tony Chan 陳國輝; Lucretia Ho 何敏文
Cast: Nicholas Tse 謝霆鋒; Jacky Cheung 張學友; Rene Liu 劉若英; Vivian Hsu 徐若瑄; Angelababy 楊穎; Barbie Hsu 徐熙媛; Duan Yihong 段奕宏; Fu Xinbo 付辛博; Jing Boran 井柏然; Daniel Wu 吳彥祖; Michelle Wai 詩雅; Shawn Yue 余文樂; Gordon Liu 劉家輝; Conroy Chan 陳子聰; Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk 張曼玉; Joey Yung 容祖兒; Jan Lamb 林海峰
Time: 93 min
Lang: Cantonese and Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

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An Affair to Remember

an affair to remember

I’m of the generation that filters this movie through the lens of another. Sleepless in Seattle convinced those of us who weren’t around in 1957 that An Affair to Remember is the great film romance, the classic that all others aspire to be. Indeed, it ranks a lofty 5th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Passions list, so you’re not wrong to think that this is one for the ages.

Alas, the love affair between Nicky Ferrante (Cary Grant) and Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) leaves a lot to be desired. I blame some of it on my repeated viewings of Sleepless, which seems to have turned moments of high romance into sobby sound bites. All I can think about is Meg Ryan’s inability to say anything except “Hello” and Rita Wilson’s howling about Kerr’s shriveled little legs.

But the film as a whole has a tinny ring. Adapted from director Leo McCarey’s own 1939 film, Love Affair (again remade in 1994), this one goes only as far as the appeal of its two stars. Grant cuts a fine playboy, and Nicky is the reality show hotshot of his time. More famous for cycling through girlfriends than for any real contribution to society, like holding a job, he is engaged to an heiress (Neva Patterson) when he meets the girl of his dreams during an Atlantic crossing. Kerr is equally magnetic as Grant’s love interest, a singer plucked from obscurity and saved from poverty by a smart, handsome businessman with a heart of gold (Richard Denning). Terry takes pride in the fact that her man is off dealing with numbers and stuff while she gets to relax on a cruise back home.

Grant and Kerr are an engaging couple and have a sure chemistry. It’s easy to be swept into their affair. They start off sparring and coy, not too combative, and then turn tender and even giddy as they abandon themselves to love. The script does a good job reining in the pair’s chemistry, however, and the hokey machinations that push the two together and then pull them apart weaken the film.

A lot depends on your believing that slick Nicky would rather be a struggling artist than marry up. Once he’s rediscovered his hobby thanks to a supportive Terry, he ends up looking pretty goofy slapping up a billboard in a pair of overalls. Grant is a lot of things, but bohemian painter is not one of those.

Terry’s actions are puzzling as well. It’s not giving anything away to say that a proposed reunion at the top of the Empire State Building goes awry and leaves Terry in a state not to be seen. At least this is what she thinks, and she enlists the help of her spurned lover to keep her condition secret. He obliges but says what we’re all thinking. If she and Nicky really love each other, they should just get on with it. Their unnecessary separation doesn’t heighten the romance but frustrates it. At least the interlude allows for some cute kids to run around and sing a bit. I’m always up for that.

Released: 1957
Prod: Leo McCarey, Jerry Wald
Dir: Leo McCarey
Writer: Delmer Daves, Donald Ogden Stewart, Leo McCarey
Cast: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning, Neva Patterson, Cathleen Nesbitt, Marni Nixon
Time: 119 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

The Wind in the Willows (2006)

wind in the willows 2006

Having never read or seen The Wind in the Willows until two days ago, I was delighted to come across this faithful adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s book. This clean retelling preserves much of the plot, which concerns a few country friends and some motoring mishaps. Mole and Rat lead off the adventure, but it’s really Toad who steals the show.

We first meet Mole (Lee Ingleby) when he bumps into a new friend Rat (Mark Gatiss). Far more worldly and well dressed, Rat teaches the agreeable little creature the pleasures of aboveground leisure. The two soon find themselves in the company of Toad (Matt Lucas), a jolly spendthrift who is the lord of Toad Hall. His talent for squandering money and his taste for the latest transportation fads leads him down an increasingly reckless path. It’s Toad’s discovery of the motorcar, however, that prompt Mole and Rat to intervene. They venture into the woods, by foot, to seek Badger’s (Bob Hoskins) advice on reining in their friend.

The film’s fidelity to its source material is a testament to the story’s charm, and those who are familiar with the book will see most of the major episodes with little manipulation. A capable supporting cast pops up in some memorable cameos to push the plot along. Imelda Staunton plays a ruddy bargewoman, Jim Carter is an avuncular train engineer, and Anna Maxwell Martin and Mary Walsh help spring Toad from jail.

Of course the main stars are also skillful, transforming themselves into very believable country critters. The lean Ingleby cuts a different figure from the chubby Mole of animated incarnations, but he bursts with the awed innocence of someone who longs for a little adventure while still delighting in the comforts of home. Gatiss, meanwhile, brings a more learned air to Rat, his nose literally upturned at times, and Hoskins’s gruff demeanor allows Badger to put Toad in his place without being overly menacing. As for the great and fantastical Mr. Toad, Lucas’s exuberant performance is hard to turn away from, unless you’re determined to dislike the actor. In that case, you’ll find him insufferably over-the-top per usual, but I thought his theatrics suited the foolhardy Toad just fine.

Besides wise casting choices, the make-up and costuming departments also struck a nice balance. For a children’s movie filled with talking animals, there was little need to overcompensate with special effects, something I always find refreshing in the age of 3D and computer graphics. There were just enough fur mittens to keep an element of whimsy without distracting from the story or performances.

Released: 2006
Prod: Justin Thomson-Glover, Patrick Irwin
Dir: Rachel Talalay
Writer: Lee Hall
Cast: Matt Lucas, Mark Gatiss, Lee Ingleby, Bob Hoskins, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mary Walsh
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC
Reviewed: 2015

Amelia

amelia

Courageous. Pioneering. Adventurous. Headstrong. There are plenty of adjectives that describe Amelia Earhart, but none of these come through in this passionless biopic by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake). In trying to get the who, what, when, and wheres ticked off, the film misses out on the heart of the famed aviatrix. Ms. Earhart still comes across as confident and independent-minded but also ordinary inclining towards dull and hardly worth the decades-long fascination her life and death have commanded.

As if picking through the fresh wreckage of an air disaster, one can point a finger in almost any direction and find blame. The script by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan reads like a banal newsreel report, with apologies to banal newsreel reports. It wants to pay homage to the legend while also doing what biopics do these days – remind viewers of their subjects’ shortcomings. Nair’s direction indeed gives the film an ethereal touch with some beautiful bird’s eye views of different landscapes. Whether it is a range of silvery mountains or the rusty African savanna unfurling beneath the camera, one begins to understand the majesty of flight that so captivated Earhart.

The emotion she might have felt fails to translate through Hilary Swank’s performance though. The actress has her character’s earnest, weather-beaten farm girl smile, but it’s not enough to convince anyone that she’s an equally enthusiastic frontline, flag-waving feminist and pioneer. The best Swank has to offer, thanks to the cliché-heavy script, are superficial sound bites to young girls at photo sessions. “That’s a future flier!” she says in a shouty drawl.

When her achievements are shown, they are perfunctory and anticlimactic, playing out like a visual fact sheet in a history book. Only the last hours of her final flight with navigator, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) betray anything of a personality. The unimaginative script offers no greater insight to Earhart herself or to the magnitude of her accomplishments and how she did, or didn’t, see herself making history. And rather than adding perspective, the impressive period set and costumes merely emphasize the pretense of importance.

The lifeless masquerade is most evident in Earhart’s relationship with publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), later Mr. Earhart. It’s strictly business between the two, until it’s not. Just as it is between her and another famed aviator and federal administrator Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), until it is not. Even the studied gazes of Gere and McGregor fail to ignite enough sparks to get the relationships off the ground. It seems the filmmakers were eager to emphasize this fallible side of St. Amelia, but without any raw affection in the performances, it’s hard to be drawn into her personal life.

The tedium of the whole project was countered by the too brief appearance of Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska), a plucky teenager and pioneering aviator in her own right. The record-setting daredevil proved to be the liveliest thing about the movie and left me wishing for an entirely different film, one about her life.

Released: 2009
Prod: Ted Waitt, Kevin Hyman, Lydia Dean Pilcher
Dir: Mira Nair
Writer: Ronald Bass, Anna Hamilton Phelan
Cast: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Aaron Abrams, Joe Anderson, Mia Wasikowska, Cherry Jones
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

The Suicide Shop

suicide shop

If you’re feeling down, the Suicide Shop’s the place. A Willy Wonka-like emporium of suicide goodies, it’s the one-stop shop for all your dying needs. For a routine offing, choose from drawers of bullets and hand-sharpened razors or, for a more bloodless coup, a glittering collection of bottled poisons. But if hanging’s your thing, the store’s got ropes like Hobby Lobby’s got ribbons. Those wanting a little extra flare will find samurai swords aplenty, each packaged with an elegant ceremonial robe.

And the proprietor of this sparkling enterprise – Mishima Tuvache. He runs the shop with wife, Lucrèce, and their children, Vincent and Marilyn, and the family takes pride in maintaining 100% customer satisfaction. In this charcoal-shaded city where even the birds have lost their will to live, the colorful shop glows like a beacon, promising dazzle in death where there was none in life.

The arrival of baby Alan, however, intrudes on the grim existence not just of the Tuvache family but of the whole city. A gurgling ball of sunshine, he refuses to be overcome by his parents’ bleak outlook or by the ennui of his siblings. As he grows older, his cheeriness begins to spread, Pleasantville-like – first to his friends, then to his family, and finally to the shop customers.

Adapted from a novel by Jean Teulé, the film is not so subtle about its direction, which, tonally, can only go up. The ending is tweaked in a way that radically changes the actions if not the motivations of little Alan, but it still tries its best to imprint a hopeful message. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t effectively convey that sentiment. The jaunty yet forgettable tunes at times add to the sideshow atmosphere, daring the audience to gape and gawk. It doesn’t take much to be a spellbound bystander, but that fascination soon transforms into the guilt of an accomplice, if a casual one. There’s one uncomfortable voyeuristic moment when Alan spies on his naked sister. That he also deeply cares for her and wants her to be happy perhaps makes the scene more disturbing in its sweetness.

It seems the filmmakers trade too much on shock and dark humor, though in crafting such a grim world, they end up with sublime animation. The Suicide Shop is worth watching just for that. But the subversion of such a picture is weakened by an insistence on a moral message that is conveyed through broad archetypes rather than finely tuned characters whose life, or death, really matters. Alan’s infectious good will and optimism brightens any canvas, but he never feels more than a vehicle.

The English language trailer features the same cut and voiceover as the French one.

Alt Title: Le Magasin des Suicides
Released: 2012
Prod: Thomas Langmann, Emanuel Montamat, Gilles Podesta, André Rouleau
Dir: Patrice Leconte
Writer: Patrice Leconte
Cast: Bernard Alane, Isabelle Spade, Kacey Mottet Klein, Isabelle Giami, Laurent Gendron
Time: 74 min
Lang: French
Country: France
Reviewed: 2015