Month: June 2015

Mr. Morgan’s Last Love

mr morgans last love

Like its protagonist, Mr. Morgan’s Last Love lies in wait, gazing weakly in the distance for something that will snap it from its ennui, but nothing comes. There is a feeling of anticipation and then disappointment upon realizing that this is all. Two hours of notes and snapshots but no tangible relationships to hang on to, no sense really of having journeyed anywhere.

Writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck opts for the slow road, which suits the material. After the recent death of his wife (Jane Alexander), retired philosophy professor Matthew Morgan (Michael Caine) retreats from life. He goes about his daily routine but with no hope or pleasure. His loneliness is punctuated by the fact that he is living in France, where he had retired with his wife, and stubbornly refuses to adjust to the culture. When he does sling around a few words of French, he pitches them up with stereotypical American reluctance. He also isn’t keen on befriending any locals, and his only social relationship is with language partner Colette (Anne Alvaro), until he meets cha-cha instructor Pauline (Clémence Poésy) on the bus. She is a breath of fresh air for him in that he literally cracks wide the windows of his apartment to let in the sunshine.

Pairing a suicidal widower with a young dance teacher is a good formula that taps into generational differences to uncover some shared life truths, but it works best when that relationship is given some definition. Pauline initially takes to Matthew as a young woman befriending an old man, and he has a measure of accomplishment and stability that she lacks. But there are hints of something romantic at times and equally shades of an intimate father-daughter bond. The latter is an interesting angle to explore, and their compatibility contrasts sharply with that of Matthew and his son, Miles (Justin Kirk), and daughter (Gillian Anderson), who don’t make a great effort to hide their animosity towards their father or his new companion.

Nettelbeck seems to like and want this uncertainty, but the messiness spills into the storytelling. At times, the film splinters off into a possible relationship between Pauline and Miles. Meanwhile, the ghost of Matthew’s wife intermittently surfaces, focusing the story on the family’s discord and shunting Pauline to the sidelines. Matthew’s poor parenting skills, his wife’s decision to stay abroad during her illness, and Matthew’s refusal to move back to America all create noisy diversions. In the end, watching the film is a little like getting lost on the streets of Paris and realizing too late that you’ve just been going in circles.

Caine’s grumpy Mr. Morgan can be distracting as well, with his uneven American accent on level with his character’s French one. But the actor, turtle-like in this role, hits most of the right notes as a grieving, sometimes curmudgeonly man whom you could both comfort and throttle. Poésy is also well cast and conveys a lot of her character’s tenderness despite the uneven script. At least the view is lovely, and cinematographer Michael Bertle ensures that his images are sun-kissed and scrubbed, as if every frame has been freshly misted with a washed-out Instagram filter. Paris looks like a placid oasis despite the personal tempests.

Released: 2013
Alt Title: Last Love
Prod: Astrid Kahmke, Frank Kaminski, Phillip Kreuzer, Ulrich Stiehm
Dir: Sandra Nettelbeck
Writer: Sandra Nettelbeck
Cast: Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Gillian Anderson, Justin Kirk, Jane Alexander, Anne Alvaro
Time: 116 min
Lang: English, French
Country: Germany
Reviewed: 2015

Funeral March (常在我心)

funeral march

Funeral March does death well, better than it does terminal illness, and the movie surprises with its unshrinking approach. There are some overly sentimental moments and the mood music swells a little too heavily at times, but it’s a restrained and affecting film that also showcases Eason Chan as a worthy dramatic actor.

Chan stars as Duan, a funeral director who’s lending a hand to the family business. It’s a quiet role for the singer-actor, who is better known for playing hyperactive characters that explode all over the screen, a sort of yapping jack-in-the-box can’t be stuffed back inside. He takes the opposite approach here, and though the central story revolves around Yee (Charlene Choi), Duan is the one who grounds the film and gives most meaning to life and death.

He is skilled at his job, a sincere mediator of grief who dispenses words of sympathy to the bereaved without making them ding like empty baubles. When Yee, a terminal cancer patient, comes in requesting that he plan her funeral, his instinct is to politely refuse and encourage her to seek a more optimistic course of action. Yee’s inquiry is a sensible one to the Western imagination but a bit jarring for the average Hong Konger. Duan agrees anyway, on the condition that she make some last ditch attempts to get cured. The medicine is not great here, and it’s assumed that a few pills and a round of surgery will do the trick.

Eliding the pitiable suffering parts works in the film’s favor though and puts the focus on Yee and Duan as she tries to repair relationships, mostly with her stepmother (Pauline Yam) and distant father (Kenneth Tsang), and he provides much needed guidance. As their companionship shifts to something deeper, they are again challenged by illness, because cancer is kind of a bitch.

Choi has a heavy burden of portraying a young woman who prematurely faces her own mortality. She elicits some sympathy but hadn’t matured enough as an actress by this point to give Yee the emotional depth she deserves. Yee looks forlorn as she waits for Duan at the death certificate issuing office, but Choi doesn’t invite greater introspection and doesn’t betray any more feelings of anger, confusion, disappointment, or whatever else might be going through her mind.

Chan, by contrast, earns a great deal of empathy by emoting very little. Loner Duan flashes a tortured smile or a pained but compassionate gaze and instantly exposes something of himself that perhaps he’d rather keep hidden. Persistent over-actor Liu Kai-Chi as Duan’s friend similarly holds back and proves twice as effective. The pair, especially in the film’s final act, add to the funereal stillness that permeates the picture. Their performances along with an unshowy death scene help this picture stand out.

“Live Well” (活著多好) by Eason Chan:

“Sleepless World” (全世界失眠) by Eason Chan:

Released: 2001
Prod: Gordon Chan 陳嘉上; Joe Ma 馬偉豪
Dir: Joe Ma 馬偉豪
Writer: Joe Ma 馬偉豪; Chan Kam-Kuen 陳敢權; Sunny Chan 陳詠燊
Cast: Eason Chan 陳奕迅; Charlene Choi 蔡卓妍; Liu Kai-Chi 廖啟智; Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Pauline Yam 任葆琳; Sheila Chan 陳淑蘭; Yu Sai-Tang 余世騰; Candy Lo 盧巧音; Marco Lok 駱力煒
Time: 97 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Yesterday Once More (龍鳳鬥)

yesterday once more

Third time should be a charm for director Johnnie To and actors Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, who turned out critical and commercial hits with the romantic comedies Needing You and Love on a Diet. But their collaboration in Yesterday Once More falls short of their earlier efforts and lacks both the wit and chemistry that made those movies so enjoyable. This film has a promising start and tells the story of married thieves who break up, go head-to-head, and may still be in love, but the narrative never picks up and it plods along until a surprise final act jolts the picture from its tedium.

Much of the fault lies in the characterization; it’s hard to warm to a movie in which both protagonists are selfish, materialistic criminals. Lau and Cheng have played unpleasant people in the past, but Mr. and Mrs. To have very little to recommend themselves. The pair care more about amassing stolen jewels than they do about preserving their own marriage, which causes them to head for splitsville within the opening scene.

Two years later, Mrs. To is in a relationship with Steven (Carl Ng), a rich young man still clinging to his mother’s apron strings. It’s patently obvious that Mrs. To is only in it for the family heirlooms, but daft Steven can’t figure it out. Luckily for him, mom (Shaw Brothers’ lead Jenny Hu) isn’t so easily fooled since she herself is in the thieving business. A prenup and marriage are agreed to, and Mrs. To gets a pricey diamond necklace, but not before Mr. To reappears and snatches it.

This is where the story should pick up. There’s potential for some clever cat and mouse chases underscored by the couple’s simmering sexual tension, and this push and pull is where the previous films were strongest. Mr. and Mrs. To don’t interact in any way that adds to their relationship, however. Their steady flirtation isn’t enough to sustain the action or cultivate empathy for them. A subplot involving an insurance surveyor (Gordan Lam) adds a bit of intrigue but Hu, returning to the Hong Kong screen after a decades-long absence, seems to not have warmed up quite enough, and it’s not enough to pique slagging interest.

Lau and Cheng finally get to show off in the curveball third act, which scrambles the rules of romantic comedy a bit. But in doing so, Mr. and Mrs. To are challenged to confront their priorities and feelings for each other. The actors get a lot more material to work with, and a less vapid relationship starts to take form. It all comes a little too late in the game for a resuscitation though, and this is one better left on its own.

“If Trouble Comes” (如果我有事) theme song by Andy Lau:

“For the Last Time” (最後一次) by Sammi Cheng:

Released: 2004
Prod: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Dir: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Action Dir: Yuen Bun 元彬
Writer: Au Kin-Yee 歐健兒; The Hermit 隱士
Cast: Andy Lau 劉德華; Sammi Cheng 鄭秀文; Jenny Hu 胡燕妮; Gordon Lam 林家棟; Carl Ng 吳嘉龍; Chun Wong 秦煌; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄; Lin Wai-Kin 連偉健
Time: 98 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015