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

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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

Mamma Mia!

mamma mia

Mamma Mia! is the cinematic equivalent of an exploding party supply store. It’s a chaotic, freewheeling mess of sequins, feather boas, and novelty beach props crashing into a dazzling slate of singing and dancing superstars. The spectacle is good, boozy fun if you’re not invested in plot and don’t need an excuse to break out in song.

Based on the stage production which is based on someone’s strained imagination, the movie takes place on a picturesque Greek island where Donna (Meryl Streep) owns a holiday villa. Her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is engaged to Sky (Dominic Cooper), and their wedding promises to be a grand affair. Guests begin to descend on the island, including her raucous friends and former bandmates, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). But unbeknownst to her, Sophie has also sent invitations to Donna’s former lovers, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), one of whom could be her biological father. With the nuptials less than 24 hours away, Sophie’s secret becomes too big to keep and threatens to ruin her big day.

Not to worry though – this is an ABBA extravaganza. A film whose musical lineup includes “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trooper,” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” can’t possibly end on a sour note. Just look at those exclamation marks. It’s the sheer exuberance of the song and dance numbers and the abandon with which the actors perform them that lessen the guilt of indulging in such shameless entertainment. The gaudy theatricality of the whole project works in its favor, demanding that viewers let loose a little. If James Bond doesn’t mind embarrassing himself in a polyester one piece, then surely the audience can forgive the below average singing voices and utter lack of character development.

It’s a mystery, for example, why Sophie is so desperate to have her father give her away when she’s had no contact with him her whole life or why all three men, who presumably had no more than a weekend fling with Donna, are so eager to scramble back to the tiny Greek village after twenty years. The sheer will with which Catherine Johnson, who penned the book and screenplay, corsets her story to give shape to the songs is impressive, even if the results are less so.

One reason is casting, which clearly didn’t take musical abilities into account. Seyfried holds herself well along with veteran Baranski and relative newcomer Cooper, but even the infallible Dame Meryl shows some strain. Still, she is better than any of her leading men, whose reedy warbles surely belong in some musical hall of infamy. At least they have their careers to fall back on.

“Dancing Queen” by Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters:

“Lay All Your Love On Me” by Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper:

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) by Amanda Seyfried:

“Voulez-Vous” by Mamma Mia! cast:

Released: 2008
Prod: Judy Craymer, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks
Dir: Phyllida Lloyd
Writer: Catherine Johnson
Cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård; Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Dominic Cooper
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

Lan Kwai Fong (喜愛夜蒲)

lan kwai fong

For the uninitiated, Lan Kwai Fong is a small but pricey patch of real estate in Hong Kong’s financial district. During the day, it’s a lazy, barren grid of sloping streets, a stray pedestrian here and there. But by night, it’s a coed’s steamy playground and a tourist’s boozy retreat. Bass, bodies, and bad memories of college come tumbling out of the bars that line the streets. It’s an ideal setting for wet t-shirt and burger eating contests and, according to writers Mark Wu and Lam Fung, a racy movie about the local club scene.

An exciting night out doesn’t always make for an interesting film though, and sometimes it’s better to just go for the real thing, if you are into the hedonistic lifestyle that is so gleefully portrayed. The upscale revelers are there “to see and be seen,” not unlike the target audience for this movie. Lan Kwai Fong is sure to appeal to those who already wallpaper their social media with selfies and snaps of beautiful friends downing champagne and shots and wouldn’t mind seeing their lives mirrored on the big screen.

The film boasts an abundance of good-looking people, but none of these singers and models light up the screen on account of their acting abilities. The closest we get to an actor is Shiga Lin, who plays Jennifer and simply has the biggest part. She and her flight attendant colleagues (Stephanie Cheng and Jeana Ho) hit up the town and find themselves in a club run by guyliner-lover Jacky (Jason Chan). His friend Steven (Z.O.) immediately cozies up to her while another friend Sean (Gregory Wong) eyes Cat (Dada Chan), who is regularly on the prowl for sexual partners.

The filmmakers make some effort to give depth to these characters and their relationships. Jennifer and Steven hope that something more lasting than a one night stand is possible in this vacuous club culture. Jacky develops feelings for Jeana (Ho) but has to resolve some control issues with his ex (Bonnie Sin). Cat maybe wants more out of life while Sean, well, he still wants to get laid. There are numerous minor characters besides whose purpose is to insist that varied and complex people populate the scene.

It’s a lot for skilled writers and directors to manage, but in the hands of Lan Kwai Fong’s creative team, nothing trumps a blacklight glow and the heart-thumping pulsations. Rather than scraping away at the characters’ superficiality, they use their relationships to serve the scenery more than the plot, which is as meandering and purposeless as the people in it. The first 25 minutes are used merely to establish the ideal club atmosphere. Characters catwalk through crowds, awkward introductions are bolstered by alcohol, and a police raid interrupts bathroom sex, but nothing of consequence happens. Instead, the film minimizes narrative in order to flaunt its (perceived) best features. There’s a lot more skin and sex than your average Hong Kong picture, though nothing that will startle Western moviegoers, and that’s clearly enough to generate box office buzz and prompt two sequels.

“I’m Still Loving You” by Shiga Lin:

“Wonderland” by 24Herbs ft. Janice Vidal [Note: This might be the worst Cantonese/English song ever. At the very least, it is the most embarrassing. Actual line ‘Imma make you my lady, and maybe we can make some babies.’ You’ve been warned.]:

Released: 2011
Prod: Ng Kin-Hung 伍健雄
Dir: Wilson Chin 錢國偉
Writer: Mark Wu 胡耀輝; Lam Fung 林逢
Cast: Shiga Lin 連詩雅; Z.O. Shen Zhiming 沈志明; Jeana Ho 何佩瑜; Jason Chan 陳柏宇; Dada Chan 陳靜; Gregory Wong 王宗堯; Stephanie Cheng 鄭融; Jun Kung 恭碩良; Miki Yeung 楊愛瑾; Bonnie Sin 冼色麗; Cheng Ka-Wai 鄭家維; Emme Wong 黃伊汶; Tan Lap-Man 單立文; Chrissie Chau 周秀娜; Jacqueline Chong 莊思敏; Bob Lam 林盛斌
Time: 97 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin and English
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014