Month: September 2015

Cinderella (2015)

cinderella 2015

If you’re going to compare Disney’s live action update of its 1950 animated classic Cinderella to anything, it would be the billowing silk cloud of a dress worn by the title character. Designed by Oscar winner Sandy Powell, the gown is an iridescent dream that shimmers and floats with every graceful turn by actress Lily James. It’s pure fairy tale, gliding in and out with nary a whisper. It’s also pure superfluousness, an impractical and unnecessary extravagance that no one really needs.

But that, some would argue, is the whole point of film and make-believe. I don’t need Star Wars, but I’ll be there when the Force awakens. So in an already crowded party with too many Cinderella retellings to count, might as well add another. Anyway, director Kenneth Branagh’s movie is often sumptuous to behold, nestled securely in a lush, green stretch of land far, far away. You’d think some of the frames were borrowed from a gilded picture book. It’s an adaptation not meant for a 13″ laptop monitor, I learned. Apart from the visuals though, this iteration doesn’t dramatically improve on the well-told tale, making it a grandiloquent but somewhat meaningless affair.

Cinderella enchants with some magical fairy dust moments; wide-eyed kids will still be transfixed by the transformation sequence, and Cinderella’s fashionably late entrance to the ball plays on our best adolescent fantasies. But the film rarely sweeps you away with burning, almost aching, love. James and her princely costar Richard Madden are well matched, equal parts sweet and charming, but nice just isn’t compelling enough (nor, it seems, is a PG rating). The two are so pleasant, so inoffensive that when they are together, you sort of hope they tiptoe away and leave the messiness of plot and conflict to others, maybe someone who wouldn’t mind throwing a punch or slinging some mud.

That, of course, would be a job for Cate Blanchett, who is the closest to a standout in this movie. She continues a strong tradition of despicable, simply wicked stepmothers and is helped by a wardrobe, makeup, and lighting that elicits noir-ish Joan Crawford. As masterfully as she cuts Cinderella with her icy stare, however, she doesn’t tease with any touch of tenderness. There is a brief but brilliant moment in 1998’s Ever After where Anjelica Huston, in the same role, hints at her love for and loss of Cinderella’s father, suggesting a seed of a compassion that is crushed and then blooms into something horrible and maligned. That is the character at its most interesting, when she walks the line between love and jealousy. Lady Tremaine, as she is called here, buries her hurt so deeply that she doesn’t even privilege the audience a peek.

That doesn’t matter if you want unadulterated fairy tale, which this is to the point of storybook voiceover. Elements like that are distracting if you’d rather the story tell itself, but that’s not how these things work. Fairy tales hold your hand and guide you with a melodious refrain – “Have courage and be kind.” They shouldn’t be too rousing, nothing that will make you jump out of bed and beg for more. But if they gently carry you off into a light dream, then it’s done its job right.

“A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” by Lily James:

“Strong” by Sonna Rele:

Released: 2015
Prod: Simon Kinberg, David Barron, Allison Shearmur
Dir: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Chris Weitz
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McSheara, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgård, Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

American Dreams in China (中国合伙人)

american dreams in china

America is where dreams go to die, at least this is what writers Zhou Zhiyong and Zhang Ji will have you believe. A country full of cheats and swindlers, it’s where hard work and talent just lands you a job as a bus boy. But in the 1980s, that didn’t matter; America was the place to be, especially if you were a college student in China. Eager young things flocked to the embassy in hopes of winning that golden ticket – a student visa.

The movie opens with three friends trying to secure that coveted stamp of approval. The timid Cheng (Huang Xiaoming) fails and Wang (Tong Dawei) forfeits his place so he can stay behind with his American girlfriend. Only Meng (Deng Chao) passes, and he bids a tearful farewell. It’s an unspoken truth that he will not return. His destiny is set; there is no failing in that land of opportunity.

But the movie is not Chinese Dreams in America, so there is a reckoning to be had. The friends’ desire to transplant themselves in the U.S. and reap the bounties of the American Dream merely sets the scene for Meng’s disappointing return and their eventual success as owners of a large tutorial center, in China. It’s an aspirational film to the core, but unlike recent entries from the Mainland, this one doesn’t depend on shiny baubles. The characters don’t sport designer clothes or cruise around in their S-Class. In fact, the costumes are hideously taupe and extra effort is made to obscure the stars’ good looks. The film instead tempts its audience with the belief that anyone with a dream and a bit of hard work can make it in China. Call it Horatio Alger with Chinese characteristics.

Loosely based on New Oriental, China’s largest “educational services” company, Cheng and Wang create their own learning institute and call it New Dream, which functions as an obvious motif and, intentionally or not, a nod to the “Chinese Dream.” After their failed bids to study in the States, the two characters are resigned to a life with little social standing or economic mobility. They do what they can to gain some respect and earn a buck but seem to always be treading water. A minor transgression forces Cheng to find new work, and he begins teaching English out of the nation’s first KFC (the irony!). Soon his classes grow so large that he has to set up shop at an abandoned factory, enlisting Wang in the process. To sweeten the rags to riches story, the building has no electricity or roof. If you’ve been to Beijing in the winter, you know that’s dedication.

That the venture succeeds beyond their wildest dreams, is a foregone conclusion. The film employs enough flashbacks and flashforwards, particularly in the first half, to give you a mild case of whiplash, and the device isn’t even necessary since the trajectory is pretty clear. Nevertheless, we see early on that the three musketeers go from poorly coiffed drudges to tutor rock stars, something that actually exists in Asia. Cheng makes the least subtle leap from one end to the other, and while Huang shows a few probing moments of despair, he doesn’t really justify his character’s shoutiness once he’s at the top. Tong and Deng, however, turn in more subtle performances with more difficult parts. Tong’s is more likable, but he’s careful not to make Wang into the film’s attention-grabbing comic relief. The emotional core seems to lie with Deng, who doesn’t so much barrel through his shattered hopes as he does pick up the pieces with quiet, unflinching focus.

If American Dreams had ended with a triumphant closing shot of the company’s stadium rally, it would be no better or worse than any other film about some small potatoes making it big. But in an obvious ploy to rouse the home team (the movie made a cool USD$86.5m at the box office), the filmmakers cap their project with New Dream being sued by American education officials for stealing test preparation materials. Depending on which side of the Pacific you’re standing, this could be a satisfying middle finger to the U.S., an acknowledgement that the American century has passed and that an ascendant, more culturally attuned China will no longer be bullied. Or it might be a somewhat dishonest dig at America’s lack of fair play without acknowledging China’s own dearth of equal opportunities.

Released: 2013
Prod: Peter Chan 陳可辛, Jojo Hui 許月珍
Dir: Peter Chan 陳可辛
Writer: Zhou Zhiyong 周智勇; Zhang Ji; Aubrey Lam 林愛華
Cast: Huang Xiaoming 黃曉明; Deng Chao 鄧超; Tong Dawei 佟大為; Du Juan 杜鵑; Daniel Berkey; Claire Quirk; Tong Lei 佟磊
Time: 112 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

Confession of Pain (傷城)

confession of pain

Confession of Pain had the misfortune of arriving on the heels of the critically and commercially successful Infernal Affairs trilogy, released in the early 2000s, which recalibrated Hong Kong film standards for the new century. This film featured many of the same principals, including directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak and writers Mak and Felix Chong as well as star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. So it wouldn’t be overstating things to say that expectations were high, or that the result was a grand disappointment.

Granted, it’s hard to follow up on a hit series that went on to become an Oscar-winning adaptation directed by Martin Scorsese. Confession of Pain tries to one up the intense cat and mouse game that fueled the creators’ previous effort with another catch-me-if-you-can mystery. Unfortunately, it gets derailed by overambitious plotting. At its most basic, the film is a murder mystery. A wealthy man (Elliot Ngok) is bludgeoned to death along with his manservant (Vincent Wan). Inspector Lau (Leung) tries to solve the crime with the help of his ex-cop friend turned private investigator, Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and bring some closure for the victim’s daughter, Susan (Xu Jinglei), also his wife.

If the murder is unspectacular, the unraveling of this mystery certainly is not. The killer is revealed about twenty minutes into the film, and that’s when things get a little fancy. Instead of the traditional whodunit, the story keeps its audience guessing about motive. In this way, it trends towards a character study. There’s enough stillness in the storytelling and camerawork to allow viewers space to pick apart the murderer and why he or she committed the crime.

At least this is the idea. It’s an intriguing and novel twist to the genre, especially for filmmakers on the vanguard of popular art cinema. The trouble is that absent a motive, it’s hard to give any meaning to the performances. Leung is cool and detached as Lau, effortlessly flinty as an officer who doesn’t blink twice when dispensing justice on a rapist. Leung the charmer is also on display though through tender gestures towards his wife. The actor holds his character’s duality in one consistent performance, allowing a strain of malevolence to underline everything. This shiftiness isn’t confined to a single person, and Susan’s coldness towards her father, embodied by Xu’s chilling stares, also points towards a dark path down which everyone seems to be heading. There are a lot of places to hide one’s secrets. Bong is eager to dig around, but as a recovering alcoholic who blames himself for a personal tragedy, he does little to liven the mood.

Their individual behavior begs explanation and fails to crescendo towards more concrete characterizations. But the plot is structured so that too many hints about the murderer’s intentions would bring things to a hasty conclusion, for the movie and the killer. So until the big reveal snaps quickly into place at the end, things shift into a prolonged limbo. Appearances by Chapman To and Shu Qi are supposed to help, somehow. To plays another investigating officer and brings what he usually brings to a piece – comic relief and bluster, but Shu does precious little as a chipper beer girl and is about as welcome as a squawky clarinet. Her role in particular clashes with the story’s darkness – the title translates to “Hurt City.” On this account at least, the filmmakers succeed; the internal struggles of the characters find little relief in the landscape, their images juxtaposed against long shots of Hong Kong at dawn or midnight when the city is at its loneliest and most abandoned.

Released: 2006
Prod: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達
Dir: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Writer: Felix Chong 莊文強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武; Xu Jinglei 徐靜蕾; Shu Qi 舒淇; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Elliot Ngok 岳華; Vincent Wan 尹揚明; Emme Wong 黃伊汶; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥
Time: 110 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Get Hard

get hard

Get Hard arrives at a moment when America could use some truth-telling about racial realities, but rather than address these issues in a critical or even humorous way, the movie is a lazy assemblage of rape jokes and racial stereotypes. When hedge fund manager James (Will Ferrell) is arrested and convicted for nefarious white-collar crimes, the judge is determined to make an example of him, sending him off to San Quentin for the maximum ten years. James has thirty days to get his affairs in order and, after mistaking his car washer, Darnell (Kevin Hart), for an ex-con on account of his blackness, enlists him as his prison coach.

The formula is in line with your typical odd couple buddy comedy. Two guys from separate words learn to coexist and in doing so form an unlikely friendship. The set-up also follows a certain post-racial American narrative, or perhaps a post-post-racial one. On the one hand, Get Hard is pleadingly self-aware, almost too eager to make a statement about the persistence of stereotypes in a charged social climate. In an early scene, James is sitting in his luxury car and nearly wets his pants when Darnell appears at his window, ostensibly to return the keys and not to hold him up as James presumes. The gag is supposed to funny in part because it’s so depressingly accurate.

While the film acknowledges that there is an enduring race problem in America and sets up its story for satire, it doesn’t follow through. James proceeds to lecture Darnell on the virtue of hard work, citing himself as an example, and then offers a tone-deaf explanation on why his assumption that Darnell is a convict is statistically sound. The liberal-minded audience is expected to see through James patronizing and, let’s be honest, racist, attitudes.

Ferrell resorts to his usual over-the-top buffoonery and makes it easy to see his character for the privileged ignoramus that he is, but his casting also undermines the film’s message. You can’t really hate on Ferrell, so rather than seriously calling into question the character or the environment that incubates his way of thinking, James is elevated to the misguided but still likable, somewhat befuddled hero. Meanwhile, Darnell gets downgraded to supporting player. Sure, the latter needs to come up with enough money to send his daughter to a better school, one that doesn’t require her to pass through a metal detector every morning, and this is why he agrees to play minstrel and entertain James’s offer. The problem, however, is easily dispensed with a single check.

The real dilemma belongs to the wealthy, white protagonist who, as it turns out, is totally innocent of his crimes, was set up by his scheming boss and soon-to-be father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson), is abandoned by his selfish, beautiful young wife (Alison Brie), and now faces the horrifying possibly of being raped every day for the next ten years, so the movie insists. The focus is drawn on rescuing him from his shitty situation, and the character demands sympathy. Because while James may be a snob who mistreats his help and profiles like a cop on probation (okay, certain cops), he tries to fit in with Darrell’s actual con cousin and, most importantly, can’t bring himself to say the “n” word if his life literally depended on it. If that isn’t enlightened, I don’t know what is.

The movie is a letdown considering its possibilities. It allows the benefit of the doubt to those who want to feel good about race without calling anything into question. James is let off the hook on almost every account and Darnell, despite his handsome paycheck, will still be returning car keys to white, middle-aged hedge fund managers. It would have been nice to see Hart try riskier, more caustic material, but then we might be dealing with James levels of uncomfortable, and no one wants that.

Released: 2015
Prod: Chris Henchy, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Dir: Etan Cohen
Writer: Jay Martel, Ian Roberts, Etan Cohen
Cast: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, Edwina Findley, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Greg Germann
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015