Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu)


In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

(1994) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, Sylvia Chang, Winston Chao, Chao-jung Chen, Chit-Man Chan, Yu Chen, Ya-Lei Kuei, Chi-Der Hong, Gin-Ming Hsu, Huei-Yi Lin, Shih-Jay Lin, Chin-Cheng Lu, Cho-Gin Nei, Yu-Chien Tang, Chung Ting, Cheng-Fen Tso, Man-Sheng Tu, Chuen Wang, Shui Wang, Hwa Tu, Michael Taylor. Directed by Ang Lee

Films For Foodies

One of my favorite cuisines is Chinese. Done well (which is sadly rare where I live) it is flavorful, fresh and filling. Cuisine is in many ways a reflection of the philosophy of life of the originating culture. China is simple on the surface but very complex the further you delve into it. The same can be said about families, not just in China but in all cultures.

Chu (Lung) is an old school chef, once one of the most honored in Taipei. He is semi-retired now, living with his three adult unmarried daughters. His wife passed away some years back and he is lonely even in a house full of girls. They have modern sensibilities which puzzle him. There was a time when a father’s word was absolute but those days are gone.

Jia-Jen (Yang) is his eldest. Nine years previously, her heart was broken by a suitor who abandoned her. She eventually converted to Christianity with all the fervor of a convert which has caused some friction in the household. She works as a school nurse and has given up on love – until a volleyball coach (Hsu) begins to pay attention to her.

Jia-Chien (Wu) works for an airline as an executive and is fiercely independent, guarding that independence like a mama bear with a cub. She had once wanted nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps but in Chinese society women were not chefs – only at home did they ever cook. She sometimes meets up with Raymond (Chan), an old lover with privileges.

Jia-Ning (Y-W. Wang), the youngest, works at a fast-food joint and begins a relationship with Guo Lun (Chen) who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Jia-Ning’s fickle friend whose flightiness is beginning to wear on Guo Lun.

 

On Sundays, Chu prepares an extraordinary meal for all three of his daughters. At table, they share news of each other’s lives and sometimes drop announcements on the family of varying degrees of earth-shattering capability. Chu is being courted by Mrs. Liang (Kuei), the widowed mother of single mom Jin-Rong (Chang) who is almost like a fourth daughter. Mrs. Liang is always accompanied by a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke which brings out the Dragon Lady stereotypes but makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the fragrant clouds of steam that rise from Chu’s gastronomic creations.

There are elements of farce here, as well as soap opera qualities. Each daughter represents a different daughterly virtue in Chinese culture, and each one has her own secret. Chu is not especially pleased with retirement; it doesn’t take much convincing to send him scurrying to his old restaurant to assist Uncle Wen (Wang), an old family friend – and yet he seems to take much more satisfaction from the meals he prepares for his girls, even though they don’t seem to appreciate it much.

Lee spends a great deal of time focusing on the food and its preparation – the entire first scene is essentially a how-to on how Chu prepares one of his epic Sunday dinners. You will be craving Chinese food by the time the first scene is over; you’ll be needing it like a junkie needs heroin by the time the movie is complete. Food is important in Chinese culture and Lee gives it the kind of reverence and due that the French accord a great meal.

 

I like Lung’s performance very much; he sometimes comes off as clueless but one gets the sense that he knows a lot more than what those around him give him credit for (and in the movie’s climax he proves that point beyond a shadow of a doubt). His relationships with his daughters, Wen and Madame Liang are separate, different but all pursued with kindness and tenderness. This is a man who loves to feed people not just physically but in the soul as well.

His daughters are a different bunch, all of whom are stereotypes in a sense but still accorded personalities of their own. Like me, you are likely to form opinions of them based on your own particular point of view informed by your own experiences in life. I won’t judge here; the performances are all solid and you will love them or hate them as individuals but you will have an opinion. These are not the meek, submissive Asian women of a different age – even Jia-Jen who seems the meekest of the three has a core of iron.

Some will find the lives of the daughters a bit soap opera-esque and that may be a turn-off for those sorts. I can understand that; it’s a fair criticism. For my part, I didn’t really mind. When looked at as a cohesive whole, the entanglements of their lives are as dense and complex as the entanglements of our own. If we’re lucky.

Like any Chinese feast, this is meant to be savored slowly and enjoyed for a lifetime. I haven’t seen Lee’s preceding film The Wedding Banquet but it is said to be superior. One of these days I’ll have to check it out. In the meantime, I highly recommend this delectable morsel. If you love Chinese cooking, Chinese cinema, or family dramas – or any combination thereof – this is a meal that was meant just for you.

WHY RENT THIS: A lovely entwining of family and food. Funny in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit hard to follow sometimes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bad language and adult situations as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening sequence, depicting the detailed preparation of a Sunday lunch, took more than a week to film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview with director Lee and his long-time producer partner James Schamus newly recorded for the DVD version which arrived in 2002.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tortilla Soup

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies concludes!

A Million Ways to Die in the West


Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

(2014) Western Comedy (Universal) Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Evan Jones, Aaron McPherson, Rex Linn, Brett Rickaby, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lloyd, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

During the 1950s, Americans tended to idealize the Old West. Rugged cowboys rode the range, rescued pretty school marms from bandits and varmints, and generally saved the day with an “aw, shucks” modesty. Cowboys were real men, Indians were the enemy and things were pretty simple. Of course, it wasn’t really like that.

The Old West was in reality a brutal place where arguments were solved with guns, violence was rampant, sanitation was next to impossible and the only thing worse than contracting a disease was going to the doctor to get it cured. Albert (MacFarlane), a sheep farmer in hole-in-the-wall Old Stump, Arizona, knows it better than most. He is the sort of guy who would rather negotiate than fight, which makes him yellow in the Old West. That’s fine and dandy with Albert. He’d much rather be a live coward than a dead hero.

His girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) doesn’t necessarily agree with that philosophy. After a humiliation after being challenged to a gunfight, Louise decides she’s had enough and dumps Albert in favor of Foy (Harris), a successful shop owner who caters to moustache owners. Albert is devastated. Louise was one of the only things worth staying in the West for. San Francisco would be a much better place for him, much to the disdain of his father (Hagen). His close friends Edward (Ribisi) and Ruth (Silverman) commiserate but they have problems of their own. For one, they’ve been together and they want to have sex, but also want to wait until they get married and keep their purity. Until then, Ruth will continue working as a prostitute to help save up enough to get married. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

Into his life waltzes Anna (Theron), a gorgeous blonde who is new in town. She also happens to be a crack shot and when Albert loses his temper and challenges Foy to a gunfight, she offers to help Albert work on his marksmanship. Of course, they soon develop into something more than friends even though Albert still wants to win Louise back. However, Anna might have forgot to mention that she’s married – to Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), one of the most vicious and deadliest gunfighters in the West.

The title is apt. MacFarlane’s character constantly grouses throughout about how dangerous it is out in the West and throughout the film people get killed by wild animals, shot by ornery bandits, crushed by blocks of ice and in a memorable sequence, fart themselves to death.

Fans of MacFarlane’s TV show Family Guy will no doubt feel right at home here. However, it should be said that the humor is pushes the envelope HARD and there are some things that you’re going to find offensive, like the shooting gallery gag that also serves as the fodder for an after-the-credits scene with a surprise cameo appearance. In fact, there are a ton of cameos to keep an eye out for.

Otherwise, this is one of those movies that throws as many jokes as it can into the mix and sees which ones you find funny and which ones you don’t. When the comedy works here, it’s sidesplitting. When it doesn’t, it’s groan-inducing. Fortunately, it works more than not.

MacFarlane is an appealing lead, although his character is a kind of neurotic nebbish, sort of like Woody Allen in chaps. MacFarlane, who co-wrote as well as directed and starred in this, has the characters act in fairly modern idioms, which allows 2014 audiences to relate better to the action in some ways while others might find this anachronistic and off-putting. It is part of the humor to hear someone from 1882 say “Oh, snap!” although again, there was some sniffing from critical quarters.

The supporting cast isn’t a bunch of straight men (and women) to MacFarlane as a lot of modern comedies tend to do; they all have their funny moments which you would want from a cast of talented actors like this. Only Neeson seems to be playing it straight, although he does give Clinch an outrageous Lucky Charms Irish accent which apparently he insisted upon before taking the part. I don’t know if a gunslinger with an Irish brogue rates laughs but okay.

MacFarlane references other Western comedies, notably Blazing Saddles and Django Unchained (which isn’t, strictly speaking, pure comedy) directly and otherwise. He makes use of Utah’s Monument Valley (subbing for Arizona) with some nifty cinematography, graphics and score right out of a 1950s epic screen Western. Visually speaking, he’s got the Western part down. However, the story doesn’t really support the length of the film and I got a little bit fidgety there towards the end.

This hasn’t been getting good reviews and I’ve also read some comments from non-reviewers that expressed how offended they were at this movie. There are those who tolerate offensive humor more than others and if you’re one of the others it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to check this out. I don’t think this is as good as MacFarlane’s previous movie Ted but that movie had its share of squirm-inducing moments. Use that as your guide as to whether you should see it or not. This isn’t for everybody, but the people that it is are going to love it.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s hysterical. Fun concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill. Runs about 20 minutes too long. Those who don’t tolerate profanity and sex very well should stay the fuck away.

FAMILY VALUES: A cornucopia of profanity and sexual innuendo, some violence and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Theron wore a wig throughout the shooting because she had shaved her head for the filming of Mad Max: Fury Road.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Maleficent

The Immigrant


This isn't the American Dream Ewa was thinking of when she emigrated.

This isn’t the American Dream Ewa was thinking of when she emigrated.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee, Yelena Solovey, Maja Wampuszyc, Illia Volok, Angela Sarafyan, Antoni Corone, Patrick Husted, Patrick O’Neill, Sam Tsoutsouvas, Robert Clohessy, Adam Rothenberg, Matthew Humphreys, James Colby, Peter McRobbie, Susan Gardner. Directed by James Gray

It takes a certain amount of courage to make a new start in a new place. If that new place is in a new country, amplify that by hundreds and thousands, more if it’s an entirely different language spoken there. Something like 40% of all Americans had someone pass through Ellis Island at one time or another; not all of them made it through unscarred.

Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Sarafyan) have come from Poland to New York City in 1922. They can see Lady Liberty rising in the distance; beyond her, the skyline of a new world. Their new life is so close they can reach out and touch it.

But it is not to be. Magda’s cough turns out to be tuberculosis and she will need to be quarantined and likely deported afterwards. The aunt and uncle who were supposed to greet the sisters when they arrived never showed and the address that was given them doesn’t exist according to the immigration officer (Clohessy). Ewa is all alone in a strange land; she speaks English pretty well fortunately but she has nowhere to go and no money.

Fortunately there’s an advocate there for a traveler’s society to help her out. His name is Bruno Weiss (Phoenix) and he has a small apartment where she can stay. He gives her food and shelter, offering her a job at the Bandit’s Roost Theater as a seamstress. Ewa is grateful but sleeps with a weapon under her pillow just in case.

Getting Magda out of Ellis Island before being deported will be a lengthy and expensive process. Bruno knows people who can speed the process along but the money is going to be an issue. It will take far too long on what she earns sewing and mending for her to retrieve her sister, and that’s everything to her. She decides that in order to get her sister out, she’ll do anything – including dance with Bruno’s troupe who do a lot more than dance, if you get my drift.

Into this mix comes stage magician Orlando the Magnificent – who happens to be Bruno’s cousin Emil (Renner). The two are on not-so-good terms but they become worse when Emil falls for the lovely Ewa – and Bruno has done the same (which doesn’t prevent him from continuing to pimp her out). Emil urges her to leave with him for California, a more pleasant and gentle land. Bruno wants her to stay away from Emil who has a gambling problem. Ewa isn’t going anywhere without Magda. Something has to give.

James Gray has amassed a reputation for doing quality work. He isn’t the most prolific director in the business, but he prefers to work on movies he believes in and generally with Phoenix when possible (four of his five films feature the actor). In some ways he’s much more of a European director in terms of style; his films aren’t flashy nor are they fast-paced. They take their time, unfold organically like a blossom in spring and then let you immerse yourself in the depths of their beauty – or ugliness as the case may be. The films may be set here in America but they definitely have a European soul.

He wrote the movie specifically for Cotillard, an actress he admires, and she doesn’t let him down. She is mesmerizing, whether as a deer in the headlights or when she is strong as iron. Sometimes both expressions occur at once and let me tell you, that’s nothing to sneeze at. This is a character who is obstinate and strong, but tender and vulnerable at once. She’s an unusually strong female character which is less refreshing than it used to be – a good sign – but nonetheless a welcome appearance. I’m not sure that Cotillard will get any Oscar attention given that the film was released so early in the year, but this is a performance worthy of recognition none the less.

Both Phoenix and Renner are terrific actors and they do a good job. Phoenix’ role is a little bit more meaty than Renner’s who is essentially more of a dramatic element than Phoenix whose character is more central to the story, but Renner is so interesting an actor that even in a part that is very subordinate he makes it compelling even so. Phoenix takes his role and runs with it nicely. I don’t think you’ll find any movie this year with three finer actors in the lead roles and three more complex characters for them to play.

The cinematography is lush and very evocative of its era which is a good thing. We get a sense of the squalor and the desperation in the City as well as the corruption in the police and immigration departments. A beautiful soundtrack enhances the images on the screen.

This is a sumptuous movie that has not only an epic quality to it but also an intimacy that keeps it from being too cold and distant. While the story takes it’s time to unfold, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing although those of the ADHD generation might have issues with it. The pacing allows you to become fully a part of the world that Gray creates. It is a rich and compelling world, one which isn’t always pretty but one which allows you to take a moment to wonder what your own ancestors did to make things work in the new world they travelled to. This is one of those movies that really hasn’t gotten the kind of attention it deserves and while you might not have heard much about it up to now, you really do need to check this out while you still can.

REASONS TO GO: Lush and layered. Cotillard is one of the world’s finest actresses. Renner and Phoenix give fine support.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too slow-paced for the attention-challenged.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and sexual content as well as some brief foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Neither Cotillard nor Sarafyan spoke Polish. They were given approximately two months to learn the dialogue. They were coached by Wampuszyc, who plays their Aunt and is a native Polish speaker.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ragtime

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Believe in Unicorns

The Double (2013)


Jesse Eisenberg can't stand to look.

Jesse Eisenberg can’t stand to look.

(2013) Thriller (Magnolia) Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Cathy Moriarty, Chris O’Dowd, Gemma Chan, Paddy Considine, James Fox, Rade Serbedzija, Yasmin Paige, Craig Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Christopher Morris, Tony Rohr, Susan Blommaert, Phyllis Somerville, J Mascis, Natalia Warner, Joanna Finata. Directed by Richard Ayoade

Florida Film Festival 2014

When we look into the mirror, we generally have a good idea at what we’re looking at. What if the face staring back at us, however, wasn’t necessarily our own?

Simon James (Eisenberg) is a cubicle drone for one of those big conglomerates whose purpose really isn’t necessarily apparent. It is run by a mythic figure known only as the Colonel (Fox) who rarely makes appearances but is deeply appreciated and loved by his workers. Simon’s immediate boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Shawn) can barely remember Simon’s name. In fact, he can’t.

In fact, nobody can. When Simon comes into work one day on the train, his briefcase carrying his ID and pretty much his entire life gets stuck in the doors of the train and is whisked away. The security guard at the front gate doesn’t recognize Simon and isn’t disposed to letting him in at first. Only Harris (Taylor) seems to have any idea that Simon actually works for.

Worse still, Simon pines away for Hannah (Wasikowska) who works the gigantic room-sized copier machine for the company. Too shy to actually ask her out, she is kind enough to him but again doesn’t seem to know that he is anything other than an occasional nuisance, asking for a single copy of a document when, as Hannah’s co-worker points out, the copy department is meant to make thousands of copies of large documents.

However, even this somewhat desperate life is threatened when a new employee arrives: James Simon is his name and he looks like an exact doppelganger of Simon. James is everything Simon is not – cool, confident, instantly memorable, manipulative and without conscience. A mirror image, if you will; reflecting the same person but in reverse. Simon is the only one who notices that James looks exactly like him.

James begins romancing Melanie (Paige), the boss’s daughter whom Simon had been attempting to train (although she is remarkably uninterested in learning anything). While James attempts to help Simon capture the woman of his dreams, it is James that Hannah falls for. It is also James who gets recognized for Simon’s accomplishment. Simon isn’t just fading into obscurity; his life is being usurped.

This played the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and was my favorite film to come out of it. It is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the conceit of which wasn’t especially new even in Dostoevsky’s day. Still, it works as a modern parable of how our personality is more or less a reflection of how others see it – and when others don’t, we begin to fade into oblivion.

Ayoade, a British comedian who has appeared in such films as The Watch also directed Submarine, much of whose cast appears here in various roles and cameos. Like this film, his directing debut also had the subtext of the disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. Here he adopts a kind of retro-futuristic look that resembles the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil set in a kind of postwar Soviet environment with recognizable modern technology in large, boxy and hideously inconvenient to use incarnations; personal computers have tiny screens on large grey shells that take up the entire wall of a cubicle, for example. Everything is grimy and dingy, like nobody has bothered to dust for decades. Even the diner that Simon patronizes looks distinctly unappealing, and you just know that any food served by the frowzy waitress Kiki (Moriarty) is going to be tasteless, bland and will probably give you the runs.

Eisenberg is one of those actors who can be dreadfully annoying with his nervous tics and stammering, the love child between Woody Allen and Hugh Grant, but when given the right kind of role, can hammer it out of the park. He seems to excel when given characters who aren’t entirely likable; the less likable, the better – Michael Cera has much the same issue in his career. This is one of Eisenberg’s best performances to date, one in which he plays both the nebbish and the morally bankrupt hipster. Both are personas that he has done before.

The movie is darkly funny with a weird sense of humor that once in awhile comes at you from oblique angles and causes you to laugh not just because the situation is funny but because you didn’t expect it even for a moment. In fact, you are never quite sure where the movie is going, but are content and even eager to let it get you there. That’s the kind of movie that most stimulates me not only as a critic but as a moviegoer.

This isn’t likely to get a good deal of exposure. It’s certainly not a movie that’s for everyone. It is very bleak in places which you would expect from a film based on something written by a Russian writer. However, that bleakness is offset by the cheerfully warped humor and Eisenberg’s dual performance. Mainstream audiences will probably want to give this a pass but if you love movies as much as I do, it is one that you should put on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful set design and atmosphere. Eisenberg at his neurotic best.  Weird sense of humor.

REASONS TO STAY: A little twitchy in places. Not for everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  Enough foul language to garner an “R” rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there are several other films with the same title, this is the first to be based on the Dostoevsky short story that bears its name (the Stanley Kubrick film The Partner is also loosely based on the novella).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Winter in the Blood

21


When Jim Sturgess says "Hit me," some might misinterpret the request.

When Jim Sturgess says “Hit me,” some might misinterpret the request.

(2008) Drama (Columbia) Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Ma, Christopher Holley, Scott Beringer, Teresa Livingstone, Jeff Dashnaw, Frank Patton, Colin Angle, Bradley Thoennes, Spencer Garrett, Sally Livingstone. Directed by Robert Luketic

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Getting an education is expensive but it is necessary these days if you want an express pass to success. Students go into outrageous amounts of debt just to make it through four years of college, let alone graduate school. Some students have had to think outside of the box in order to pay off what they owe.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has a brilliant mind, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee, and not even a very good one. He has achieved a great deal – he’s got nearly a perfect academic record at MIT and with his MCAT scores near the top of the scale, has been eagerly accepted into Harvard Medical School. The trouble is, he can’t afford the more than $300K that a Harvard Medical School will cost him and apparently he’s already maxed out on student loans. He takes solace in his misery with fellow nerds Miles (Gad) and Cam (Golzari), his two best friends.

One day, he catches the eye of Mickey Rosa (Spacey), one of his professors, for his ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure. When Rosa investigates further, he finds that Campbell has a keen mind for numbers a talent which is clearly being wasted as the assistant manager for a men’s clothing store.  Rosa decides to invite Ben to join a project he has underway, which involves having his genius students count cards at blackjack in Las Vegas casinos. While perfectly legal, it is frowned upon by the casinos because it is a way of beating the odds, which casinos are not known for tolerating.

Although reluctant to join at first, Campbell is finally persuaded to join by Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a girl he has had a crush on for some time. Spacey introduces him to fellow card counters Choi (Yoo), Kianna (Lapira) and the current big dog in the yard, Fisher (Pitts). Rosa trains Campbell in the nearly foolproof system which is designed to fly under the radar. After a training session, Rosa flies the team to Vegas to give Campbell his trial by fire. At first nervous and unsure, Campbell is able to focus on the task at hand while playing and becomes the team’s best card counter. This gives Rosa the warm fuzzies for his new prodigy, even as it brings envy and anger from Fisher and a certain amount of chemistry with Jill.

As the team grows more and more successful, they begin to attract the notice of security consultant Cole Williams (Fishburne), whose livelihood is being threatened by security software. Ever the old dog sniffing out wrongdoing (at least as far as the casinos are concerned), he begins to keep a wary eye out on the young man who seems to be winning an unusually high percentage of the time.

In the meantime, the thrill of the game and the fruits of success begin to take their toll on Ben. Initially in only until he earned his tuition for medical school, greed and arrogance are getting the better of him as he begins to alienate those who are closest to him, while initiating a growing conflict with Mickey, who has hidden depths of vindictiveness. Will Ben be able to win back what he’s lost while staying out of the clutches of the stone-fisted enforcers of Vegas?

Sturgess who turned some heads in Across the Universe is a charming lead. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gotten the script to put him over the top, although this movie was successful enough that it looked like it just might but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Spacey is absolutely delicious as the villainous Mickey Rosa, smooth as a snake and twice as lethal. Fishburne is one of those actors that I wish would be cast in films more often; he is always interesting. I take some solace in that he has been very present on television recently with lead roles in CSI and Hannibal.  Most of the rest of the young cast manages to look good but for the most part, their characters aren’t particularly well-drawn.

The visual effects can be a bit much, but at least they manage to capture the excitement of big-time gambling, Vegas style. The interminable chip effects that often scream “I’m a pretentious film school graduate directing this movie – watch how clever I am!” appear so often they finally induce vertigo more than move the story along. A truly nifty soundtrack and some flashy camera work make this clearly a work of the MTV generation (the preceding statement should at least give readers a clue to my age).

Sturgess and Spacey do some very nice work, particularly Spacey. The young cast is attractive. Of course, any movie that spends as much time on the Vegas strip as this one does is near and dear to Da Queen’s heart. The blackjack sequences, which could have conceivably been unutterably boring, have some snap and pop to them which will allow even non-gamblers to get into the movie.

Unnecessary (and unforgivable) geography errors take you out of the movie in a jarring kind of way. Also, the shots of the ultracool and hip card counters walking in slow mo were cliché when it was made; it is twice that now.

There’s far more style than substance here if you ask me. The fact that this is based on actual events (the real person that the Ben Campbell character was based on makes a cameo as a dealer) makes you wonder whether the truth might not have made a better movie than the fiction based on it. While it can be visually stunning at times, there are too many clichés spoiling this pot. Not bad, but not great either.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating subject matter and nifty presentation. Blackjack sequences well-staged. Some good work by Sturgess and particularly, Spacey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary and foolish errors in geography and logic. Overuse of “chip effects” and “badass slo-mo.” More style than substance.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language is salty throughout. There’s some sensuality and violence as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Ben Campbell makes a cameo appearance as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the history and game play of Blackjack. There’s also an interview with one of the actual MIT students involved in the incident. The Blu-Ray adds a video blackjack game through the BD-Live option.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $157.9M on a $35M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clockers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Levitated Mass

The Quiet Ones (2014)


Sam Claflin perfects his "What's that noise?" look.

Sam Claflin perfects his “What’s that noise?” look.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Lionsgate) Sam Claflin, Jared Harris, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Laurie Calvert, Aldo Maland, Max Pirkis, Tracy Ray, Richard Cunningham, Eileen Nicholas, Rebecca Scott, Ben Holden (voice), Aretha Ayeh, Max Mackintosh, Harman Singh, Dean Mitchell, Nick Owenford. Directed by John Pogue

There are things that we can’t explain yet. Phenomena that occur that seem without rational, scientific explanation. Many of these eventually will be explained once you dig deep enough. Sometimes though, our ignorance can be dangerous.

Professor Joseph Coupland (Harris) specializes in abnormal psychology. He has a theory that people who have been labeled “possessed” – people around whom paranormal events seem to occur – have traditionally been institutionalized, or harm themselves or others before that happens actually manufacture these occurrences through the powers of their own minds. Coupland believes that these occurrences are due to strong negative feelings inside and that if you can get the patients to transfer these feelings into a doll or some other inanimate object that they can be cured. “Cure one and you cure the world,” he tells his class at Oxford.

To that end he has a patient – one Jane Harper (Cooke) who has been in and out of foster homes and institutions all her life. She is said to be clairvoyant and haunted by poltergeists. Coupland believes that she can be cured of these issues by manifesting her negative feelings and pushing them into a doll. He is assisted by students Harry Abrams (Fleck-Byrne) and Krissi Dalton (Richards). Documenting it is a graduate, Brian McNeil (Claflin).

This being 1974, the dons at Oxford are none too pleased about the noise (the students keep Jane awake by playing loud rock music at all hours in order to get her into a state where she can manifest) and less pleased still about the subject of Professor Coupland’s thesis. Predictably, they pull their funding.

Enraged but still determined, Prof. Coupland rents a spooky looking house in the English countryside some distance from Oxford. There, isolated and essentially free to do as he wants, he starts working on Jane, keeping her exhausted and locked up to keep her from running away – or harming anyone.

At first, the manifestations are more startling than terrifying – things moving, doors opening, distinct rapping noises. In the meantime, Harry and the oversexed Krissi have become a kind of thing (although Krissi has also shown some affection for the chain-smoking Professor) and the shy Brian and the fragile Jane have also shown signs of attraction.

But things don’t remain this way for long. Tension is beginning to build among all five people, isolated in the middle of nowhere – Krissi likens it to being in a prison. Prof. Coupland has become more obsessive, refusing to admit that he may be wrong about his hypothesis. The manifestations have begun to get more sinister as Jane’s spirit guide Evie, a little girl who apparently died in a fire, has grown more agitated and almost cruel. Brian begins to suspect that there may be something going on beyond what Prof. Coupland can explain. Can he get Jane out of this environment before the experiment goes tragically wrong?

This is the most recent movie by Hammer, the venerable British horror production company that back in the day made the Christopher Lee Dracula movies and more recently, the excellent The Woman in Black. This one was actually completed back in 2012 but hasn’t been released until now. Considering the tepid reviews it’s gotten, that’s not surprising although it must be said that the studio has released movies far worse than this one in the interim.

Claflin has been slowly building up a leading man resume and while he hasn’t broken through with a star-making role just yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does sooner rather than later. He has the looks and the charisma although in this particular part he doesn’t really have a whole lot to work with. Cooke and Harris come off as the best of a nondescript bunch. Harris, the son of the late Richard Harris, has settled into a character actor’s lot in life and this is the kind of role that he excels at – officious, smart but corrupt in ways that aren’t always apparent. He is the glue that holds this movie together. Cooke gives us a classic possessed girl performance but adds a touch of melancholy to the role which is the perfect grace note. She’s an English rose, even as unkempt and unglamorous as she is much of this film.

The era of the 70s is captured very nicely, not just with the period audio-visual and scientific equipment but also with the cars, hair styles, clothes and more importantly, attitude. Modern audiences might be horrified at the amount of smoking that goes on in this film, but that was pretty much standard for its time (I lived through it, remember?) and especially place.

A horror film’s job is to scare its audience and the movie is successful at that more often than not, although there is a tendency to rely on cliches of the genre a bit too much. That makes the movie a little bit more pedestrian than it needs to be. I think partly too the filmmakers were waffling between making an atmospheric ghost story with gothic overtones, and making a slam-bang scarefest and wound up with neither. There’s even a “found footage” kind of sequence during the movie that reminded me how overused that particular genre has become. However, the climax while not breaking any new ground delivers one of the best scares of the film which goes a long way to redeeming some of the films more glaring faults.

This isn’t a bad movie; it’s well-acted for the most part, delivers some nice scares, shows off some young female breasts and is spooky and atmospheric at times. It just isn’t particularly innovative nor is it going to kick you in the seat of your pants with its scares nor is it going to creep you out with its atmosphere. At the end of the day the movie ends up being blander than most horror audiences – including me – tend to like.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent scares. Captures time and place adequately.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies on horror film cliches overly much.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of terrifying moments, some violence, bad language throughout, some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on the Philip Experiment which took place in Toronto with eight participants.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Empire of Silver (Baiyin diguo)


Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman - stereotypes anyone?

Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman – stereotypes anyone?

(2009) Drama (NeoClassic) Aaron Kwok, Tie Lin Zhang, Hao Lei, Jennifer Tilly, Lan Tian Chang, Zhi Cheng Ding, Jonathan Kos-Read, Zhen Yu Lei, Zhong Lu, John Paisley, Shih Chieh King, Niu Tien, Deshun Wang. Directed by Christina Yao

Offshoring

 

Money is a great corrupter. As China entered the 20th century and looked to enter the world as well after centuries of isolationism, the Shangxi province became a financial center since there was no central currency at the time. Merchants in Shangxi and banks, hoarding silver, became the economic power in China.

Third Master (Kwok) has distanced himself from his family. His father (Zhang) is aging and wants to hand off his banking empire to one of his sons, but his two other sons are clearly unsuitable. Third Master is the brightest and most promising of the lot, but he has had a huge rift with his father since dear old dad married the love of his life – that is the love of Third Master’s life.

He still has feelings for Madame Kang (Lei) which she secretly returns. She has developed a close friendship – a kind of sisterhood in fact – with Mrs. Landdeck (Tilly), the wife of the pastor (Kos-Read) who has a similarly troubled marriage.

As Third Master prepares to take the reins of his father’s bank, he has to fight off the wolves of China’s Wall Street as well as actual wolves. If China is ever to become a world power, it must first enter the world century and the feudalistic culture both politically and economically isn’t disposed towards the radical changes necessary. Something has to give.

Yao is a first-time director who has a visionary eye. She also has a sprawling, epic story to tell and while there are elements of Wall Street as well as Hero in it, there are times that I get the sense that she isn’t sure exactly what kind of film she intends to make. My best guess is that she’s trying to do something unique which is bloody ambitious for a first time out.

Kwok, not terribly well-known in the US although he’s a big pop star and actor in China, is a compelling lead. Brooding and grave at times, you get the sense of Third Master’s inner conflict even if you don’t understand the language. There’s some impressive acting and screen presence going on here.

Considering the world’s economic problems and China’s own position in the world these days, this is one of those rare occasions where a period piece is timely viewing. I can forgive the script’s occasional forays into confusion particularly since the images we’re shown are so compelling. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures are worth millions.

WHY RENT THIS: Kwok is a terrific lead. Explores a lot of different elements. Gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit plot-wise. May be trying to do too much.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, brief nudity and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the historical novel Valley of Silver by Cheng Yi, who is himself descended from actual Shangxi merchants as seen in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19,036 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: House of Flying Daggers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!