Suburbicon


Matt Damon is having a really bad night.

(2017) Black Comedy (Paramount) Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Richard Kind, Gary Basaraba, Leith Burke, Karimah Westbrook, Tony Espinosa, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, Don Baldaramos, Ellen Crawford, Megan Ferguson, Corey Allen Kotler, Steven Shaw, Steve Monroe, Allen Wasserman, Rupert Pierce, Pamela Dunlap, Biff Yeager, Lauren Burns. Directed by George Clooney

 

Suburbicon is a black comedy. Suburbicon is a treatise on social injustice. Suburbicon is a crime drama. Suburbicon is a period piece. Suburbicon is all of those things and none of those things. It’s a pastiche of different things that flutter through the proscenium and then wither on the screen. It’s one of the most disappointing movies of 2017.

Based on an unproduced script by the Coen Brothers, Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov have added a bit of contemporary social commentary – white racists in a suburban planned community in the Northeast talk endlessly about erecting a giant wall around the home of the first African-American residents of the community but this is no mere Trump-bashing exercise although it is that too.

The arrival of the Meyers family into  lily-white planned suburban community in the Eisenhower 50s only shows the insidious racism lurking just beneath the surface of America’s golden age – and by implication, continues at present. However, that’s not the only story going on here. During a home invasion, Rose Lodge (Moore) dies of a chloroform overdose, leaving her grieving husband Gardner (Damon), son Nicky (Jupe) and twin sister Margaret (Moore again) to pick up the pieces.

Much of the comedy centers around the blatant consumerism of the suburban 50s and as well there are certain Coen moments (like an oily insurance investigator (Isaac) who figures out what’s going on or a chase scene between a thug (Fleshler) and Gardner in a VW and child’s bike, respectively) that will delight their diehard fans. Still, there aren’t enough of them to overcome the curiously flat energy and the wildly all-over-the-place script that derails the project despite the presence of high-wattage stars. There are enough moments to make it worth checking out, but not enough to go out of your way to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon plays way against type. There are some occasional moments of offbeat humor.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy is scattershot and the energy is flat. The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (some of it graphic), profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Clooney directed a film in which he did not also appear as an actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downsizing
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Finding Your Feet

Advertisements

Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter


Rinko Kikuchi looks forward to a continued brilliant career.

Rinko Kikuchi looks forward to a continued brilliant career.

(2014) Drama (Amplify) Rinko Kikuchi, Noboyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Kanako Higashi, Ichi Kyokaku, Ayaka Ohnishi, Mayuko Kawakita, Takao Kinoshita, Yumiko Hioki, Natsuki Kanno, Brad Prather, Earl Milton, Madde Gibba, Phil Hall, Ravi Jasthi, Lucy Luu, Jim Wescott, John Edel, Fredrika Dukes, Kirsten Gregerson. Directed by David Zellner

Florida Film Festival 2015

We are all searching for something. Be it a spiritual goal, an esoteric concept or something concrete, we spend most of our lives in search of something. Usually that search is just a part of who we are, a means of achieving some sort of meaning. Sometimes, however, the search consumes us.

Kumiko (Kikuchi) is a Tokyo office lady, a kind of executive assistant. Like many things in the world of Japanese business, her role is heavily choreographed, from the hierarchy within the office, to the role she is expected to play to even the clothes she must wear – black skirt, white blouse, plaid vest. There are those who would say that it is a sexualizing of the position, taking women fulfilling valuable support roles and reducing them to little more than a pornographic icon.

Kumiko trudges through life in a kind of a daze, as if she’s drugged. She communicates in barely audible muttering, commits small acts of anonymous defiance (like spitting into her boss’s tea) and accepting the abuse of both her boss and her overbearing mother.

In a sea cave she discovers a buried tape of the Coen Brothers brilliant Fargo and gets the idea that the suitcase full of money that is buried near an anonymous fence post in the film by Carl Showalter (the Steve Buscemi character) is really still there, waiting for her to dig up. The idea takes root in her and becomes impossible to dislodge; it consumes her attention.

When the opportunity presents itself for her to flee to America, she takes it, leaving her beloved bunny Bunzo in a subway car (an earlier attempt to set Bunzo free in a park didn’t go the way Kumiko planned when Bunzo refused to hop off to freedom). Once in America, completely broke, she single-mindedly makes her way in the general direction of Fargo, with and sometimes despite the help of well-meaning Americans with whom she communicates in broken English. One well-meaning and generous deputy sheriff (D. Zellner) tries to tell her that the movie isn’t a documentary and the treasure isn’t really there but she refuses to believe it and freaks out about it a little. To Kumiko, there is nothing more real than the treasure which she believes is the ticket out of her terrible, constricting life and the way to true happiness.

This movie played the recent Florida Film Festival and received mostly positive response although there were some who felt differently. In all honesty, I can see both points and how you respond to this movie is going to depend on your point of view about a few things.

However, I don’t think anyone is going to deny that Kikuchi is brilliant in this movie. She doesn’t play Kumiko’s gradual downward spiral broadly; instead, it is a subtle thing, a gradual loosening of grasp on reality. She seems to realize that life is passing her by but is uncomfortable talking about such unpleasant things; when her boss asks her how old she is, she responds 29 but in truth she looks much older and this isn’t to say that Kikuchi isn’t a beautiful young woman; her eyes reflect the kind of despair that comes with age.

I like a lot of things that the Zellner Brothers (director/co-writer/actor David, producer/co-writer/actor Nathan) do here, in terms of writing a thought-provoking script with an ending which might seem ambiguous but really isn’t. Visually, Kumiko’s red jacket stands out whether in a crowded Tokyo subway station or trudging in a field of snow in Minnesota. Even when she makes a make-shift coat from a hotel comforter she becomes a kind of bedraggled Conquistador on a quest for El Dorado, an image Kumiko herself subscribes to. Little things like that make the film all the more delightful.

The score is done here by frequent Zellner Brothers collaborators The Octopus Project and it won a special jury prize at Sundance. Da Queen didn’t care much for it, claiming it gave her a headache but in all honesty I think the score is part of the means that the filmmakers are using to portray Kumiko’s descent into madness, as well as her humdrum existence in Tokyo.

The pace moves a bit slowly – Kumiko doesn’t arrive in America until about 45 minutes in – but I think that if you can overlook that the story is being told at its own pace you will be engrossed by it. There are moments that are genuinely funny (and not all of a “fish out of water” nature – some of the best laughs occur while Kumiko is in Japan) and some that will elicit a great deal of pathos, like a phone call near the end of the film that Kumiko has with her mother and slowly realizes that she will never be the woman her mother wants her to be – and that her mother will never accept her. This realization is done very quietly and without histrionics, just a sad expression and a slow movement of her hands. One more reason to qualify Kikuchi as one of the more brilliant actresses of the day.

REASONS TO GO: Outstanding performance by Kikuchi. Thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: Very slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the urban legend of Takako Konishi, whom the media erroneously reported in 2001 had come to the United States to find the treasure depicted in Fargo.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is a True Story
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Overnight

The Grand Budapest Hotel


Caught in the act!

Caught in the act!

(2014) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Matthieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Florian Lukas, Giselda Volodi. Directed by Wes Anderson

There was a time when elegance was in fashion, when gentility was all the rage and a gentleman was a gentleman and a lady was a lady. Those days are gone.

A student sits down by a shrine to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. In 1985, a famous Author (Wilkinson) reads the book aloud and tells us about the time back in 1969 when he was young (Law) and visited the namesake hotel of the book in the beautiful Republic of Zubrowka and spoke with the owner of the hotel (Abraham). He, in turn, tells a tale of when he was but a young ambitious lobby boy named Zero Moustafa (Revolori) who came to be taken under the wing of the greatest concierge that ever lived – the legendary Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes).

Gustave has made his reputation by knowing what his clientele needs before they themselves know. He specializes in elderly dowagers, flirting and bestowing on them the sheerest form of flattery, leading them into bed. One of his more devoted clients is Madame D (Swinton), but there are many and nearly all of them blonde.

When one of his clients passes away, Gustave takes Zero to pay his final respects but it turns out that Dmitri (Brody), the manipulative greedy son, is absolutely scandalized that his mother had carnal relations with someone like Gustave whom he considers to be a perverted little bisexual. Dmitri has in his employ Jopling (Dafoe), a psychopathic assassin.

As it turns out Gustave is accused of the murder of his client and jailed. Zero, his devoted protégé and friend and Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Ronan), a comely assistant pastry chef with a distinctive wine-colored birthmark shaped like Mexico on her cheek, will have to overcome the canny Inspector Henckels (Norton) and the ruthless Jopling to help Gustave clear his name.

Anderson has always had a quirky comedic sense that crosses Ernst Lubitsch with the Coen Brothers. This is in my opinion his best film to date, taking all of the promise he has shown in films like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and delivering on it. The timing is impressive and the film is funny throughout.

In talking about this film one has to talk about the production design. Each time period has a certain color palate which grows more dingy and dreary in 1969 and 1985 1932 however is awash in color, the pink jewelbox of the hotel dominant. Often the movie looks like it was printed on paper, with animated cutouts doing some of the action. The stylized movements of the actors and the oddball facial hair of the men complete the overall air of gentility and hilarity.

Fiennes is perfect as Gustave. Genteel, manipulative, a bit of a cad but with a heart of gold, Fiennes carries the movie in his coat pocket. It is a magnificent performance that unleashes hidden depths from Fiennes who often plays roles that are emotionally closed off. This is right in his wheelhouse and he steps into it and knocks it out of the part with enthusiastic gusto. While I find it unlikely he’ll be nominated for any awards later on for the role, this is definitely one of the best performances you’ll see this year that won’t get awards consideration.

The only reason this doesn’t have a perfect score is the unnecessarily convoluted structure of having a student sitting by the grave of an older author who talks about his younger self hearing a story from an old man who tells about what happened to him and his mentor as a young man. The problem with peeling back the layers from an onion is that someone inevitably ends up in tears. Nonetheless this is a terrific movie, quirky but funny and satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and funny. Fiennes is transcendent. Clever for all the right reasons.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning is unnecessarily complicated.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of ungentlemanly language, some unseemly violence and some naughty bits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where the film is set actually comes from a Polish brand of vodka.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hudsucker Proxy

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Fireflies in the Garden

New Releases for the Week of January 10, 2014


Inside Llewyn Davis

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS 

(CBS) Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Max Casella. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

A young folk singer trying to make it in the Greenwich Village scene in 1961 finds himself homeless with a cat that isn’t his in tow in a brutal New York City winter. The only ray of hope is an audition for a music mogul who could kickstart his career or once again shatter his dreams into a million pieces. This has been getting some pretty strong Oscar buzz.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

August: Osage County

(Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper. A trio of strong-willed women who don’t particularly get along all that well are drawn back home to the somewhat eccentric woman who raised them for a family crisis. With spouses, children and exes in tow it doesn’t take long for chaos and heartbreak – not to mention the occasional possibility for redemption – to ensue.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and for drug material)

Dumbbells

(GoDigital) Brian Drolet, Hoyt Richards, Jay Mohr, Carl Reiner. A former star college athlete finds himself working as a trainer in a rundown gym. When the new owner of the gym hits upon the idea of setting a reality TV show in the gym, it is met with much resistance from the complacent staff. However, the athlete and the owner form an unlikely alliance to save the gym, change attitudes and generally kick butt.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

Her

(Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara. A hopeless romantic man, heartbroken after the demise of a long-term relationship, flounders in social awkwardness. Then he gets a new personalized operating system for his computer devices and everything changes – he falls in love with the voice and personality of his new operating system.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: R (for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity)

Hercules: The Legend Begins

(Summit) Kellan Lutz, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Johnathon Schaech. The legendary demigod, son of Zeus and a mortal woman, is betrayed by his stepfather – an evil, ambitious king – and exiled. Resolved to address this injustice, the extraordinarily strong warrior resolves to overthrow the king and takes the first steps on his road to immortality.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Swords and Sandals

Rating: PG=13 (for sequences of intense combat action and violence, and for some sensuality)

Lone Survivor

(Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana. The true story of four Navy SEALs sent out into the mountains of Afghanistan to neutralize an Al Qaeda leader only to find themselves confronted with a much larger force than their intelligence told them. Faced with an impossible moral decision, they will put their lives on the line for each other and reflect in doing so the very highest ideals of the U.S. military.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: True Life War Drama

Rating: R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence)  

O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000) Comedy (Touchstone) George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, Del Pentecost, Chris Thomas King, Stephen Root, Daniel von Bargen, Frank Collison, Wayne Duvall, Musetta Vander, Mia Tate, Christy Taylor. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen have become one of America’s finest filmmaking combos, and for good reason. Looking at their portfolio, you see a common theme of understanding the cadences, rhythms and twangs of American speech, and seeing the cracked side of American life. In films such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Blood Simple, the characters are basically good but not particularly moral — there’s a criminal side to the heroes (with the exception of the Frances McDormand police chief in Fargo) that makes them charming, flawed but still in a realm to which the audience can relate.

Loosely (make that very loosely) based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  begins with convict Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) escaping a Mississippi prison farm with his dim cohorts Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson). They are off to find the loot hidden by McGill from an armored car job before the valley it resides in is flooded by a WPA project. They almost immediately run into a blind seer (Duvall) who predicts that they will find great treasure, albeit not the one they are seeking.

Along the way, they run into a variety of characters, from a one-eyed Bible salesman (Goodman), to a corrupt Mississippi governor running for re-election (Durning) to a blind radio station owner (Root) who records the three convicts singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” which, unbeknownst to the three Soggy Bottom Boys (so dubbed because Delmar and Pete elect to be baptized, to the amusement of McGill) has become a huge hit.

Heck, you even get to meet the manic/depressive Baby Face Nelson (Badalucco). They also run into three larcenous sirens and McGill’s wife, who is preparing to marry a man she considers “bona fide,” which McGill is not. When McGill objects to his wife remarrying and takes issue with her new suitor, he gets soundly thrashed and tossed out of a Woolworth’s, to his humiliation. Indeed, the three Soggy Bottom Boys do find a treasure beyond price, although they don’t realize it at the time.

The Coens capture the period perfectly, and give all the characters enough eccentricities to make them interesting, without making them overbearing. Clooney, in particular — with his obsession about his hair — commands attention. He is not “bona fide,” but that’s mostly bad luck. We root for him throughout and for his two dim-witted sidekicks. This is ostensibly a comedy, but it is a dry wit despite the occasional soggy bottom. The Coens lavish the characters here with interesting eccentricities and the actors repay him with excellent performances.

Refreshingly original, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains quintessential Coen and those who love their movies, as I do, will love this one. Da Queen and I were laughing till our faces were beet red, particularly during an early train sequence, and at the final performance of the Soggy Bottom Boys near the end of the film. Clooney won a Golden Globe for his performance here, and I think it’s basically from this point he got taken seriously as an actor, as well as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The humor isn’t for everyone – some find it a bit too quirky. Still, there are some pretty wonderful country-fried performances from Durning, Badalucco and Root and especially from Goodman, Hunter, Turturro and Nelson and of course Clooney steals the show. I’d never thought of him as a comic actor before this, but he is quite good at it as he has proven in several films since which you can always check out later. In the meantime, enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? and anticipate future celluloid from the Coen Brothers

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Great performance from Clooney. Among the best the Coens have ever done.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If the Coens’ quirkiness isn’t you’re style you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of violence and a few cursin’ words here and there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video and a featurette that shows how the filmmakers obtained the golden hue that tones the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie was profitable although given the success of the soundtrack, probably more so than the box office receipts would indicate.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raising Arizona

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Rashomon

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)


A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

Two out of three...

(2009) Comedy (Sony Classics) Honglei Sun, Xiao Shen-Yang, Ni Yan, Dahong Ni, Ye Cheng, Mao Mao, Benshan Zhao, Ran Cheng, Julien Gaudfroy, Shuo Huang, Wenting Li, Sisi Wang, Xiaojuan Wang, Na Wei. Directed by Zhang Yimou

People are fallible. We are prone to making mistakes and letting our hearts guide our actions when our heads should prevail. We often fail to recognize or foresee the consequences of those actions when we take them.

Wang (Dahong Ni) is the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of nowhere. Location being everything (even in ancient China), his clientele mainly consists of wanderers and nomads on their way to somewhere else – anywhere else but there. He has a comely wife (Ni Yan) who has been unable to give him children. Frustrated at both his wife and his lot in life, the miserly Wang takes out his frustrations on his wife and his staff, but mostly on the former whom he humiliates sexually whenever he can.

She responds by buying a gun from a Persian trader (Gaudfroy). Now, she exclaims, she has the most powerful weapon in the world at her disposal. She also has a lover, the cowardly and timid Li (Shen-Yang) who mostly wears pink and rarely does anything that his lover doesn’t approve of.

Wang doesn’t like this much, as you might imagine. So much so that he talks to the corrupt and jaded local magistrate Zhang (Honglei Sun) and persuades him to kill his wife and her lover, then make the bodies disappear – for a large fee. Zhang figures he can do better and so he kills Wang instead, hoping to get all of his loot – except he killed Wang before he could get the key to his safe…and Wang just won’t stay dead…

Yimou, the award-winning director of such movies as Raise the Red Lantern and Curse of the Golden Flower (not to mention the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), remade this from the Coen Brothers 1984 cult classic Blood Simple and overlaid it with his stylish and colorful visual sense.

He also chose to take the dark, noir-ish thriller that the Coens made and turn it into a broad comedic thriller. Purists are going to be horrified about that, and a lot of critics who loved the original had a hard time with the remake.

It certainly is a different film, although it strikes all the right plot points as the original, only approaching them differently and adding a subplot about a rival gang of thieves. The darker tones of the original are gone though; this is far more light-hearted.

However, Yimou has that distinctive sense of color and scope that make his films so breathtaking and awe-inspiring and he uses it to his advantage here. Although the noodle shop is grim and colorless, those that live in it wear brightly colored robes and carry on in an epic vista that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Ford western.

Sun gets the most of my attention; Zhang is laconic and somewhat low-key but he has a vicious side that reminds me of a cobra. Sun gives him that sense that something dark and nasty hides just below the surface. Playing a man who is dangerous is a difficult proposition; doing it without giving much away emotionally is even harder but Sun pulls it off.

The comedy is very broad and exaggerated, which while common with Asian audiences might be out of step with more subtle American tastes. Think of it as a Hanna Barbera cartoon without the intellectual undertones. It’s not for children though – but some of the set pieces would definitely appeal to less sophisticated senses of humor.

There is some bloodshed though – this isn’t strictly comedy – but considering how sexual the situation is there is almost no sexuality, which again illustrates the cultural differences between the Americans and the Chinese. This gives the movie a curiously sexless feel, and the sex did add a certain amount of kick to the original like adding jalapenos to a salsa.

I’m a big fan of Yimou but this one misfired for me. I’m recommending it mainly because the man always knows how to make a great-looking movie and this isn’t an exception but be advised that American audiences might have a tough time with the humor and the tone. If you can overlook that, you will find yourself enjoying the movie on purely a visceral level, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Yimou is one of the most striking visual directors of our time. Some broad laughs.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The noir tone of the original is sorely missed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the original was sent in modern (at the time) rural Texas, the remake is set in the remote desert Gansu province of ancient China.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The making-of feature is longer than the actual movie, but there are parts of it which are fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38M on a $12M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Illusionist