Mr. Six (Lao pao er)


Father and son have a little heart to heart.

Father and son have a little heart to heart.

(2015) Drama (China Lion) Xiaogang Feng, Hanyu Zhang, Qing Xu, Kris Wu, Yi Feng Li, Hua Liu, Ju-Gang Bai, Shan Jiang, Jing Liang, Nuo Lu, Hao Ning, Yuxian Shang, Zeru Tao, Hewei Yu, Yi Zhang, Yishan Zhang. Directed by He Guan

NYAFF

There has always been a disconnect between the young and the old. In every culture, the youthful have had difficulties relating o the elderly, and vice versa. In the 60s, the term “generation gap” was coined and there are no signs that things have changed.

In Beijing, there are a collection of alleyways called hutongs that were built once for the diplomatic corps that worked in the foreign embassies nearby at the turn of the 20th century. These alleyways have collective houses surrounding them; they are charming but are mainly inhabited by less well-to-do folk these days.

Among those folk is Liu Ye (Feng) who is better known around the neighborhood as Mr. Six (it is never explained how he acquired that nickname). He was at one time a hoodlum, although he seems content to exist selling things in his shop and leading a life under the radar. He has the respect of everyone in the neighborhood – including the police – and often is turned to when disputes need to be settled. He is something of a Don Corleone but without the impressive Long Island compound.

He hangs out with his friends with colorful nicknames, including the somewhat slow but loyal Lampshade (Liu) and the feisty brawler Scrapper (H. Zhang). He also has a somewhat interesting romantic relationship with his neighbor Chatterbox (Xu). He doesn’t have a ton of money but then again he doesn’t need much.

That is, until his son Bobby (Li) went all stupid on him and started sleeping with the girl of street racer and scion of a corrupt politician Kris (Wu). Although Bobby and Mr. Six are estranged, Mr. Six feels honor-bound to negotiate his son’s release and help clean up his mess. However, Kris proves to be somewhat arrogant and demands 100,000 yuan (about $15,000) rather than the 2,000 yuan that Mr. Six brought with him. And when Lampshade tries to help but makes matters worse, Mr. Six is forced to bring his old gang back together again to take on the young street racing gang, knowing that the cops won’t help since these are all sons of businessmen and politicians and are basically untouchable. As an added complication, Mr. Six is having some fairly serious heart issues that may sideline him from the fight. And then there’s the fact that Bobby doesn’t want anything to do with his father…*sigh* kids today, right?

Some movies are roller coaster rides from the get-go and others are slow burners; this is the latter kind of movie. It starts out at a very quiet and slow pace and builds. You would think that the subject matter would make this more of an action film, but there’s actually very little of that which might upset action movie junkies somewhat.

Feng is a solid presence, laconic and menacing and brooding at times, but never a figure of pity. One reviewer compared him to Charles Bronson and I suppose that works but for me, he was a little bit more stoic than Bronson was. He is the moral center of the movie, a man of strong convictions but one can’t forget that his convictions allowed him to harm innocents as well. He is a complex character and Guan allows us to get to know him thoroughly. He may well be the most fascinating character we’ll see at the movies this year and one of the most interesting ever.

The movie largely starts out as a slice of life in the hutong and I really liked that. I’ve actually visited a hutong in Beijing and found it fascinating. Da Queen and I got to see how people live in China and it was one of the highlights of our trip. You don’t get a sense so much of the hustle and bustle of life in a metropolitan city the size of Beijing; this is a much slower pace of life.

There is a scene in the movie in which Bobby and Mr. Six are sitting in a tiny noodle shop having a meal and the two are trying to make some sort of common ground between them. It is an amazing scene, a very real discussion between two men who have little in common but their love for each other as father and son. Each is sure the other is wrong-headed and that they are in the right; each doesn’t know how to navigate a trail that they can both walk on. It’s mesmerizing and heartbreaking at the same time because so many fathers and sons have the same failings.

There are some moments that are a little bit bizarre, as when Feng goes after the street racing gang and it feels like the scene should have been in Furious 7 rather than this film, and there are other moments that have that feeling that they came out of different movies, plunked themselves down for a moment and then went back to their original location. These moments are a bit jarring and may throw you out of the mood of the film for a short while, but stick with it. As a slice of life this film works on every level.

REASONS TO GO: A slice of life from Beijing’s hutongs.  The film has a mythic quality to it. Feng delivers a powerful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: There are odd moments that almost seem like they came from other films. It lacks the action to satisfy fans of that genre.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of profanity along with plenty of violence, some sexuality and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feng is not only an actor, but is one of China’s most popular directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Term Life
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Nuts!

The Counselor


Michael Fassbender doesn't know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Paris Jefferson, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

When we choose to abandon the straight and narrow, we do so most often because of greed. We want more than we would otherwise be entitled to by the dint of our hard work and effort, so we take the shortcut. Sometimes we escape with a tidy sum to put by for a rainy day but more often than not, we reap the consequences of what we have sewn.

The counselor (Fassbender) – he is never given a name in the film – is a sharp lawyer who must have been absent the day they were handing out a conscience. He’s all about the Benjamins, although he is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) whom he has proposed to. While his practice is making him a decent amount of money, he is raking in the cash like he’s printing it thanks to his relationship with Reiner (Bardem) who is part of the Mexican cartel, and middleman Westray (Pitt) who brokers the deals.

Reiner is arranging for the shipment of some drugs from Mexico to Chicago in a septic truck. Being the paranoid sorts that they are, the truck is only going to go as far as Arizona before finishing it’s journey. The Mexican nationals driving the truck get it to its destination, then a courier is supposed to take a kill switch needed to start the truck to the next driver who will finish the job.

Unfortunately, the courier is ambushed and killed on his way to the next driver and that courier happened to be the son of Ruth (Perez), a high-up member of a cartel family that the counselor is defending on a murder charge. To make matters worse, the counselor had sprung the courier from jail after a reckless driving and speeding arrest, which led the cartel to believe that the counselor had something to do with it.

Reiner, Westray and the lawyer are all at risk as are their immediate loved ones which in Reiner’s case is the ice-cold financier Malkina (Diaz) and in Westray’s case is nobody. Malkina, who has a soft spot for watching jaguars take down jackrabbits in the desert and knows more about what’s going on than Reiner or the counselor suspect, promises Reiner that she is going to leave at the first sign of trouble but in point of fact she’s long gone well before that.

As you would expect from a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the plot is very complex and requires a good deal of attention on the audience’s part, particularly during the first few scenes of the movie where those paying close attention can pretty much garner everything they need to figure things out.

The cast is impressive as you might expect with all the A-list power behind the camera. Fassbender is a busy man these days but makes time for a role which is as much of a cipher as any he has played to date. Not only is his character given no name, he isn’t given much of a soul either. That seems to reside all in Cruz who is unaware of the depths of the double dealing her groom-to-be is sinking to.

Bardem, as always, is interesting whether he is shamelessly hamming it up (as he is here) or underplaying discretely (as he does in Skyfall). As you can see in the photo above, there is nothing subtle about Reiner and for that kind of role, Bardem is a good first choice (or fallback as the case may be). Pitt is serviceable as the wise and worldly Westray who understands exactly what sort of people they are up against.

I’ve never been particularly a Cameron Diaz fan but this might be my favorite performance of hers to date. Malkina is a manipulative predator, weaving a web of lust and betrayal and then striking as true and as deadly as a cobra. It is one of the best female villain roles since Cruella de Ville – while Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster did show someone who was evil, you can’t really call truly call the role that of a villain.

The movie is pretty convoluted in places and there are a lot of characters who show up, say a few lines and then disappear for good. Perhaps the audience might have appreciated combining some of these roles or at least having other characters mouth the platitudes. The bean-counters would have appreciated it as well.

McCarthy is never a particularly easy read and this screenplay, an original story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, isn’t always easy to watch. The sex is in your face (quite literally at times) and those who are uncomfortable with sexuality will certainly be disturbed by what they see here. There are some pretty violent moments as well with at least one beheading and a lot of bodies being shot to pieces. Those sensitive to those sorts of things should take note too.

Still, this is a solid thriller that is a little smarter than most and a bit better-written as well. It is a grim movie that just gets bleaker as the film goes on and as the Counselor and his allies realize that they are trapped in a situation that there is no escaping, try as they might. This may not end up in anyone’s top 5 Ridley Scott movie lists but it should certainly make his top ten.

REASONS TO GO: Generally smart and well-written. Fassbender, Bardem and Pitt are terrific and Diaz makes a surprisingly vicious femme fatale.

REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted and hard to follow in places. Unrelentingly grim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and language, along with a few morbid images and a fairly extensive and graphic amount of sex and conversations about the same.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production shut down for a week in August 2012 after the suicide of director Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, who was also a co-founder of their production company Scott Free. The movie is dedicated to him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Winged Migration

Playing For Keeps (2012)


Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

(2012) Romantic Comedy (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman, Dennis Quaid, Judy Greer, Noah Lomax, James Tupper, Abella Wyss, Grant Goodman, Grant Collins, Aidan Potter, Marlena Lerner, Iqbal Theba, Emily Somers. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Making a connection with your own child isn’t always easy, particularly when you haven’t been around much. Connecting involves presence, and if you aren’t present, there’s nothing for your kid to connect with.

That’s been the story with George (Butler), once a soccer star in Europe who eventually played in the MLS in its early days but after an ankle injury forced him to retire, George has been struggling to keep it together. He is staying in the Virginia suburbs of our nation’s capital – not just because his last team was DC United, but because that’s where his son Lewis (Lomax) lives with his mom Stacie (Biel). George and Stacie were together once but no longer; in fact, we learn early on she’s engaged to marry her new boyfriend Matt (Tupper) who seems to be a much nicer guy than George; certainly he’s more stable.

Thing aren’t going terribly for George in any other facet of his life. He’s broke, would love to be working a sportscasting job but can’t find one to save his life, He lives in the guest house of a wealthy Indian man (Theba) and drives an Alfa Romeo which sounds posh until you realize that it was probably brand new at about the same time Frankie Goes to Hollywood was.

Soccer is really the only connection George has with his son. His son’s coach spends more time on the phone than training his young players (“Kick it with your toes” is about his only advice) and soon George can’t stand it and starts showing the youngsters a few pointers. The kids take to his instruction and soon by parental proclamation George is named the team’s new coach which is just in the nick of time since they haven’t scored a goal all season.

Things start looking up. The soccer moms, cougars all, start throwing themselves at George, among them redheaded Barb (Greer), a recent divorcee who has got a case of the hornies big time, brunette Denise (Zeta-Jones), a single mom who is an ex-sportscaster herself who thinks the way to George’s heart might be through her career connections, and blonde Patti (Thurman), the wife of Carl (Quaid) who is an expansive Texas-style businessman who thinks nothing of loaning George his Ferrari nor using his fame to close a business deal with Brazilian soccer fanatics.

Best of all, Lewis and George are beginning to find some common ground and even Stacie is looking at George in an entirely different light. But this being a Hollywood rom com, that’s just the calm before the storm. George’s sexual escapades begin to catch up with him and just as he’s ready to settle down, ESPN comes a’knockin’. George may have to choose between career and kid.

Muccino made his reputation as the director of the Will Smith hit Pursuit of Happyness and truth be told that was a much better film than this one. This is more or less standard Hollywood romantic comedy fare with few (if any) surprises. What keeps this from pure direct-to-video cheesiness is Butler whose easygoing Scottish charm make the movie. While his character really lacks inertia – things pretty much just happen to him rather than him making them happen – he gets by on a smile and an accent (not to mention a body that made most of the ladies in the auditorium sigh).

His chemistry with Biel is a bit bland to be honest; while I could see his appeal to her, her appeal to him wasn’t as apparent. I would have liked to have seen more fire from Ms. Biel; she’s shown it in plenty of roles so I know she possesses it. It’s just not in evidence here. As a result the romance in the romantic comedy is sorely lacking.

The supporting cast are pretty big name and only Greer really shines among them, although Quaid makes a game try. Quaid has been one of my favorite actors for quite a few years now and this is the sort of role that he excels at. A bit stuffy and a bit unctuous and not necessarily a good guy (although Quaid does good guys pretty well), but a lot of fun to be around.

Unfortunately the movie has more faults than strengths. This is clearly a movie aimed at the female audience but the women in the film are mainly bedroom ornaments for George. If you’re going to appeal to women, you need an appealing woman in the cast. All of the movies in the movie seem to be defined by their relationships with men. That’s not going to make your target audience happy.

Still, Butler is going to make plenty of the target audience happy, particularly in those scenes where his shirt comes off (and there are a few). Ultimately this is pretty disposable but not real offensive, unless predictable plot points offend you. In a holiday movie season where there aren’t a lot of rom com options to choose from, it will fit the bill but it doesn’t really hold up against the better movies of the genre. In short, it ain’t no Sleepless in Seattle.

REASONS TO GO: Gerard Butler is at his charming best.

REASONS TO STAY: No chemistry and no heat. Most of the women in the movie exist to bed Butler. A romantic comedy without romance.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit o’ sexiness and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was formerly titled “Playing the Field.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 4% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100. The reviews are pretty pathetic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ugly Truth

SOCCER LOVERS: There’s quite a bit of the Youth game variety but Butler has a few nice moves that he shows off at various times of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Tower Heist


Tower Heist

Ben Stiller brings up the Nutty Professor movies even though it's in Eddie Murphy's contract that nobody mentions them.

(2011) Caper Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Tea Leoni, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, Judd Hirsch, Michael Pena, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Zeljko Ivanek, Peter Van Wagner. Directed by Brett Ratner

It goes without saying that the new villains in the movies, reflecting our perilous economic times, are financiers. Most of us hold them responsible to a large degree for the woes we find ourselves in. Wall street is the new mad scientist.

Josh Kovacs (Stiller) works as the building manager for one of the most exclusive residences in Manhattan and thus one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. It is the home of the hoi polloi, the high and mighty – the movers and shakers of New York. He heads a staff that is renowned for their attentiveness and attention to detail.

Among the residents in the building one of the most famous is Arthur Shaw (Alda), a man who has managed the portfolios of nations. He is one of the world’s most respected financial minds, someone who understands the markets better than anyone alive. When doorman Lester (Henderson) opens the door for him, there’s just a little bit more deferential treatment for Mr. Shaw who is as down to earth as they come – playing online chess with Josh, who went to the same public school in Astoria that Shaw did.

A sharp-eyed Josh notices, while in security chief Manuel’s (Hernandez) office what appears to be a kidnap attempt on Mr. Shaw. He makes a heroic effort to rescue him only to be clotheslined by an attractive woman, who turns out to be FBI agent Claire Denham (Leoni). It also turns out that the kidnapping is actually Shaw trying to escape arrest. It turns out that Shaw has swindled all of his clients out of the money they gave him to invest and that money is all gone. It turns out that Josh had given the employees of the Tower’s pension fund over to Shaw to manage and that money is all gone too.

This is devastating for some. Charlie (Affleck) the concierge is about to have a baby. Miss Iovenko (Arianda) is studying to pass the bar. Enrique (Pena) just started working there. But it is most devastating for Lester, who was about ready to retire and also had given his life savings – about $70K – to Mr. Shaw to invest and was left with nothing, meaning retirement wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Disconsolate, he attempts to walk out in front of a train and is saved by off-duty police officers.

Josh doesn’t want to believe that his friend Mr. Shaw is a crook, but when he visits him to tell the house-arrested Shaw what has befallen Lester, it becomes clear that Shaw’s friendly man-of-the-people front was a facade. It also becomes just as clear that the money that the employees of the Tower have all been counting on is gone forever. However, Agent Denham lets slip that guys like Shaw always have a cash safety net available for emergencies and that they haven’t found Shaw’s yet. Maybe Josh can steal back what was stolen from he and his associates.

However, Josh isn’t a thief, as Charlie correctly points out. However, Josh knows someone who is – streetwise Slide (Murphy), a career criminal who lives down the street from Josh. Add the recently evicted Mr. Fitzhugh (Broderick) and Jamaican maid (and daughter of a safecracker) Odessa (Sidibe) and you’ve got yourself a gang. However can these amateurs make their way past the most sophisticated security system in New York and the ever-watchful eye of the FBI to get themselves a little payback?

It will probably not surprise anyone who sees this movie to know that it shares a writer with the Oceans 11 series. It has that element of camaraderie among thieves, the same kind of snappy dialogue. It does have some star power but after Stiller and Murphy it falls off somewhat, although there are some pretty good performances here.

The main one is Murphy, who after decades of doing forgettable family comedies finally goes back to the kind of role that made him a star, one that channels Axel Foley, Billy Ray Valentine and Reggie Hammond. This is not quite up to those standards, but it is his best role in years. He nails it as well, giving it that fast-talking con-artist veneer as well as that kind of bad boy ladies man that Murphy perfected 20 years ago and that comedians like Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Chris Tucker have all been channeling since then.

Alda, who was playing Hawkeye Pierce in “MASH” at about the same time plays maybe the nastiest villain of his career. Shaw is an arrogant, smug bastard who while obviously modeled on Bernie Madoff has a little bit of Leona Helmsley thrown in for good measure. It’s a delicious role and should go down as one of the most memorable movie villains of 2011.

Stiller is a bit of a cipher. He is likable enough but I think that the part would have been better with someone for whom larcenous behavior might have been more easily acceptable. Stiller seems better suited for characters who need less charisma.

Ratner excels in making mindless entertainment pieces and he does so here. There’s nothing much to think about and veteran moviegoers are for sure going to be able to figure out important plot twists (such as where Shaw’s money is actually hidden) well before the reveals. However, the cast is enormously appealing (the sight of Broderick reaching out of an open window to pull in their loot but afraid to move is one of the better moments in the movie) and the plot easy enough to follow. Don’t try to think too much about some of the plot holes and you’ll find this a pleasant enough movie, not a game changer by any means but a solidly entertaining diversion. Some critics will make it seem like that’s a failure but for my money that’s a big win for the audience.

REASONS TO GO: Fine entertainment. Eddie Murphy returns to form and Alda is a fine villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too predictable in the plot points. Nothing really new here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and a smidge of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Trump Tower in Manhattan was used as the stand-in for the Tower in the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The New York City vistas and the parade segment should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Due Date