Man on the Dragon


There is no “I” in dragon boats.

(2018) Comedy (One Cool) Francis Ng, Jennifer Yu, Chan-Leung Poon, Tony Wu, Kenny Wang. Directed by Sunny Chan

In sports, as in life, it is much harder to overcome individuals working towards a common goal than it is individuals working for themselves. United, a group of people can accomplish just about anything; without that unification, accomplishment can be difficult to achieve.

Pegasus Broadband is a Hong Kong Internet access provider who is going through what businesses euphemistically call “an austerity phase.” Rounds of layoffs have hit the engineering department particularly hard as three installers deal with an increasingly uncertain professional future. In addition, they are all going through mid-life crises in their personal lives as well; Chan Lung (Ng), a single man, has an unrequited love for the girl next door – well, her mom anyway. Chan cooks for the two women and generally takes care of them, dreaming of a day when the three of them will be a family.

Suk Yee (Poon) gets no peace at home. His mother and his wife bicker constantly and the toxic environment has moved their young daughter to get in a series of physical altercations at school. William (Wang) has given up a professional table tennis career for his girlfriend but is beginning to suspect that the price for staying with her is too high. Finally, middle manager Tai (Wu) is estranged from his wife whom he believes is having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.

Pegasus, seeking to repair their tarnished image, has decided to put together a dragon boat team for an upcoming race. All four of these men are drafted to row on the team. Hard-nosed coach Dorothy (Yu) – who is forced to use an American crew coach as a front in order to get the gig even though she’s ridiculously qualified – knows the company expects to win the race but given the sorts of athletes she has and their lack of cohesiveness as a team that there is absolutely no chance in hell that they could beat teams that have been together for years but gamely, she tries to whip them into shape.

Although this is ostensibly a sports underdog movie and there are lots of elements that characterize that particular genre, this isn’t strictly put a sports movie. Rather, it’s about men facing uncertainty in their lives and trying to navigate often murky waters in an effort to find some sort of clue as to where they’re going, or even to take charge of their own boats. The main actors mesh together well and their relationships are totally believable. They act like long-time friends do, razzing each other and supporting each other when the chips are down.

The women in the film fare less well. Either they’re harpies, teases, unfaithful or unattainable. I wondered at times if writer-director Chan isn’t a bit misogynistic in his outlook; even coach Dorothy, who is a bit of a rallying point for the men, does not come off particularly well and she’s the only female character in the film who has any sort of development whatsoever.

The rowing sequences are nicely done, the speed and grace of dragon boats in the waters of Hong Kong harbor being captured well. The camera is absolutely smooth (I’m wondering if they used a Steadicam-like device to keep the camera stable) which makes watching the races pleasurable rather than bringing a handheld choppiness that leads to a feeling of seasickness in certain other films trying to capture rowing or crew races.

The movie feels a bit on the long side and the plot on the predictable side. Some of the dialogue is also a little overwrought but the movie has just enough charm to just about overcome the negatives and earn a mild recommendation. It’s not going to set any marks for originality although the number of midlife crisis movies isn’t a high one but I think unless you’re extremely discerning you’ll find enough cinematic bliss to make this one worthwhile.

REASONS TO GO: The male bonding is authentic and believable. The boat sequences are smooth and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The subtitles were difficult to read at times. The movie was a little bit on the misogynistic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors did their own rowing, supervised by actual dragon boat athletes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Playing for Keeps
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Far From the Tree

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The Looming Storm ( Bao xue jiang zhi)


Rainy days and murders always get me down

(2017) Thriller (Century Fortune) Yihong Duan, Yiyan Jiang, Yuan  Du, Chuyi Zheng, Wei Zheng, Lin Zhang, Xianliong Li, Yan Qu, Yujie Su, Chao Sun, Chaofun Fu, Shuo Du, Gi Song, Shaodong Jiang, Qiao Cho. Directed by Yue Dong

1997 was a red letter year for China, no pun intended. It was the year Den Xiaoping, then the president, passed away and a more reform-oriented government went into effect. It was of course also the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control after having been in the purview of the United Kingdom for a century.

In that year Yu Guowei (Duan) was the security chief in Smelting Plant #4 in an industrial town in rural China. He has just been given the model employee award for going a year without allowing any petty theft in the plant. Respected by management, liked by his fellow employees, Yu fancies himself something of a detective and when a trio of women turn up murdered in town, he is eager to help the weary Captain Zhang (Du) who doesn’t want Yu’s help at all.

But Yu sees himself as a superior police officer to Zhang and the contemptuous Officer Li (C. Zheng) and believes that solving this case will win him a spot on an actual police force. With his fawning assistant Xiao Lu (W. Zheng) – who insists on referring to his box as “Maestro” – at his side, Yu makes like Sam Spade and looks for the usual suspects or at least the unusual ones. Based on his own instincts – which aren’t that bad – he starts looking for someone taking an unusual interest in female factory workers.

He finds one in a hooded man who has is apparently keeping an eye on the various factories in town. After a foot chase with the hooded man ends badly, Yu resolves to take down his prey and uses former prostitute Yanzi (Jiang) as bait. He sets up the girl, whose aim in life is to open up a salon in Hong Kong, with a salon in the center of town. This despite the fact that Yu, along with almost all of the smelting factory’s workforce has been laid off; the State is getting ready to close the factory as part of China’s modernization and move towards globalization. Yanzi is genuinely very grateful but doesn’t understand why Yu refuses physical affection. There is a palpable air of something tragic building and when the climax finally unfolds, it’s not what we would expect – but tragic nonetheless.

Dong sets the film in an unnamed town in the middle of muddy moors in a place where the sun never ever shines and it rains almost non-stop. This gives the film a noir-ish feel and while there are other elements of noir as well, this isn’t strictly that kind of film. There is a good deal of social commentary going on in the subtle way that Chinese filmmakers insert commentary into their movies.

Duan has the perfect hangdog look that belies his eager beaver attitude although once it becomes evident that he isn’t as good a detective as he thinks he is and his world begins to fall apart the expression becomes a source of pathos. Likewise, Jiang is bright and lively, an absolute refreshing respite from the overwhelming oppressive atmosphere of the film – although that atmosphere is part of what sets this movie apart. This is truly a place where nothing good ever happens and it is evident in the way the residents trudge through the muddy streets, not even bothering to protect themselves from the rain any longer. China is changing and these are the people getting left behind. Like Yu, they all have the certainty in mind that life is nothing but a perpetual disappointment and is something that is to be endured rather than enjoyed. That’s not as rare a mindset as I think we’d all like.

The movie is a little long (nearly two hours) and the ending very drawn out but for all that the pacing, while slow, isn’t necessarily a drawback; I remained enthralled by the story all the way through. This was another of the standout films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival; it might be a bit dreary in tone but it won’t leave you feeling waterlogged.

REASONS TO GO: While the pace is slow the story is so fascinating you never lose interest. Yihong Duan has the perfect hangdog look. The dreary setting fits the mood perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending drags on a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yue Dong has been a cinematographer for most of his career; this is his first foray into directing a full-length feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Microhabitat

Toni Erdmann


Where the wild things are.

(2016) Comedy (Sony Classics) Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias, Alexandru Papadopol, Viktoria Malektorovych, Ingrid Burkhard, Jürg Löw, Ruth Reinecke, Vlad Ivanov, Mihal Manolache, Radu Bȁnzaru, Niels Borann, Radu Dumitrache, Klara Höfels.. Directed by Maren Ade

 

We all know somebody in our lives who simply can’t take anything seriously. Who knows, it even might be you. Behind the occasionally inappropriate humor and unending stream of jokes however a little wisdom might actually show up even more unexpectedly than you might think.

Winfried Conradi (Simonischek) is a music teacher living in Germany, who has retired none too gracefully from his profession. At his final performance with his student chorus, he has them all dress like zombies and he as the Grim Reaper, a joke that has his colleagues and parents scratching their heads, not to mention family members who have gathered to celebrate his retirement. Among their number is his only daughter Ines (Hüller) who has just jetted in from Shanghai on her way back to Bucharest. She works for one of those corporate consulting firms that usually advise big companies to lay off great numbers of their staff. She has a new project with an oil company whose boss is eager to get the cost savings of a mass layoff but doesn’t want to appear to be the bad guy so Ines will do it by recommending it. In taking one for the team, she knows she might finally get that promotion she’s been promised over and over again – but has never received.

Ines holds off her father at arm’s length with her cell phone grasped firmly in hand; not all the calls she claims “she has to take” are actually there but whatever works to give herself some space with her dad with whom the relationship has been stretched to the breaking point as long as they can remember. Shortly after Ines leaves with a half-hearted invitation for him to visit, an event occurs for Winfried that convinces him he needs to connect with his daughter – somehow.

Without any prior warning he shows up at her office in Bucharest. She takes him to a party at the American embassy but things become awkward when she begins to realize that her dad is much more socially accomplished than she is. Worse still, most of the people she works with are men who are either dismissive of her abilities, attracted to her sexually or simply hostile towards women in general. The visit with her dad doesn’t go well and he heads back home.

Only he doesn’t arrive at his destination. Instead, he shows up as Toni Erdmann, a life coach with a rumpled appearance, a brunette wig with long flowing locks and outrageous false teeth with a distinct buck-toothed grin. Ines is horrified particularly when “Toni” claims he is the life coach of the oil company’s CEO that she is trying to woo to go with her company’s program. And the longer “Toni” hangs around, the more empty her life seems.

This was on the shortlist of the Foreign Language Oscars this year and was a critical hit at Cannes, although critics were absolutely mystified that it was virtually ignored by the juries there. I have to say that I’m not on board this film as some of my colleagues are; at more than two and a half hours long it is more of a marathon than a sprint. Ade apparently chose no to edit down further for the sake of pacing; on the other hand there are scenes that go on far too long. For example, there’s a scene when Ines sings “I Will Always Love You” – the Whitney Houston hit – from beginning to end that could have been shortened, as could a scene at one of many, many parties and social outings that it appears that Romanian workers have a far more party atmosphere than their American counterparts.

The humor here is more subtle and sometimes awkward; Americans of late have seemed to prefer more outrageous, over-the-top humor that is both raunchy and essentially brainless. This is by no means a joke fest – often the viewer needs to think about what he or she has just witnessed for a moment or two before the absurdity settles in. As Da Queen might characterize it, the humor here is quiet which is a nice change from the loud overbearing comedies that are in favor at the moment.

The performances by both Simonischek and Hüller are outstanding. Simonischek, a renowned Austrian actor, never lets the character get to be a caricature of itself. Because he plays things low-key the absurd situations that Winfried/Toni creates have more impact. Hüller is also a revelation, giving Ines an uptight frayed nerve tone that is a poke at the career-obsessed in general. She’s so busy earning a living that she is not actually living and her dad knows that and tries, in his own way, to point it out to her. Sometimes it can be actually touching when he hugs her near the end after a bizarre appearance at perhaps the most awkward birthday party ever caught on film.

We do see a change in Ines as the film progresses but not one so great that it beggars imagination. Instead, we see a subtle change in her as she starts to let the cracks in her façade open up and allow her true face to reveal itself. It isn’t always an easy journey here – some of the scenes go on far too long – but otherwise this is a terrific and occasionally brilliant film that may test your patience over its running time but is a worthwhile investment of that time nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is subtle which is a nice change of pace. Terrific performances by Simonischek and Hüller make this easy to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content of a very overt nature, graphic nudity, some brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An English language remake is on the way, with Kristin Wiig and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles. If the casting holds, it will be Nicholson’s first onscreen appearance in more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nine Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harmonium

Poltergeist (2015)


A show of hands.

A show of hands.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox/MGM) Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Susan Heyward, Nicholas Braun, Karen Ivany, Patrick Garrow, Doug MacLeod, Eve Crawford, L.A. Lopes, Soma Bhatia, John Stoneham Jr., Kathryn Greenwood, Molly Kidder. Directed by Gil Kenan

Remaking a movie is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to horror movies. The trick is to stay true to the original material while making it fresh and original enough that fans of the original feel like they’re seeing something new as opposed to a shot-by-shot rip-off. Add to the mix that it is an iconic film like the 1982 haunted house classic Poltergeist, which was originally directed by Tobe (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper and produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg and you’ve got yourself a tall order.

Taller still because most of your target audience will have seen the original except for maybe a few disdainful Millennials who don’t watch “old” movies, and yet it is that crowd who may enjoy this movie the most as they will see it without the baggage that the rest of us take into the multiplex with us. It is hard not to compare the movie to its source material, and yet it is at the same time somewhat unfair until you remember that the filmmakers knew what they were getting themselves into.

Many of the original elements remain; a modern family in a modern suburban home (in this case, in Illinois) that has a bit of a history, beset by paranormal activity of increasing malevolence. A little girl disappears and can be heard from the television set. Paranormal researchers who are blown away by the level of phenomena they witness. A psychic who may well be the only hope to get the little girl back.

Gil Kenan was a pretty odd choice to direct this; he has mostly directed family-oriented fare like the Oscar-nominated Monster House and the kid-centric fantasy City of Ember. The original Poltergeist had kids in it of course, but the focus was on the parents, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. Kenan chooses to make the middle child, Griffin (Catlett) the focus and to enhance his character with all sorts of neuroses and anxieties. The kid needs some Valium, or at least some therapy which his mother actually vocalizes at one point. Having a kid who jumps at every bump in the night in a house that is haunted by angry spirits seems a little cruel.

Rockwell and DeWitt, who play the parents, are underwritten compared to their two youngest, Catlett and Clements (the Heather O’Rourke of this movie). There are tantalizing bits of business; DeWitt’s character is a writer working on a book, but we never see her even attempting to write. Rockwell’s character has been laid off from John Deere and at one point there’s an indication that he has a drinking problem, but that’s never explored. They seem to be good parents and decent people but we don’t really get to know them very much.

Rockwell in many ways carries the movie; he’s a rock-solid actor who can be as likable as anyone in Hollywood, although he tends to portray characters with a collection of tics and quirks that are largely absent here. In the one scene that he and DeWitt get to show some intimacy (before kiddus interruptus, something every parent is familiar with) they display genuine chemistry together but for the most part they are reduced to reacting to one scare or another. DeWitt is likewise a terrific actress who is in my opinion somewhat underrated. Once again, she doesn’t really get to show what she can do in a role that is more cliche than character.

Harris and Adams play the psychic and the paranormal researcher respectively and unlike the original they have a past. Harris in particularly with his Irish accent is entertaining, which considering he has to fill the late Zelda Rubenstein’s shoes is a considerable achievement. Mostly, though, they – like the parents – are second bananas to the kids and the CGI.

There are some decent enough scares here, a few of them telegraphed by the trailer but they don’t come close to living up to the original. See, I’m doing it too – and everyone involved had to know that there was no way in figurative and literal Hell that this was going to live up to the original, right? Which begs the question; why remake this at all?

I’m not saying that there isn’t a way that a remake of Poltergeist couldn’t be a terrific film on its own merits or even live up to the original, but this one flatly doesn’t. The pacing is weak, the scares aren’t as scary and it simply isn’t a thrill ride like the first one was. There are certainly some things that are worthwhile about the film; they modernize it nicely although I suspect that will date the movie somewhat in years to come. Some of the CGI effects are nifty. The adult cast is solid; I sympathize with Rockwell, Harris, Adams and DeWitt who give it a good college try, but making a family friendly film out of a horror classic which seems to be what the studio and the filmmakers were shooting for is a half-baked idea at best. This is one movie that should have been one of those Cedar Point roller coasters that turn you upside down and backwards and dropped us down insane hills and into dark tunnels; instead, we got a kiddie coaster.

REASONS TO GO: Sam Rockwell is solid. Some good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Haunted by the original. Relies too much on Clements and Catlett.
FAMILY VALUES: A bunch of frightening images and scary moments, some foul language and a sexually suggestive scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Adams previously starred together in the 1998 indie film Happiness.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING; 6/10
NEXT: Lawless