Joe's Movie Reviews

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hollywood Chinese

The relative lack of new, first-run movies of late has led me to resort to such subjects as the ratings board, and, now, movie-related television. But hey, I might as well write about TV while I can (since for me, it's going to disappear after June 12), and at least there is a legitimate movie connection.

The PBS series "American Masters" has given us documentaries on an extremely wide variety of topics, and almost all of them have been well worth watching. The proud tradition continues with "Hollywood Chinese", an examination of the ups and downs of Chinese and Chinese-American actors and film-makers over the decades, as they attempt to build a career in films that don't reduce them to stereotypes and offer them the same opportunities as others. As we see, they have faced a unique set of challenges on that quest.

Minority actors have always faced an uphill battle, but few of them have been consistently portrayed as the embodiment of menace the way Chinese characters were from the days of the silent movies on. Actors like the surprisingly youthful 80-year-old James Hong ("Big Trouble In Little China") are quite candid in interviews about how comparatively little the situation has changed for them from the 1940's to the present (Hong has been on TV shows like "Seinfeld" and movies like "Chinatown", but almost inevitably as a waiter, a butler or a super villain). Joan Chen talks with pride about her role in the Oscar winning "The Last Emperor" but also with frustration about how she finally had to go back to China in order to do any work after that with any substance, making her directing debut with "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl".

The film doesn't ignore the huge popularity of martial arts themed movies in recent years, with casts headed by Chinese actors, but notes interestingly how most of these roles are played by actors like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow-Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh... performers who were born or lived for many years IN China, not the U.S., so this genre isn't really giving new opportunities to many Chinese Americans.

And there are some very interesting observations about how (1) Chinese roles were played for so many years by Western actors (there are some amazingly embarassing film clips of stars like Katherine Hepburn "being" Chinese), (2) when Chinese actors got work during World War II it was often as Japanese characters (a practice which continues today: remember "Memoirs Of A Geisha"?), and (3) the rarity of a Chinese performer getting work in a role that doesn't blatantly call attention to their race.

But yes, there are some ups as well as downs, and as the film shows, most of them have come in recent years from Chinese/Chinese-American directors stepping behind the camera to tell the stories that Hollyood doesn't seem to be eager to tell. Film makers like Justin Lin ("Better Luck Tomorrow"), Wayne Wang ("Chan Is Missing") and of course the first Asian Oscar-winning director Ang Lee have been telling authentic stories of Chinese life in the U.S. film industry and have sometimes even broken into "mainstream" films (Lin, Wang and Lee have all had considerable success with full-fledged big studio Hollywood product). "Hollywood Chinese" does an impressive job in both showing how the situation has finally begun to change for the better while not minimizing the difficulty of the past struggles, or of implying that there are no more such struggles remaining. After all, there still to this date has yet to be a single Chinese Oscar winner in an acting category. But that's probably a great deal closer to being a real possibility now than it was several decades ago. Check out "Hollywood Chinese" when you get the chance, and once again learn more than you thought you could from a show this entertaining. The "American Masters" tradition continues.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Ratings Board Has Gone Completely Insane

As anyone knows who's read much of this blog, I don't (as a rule) generally review movies I've seen at the second run discount houses, and that's where I see MOST of my movies. However, after my experience at the Hopkins Theatre yesterday, I felt I had to write this column. I don't consider it to be a review of any of the films discussed; however, in the course of making my points I suppose I'll have to write some comments that make it SOUND LIKE a review. So be it. It all started when I went out to the Hopkins on their "discount Tuesday" ($2.00 all day instead of the usual $2.50) to see three films: "Adventureland", "Duplicity" and "Taken". Yes, I did see THREE films (one at 4:40, one at 7:10 and one at 9:30) and got back home after midnight. I am a sick, sick person.
Many of you (this is based on the quite likely false assumption that there ARE "many" who are reading this blog) may rely on a movie's rating to assess its content and decide whether or not you want to see it, or whether it would be appropriate for your children. You might believe that the ratings board (which consists entirely of parents and is SUPPOSED TO be making its judgments based on what they feel is appropriate or inappropriate for children) is making its decisions based on a clearly defined set of standards. I have often had cause to doubt this in the past, and after my experience at the Hopkins Theatre last night I no longer have any doubt that the ratings board either has no idea what it's doing, or else DOES know what it's doing and doesn't care that it's totally inconsistent and makes absolutely no sense.

I saw three films last night. The first was "Adventureland", which is rated R. It turns out to be a very sweet-natured, likable film about sweet-natured, likable characters. Our "hero", James, who had been expecting a trip to Europe as a graduation present, winds up working a lousy job at the low-rent amusement park Adventureland instead, and goes through a surprisingly uncliched coming-of-age experience there. The film has some sexual content (the co-worker he falls in love with is having an affair with an older married man), but absolutely no nudity, and no actual sex scenes... the affair takes place entirely off screen and is merely referred to). (And I should note that the married man is clearly portrayed as the sleezeball he is, and the girl realizes what she's doing is wrong and breaks it off). And James himself, at 22, is still a virgin in spite of a number of chances to change that status because he will not settle for "just getting it over with" with the wrong person. As far as violence, the closest you get is a friend of James who enjoys surprising people by occasionally punching them unexpectedly. Not exactly blood and guts. And the language isn't any stronger than I've heard in PG-13 movies 15 or more years ago. And this warm, sweet coming-of-age story that could actually be a beneficial film for younger teens to see (with some excellent performances by a fine young cast) is rated R, the same as "Friday The 13th" or "Last House On The Left". Does that make any sense to you? Me, neither. BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE...

Following "Adventureland" I saw "Duplicity", a very, very complicated but quite fun and entertaining movie about two con artists (played by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts) who team up to steal the formula for a valuable new product from a big multinational corporation. Their plan is played out over a five-year time span, with a whole lot of twists, turns and surprises. The two characters are clearly having a sexual relationship, but this aspect of the story takes up even less time than the affair in "Adventureland" (blink and you could miss the scenes that refer to it) and similarly, there is no nudity whatsoever and no actual sex on screen. The language is about on the level I would have expected in a straight PG movie 15 or so years ago, and there is absolutely no violence whatsoever (not even on the level of the likes-to-punch-people character from "Adventureland"). This is exactly the kind of movie Alfred Hitchock might have made in his lighter, comedic "It Takes A Thief" mode, and hardly seems like something that would be any problem for younger audiences to any greater extent than that film. And yet, the rating: PG-13.

And lastly, there was "Taken". In this movie, a retired CIA agent played by Liam Neeson goes into action using all his old set of skills when his daughter is kidnapped by a ring of criminals in Europe who specialize in capturing female tourists in order to hook them on drugs and then sell them into prostitution. In the course of this movie, Neeson conducts the kind of torture on the criminals he's pursuing that would make the folks at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib blush... and it's extremely explicit, too (especially the electrodes). He's willing to shed as much blood as necessary, and not just the blood of the guilty, either: at one point he's perfectly willing to kill the wife of an uncooperative French policeman who's standing in his way, right in front of the cop. Mind you, he doesn't... the cop caves in... but the fact remains, he would have had no problem doing that, and he's supposed to be the hero. I think we can all agree that this is violence... and particularly repellant violence... to a FAR greater degree than anything I've described in the other two films and, for that matter, than you've seen in many R rated movies. Plus, the whole story revolves around a father searching for the daughter who's been kidnapped to be sold into prostitution, and we even see the "auction" scene in which she and several others are being sold to the highest bidder. The language is probably PG-13 level, but that's the ONLY thing that is, in a movie that, 15 years ago, would have gotten a well-deserved R. The rating it gets now: PG-13, the same as "Duplicity".

SO... the ratings board would have us believe that as far as appropriateness or inappropriateness for younger audiences, the light-hearted non-violent caper comedy of "Duplicity" and the ugly, brutal violence and exploitative sexual elements of "Taken" (sex can have its place in a film, but this is just sleezy exploitation) are both on the very same level, and that the sweet-natured coming-of-age comedy of "Adventureland" is MORE inappropriate than either of them. Yes, folks, "Adventureland" would be more damaging to young audiences than "Taken". I have long suspected this, and now it has been proven beyond any doubt in my mind: every single member of the ratings board has completely lost their mind.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


It's the early 1980's on Long Island. A slowly disintegrating family is trying to hold it together while each of their individual lives is coming apart. Dad has long since lost any emotional connection with mom and is having an affair with the wife of the family's next door neighbor, whose husband is gradually losing any kind of connection with life in general due to his suffering from Lyme disease. The youngest son is attempting to make up for his lack of connection with his family by forging his first serious relationship, and not having much luck. And the older son, in the military, is about to ship out to the Falkland islands. Meanwhile, mom gets obsessed with the rising danger of Lyme disease to an absurd degree (but at least it allows her to concentrate on something other than the desperate state of her family).

Plenty of material there for a movie, that's for sure. Actually, there's plenty of material for a lengthy novel. But the makers of "Lymelife" seem to be a bit daunted by trying to cram all of that into a mere 95 minutes (why such a short film?), and wind up giving us some isolated moments of real creativity and good, solid performances, surrounded by an ocean of cliche and stereotypes, and actors who seem throughly unenthusiastic about the roles they're playing.

Over the past 4 years or so, Alec Baldwin has made an increasing "side" career in small, independent films dealing with disintegrating families, inevitably playing the cold, selfish father who can't see what he's doing to cause his family's drifting even further apart. He can almost play this role in his sleep by now, and in this film he nearly does. The one slightly new development here is that the character is openly racist, spewing his nonsense against Arabs, black people and numerous others... but that's hardly enough to make the character really stand out (or seem real). Baldwin can certainly do great work with a good script, but he doesn't much help here in that department (he's a more interesting heel on "30 Rock").

Jill Hennessey as his neglected wife isn't given much to do except continually cover every object and person in sight with duct tape, which she somehow seems to believe is going to protect them against Lyme disease. It isn't funny the FIRST time she does it, and it becomes increasing less funny each succeeding time. Rory Culkin (one of Mcauly Culkin's brothers) as the youngest son is a bland, character-free lump of teen angst, and Emma Roberts, up until now mostly seen in cutesy teen fare like "Nancy Drew" and "Hotel For Dogs" definitely plays a more adult-style part here but doesn't play it with any more depth... she's like a valley-girl cheerleader who somehow wound up in Long Island. And Cynthia Nixon as the neighbor with whom Baldwin is carrying on an affair plays the role as such a complete bimbo that it's offensive to men AS WELL AS women.

In addition to the weak acting, we have a script that constantly beats us over the head with symbolism and metaphor. Once in a while it works, but mostly it's so obvious as to be almost painful, such as the moment in which mom and her two sons have been abandoned by dad with some lame excuse (he's really with his mistress), and the incomplete family sits down for dinner and says grace directly underneath a picture of the last supper. In case you don't get it, the camera really lingers. Okay, okay, I understand already... this shattered and incomplete family in the same frame as the last supper. Very profound. (And why was the film set in the early
1980's? Except for a few news reports about the Iran Hostage crisis and the Falkland Islands war, the time is rarely mentioned or taken advantage of. The story could just as well have been contemporary.

But didn't I say something earlier about there being a few moments of creativity and good, solid performances? Why, yes I did. Thank you very much for reminding me. Kieran Culkin as the older son is remarkably good in creating a living, breathing person instead of a stereotype. His hard-edged military man slowly reveals multiple layers of emotion and character that probably weren't on the page, and his becomes a genuinely touching sub-plot as he tries to hold the family together. And Oscar winner Timothy Hutton as the neighbor with Lyme disease benefits from one of the film's few effective bits of symbolism: it's clear that what happens to Hutton physically is exactly what's happening to everyone else emotionally. But Hutton deserves much of the credit himself: he makes you feel his pain (both mental and physical pain) but also demonstrates a remarkable sense of humor in the midst of his health crisis that gives the movie its relatively few genuinely deserved laughs.

But overall "Lymelife" is an overly obvious "expose" of something that's been exposed already so many times that it's only a secret or surprise to someone who's been living in a cave far away from civilization: many of our apparently happiest families hide dark secrets and emotional pain beneath their veneer of happiness, and the "golden" suburbs are often not so golden. "American Beauty", "Revolutionary Road", and on and on... they've all been here before. And apart from Kieran Culkin and Timothy Hutton, "Lymelife" is another case of deja vu all over again.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Soloist

The "Inspirational True Story" (sorry I'm not tech savvy enough to give that phrase the glowing, golden, 48-point type appearance that would be appropriate) is one of the classic Hollywood staples. The story of a real person who went through enormous obstacles and came out on top is usually put through the same processing machine so it comes out like all the others: generically bland and uplifting, and not having a whole lot to do with real life. "The Soloist" isn't COMPLETELY free of some of the usual pitfalls of the genre, but the few that plague it are truly minor compared to what it gets right. By and large, this is the real deal.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) encounters a homeless, mentally ill street musician named Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Fox) playing brilliant music on an inexpensive violin and, out of curiosity (and the possibility of getting a column out of it) looks into his background, being amazed to discover that Ayers was a former Julliard student. As he continues writing about Ayers, he becomes more and more involved in his life, and tries to improve Ayers' status in life... which has some unexpected consequences.

What does it get wrong? Well, it probably doesn't need the several special-effects-laden sequences that illustrate Ayers getting transported into some kind of heavenly realm when he listens to music. Nobody has any idea if this what he feels when he hears music, and the sequences help to make the movie maybe 10 to 15 minutes longer than it really needs to be. Also, I personally could have done without actually hearing the voices that Ayers hears in his head. I acknowledge that many schizophrenics actually DO hear voices, but the movie doesn't consistently try to put the audience directly inside Ayers' head from the beginning: it just throws in these "voices" scenes at random, and because of this inconsistency I feel like it takes me out of the story a little: makes me remember that I'm sitting in a theatre watching a movie. And I'm a little curious about why they felt compelled to make some of the changes in the details of the characters' real lives: Lopez, for instance, is given a divorce and later reconciliation with the wife that, in reality, he's been happily married to and never even separated from for many years.

But these truly are very, very small quibbles compared to the things the film does well... and it does them VERY well, indeed. For starters, we have the performances of the two leads. Jamie Fox is genuinely deserving of not just another Oscar nomination but an actual win. I honestly don't think I have ever seen a more real, authentic performance by an actor in the role of a mentally ill character. You don't need special effects and actual voices... just watching Fox's face and listening to his staccato speach patterns, you can hear the voices he hears, see the things he sees, and completely understand the world he inhabits. It's downright shocking to realize that this is the same actor who completely convinced you he was Ray Charles, because watching this film all you see is Nathaniel Ayers, and while Ayers lives in a world none of the rest of us inhabit, you can easily convince yourself that that world is very familiar while you're watching Fox.

I also thought that Robert Downey, Jr. did excellent work in what could have been a colorless role. He convincingly gives Lopez his own insecurities, doubts and problems and makes it very understandable why Lopez would go out of his way to befriend Ayers and try to help him... and why he would try to pull back and disconnect his involvement when things begin to get complicated. Downey makes Lopez a real, relatable person and not some kind of perfect saint.

That last comment actually illustrates another somewhat surprising thing the movie does right: it's unexpectedly honest about the way this story would (and, to a fair degree, did) play out in the real world. You don't see Lopez never acting self-centered or short-tempered with Ayers... he did, and you see it in the movie. And most impressively, you don't see Ayers getting prescribed with just the right medication and escaping his schizophrenia forever and living a normal life. That just doesn't happen with people like Ayers, and this film doesn't pretend that it does. That's not to say that it says schizophrenics (or, for that matter, self-doubting newspaper columnists) can't have a happy life. It's just that the film isn't unrealistic on the subject.

So ultimately, does it matter that the movie stumbles a bit now and then? Not in the least. Performances on this level, and honesty about real life to the degree that this film has... not to mention the overall emotional experience it gives you... are all too rare in mainstream Hollywood projects. For a wide variety of reasons, "The Soloist" is very highly recommended.