Monday, August 31, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" (1958)

"The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" features the incomparable Ingrid Bergman and also Hollywood's maddening habit of taking a true life story and bullshitting it up into a sappy romance.

Gladys Aylward was a real Englishwoman and longtime domestic (read: maid) who at the spinsterish age of 30 used her life savings to travel to China to work as an unaccredited missionary. She ended up making it her home -- earning Chinese citizenship, the trust of the people and even a minor government post. Aylward adopted several children of her own and rescued more than 100 orphans  from certain death during World War II.

A pretty inspiring tale, which made for a popular book, "The Small Woman" by Alan Burgess.

But of course the studio couldn't leave well enough alone. In addition to casting the tall, stunning Bergman in the lead role -- who hides her Swedish accent about as well Sean Connery sounded like a Russian submarine captain -- they cast German actor Curd Jürgens as her half Chinese/half Dutch lover.

(Speaking of Connery, he screen tested for Jürgens' role, but was probably deemed too young in his late 20s to start opposite Bergman, who was then in her early 40s.)

Jürgens wears slightly tinted makeup and prosthetic to complete the racially insensitive ensemble. Bad enough, except that his character, Colonel Lin Nan, is based on a real (and non-biracial) Chinese official who befriended her. The film's ending shows her abandoning her young charges to return to her home province, presumably to reunite with Lin.

When the real Aylward saw the movie she was mortified, commenting that she had never so much as kissed a man in her whole life.

To complete things, another major Chinese character, the Mandarin of Yang Cheng, is played by British actor Robert Donat, also in embarrassing, unconvincing makeup. (Yellowface?)

At least one major Chinese character, Aylward's cook and companion Yang, is played by an Asian actor, Peter Chong.

They couldn't even get the title right. The name of the hotel that Aylward ran along with an elderly missionary, Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler), was actually called "The Inn of the Eight Happinesses." (The Chinese consider the number eight lucky.)

Not really sure why six happinesses is considered worse than eight.

But all films are a product of their times, and I can't dismiss the movie for following common -- if grating -- practices of its era. I'm sure screenwriter Isobel Lennart was pressured into making changes so that American audiences would find the story more palatable.

(Heck, in this space I once profiled a movie called "Across the Pacific" in which the characters never even reach the Pacific Ocean.)

Bergman admirably carries the movie as Aylward, who later is given the name Zhen-Ai, which is translated for us as "she who loves everyone." She depicts the character as brave and resolute without losing her crushing sense of humility. Zhen-Ai Aylward is less Norma Rae than a shrinking violet who learns to toughen up.

The first act is about her saving up the money and pluck to get to China after being refused a spot as a missionary. Despite her faith and obvious devotion, it seems she is rejected solely for being from a lower working class.

Her introduction to Yang Cheng is challenging. The locals are suspicious of foreigners, and she gets chased by some women for daring to help up a small child who had fallen in the mud. The poverty and the way human life seems debased repulse her.

Eventually they get the inn going, a waystation for traveling mule teams who serve as the lifeblood of the rural economy. They entice the men with stories of baby Jesus and other biblical tales. Her older companion soon dies, and Aylward must persevere on her own.

The Mandarin -- sort of a governor and judge rolled into one -- gives her the job of "foot inspector" to make sure the people are following the government's new edicts against footbinding. It was a horrid custom in which little girls' feet are tightly bound to crush them into tiny lotus shapes and never grow any larger. She only gets the job because the previous foot inspectors, all men, were run out of the various villages, and the Mandarin deems her the most expendable candidate.

Lin Nan turns up as the modernistic government official trying to drag the peasants into the 20th century. He's half-Danish and despises his European blood, and at first is deeply suspicious of the two interloper women. But things get progressively mushier.

It's certainly a beautiful film, with the Welsh mountains standing in for Chinese ones. Director Mark Robson, who had just been nominated for an Academy Award for "Peyton Place," scored another nod for this film. This makes him one of the few directors to score Oscar nominations in consecutive years.

Despite the racial swap I enjoyed Donat as the Mandarin, a man who projects an image of fierceness to protect the deep sentiment he secretly harbors. It's the sort of well-written supporting role you saw a lot of in mid-century Hollywood fare.

I loved and hated "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness." Before seeing it I would have said I could watch Ingrid Bergman in just about anything, but this film tested that resolve at times. It's a classic white-person-goes-someplace-exotic-and-finds-their-inner-peace story, which I could have appreciated for what it was, if not for the stiff and manufactured love story.

It's a romantic film; but the real passion was between a woman and her adopted homeland. No kissyface necessary.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Video review: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Twice in my life I’ve anticipated a movie that I knew I was either going to love or hate, because of a deep personal connection with the source material. The first time was “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” based on my favorite novel. This year it was “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a sorta-sequel to 1985’s “The Road Warrior,” a cherished cinematic touchstone.

Luckily, in both cases my fears were unfounded, the movies magnificent.

“Fury Road” is set in post-apocalyptic Australia, portrayed here as a shriveled, hardpan desolation of greed, death and human suffering. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is an ex-cop just trying to survive and make sense out of why he wants to.

Captured by the despotic local warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), Max finds himself thrown in with a group of women escaping his clutches, led by the fierce one-armed lieutenant, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). They’ve liberated a giant “war rig” and are steering it toward a fabled “green place” somewhere in the east.

It’s essentially one long chase scene, with Joe’s braying, death-obsessed War Boys nipping at their heels, along with a few other various mongrel clans. It’s an orgy of car crashes and death-defying stunts, carried out with minimal assistance from computer-generated imagery.

The action is just jaw-dropping in its spectacle and intensity.

Along the way, Max and Furiosa learn to trust – or at least tolerate – each other’s presence. And Nicholas Hoult has a surprisingly touching role as Nux, a fading War Boy who finds himself disillusioned by his short life of deity worship for Immortan Joe, a decrepit figure held together by his armor and the cult of personality he’s cultivated over the years.

Brutish and thrilling, “Mad Max: Fury Road” proves you can go home again.

Bonus features, which are the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions, included some deleted scenes and a good spectrum of making-of featurettes. Titles include “Maximum Fury: Filming Fury Road,” “Mad Max: Fury on Four Wheels,” “The Road Warriors: Max and Furiosa,” “The Tools of the Wasteland,” “The Five Wives: So Shiny, So Chrome” and “Fury Road: Crash & Smash.”



Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: "No Escape"

A rather clumsy but also rather effective thriller, "No Escape" is a dark night's ride through a landscape of xenophobia and primal instincts. It's the sort of movie that accomplishes its mission but makes you feel a little slimy after watching it.

It's about an American family who land in some unnamed Southeast Asian country to start a new life with dad working for a benevolent U.S. company building a plant to provide drinking water for the spectacularly ungrateful natives, who launch a coup almost the minute they get to their hotel and start hunting foreigners for summary execution.

There's more to it, of course. Director John Erick Dowdle ("Quarantine"), who co-write the script with brother Drew, throws in suggestions that the Western spooks and suits have been here for some time, ripening up the ground for economic enslavement. Hey, somebody says, maybe all those leering marauders shooting American tourists in the back of the head are just freedom fighters standing up for their own children!

I'm guessing this is supposed to make us feel better about cheering when the yanks smash in the face of some anonymous bandana-wearing thug. Today's globally-themed disposable entertainment comes conveniently embedded with its own white guilt.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell play the parents, and they're the best things about the movie. They're likeable and emotionally identifiable figures, and both have faces that are fascinating to watch in the way their beauty seems to transgress every supposed rule of how attractive people are supposed to look. I'm guessing a bunch of people told them they were ugly as teenagers, and look at 'em now.

Like Gerard Depardieu's, Wilson's nose boasts more interesting topography than most mountain ranges, with clefts, ravines and humpback rises. Thank God the plastic surgeons never got ahold of him.

Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare play the daughters, and they're good eggs, adorable when needed and whiny just when the story needs them to make noise when the bad guys are trolling nearby. Pierce Brosnan plays a scarred, debauched Irishman who offers a little help at the airport, and then a little more down the line. These days when Brosnan turns up in a movie, we just assume he's got a Walther PPK or a wristwatch laser stashed somewhere.

The bulk of the movie is essentially just one big long chase, as mom and dad try to get the kids to safety while avoiding the roving, random bands of bad guys. They end up making for the border with Vietnam to seek asylum ... Vietnam! You can practically feel the filmmakers poking us with the irony stick.

Look, I understand the rules better than most about how movies manipulate us, and the ways we are driven to root for the protagonists by having the villains do nasty things to them. But I'm uncomfortable with the way this picture uses Asian heavies as faceless boogums barely indistinguishable from each other.

The Americans wander around, stupidly trying to speak English to everybody, while the natives chatter away like inscrutable monkeys. Since the movie never even bothers to give the country a made-up name or language, they're literally generic hostile "foreigners."

(It was shot in Thailand, for what that's worth.)

The Americans are the naive innocents, of course, caught up in some overseas intrigue that interests them only so much as it threatens them. You get the sense that the dad's first call after the tragedy will be not to relatives to assure their safety but to his company to see if his relocation bonus check will still clear.

"No Escape" is visceral, nail-biting and sure to entertain. Your instructions are to shriek at the scary Orientals, and try not to think too much about it afterward.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: "Mistress America"

Many critics and audiences went nuts for “Frances Ha,” the last collaboration between writer/director Noah Baumbach and actress/screenwriter Greta Gerwig, but not me. I found it an unfocused and rambling portrait of a twentysomething woman trying to find a purpose in New York City. So I approached their next film together, “Mistress America,” with some hesitation.

Even though thematically the movies are kissing cousins, “Mistress” is a much more fully realized and vibrant work. Here Gerwig is not the subject of the story but its object. Her character, Brooke Cardinas, is a 30-year-old New Yorker who seems to have a lot of jobs and grand ideas, but all of them are transitory. She’s got a load of panache and personality, the sort of person who lights up a room and effortlessly takes it over.

She is described, aptly, as a woman who is spending her youth well.

It’s no wonder that Brooke is captivating to the actual protagonist, Tracy Fishko, an 18-year-old Barnard College freshman. They’re thrown together because Tracy’s mom and Brooke’s dad are marrying each other, which means they’re soon to be step-sisters. Brooke takes Tracy, who’s been struggling to fit in at school, under her ample wing for a night of fun and freedom, essentially auditioning to become her role model and muse.

Soon Tracy, who aspires to be a writer but has been declined by the hoity-toity campus literary society, is penning a vivid and not-very-well-disguised portrait of Brooke -- her fearlessness and foibles, her bright imaginings and doomed plans. Tracy reads portions of her short story throughout the film, serving as a sort of narration.

This is a very, very smart film about how people consciously and unconsciously are inspired by and imitate others. It’s also very self-aware, such as when the two women are silhouetted at night against a lit-up bridge as a groovy tune plays on the soundtrack, and one says to the other: “We look like we’re in a song!”

Tracy is played by Lola Kirke, who’s had a few small roles here and there, but announces herself with this nuanced, emotionally true performance. She has that rare ability to let the audience see her thinking, so we are swept along with Tracy as she beholds the amazing Brooke and is inevitably pulled toward her and starts emulating her.

Tracy has her own small circle of friends, notably Tony (Matthew Shear), a sensitive beta-male type who shares her literary ambitions. They hang out during first semester; both rejected by the lit society, and form their own little circle of trust. It seems like they must end up as a couple, but as often happens in real life the current pulls us in other directions. Tony winds up dating Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who is defined by her jealousy.

Things really get interesting when Brooke’s plans to open a restaurant hit a financial snafu, and she’s led to approaching a wealthy ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus), for the cash. Unfortunately, he’s now married to Brooke’s former best friend, Maimie-Claire (Heather Lind), who -- as she sees it -- stole her man, her T-shirt design, her cats and her richly deserved life of idle comfort.

Tracy and Brooke decamp to Michael and Maimie-Claire’s extravagant Greenwich, Conn., mansion, along with Tony, who’s providing the ride, and Nicolette, who’s providing the suspicion. This whole gaggle shows up on their doorstep, and at first I had visions of the same thing happening in “Funny People,” a potentially great movie that flushed itself down the commode with an ill-advised and rambling visit to an ex’s abode.

But this encounter, which essentially takes up the last third of the film, merely brings all the characters into sharper focus. The dynamic between Tracy and Brooke is examined, exposed and fundamentally altered. The muse gets P.O.’d at the artist.

The dialogue is razor-sharp and eminently quotable: “It was too much fun to agree with her.” “He’s the sort of guy I hate, except that I’m in love with him.” “I’m the same! I’m just the same in a different direction now.”

Smart, brave, probing and sensitive, “Mistress America” shows us that movies about messy people don’t have to be a mess themselves.

Monday, August 24, 2015

More "Mad Max: Fury Road" thoughts

 The greatness of "Mad Max: Fury Road" only becomes more apparent upon repeated viewings. The ability to pause and go frame-by-frame is a particular thrill. You find out things like the fact that George Miller used snippets of the earlier movies in Max's visions, such as the Toecutter's eyes bugging out or a black-masked marauder. The spare dialogue is enhanced by captions, so you can catch all the nuances of the linguistic mash-up used by the characters, altered slightly between the clans of the War Boys, Many Mothers, Joe's Wives, etc. ("Are you a Black Thumb?" aka mechanic.)

It seems more and more clear to me that this world is set much further down the road after the apocalypse, perhaps 40 or 50 years. Of course, Max would have to be an old man by then. Which is perhaps why he is essentially a supporting character, more an existential force than a person, a whitewashed version of the "magical Negro" figure who exists mainly to support and propel the main character, who is Furiosa.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Video review: "I Am Chris Farley"

If you looked at the average lifespan of “Saturday Night Live” alumni compared to the general population, you'd find it’s shockingly low. So many talented comedic fireballs have gone to early graves -- some to disease (Gilda Radner) or violence (Phil Hartman), but far too many to excessive lifestyles and a lack of self-control.

Anyone watching the show in the 1990s initially viewed Chris Farley as the reincarnation of John Belushi: a maniacal tubby guy with a natural grace for physical comedy that belied his girth. “I Am Chris Farley” is the new documentary about his life, where he came from, why he was so popular on the show -- and why he was incapable of doing anything halfway.

Directors Brent Hodge and Derik Murray interview an impressive list of people who knew or worked with Farley, tracing his rise from class cut-up in a bucolic Wisconsin town to king of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago up through the seemingly ordained call-up to SNL. We learn that he was a man who would literally do anything for a laugh, even being suspended from his Catholic school for exposing himself during typing class.

People like Adam Sandler, Dan Aykroyd, David Spade, Bob Saget, Mike Myers, Christina Applegate, SNL chief Lorne Michaels and many others weigh in with memories, regrets and praise. Farley’s brothers and childhood friends speak of a soul so innocent and pure that there was simply no nastiness in him. His inability to cope with alcohol and drugs was, they say, simply an extension of a man whose appetite for joy was unquenchable.

Myself, I was never a particular fan of Farley’s. He seemed to operate under the principle of “comedy by volume” -- that is, any line of dialogue becomes funny if you shout it loudly and repeatedly. The half-life he could wring out of material was regrettably brief; no doubt the reason his two films in a starring role both bombed as audiences couldn’t summon the endurance for 90 minutes of Farley’s pratfalls and mugging.

His act got old fast, and so did Farley. His death at age 33 of an overdose, compounded by his obesity, came as a shock to exactly no one, his friends say.

Still, if Farley’s brand of merriment wasn’t my bag, I appreciated the devotion he put into his craft. As this doc underlines, no one put more effort into looking like a screw-up.

It’s an insightful, affecting portrait of a misunderstood comedy giant who left us too soon.

As a straight-to-video release that’s also being shown on the Spike TV channel, there are no bonus materials.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: "American Ultra"

"American Ultra" is a quirky take on an old saw. This action comedy stars Jesse Eisenberg as a seemingly normal guy who discovers one day that he has amazing skills, including the ability to take down armed assailants with his bare hands. He wasn't even aware he could do this, until he does it.

We've seen this idea before with "The Bourne Identity," "The Matrix" and countless other flicks. The notion holds appeal because maybe anyone of us could be revealed as the badass chosen one, too.

The twist here is that Eisenberg is seemingly the last guy on Earth who could secretly be a trained super agent. It starts with the actor's small stature, unimpressive physique, soft features, trembly voice and disappearing chin. If you looked up "beta male" in the dictionary, it'd probably have his picture as an illustration.

Screenwriter Max Landis ("Chronicle") layers on the reinforcing characteristics. Mike Howell is an unassuming stoner who clerks at the Stop-n-Go, gets high with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), draws an amateur comic starring Apollo Ape and Chimp the Brick, and does little else. He's wracked with crippling phobias, including a violent aversion to leaving his town of Liman, West Virginia.

As the story opens, they are about to fly off on a Hawaii trip where Mike plans to pop the question. (Hawaii? Fancy ring? Must've been a lot of double-shifts at the Stop-n-Go.) But he's unable to get on the plane, and worries that he's just slowing Phoebe down. But then some big guys in black camo show up out of nowhere and try to kill him, and Mike easily takes them out armed with nothing more than a piping hot cup o' soup and a spoon.

Here we have the classic trope about the master spies deciding that a rogue agent who hasn't done anything to anybody in years needs to be eliminated -- even if it requires expending many more agents' lives and the entire operational budget to do it. Listen, spooks: if Jason Bourne decides he wants to retire on the beach, let him get fat on barbecue and piña coladas.

Topher Grace plays the maniacal young CIA chief who goes after Mike, and he's got a small army of his own twisted agents to do it. Of course, he always sends them against clerk-boy in twos and threes, instead of calling the whole gang in at once. On several occasions he's literally got a bunch of his "tough guy" spies sitting around doing nothing while he picks a pair to be the latest sacrificial lambs.

Lesson two, spooks: if you have 17 guys to dispatch against one, why in the world would you not just send all 17?

Connie Britton plays the good CIA gal who recruited Mike (unbeknownst to him) and is still looking out for him. Walton Goggins, so great on the "Justified" TV show, is the Laugher, one of the evil toadies. John Leguizamo turns up as your friendly neighborhood drug dealer, and Tony Hale plays a nebbishy desk agent caught between loyalties.

It's a fun ride, and director Nima Nourizadeh keeps things moving at a snappy pace. Eisenberg and Stewart have nice chemistry together in between all the chases and dismemberments. (Though I recommend the little-seen "Adventureland" if you really want to see some romantic sparks fly between them.)

"American Ultra" succeeds under the wallflower charms of Jesse Eisenberg and a clever script. Sometimes even pathetic losers can kill you with a spoon, so be nice.