Movie Review: Happy Together (1997)

Title: Happy Together
Release Date: 30 May 1997
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Production Company: Jet Tone Production | Block 2 Pictures | Seowoo Film Company | Prénom H Co. Ltd.

Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) are an on-again/off-again couple.  They travel to Argentina where they lose all their money and have to take jobs to earn money to return home.  Their tempestuous relationship further erodes until it falls apart and they both hit rock bottom. I found it unsettling how the film depicts the domestic violence between Lai and Ho, so consider that a content warning if you are similarly sensitive.

As is the style of Wong Kar-wai, Happy Together uses brilliant imagery to depict images and moods rather than plot.  The music in the soundtrack is also expertly matched even when used for ironic effect, like the title song (a cover of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” by Danny Chung appears at the end).  For a movie from the 1990s, it feels very progressive for telling a warts and all story about a same-sex couple.  But for all it’s great artistry and storytelling, I guess I’m the philistine who has to admit I found it a bit slow for my taste.

Rating: ***1/2

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: Badhaai Do (2022)

Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

Title: Badhaai Do
Release Date: February 11, 2002
Director: Harshavardhan Kulkarni
Production Company: Junglee Pictures

Shardul (Rajkummar Rao), a gay policeman, and Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar), a lesbian PE teacher, decide the only way to get their families to stop pestering them is to enter into a marriage and live together as roommates.  While Sumi has her girlfriend Rimjhim (Chum Darang) move in and Shardul pursues a relationship with Guru (Gulshan Devaiah), their families continue to meddle and begin pestering about babies.  Sumi and Shardul begin to consider adoption.  A whole bunch of hijinks ensue.

I didn’t thinks this movie was bad but I also didn’t think the jokes were particularly funny. That’s likely a cultural divide, though.  I appreciate that the gay and lesbian characters were never made the butt of the jokes for being homosexual.  The movie also has a good message of how taboos against homesexuality in India cause loneliness and real harm.  It also shines a spotlight on the injustice of laws forbidding same sex marriage and LGBTQ people adopting children in India.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Title: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Release Date: 25 June 2010
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Production Company: Kick the Machine


This surreal and slow moving film from Thailand focuses on Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a gentle farmer who is dying of a failing kidney, and feels he’s getting karma for having killed communists when he was in the army.  He’s cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and a medical assistant Jaai (Samud Kugasang).

One night while they are dining they are visited by the ghost of Boonmee’s wide Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), who died over a decade earlier.  Then they’re joined by Boonmee’s son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) who has been missing for years and turned into a anthropomorhic creature covered in fur with glowing eyes called a Monkey Ghost.  Then things get weird.

The story of Boonmee’s final days and funeral is intercut with visions of Boonmee’s past lives.  One of them involves an assignation between a princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) and a catfish.  Different parts of the movie are produced in different film styles although a general slowness and long periods without dialogue are common throughout.  Honestly, this movie is hard to summarize because it is more about a mood and a reflection on death, reincarnation, and memory.  You have to see it to believe it.

(By the way, this trailer makes it looks like a horror film, and while maybe some aspects are a bit eerie and unsettling, I don’t think it is scary at all).

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Cousins (2021)

Title: Cousins
Release Date: 3 March 2021
Director: Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith
Production Company: Miss Conception Films

This heart wrenching drama tells the story of three Māori cousins – Missy, Makareta, and Mata (also known by her English name May Parker) – over several decades from their childhood just after World War II to something close to the present day.  Mata is the main focus of the story because after her English father leaves her behind when he returns to Britain, her guardian separates her from her extended Māori family.  The movie is not told chronologically so it takes a bit of effort to piece together the story from scenes of the characters as children, young adults, and as elders.  But the actors playing the three leads at different ages do a wonderful job of capturing their characteristics across different times.  This movie is also quite beautifully filmed.  Definitely have some tissues ready, but this movie is worth the tears.

Here is the cast as best I can figure out, although I can’t find any sources that list the actors who played the roles as children.

Mata – Tanea Heke (Older), Ana Scotney (Younger)
Makareta – Briar Grace Smith (Older), Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (Younger)
Missy – Rachel House (Older), Hariata Moriarty (Younger)

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Children of Heaven (1997)

Title: Children of Heaven
Release Date: February 1997
Director: Majid Majidi
Production Company:The Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children & Young Adults

Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian) and Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi) are a brother and sister in a poor family of Tehran.  Ali picks up Zahra’s shoes from the cobbler but misplaces them on the way home.  Knowing that their father (Reza Naji) won’t have money to buy new shoes, they come up with a plan to share Ali’s canvas sneakers.  Apparently, Zahra only goes to school in the morning and Ali in the afternoon but the time they have to change the shoes cuts things close.

The movie is sweet in following the adventures of ordinary children sharing a pair of shoes, but something heartbreaking happens every few minutes. It’s a good reminder of the little ways that poverty can interfere with a child’s education contrary to the “No Excuses Charter School” ideology that places all the burden on the child to have the “grit” to learn.  But I digress.  This movie reminds me a lot of Bicycle Thieves although not quite to that level of tragedy.  Ali and Zahra are also absolutely adorable.

Rating:  ****

Movie Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Title: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Release Date: 7 July 2000
Director: Ang Lee
Production Company: Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia | Good Machine International | Edko Films | Zoom Hunt Productions | China Film Co-Production Corp. | Asian Union Film & Entertainment Ltd.
Summary/Review: I last watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when it was released in US theaters 21 years ago and it turns out I remembered very little of the movie.  The one thing that stuck with me was the duel fought on the tops of a forest of bamboo which remains an awe-inspiring image in this rewatch.

The film centers on Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a governor who is promised in marriage but yearns for a life free to determine on her own terms.  She learns Wudang skills from a bandit named Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) who is disguised as her governess and steals a famed sword named Green Destiny from the renowned swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat).  Mu Bai and his friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) investigate the theft of the sword and attempt to aid Jen who resists any interference.

The movie features several wuxia fight setpieces, and in addition to being amazing action sequences also are all rooted in relationships and plot points.  I’m impressed at how central women are in almost all the roles of this film especially since in just the last decade it’s been “controversial” for women to be centered in Hollywood action films.  I also was really touched by the unspoken romance between Mu Bai and Shu Lien which is paid off in the film’s denouement.  Chow and Yeoh are really terrific actors and express a lot of emotion with very little external display.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Title: The Exterminating Angel
Release Date: 16 May 1962
Director: Luis Buñuel
Production Company: Gustavo Alatriste

A group of wealthy people attend a dinner party at mansion of Señor Edmundo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife Lucía (Lucy Gallardo).  Strange things begin to happen as most of the Nóbile’s servant staff leave the mansion as if they are escaping, scenes and dialogue are repeated, and animals (wild and domestic) appear where they don’t belong.  When it comes time for the party to end, the guests find themselves unable to leave.  There’s absolutely nothing blocking their exit, but whenever anyone tries to leave the room they find themselves reconsidering and just staying put. As days and weeks pass, the guests are reduced to their basest instincts and turn against one another, although Dr. Carlos Conde (Augusto Benedico) attempts to keep order.

I kind of liken the experience of the characters to standing at the end of a high diving board saying “I’m going to jump” but then failing to move.  Of course the story works metaphorically on many levels.  Our U.S. Congress today knows what they need to do to move the country forward and yet remains frozen. Buñuel, of course, was satirizing the inertia of the elite social classes and the church of his time.  I like to think that these rich people were just totally helpless of what to do once the working class people abandoned them.

In short, The Exterminating Angel takes the premise of movies like The House on Haunted Hill of a group of people trapped inside a mansion but instead of camp horror gives it a Twilight Zone spin.  Of course, surrealism should be expected from the creator of Un Chien Andalou.  Ultimately, this film about a bunch of rich people trapped in a room is far more entertaining that I’d ever expect!

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Band’s Visit (2007)

Title: The Band’s Visit
Release Date: 13 September 2007
Director: Eran Kolirin
Production Company: Sophie Dulac Distribution | Sony Pictures Classics

A police band from Alexandria, Egypt travels to Israel to perform at the dedication of an Arab cultural center.  The only problem is that they mistakenly go to the wrong place, an isolated village in the Negev Desert.  The owner of a cafe, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), offers hospitality to the band members and finds places for them to spend the night. The better part of the film is the fish-out-of-water stories of the Egyptian band members interacting with the locals on their one night in the boondocks of Israel.

The main story focuses on the band’s stoic leader Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai) spending a platonic night on the town with Dina, albeit with some unspoken longings.  In a parallel story, Khaled (Saleh Bakri), a handsome, young and flirty member of the band who spends the night at a roller rink with some of the locals and helps a shy young man, Papi (Shlomi Avraham), make romantic overtures to his date.

This movie doesn’t solve the Arab-Israeli conflict but it’s a sweet and bathetic story of everyday people finding their commonality.  There’s also some excellent camera work that captures the isolation of the desert landscapes and and movement of characters in and out of scenes.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Powwow Highway (1989)

Title: Powwow Highway
Release Date: February 24, 1989
Director: Jonathan Wacks
Production Company: Handmade Films

Powwow Highway is a buddy-road trip-comedy-drama featuring two men from the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Lame Deer, Montana.  Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez) is an activist with a cynical world view and a short temper.  Philbert Bono (Gary Farmer) is fascinated with the old ways of the Cheyenne people and drawn to mystical vision.  He decides to get a “pony” (really a derelict old Buick) to carry out a quest.  When greedy developers attempt to remove Buddy’s opposition to their strip-mining contract have Buddy’s estranged sister framed and arrested in Santa Fe, he turns to Philbert to have him drive him there.

They don’t exactly take the most direct route, with Philbert detouring to the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota and attending a Christmas powwow at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with Oglala Lakota friends.  The contrast between Buddy’s serious and often angry personality and Philbert’s relaxed demeanor that often seems divorced from present-day realities is played for laughs, but also feels natural.  Farmer’s performance is particularly engaging and fully realized.

There are a lot of similarities between Powwow Highway and the later film Smoke Signals (which also stars Gary Farmer in a very different role), but not so much that I can’t enjoy them both for their unique qualities. It could be that I just really enjoy Native American-buddy-road trip-comedy-dramas.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Chungking Express (1994)

Title: Chungking Express
Release Date: 14 July 1994
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Production Company: Jet Tone Production

I really had no preconceptions of this movie but it was still not what I expected.  I guess I thought there would be more trains?  Instead this is a wonderfully weird movie, and I’m not sure I quite understood, but nevertheless I really enjoyed the vibe.  In some ways it reminds me of Amélie (and I would no be surprised if it influenced that later movie), but mostly it is its weird, wonderful thing.

Chungking Express is actually two short films that are tangentially related.  Both of them feature Hong Kong cops as protagonists although we don’t see either of them doing much policing.  In the first story, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) pines – or pineapples – over a woman who broke up with him. He’s then briefly brought into the world of a mysterious underworld figure (Brigitte Lin) who remains effortlessly cool despite wearing a ridiculously large blonde wig, sunglasses, and a raincoat at all times.  In the other story, a snack bar employee named Faye (Faye Wong) falls for her customer, Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who is also bereft after a break up with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow).  She begins to influence his life in bizarre ways.

That’s all the plot summary I’m going to give, because there are some interesting twists I don’t want to spoil.  Nevertheless, this movie feels more like a mood than a narrative.  The cinematography is interesting as well, sometimes feeling like it’s painted in watercolors.  There are a lot of shots through windows, mirrors, curtains, etc, that make everything feel dreamlike.  This is definitely a movie worth revisiting.

Rating: ****1/2