Blind Spot 31: The Last Emperor

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This month for my blind spot pick I decided to take a look at a film that took home 9 Oscars including Best Picture and Director: 1987’s The Last Emperor. I didn’t know much about it going into the film except that it was a long and sumptuously mounted production. After viewing it, I agree it is long and sumptuously mounted but aside from those qualities, I wasn’t very impressed by it.

The Last Emperor was helmed by Italian director Bernardo Berlotucci and it feels European in its grand scope and leisurely pacing. It was the first Western film authorized by the PROC to be filmed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, so naturally all of the sets and locations are authentic and grand. It is completely understandable why it won Oscars for art direction, cinematography and especially costume design. The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto is also very strong.

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However, in many ways it felt like a foreigner telling a Chinese story. The Last Emperor is about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. Evidently they based the screenplay off of Puyi’s autobiography, which is odd because so much of it rang flat and false.

To begin with, having all the characters speak English feels like an almost mocking choice. It takes you out of the scenes because this is supposed to be a serious movie and they are so obviously not speaking the right language. It’s one thing for an Indiana Jones movie to have accents but an epic masterpiece like The Last Emperor? Not so much. I guess you could make the argument it is in the traditions of old school epics like The Ten Commandments but those movies had stronger narratives to make up for the cultural awkwardness.

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Speaking of story, it boggles my mind that The Last Emperor won Best Adapted Screenplay because the narrative is very weak. We see many events happen to Puyi but I never felt sorry for him or invested in his character. For most of the movie he came across as a spoiled brat without much nuance or introspection. Towards the end he grows as a person as he is incarcerated by the communists, but I still felt distant and like I never truly understood him. We are told Puyi is the “loneliest boy on earth” but he just felt like the blandest.

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Some of the side characters are more interesting like his main wife Wanrong. She kind of has a lesbian relationship yet does seem to love Puyi and want him to succeed, which could have been interesting but it isn’t really explored in a satisfactory way. She’s a lonely character and I wish we got to know her better and have more time with her. Peter O’Toole is good as Puyi’s British tutor Reginald Johnston. He both kowtows and challenges the Chinese royal establishment, but even he could have been used more effectively and challenged more as a character.

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The frustrating thing is I can tell Puyi’s story is fascinating having gone from opulence to a puppet emperor to a prisoner and a common man all in one life. But the screenplay in The Last Emperor delivers that compelling story without any tension or emotional heft. It all landed like a thud and was really quite boring. I didn’t care about his character and the interesting parts were more like reading a textbook than watching a compelling narrative. It needed a Steven Spielberg type voice to come in with sweeping moments of drama and tension to sell the soapy dialogue and characters. That might have worked better.

I kind of wish they would remake The Last Emperor. I don’t think many are too attached to this version and there is a good story in there to tell. A modern filmmaker could have all the good qualities of this film but make it in Mandarin with a better, more compelling script and it could be an amazing film.

I can see why other people like The Last Emperor, and I do commend it for its production design, costumes, cinematography and music but it didn’t work for me as a movie. It was bland, culturally awkward and plodding. I’m glad I checked it off my blind spot list but it is definitely one I will never watch again.

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Lion Review

lion3Tonight I had the chance to see the Oscar nominated film Lion again and I loved it all over again. After I finished it occurred to me I never actually reviewed the film on my blog or channel. I got sick right around when I saw it and somehow it just never got done. It’s a shame because Lion is absolutely one of my favorite movies of 2016 (made my top 10 of the year) and a film you should check out while it is still in theaters.

lion-sunny-pawarYou can kind of divide Lion into 2 parts. The first part is about a little boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his Mother and family (particularly his brother Guddu) in a secluded village in India.

One day while waiting for Guddu to finish work he wanders onto a train and ends up days away from his family with no way to communicate who they are or where he is from. He then becomes one of the many lost children of India and these scenes are the most powerful of the movie.

One scene in particular moved me when he is treated kindly by someone but must realize just in the nick of time they have ulterior motives. When he runs away I wanted to cheer him on! All of these scenes are so well filmed by first time director Garth Davis. You feel the panic of the crowds and the confusion of little Saroo.

lion5Sunny Pawar is also phenomenal as Saroo. If he had gotten nominated over Dev Patel I wouldn’t have complained. He’s that great in the role.

Eventually he gets the opportunity to be adopted by a family in Tasmania played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman. The scenes where he and his brother are assimilated into their new family are handled so beautifully. I think anyone who has experienced adoption will respond to their authenticity and raw emotional power.  Nicole Kidman is especially great as the mother who chose adoption as an opportunity to love more.

lion6Next we get to the second part of the film where Saroo is Dev Patel and he is a grown man starting hospitality training. While there he learns about Google Earth and begins a hunt to find his family in India.

Dev Patel is great as the adult Saroo (and very hunky I must say) and the screenplay does a wonderful job showing the ache a lost child might feel as a grown up. He yearns to reassure his brother and Mother that he is ok. At first his efforts are fruitless and he becomes kind of obsessed with it.

The whole time he is searching he worries his Mother and Father might see this as a betrayal, or that he is ungrateful for all they have done. I thought this was handled with such subtlety- capturing the feelings of many adopted children without sensationalizing or making adoption the enemy (I really believe in adoption advocacy if you didn’t know).

lion2The one part that doesn’t work that well in this section is Saroo’s relationship with Lucy played by Rooney Mara. They just didn’t have great chemistry and she felt extraneous to the core plot. But it is really my only big flaw with the film.

When I first saw Lion I loved it and have been surprised to hear some call it “Oscar bait”. I hate this term as I feel it is a way of criticizing films with ambition.  It’s similar to those who criticize the smart girl in class for studying too hard. Even if you use the term, I don’t think Lion qualifies. It’s just a movie with a great story, performances, cinematography, music and script. It’s the total package. Both times I’ve seen it I was completely absorbed and emotionally moved.

The fact it is a true story makes it even better. Rarely in Hollywood do we get a movie about genuinely good people who aren’t addicts or abusers. This is none of that. Both the family in India and Tasmania are good people that face challenges I could relate and empathize with. I thought it was all handled so beautifully that I can’t wait to own Lion on blu-ray.

Once again, I can’t believe this is Garth Davis’ first movie. What a tremendous accomplishment! I can’t wait to see what else he makes in his career.

If you want to see a movie about the triumph of a family, a beautiful soul and an incredible story watch Lion. It’s so good. I LOVED it!

Overall Grade- A (not A+ just because of the girlfriend part  but I loved this movie).

Ranking the Nominees

I have now seen all of the Best Picture nominees and while I gave my predictions a few days ago I thought I would do a quick post ranking the nominees. I would also add I think Song of the Sea, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Locke, Big Hero 6, Tale of Princess Kaguya, Lego Movie and Interstellar are better than all of the films but Boyhood nominated but they are all good movies.

We can all be glad the Grand Budapest Hotel is there because without it we’d have a lot of solemn nominees.  I mean has the academy forgotten how to laugh?  Gone are the days when movies like It’s a Mad Mad Mad World could get nominated for Best Picture.  Kind of sad really.

Anyway, here’s how I would personally rank the nominees.

1. Boyhood- It’s a  movie that really moved me and made me think about my life in a new way.  It’s not a movie to entertain you but to remind you about the small moments with people that make up your life. I loved it.  To me it is significantly better than any of the other nominees.

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2. Selma– A movie that helped me get to know all sides of a great American.  It wasn’t all the grand moments but soft, even shameful moments where you saw that anybody can make a difference.  It was a part of the Civil Rights movement I wasn’t as familiar with and I was really moved by it. Amazing performance by David Oyelowo.

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3. Whiplash- Mesmerizing film that builds tension so well with an insane performance by JK Simmons.  It asks the question ‘what is the price to be paid for greatness?’ I wish it had shown more of the motivations behind the characters but still very gripping movie.

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4.  American Sniper- Gripping account of the most successful sniper in US Navy Seals history, Chris Kyle.  The movie gets you down with the soldiers a lot for a sniper movie and it feels gritty and very intense.  The narrative at home and on his tour of duties flow well together and are brought together in the story of a very complex man.  It is a movie that tells his story and leaves the judging for God and others. I was really moved by. grand-budapest-hotel5. Grand Budapest Hotel- The one comedy nominated! I think I give this a little bit of a pass because it is Wes Anderson’s best and most mainstream film.  I’d have to watch it again to decide if I really like it better than the other nominees but I did like it.  It’s not over-quirky like a lot of Anderson’s films.  It is witty and the world creation is strong with more likable characters than many of his other films.  Very good engaging cast as always.

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 6. Imitation Game- A solid biopic about Alan Turing, the man behind the computer which decoded the enigma machine.  I liked the stuff about the decoding better than the more predictable personal portions but it was all strong and very well acted. The big mean boss who is constantly after Turing felt like such a cliche and the cop narration felt a little phony but I liked it.

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7. Birdman- I know I’m not as high on this as everyone else but I’ve got to tell you what I really think not what is popular.  I really hated the way this movie treated its female characters.  I’m shocked that nobody else in criticism seems to be saying this? It will probably win tomorrow when Boyhood a movie featuring complex woman will not (although hopefully she will win).  I have thought about it and I know it is an allegory for popularity and fame but why does the movie assume women are so much more fragile and judgmental than men?  Is there not a Chris Farley, River Phoenix for every Lindsay Lohan and Judy Garland? The critic and the near rape especially bother me.   But that said, it isn’t at the bottom because I do think they tried to do something different, the cinematography is very good and I thought Michael Keaton was great.  I just don’t think it was anywhere near the best picture of the year. Oh well.

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8.  Theory of Everything–  This is a good movie.  I enjoyed watching it much more than Birdman. And Eddie Redmayne was unforgettable as Stephen Hawking.  You forget it is an actor after a while.  That’s pretty amazing especially since he doesn’t have a voice for a good chunk of the movie. However, it is pretty predictable biopic and large sections drag a bit.  I didn’t think Felicity Jones was very good and the dewy sepia toned cinematography and constant twirling (even in the coffee) got on my nerves.  Still a very good movie just bottom of the 8 for me.