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Review: The Upside

The film becomes overrun by an increasingly preachy and tiresome series of life lessons about race, class, and love.

1.5

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The Upside
Photo: STX Entertainment

A bland and blunt remake of the 2011 French crowd-pleaser The Intouchables, director Neil Burger’s The Upside revisits one of Hollywood’s most aggravatingly persistent tropes: the multi-racial odd couple. Pairing Bryan Cranston with Kevin Hart, the film coasts on the amiability and restrained charms of the pair as filthy rich paraplegic Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) introduces ex-con Dell Scott (Hart) to the world of opera, fine art, and expensive cars from the confines of his wheelchair.

The two actors mine a few genuinely funny moments out of Jon Hartmere’s tepid, cliché-ridden screenplay, thanks primarily to Cranston’s endlessly expressive visage and Hart’s mostly subdued performance. But as soon as Dell adjusts to his role of Phillip’s life auxiliary—a live-in position which leaves him at his employer’s beck and call 24/7—The Upside becomes overrun by an increasingly preachy and tiresome series of life lessons about race, class, and love, each as hollow and lacking in insight as the next.

The central narrative strives to blend humor and pathos but fails to generate much of either, as its observations on the culture clash between Phillip and Dell are so superficial that the two men rarely function as anything beyond their racial and class-based stereotypes. When Phillip forces opera upon Dell, the latter hits back by pushing Aretha Franklin on his employer. When their talk shifts to art, Dell bristles at the thought of Phillip dropping $80k on a painting of “squares.” And, predictably, the film is peppered with jokes about Dell’s lack of sophistication, ranging from his not knowing what a kumquat is to a painfully extended sequence of various catheter-based physical humor where Dell can’t even bring himself to say “penis” aloud.

The Upside isn’t quite as problematic in its racial politics as Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy, but it too often succumbs to broad, condescending comedy, more frequently at the expense of Dell, as a means of illustrating the divide between the two men. As time goes on, Phillip and Dell naturally warm up to one another, with Dell taking to Puccini while Phillip discovers the joys of marijuana. But their relationship becomes pigeon-holed by incessant teaching moments, like Phillip learning to make himself vulnerable again and Dell discovering how to become a more responsible parent and partner. And the film’s meager subplots do little to alleviate the oft-moralizing tone of the scenes that solely focus on Phillip and Dell.

The love triangle between Phillip’s loyal assistant, Yvonne (a surprisingly listless Nicole Kidman), and a mysterious stranger, Lily (Julianna Margulies), with whom the millionaire shares an intimate epistolary relationship, is developed so late in the game that Yvonne’s pining for him barely registers. And Dell’s personal drama with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) is even more muted, following the all-too-familiar trajectory of a selfish, immature man learning the value of caring for those who depend on you. That such hackneyed plot devices are couched in a played-out tale of a poor black man proving his worth to white America by embracing a servile status only causes The Upside to feel as arcane as it is tedious.

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Golshifteh Farahani, Tate Donovan, Genevieve Angelson, Aja Naomi King, Amara Karan, Jahi Di'Allo Winston Director: Neil Burger Screenwriter: Jon Hartmere Distributor: STX Entertainment Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2017 Buy: Book

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

2.5

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Buddy
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.

2

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Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Sunset Builds a Mystery in Graceful but Desultory Fashion

László Nemes’s follow-up to Son of Saul simply feels like two films awkwardly affixed to one another.

2

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Sunset
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Mysteries, in film, don’t have to be solved and sometimes shouldn’t be. A mystery plot can be a jumping-off point for more abstract or character-driven concerns, which of course doesn’t excuse the rote and careless incorporation of genre elements into a film. Such is the fatal flaw of László Nemes’s Sunset. Striving to tell a heady, metaphorically rich tale of corruption and cultural cleansing, Nemes loses sight of the basic mechanics of plot and scene work that are necessary for his film to form a coherent, meaningful whole.

Nemes’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Son of Saul takes place in the courtly, stratified society of Hungry in 1913, a land abundant in top hats, lanterns, and horse-drawn carriages. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), young and strong-willed, arrives in Budapest to petition for a job at the famous Leiter hat store once owned by her parents, who perished in the fire that burned the store to the ground. It’s since been rebuilt and restored to its former glory by the gray-bearded, buttoned-up, and over-paternal Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov). Intrigued by Irisz’s pedigree, he offers her a position on the spot. So far so good, but that night, a hysterical man breaks into her room and rants cryptically about a lost brother, Sándor (Marcin Czarnik), who she soon discovers vanished years ago after killing a local nobleman.

And so a mystery plot is kicked into motion. Where is Sándor? Why did he do what he did? What will he do next? And to work through these questions, and to keep us engaged and hopeful of answers, Sunset is entirely dependent on Irisz. Nemes makes her the center of every scene; we only experience what she experiences, and we know the other characters only as she knows them. While cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera is fluid, and will occasionally turn in the direction of her gaze, or tarry a moment, or anticipate her, for the most part it’s content to simply follow Irisz, often in close-up, as she makes her way around Budapest.

There’s grace in the sinuous way that the camera maneuvers through crowds, around carriages, in an out of rooms, up and down stairs, through fields of darkness and shadow. But from a story perspective, our being yoked persistently to Irisz’s side becomes constraining. Nemes allows himself no cutaways, which can make conveying off-screen information a bit of a challenge, as in the few cases where he has to conspicuously resort to having Irisz overhear important information from conversations between bystanders.

This self-imposed limitation to Irisz’s point of view could have been an opportunity for some bravura plotting, but as Sunset develops, there’s little emphasis on fashioning a fiendish mystery. Clues are scattered around, such us our finding out that Sándor once worked for Oszkár, that the nobleman he murdered was an abusive husband, and that Sándor has made threats against the Budapest elite. But there’s a difficult and exacting art to making these scraps of information build on each other, and the film doesn’t care to practice it. Instead of coalescing, the plot is constantly striking off onto tangents: a hidden room that must be uncovered, a murky secret society. Throughout, there’s less a sense of a picture slowly coming into focus than of a penlight jabbing haphazardly on a dark canvas.

Worse, there’s a lack of conviction to Sunset’s middle section, when the film is lengthily but almost grudgingly occupied with developing its genre elements. Irisz is seen running from place to place, encountering various stock situations: She goes to an orphanage to find out more about her brother, only to be stonewalled, and later she pays a visit to a key character at just the precise time that another one happens to show up so that she can witness the pair interact. These are scenes that in another film might have been used to build suspense, or to establish and vivify characters, or even to simply offer up stylish versions of classic situations. Here, the only real function of these scenes is practical: to move Irisz around the map so that she can collect various bits of information relevant to the plot. Surprisingly little would be lost from the film if her findings were simply provided in an intertitle.

In its final third, Sunset opens up, bending toward the surreal. The pace quickens as Irisz tracks down her brother, and a coterie of ominous aristocrats arrive on the scene to menace her. Paradoxically, however, as the film is becoming more interesting on a moment-to-moment basis, it signals with all of this commotion that it has no plans to tidily resolve any of the central mysteries on which it’s been spending so much desultory effort.

Here, Nemes is aiming to transfigure his plot into a commentary on, well, several issues: classicism, sexism, decadence, and the looming world war. There’s no reason this can’t work on a conceptual level, but all those themes are overwhelmed by the quotidian workings of the mystery plot. They’ve been too muted up to this point to suddenly carry the whole weight of the film’s conclusion. In short, Nemes caps a historical mystery with a 30-some-odd-minute blitz of hypnagogic symbolism, and as neither stretch succeeds on its own merits, Susnet simply feels like two films awkwardly affixed to one another.

Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik Director: László Nemes Screenwriter: László Nemes, Matthieu Topiner, Clara Royer Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 144 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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