GOOD HELP IS HARD TO FIND: Movie Reviews of Ilo Ilo, Joe and Only Lovers Left Alive by Howard Casner

ilo-iloThe family of Jiale, a young boy growing up in Singapore in the 1990’s, is, shall we say, not having the best of times.
His mother Hwee Leng is, well, quite pregnant, to say the least, and works for a company where she types the dismissal notices for a mass layoff; her job seems secure, but no one else around her is so confident.  The father, Teck, works as a salesman for a company that makes shoddy protective glass and he soon finds himself out of a job (though he doesn’t tell the family).  And Jiale, well, Jiale is simply a terror, a combination of Damien Thorn and Rhoda Penmark.


And to add insult to injury, the economic recession has hit and the family soon finds itself in a somewhat precarious situation.


In spite of the economic difficulties, taking care of the family while working is getting to be too much for Hwee Leng, so she and Teck decide to hire a maid, Teresa, a Filipino immigrant (as most domestic workers in Singapore were).


But instead of making things easier, Teresa only increases the tension in the family, caught up as she is in the maelstrom of the family’s dysfunctional dynamics.  And the situation isn’t helped by working through Jaile’s demon spawn of an existence and bonding very strongly with him, so strongly that Hwee Leng finds herself growing jealous of the help.


A first feature by writer and director Anthony Chen, the semi-autobiographical Ilo Ilo is an amazingly rich and vibrant character study of a set of people undergoing intense pressure, who find themselves losing more and more of the management of their lives as forces around them spiral out of control.


Be forewarned.  The story is not sentimental or romantic.  This is not Hazel or Nanny and the Professor where the hired help comes to the rescue of a family.  It’s often painful to watch with scenes (like a suicide) that stun you.  And when Teresa leaves, the family is no better off than they were before.  If anything, their situation has only grown worse and more difficult.


And the characters are the sorts whose whole existence is defined by anger, conflict and exhaustion.  But it seems so obvious that their emotional difficulties are growing out of something larger, that there is a reason for it (even if we don’t know what it is at first), and the characters are so complex and three dimensional, that one finds oneself fascinated by their world from the opening scene.


Only Teresa is able to take hold of the reins of her life.  She fights back against Jiale’s temper tantrums and petulance while taking a second job no one knows about in order to send money home for her own child (as is often the case, being the hired help, she soon finds herself having a deeper relationship with her boss’s child than her own).


As the economic crises worsens, each of the family attempts a last ditch effort to solve their economic woes.  Jaile plays the lottery; Teck loses a fortune in stocks; and Hwee Leng gives money to a self-help guru that screams sleazy scam artist from his first appearance.   But nothing works.  Nothing can work.  They have to learn to live with the hand they have been dealt.  It’s not even a matter of learning. It’s just something they have to do.


The movie does end on a note of affirmation.  Hwee Leng delivers her baby and the family goes on.  It may not be quite the final fade out one might hope for the family, but it’s something to hold on to.


With Koh Jai Ler as the holy terror Jiale; Tian Wen Chen as Teck; Yann Yann Yeo as Hwee Leng; and Angeli Bayani as Teresa.  All give strong and empathetic performances.


The washed out cinematography that seems to so emphasize the family’s perilous and depressive existence is by Benoit Soler.


Singapore’s entry in the 2014 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film and the winner of the 2013 Camera d’Or, the first Singapore feature film to win an award at Cannes.


One of the finest films of the year.



joe-nicolas-cageThe climactic scene in Gary Brown (screenwriter) and David Gordon Green’s (director) new film Joe (not to be confused with the Peter Boyle 1970 are-the-hippies-destroying-society-or-is-it-the-fascists-who-are-against-them film of the same name) is a wham bam thank you ma’am bit of excitement.  It’s also emotionally resonant and even brings a bit of a tear to the eye.


But my god does it take a long time to get there.


Joe is the story of, well, I want to say Joe, but it’s not really, which is one of the issues with the film (more of that later).  It’s actually about Gary, a young teen whose family moves from place to place because his father is an abusive alcoholic.


When Gary stumbles upon Joe and his workers killing trees (because no one wants them and they are to be replaced by a stronger species—the symbolism may be obvious, but it is effective), the more than enterprising young man asks for a job.  Impressed by Gary’s can do attitude, Joe gives it to him.


Joe is flushly resonant when it comes to character and to the rather downbeat look at what it’s like to live in a small town as this.  All the residents come across as if drunk or high 24/7; their accents are so thick, you need subtitles to understand them at times; every house and building looks as if it is on its last legs; and if it’s not raining, then the place is cursed by continual overcast.


And Nicolas Cage attacks the title role as if he were the bulldog he keeps chained up at his house.  It’s one of his no holds barred feats of acting legerdemain, reminiscent of his pulsating performance in movies like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans.


But the story itself meanders like a river that doesn’t go anywhere and tends to make you drowsy the longer you stare at it.  Joe is a series of scenes that never seem to be building toward anything.  It’s flat structurally and not all that involving (except for an occasional scene here and there, such as a terrifying one that shows just how far Gary’s father will go just to get that drink).


It’s one of those movies that feels as if the filmmaker is much more interested in making striking pictures than in actually telling a story.


The reason for this, I suspect, is that though Joe is the centerpiece of the movie, that he’s treated as if he is the one that is suppose to be driving the plot, he’s really not.  He’s not even the central character.  The screenplay acts as if it’s all about Joe, but the story’s really all about Gary.  Everything should be seen through his coming of age eyes (like Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby).


But it’s not.


And so the story feels shapeless, as limp as a body that is all skin with all the bones having been removed.


With Tye Sheridan (late of Mud and playing much the same role) as Gary.  His lines are a tad one note, but he has such a bright, open face and his role is so full of gumption, you can’t help but like him.




only loversThere’s a telling moment in writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s new vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive.  It’s when Adam, a composer of music that is rather funeral in nature, describes anyone who isn’t a vampire as a zombie.  The irony here is that Adam, lackluster and lethargic, morose and melancholy, drab and despondent, innervated and indolent (well, you get my drift), is much more of a zombie than anyone he meets.


In fact, most of the vampires here feel stuck and simply going through the motions without any real emotional connection to life.   To be ruthlessly honest, they’re somewhat of a boring, party pooping group of downbeat downers, the sort of people Zoloft was made for.


But what’s telling is that it’s unclear Jarmusch gets the irony he’s created.


Only Lovers Left Alive never really grabs the viewer like it needs to.  The two lovers at the center of the story, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) (and, yeah, I noted the names, though I’m not sure what Jarmusch was up to with that), are too uninteresting to ever emotionally involve the audience.  They’re suppose to be lovers whose feelings for each other are deep and span centuries, but when they meet they seem to lack any remote feeling of passion.  Even their sex scenes are as static as a photograph.


And like Joe, the plot meanders, though here a more apt metaphor might be the endless empty streets of Detroit where Adam lives, streets that are devoid of real life and never seem to go anywhere.


In fact, I’m not sure why the vamps in the movie needed teeth.  I felt the blood slowly flowing out of my body as I was watching their story unfold.  Okay, I’m sorry, that was really snarky, I’ll stop, but I’m sorry, the movie just couldn’t get my blood flowing, oops, I did it again, I’m really sorry, I won’t go there anymore, I’m positive, l’m O posi…never mind.


But I think the real issue here is that I’m not convinced that Jarmusch had a reason to have made this film.  I’m not sure he has anything to say about vampirism except to use it as a metaphor for dug addiction (not the most original of ideas as it is).  He doesn’t really do much with that idea, so instead, he ends up saying that being a vampire is just an incredibly boring existence (you know, like Twilight, but without the youthful angst behind it).


The story picks up a bit when Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) drops by for a visit.  She’s the manic to their depressive.  But like Adam and Eve, her main motivation is boredom.  She’s a spoiled child who gets thousands of presents at Christmas and after playing with them each for five minutes, asks if there’s any more.


Of course, my sympathy goes out to Jarmusch.  It’s very difficult to make existential ennui and soul sucking boredom fascinating.


And even when there’s any sort of a crisis (the various vampires are running out of pure blood because mankind’s supply has become so corrupted in recent years), it’s treated as more of a minor inconvenience.


And it probably doesn’t help that the dialog is expositional, obvious, flat and on the nose.  It’s not one of Jarmusch’s better screenplays from that perspective.


The movie is great to look at with cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (of Swimming Pool and I Am Love).  It’s filled with claustrophobic scenes set in the Casbah in Tangier where Eve lives contrasted with the empty, dark, decaying landscape of Detroit where Adam has his cool musician’s pad (I wonder how Detroit feels about being the last bastion of vampirism because Adam wants to be someplace no one will find him).


The locations may be an ocean apart, but they both feel equally enervative and stalled, just like the characters.


In the end, if one wants a metaphor for the movie, I’m afraid that “anemic” would have to be my answer (and, yeah, there I did it again, so sue me).


With John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe (yes, that Kit Marlowe), though he seems a bit old for the role of someone who died (or was turned) when he was a mere barefoot boy with cheek at age 29.

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