Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the Jan. issue of EL Magazine. They cover films that were released in Tokyo between late Dec. and mid-Jan.
The title of Australian director David Michod’s debut feature suggests an environment ruled by the laws of nature, but the world it describes is a small one and the game is actually rigged. The Cody family is a band of hardened criminals, and based on the attitude of the clan’s matriarch, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), it lays claim to some sort of pedigree. Her boys are bank robbers, a line of work as specialized as arc welding, but each brother has his own personal peccadillo that makes the work even more perilous. Around the time that Smurf’s teenage grandson, Joshua (James Frecheville), enters this volatile household, the Codys are under close surveillance by the local police, whose main object of desire is the eldest boy Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s on the lam and off his medication. Josh’s mother, who had been estranged from Smurf since Josh was a little boy, has just OD’d on heroin in one of the most shockingly matter-of-fact scenes in the history of cinematic drug abuse. Shortly thereafter, a rogue band of cops offs a member of the Cody team, and the killing sets in motion a series of tit-for-tat reprisals that spirals out of control. Scorsese should probably sue for a royalty, but the defense would counter that Marty could never have countenanced Josh’s enervated voiceover. This is a kid whose damage goes way back and has rendered him a walking blank stare. The contrast between the adolescent’s open-mouthed incomprehension and his uncles’ macho bluster and drug-fueled desperation is so stark as to be antithetical. The contrast also gives Michod a plot device that brings out the worst in both sides of the battle. The brothers use their nephew’s passivity to their advantage, while the main cop (Guy Pearce) senses a hesitancy that he can tap once it becomes clear to Josh that his family isn’t looking out for his best interests. In the film’s most gratuitous display of depravity, Pope forces his survival prerogatives on Josh’s girlfriend, and you realize that the movie can’t go any lower, until Smurf, the very picture of a nurturing female, decides to sacrifice her grandson for the sake of her sons. After all, he’s not really a full-fledged member of the family. By over-reaching Michod squanders the viewer’s trust, since Josh is the only character with any recognizable moral perspective, and that includes Pearce’s detective, who understands what it means to lose your soul but doesn’t seem particularly troubled by the fact that he sold his long ago. Weaver got the Oscar nod mainly because of the character, but Pearce is the amazing one. At this point, his range seems boundless. (photo: Screen Australia, Screen NSW, Film Victoria, Premium Film Partnership, Animal Kingdom Holdings and Porchlight Films)
Between Today and Tomorrow
The title of Junko Kobayashi’s documentary about world-renowned dancer Yasuyuki Shuto forces one to think about the future, an issue of concern to all human beings but one that is especially worrisome for dancers. As artists whose instruments are their whole bodies, dancers’ careers are more limited, and in some ways Shuto is already performing on borrowed time. Though he resists analyzing what he does and seems constitutionally reticent, at one point he reveals that he never expected to be dancing this late in life and can’t see how he will still be dancing in the future, though he doesn’t specify a time period. This is the most involving aspect of the film, though it contains a number of long dance segments taken from performances in Japan. It’s no surprise that Shuto is more interesting on stage than he is in interview mode, but Kobayashi still feels obligated to wrest some meaning from the man rather than his work, and in the end she fails to find anything that would explain why we should intrude on his thoughts. (photo: Style Jam)
Shion Sono tries a little tenderness with this adaptation of Minoru Furuya’s manga about a pair of teenagers who endeavor to rid the world of evil. Sumida (Shota Sometani) runs a boat rental business mostly by himself after his wayward mother leaves with her boyfriend. His old man occasionally shows up looking for money or to give him a beating just for the hell of it. When yakuza drop by looking for the father, something in the boy snaps. Rejecting the kindness and sympathy of strangers, and trailed by doting classmate Keiko (Fumi Nikaido, a dead ringer for Aoi Yamazaki) Sumida lashes out, fully cognizant of his “sickness.” Though more accepting of human frailty than Sono’s previous films, Himizu still has enough of the director’s patented gratuitous violence to render most of its themes pointless. And though the images of destruction are startling, the incorporation of the March quake/tsunami into the story makes no sense. Does the evil that Furuya rails against encompass nature? And what does that say about Japan’s storied stoicism? Nothing, apparently.(photo: Himizu Film Partners)
I Am Love
This family melodrama from Luca Guadagnino is so old-fashioned in style and expected impact that it may strike some as cheekily post-modern. Tilda Swinton outdoes herself as the Russian wife of a rich Milanese industrialist. Emma’s feelings for her roots are sublimated to the needs of her huge household and only come out when she occasionally talks to her oldest son, Edo (Flavio Parenti), in Russian. When her daughter, who is studying art in London, reveals she’s a lesbian, something in Emma is liberated, and she embarks on a torrid love affair with her son’s best friend (Edoardo Gabbriellini). Guadagnino gives us a bit of Lawrence here, some Flaubert there, in order to achieve something epic along the lines of Visconti, and in the sumptious scenes of dinners in the family mansion, he almost gets there. But the movie’s intimate nature defies his grandiosity. When Emma’s overripe emotions have to be expressed, he relies less on Swinton’s considerable talents and more on silly cinematic flourishes. I Am Love is as bold and ridiculous as its title. (photo: First Sun & Mikado Film)
Jack and Jill
Some people with longer, more flexible memories may see the new Adam Sandler comedy as a tribute to Jerry Lewis, the comedian whose film career Sandler’s most closely resembles. Of course, the same people would likely argue that Sandler doesn’t deserve to hold Lewis’s false buck teeth, and not just because he doesn’t direct. The problem with this sort of critical response is that it overstates the value of Lewis’s movies, but the French would obviously argue otherwise. In any event, by playing a dual role in Jack and Jill, one of which is a woman, Sandler seems less intent on following Jerry’s path than in trying to maintain a streak of low-brow hits by any means necessary. Sandler is obviously an intelligent guy, but the conception and execution of this movie is so lazy that you wonder exactly how sure he is of the loyalty of his audience (apparently pretty sure, since the movie has already made more than $70 million in the U.S.). Aside from the copious poop and fart jokes, the two most conspicuously Sandleresque features of the movie are the blatant product placements and the cameos of screen stars, both small (John McEnroe, Regis Philbin) and big (Johnny Depp, Katie Holmes). The biggest in the latter category is Al Pacino, whose second billing status is justified by the amount of screen time he gets. Pacino plays himself as an actor who does Shakespeare in Los Angeles with Bruce Jenner and thus is presented as somebody who will do anything for money. Sandler’s Jack is an advertising executive trying to corral Pacino for a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial and not having much luck until Pacino accidentally meets Jack’s twin sister Jill, who is visiting her brother in L.A. for the holidays and with her spinster neediness is driving him crazy. Pacino and Jill bond over their mutual Bronx upbringing, but Jill, despite her lack of romantic prospects (we just saw her get dumped by an online date), resists the movie star’s come-ons for no real reason except to make her brother’s life even more difficult. Discounting the fact that Jill is overbearing, it’s never exactly clear why Jack despises her so much, especially since everyone else finds her a delight. If one has to make comparisons, Jerry Lewis’s female impersonations, not to mention Peter Sellers’, were so unbelievable they existed in their own strange dimension. Sandler’s Jill is just your annoying cousin dialed up to eleven, and placed in the kind of privileged middle class milieu that has become Sandler’s chosen cinematic world, she’s a chore to watch. What does Pacino see in her? Nothing, apparently, except a big paycheck. I’m sure he doesn’t think he’ll turn Sandler’s fans onto Shakespeare.
As a cinematic setting, Lourdes in southwest France is best remembered through The Song of Bernadette, a 1943 epic starring Jennifer Jones as the French peasant girl who “saw” the Virgin Mary in the town in 1858. Since then, pilgrims have flocked to Lourdes, many of them infirm and hoping the famous waters will afford them a divine cure. Hollywood implied that if you didn’t believe their movie there was no point in watching. Jessica Hausner, an Austrian director working in French for the first time, welcomes your skepticism but she doesn’t dump on the lucrative tourist industry that has come to define Lourdes in the 21st century. Nor does she make fun of the desperate people looking to be healed. Her theme is the structure of faith, and her instrument of explication is the small, frail figure of Christine (Sylvie Testud), a victim of multiple sclerosis who is confined to a wheelchair and requires assistance eating and putting herself to bed. At first, Christine seems no different from all the other handicapped visitors who line up to take the waters, but her quiet, observant behavior slowly distinguishes her from the pack, attracting the services of an older woman (Gilette Barbier) who senses something special, maybe even blessed in her demeanor. This older woman is very different from Christine’s tour-assigned caretaker (Lea Seydoux), who is much younger and, while solicitous to Christine’s needs, is easily distracted by the handsome male members of the Order of Malta overseeing the Lourdes tourist business. The younger woman thus misses the boat that the older woman has voluntarily boarded when Christine awakes one morning to discover she can move her limbs. If this were Hollywood the event would be treated as either a miracle or a fraud, but Hausner keeps her hand hidden because her aim is not to advance or dispel belief in providence, but rather to imagine the practical exigencies when such a thing occurs. Obviously, Christine’s fellow pilgrims are impressed, but few display the kind of envy one might expect; if anything they seem renewed in their faith. It’s the officially faithful, the clergy and the nuns, who seem slightly put off by this act of God. Christine must undergo an examination by a physician, and answer questions from a priest. Earlier she had explained her reserved nature by saying, counterintuitively, that she was “always angry,” but she doesn’t seem particularly ecstatic, either, which says more about the person than it does about the miracle. When God is described as being “mysterious and free,” as one priest puts it, then any explanation is valid. The only way you’ll find something is if you look for it. (photo: Coop 99 Filmproduktion, Essential, Parisienne de Prod., Thermidor Filmproduktion)
Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol
Tom Cruise wisely decided not to title the latest Mission:Impossible movie with a number, the idea being that the fourth installment in the franchise would be a reboot: an all new team and a different take on the Impossible Mission Force concept. In the opening scenes, one gets the feeling that the new series is in fact headed backwards. The chase over the rooftops of Budapest is filmed by director Brad Bird in a cartoony style, which makes sense since Bird learned his craft as an animator. There’s no effort to inject the superhuman actions on display with anything approaching realism. If anything, the style and effect is closer to those of the original TV show. But that idea is abandoned in the following set piece in a Russian prison, where IMF team leader Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is being held. His soon-to-be new comrades are breaking him out of the joint in the usual over-complicated way, with new tech geek Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) manning the computer and new token babe Jane Carter (Paula Patton) doing demolitions duty. As difficult as the breakout is, Hunt has to make it even more difficult because what fun would a prison break be without a riot set to the strains of Dean Martin? The Dino touch is pure irony and would never have occurred to Bruce Geller, the man who created the original TV show, and once Cruise is back in the driver’s seat the movie loses its retro charm and gets stuck in the procedural muck that bogs down the development. Hunt and his new associates have to sneak into the Kremlin and steal a file of missile launch codes, but they’re beaten to the prize by a Swedish psycho (Michael Nyqvist) who wants to start a nuclear war in order to “reset” the world order (his reasoning is that after Hiroshima Japan became a peaceful country). This failure on the IMF’s part also leads to the destruction of the Kremlin, and the American government puts the blame on the IMF in order to give it cover to pursue the psycho. Thus the team has to make due with limited resources and no help from HQ. Cruise loves a challenge, and Hunt is nothing if not his creator’s alter ego, so the stunts get more outrageous (climbing Dubai’s tallest building with only the help of electronic adhesive gloves), the chases more difficult (through a sandstorm), the explosions more elaborate (take your pick). Despite the tease of “less resources” the team still seems to have a shit load of incredible technology. Based on that relatively tech-free first scene, I was hoping they’d have to save the world using pay phones and binoculars, but it seems you just can’t do that any more without Microsoft and Google. Impossible isn’t in it. (photo: Paramount Pictures)
Road to Nowhere
Movies-within-movies don’t get more elliptical than Monte Hellman’s sneaky return to filmmaking after 21 years. It’s not just that Hellman makes it difficult to distinguish between the film they’re making and they one he’s making. As one character says about the supposedly true story on which the movie is based, “no one really knows what happened,” and it’s Hellman’s intention to force viewers to make up their own story. The thriller elements are so precisely and intriguingly drawn out that you wish Hellman made things a little plainer—it’s basically Mulholland Drive with a more substantial plot. Is the main actress (Shannyn Sossamon) really an actress or the real-life murderer she’s playing? There’s real pleasure to be derived from Hellman’s dreamy atmosphere and the playful interaction among his confused but nevertheless game cast members. At one point, an insurance investigator who thinks the film is a cover for criminal fraud provides his own review, calling it “a Hollywood piece of shit movie.” The director counters with, “Maybe, but it’s my Hollywood piece of shit movie.”(photo: Road to Nowhere LLC)
The Yellow Sea
Fans of the Korean Wave are waiting for the next big director to emerge, or for one of the filmmakers from the first Korean Wave to make a creditable comeback. Some of these people say the wait is over, and that Na Hong-jin, whose first feature The Chaser recalibrated the action prerogatives not just of Korean movies, but all of Asia’s. The film’s critical and commercial success convinced Twentieth Century Fox to back his next feature, and he did exactly what was expected of him with The Yellow Sea, which takes all the pertinent qualities of The Chaser and pushes them even further into your face: the breakneck speed, the convoluted plot, the seedy atmosphere, and, most important, the totally unsympathetic characters. Here we have Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo), an ethnic Korean taxi driver living in Yangji, an autonomous Chinese city on the North Korean border. Gu-nam is already in debt for the money his wife borrowed to get to Seoul, where she went to work illegally. Gu-nam hasn’t heard from her in weeks, and in her absence he’s run the debt up further with his gambling. The mob goons who come to collect point him toward their boss, Myun (Kim Yoon-seok), who makes him an offer he can’t refuse: go to Seoul and carry out a contract hit and the debt gets cleared. Gu-nam makes the journey in the filthy hold of a ship over the titular body of water with other illegals. Once in the capital he stakes out the mark, who turns out to be a university professor, and plans the hit; all the while looking for his wife, whom he imagines in the arms of another man. On the day he sets for the assassination, however, somebody beats him to it, but the police start chasing Gu-nam, and from that point to the end of the movie he doesn’t stop running. Though Gu-nam starts out as the patsy hung out to dry, he ends up being the unwitting catalyst of a gang war between the thugs attached to a local transportation magnate (Cho Seong-ha) and Myun’s imported army. But there’s a lot more, and at times you need a flow chart to track the various strands of double and triple crosses, not to mention the convergence of Gu-nam’s search for his wife and discovery of the person who ordered the initial assassination. Meanwhile, you have to sit through fight scenes that are so chaotic they seem to tumble right off the screen, and in the Korean Wave tradition they’re bloodier than the ones in the last Korean thriller you saw. Only one gun is used, by a callow policeman. Everyone else gets by with knives, axes, even large dog bones. That blood sure ain’t yellow, but it’s enough to fill a sea. (photo: Wellmade Starm and Popcorn Film)