February 2013 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo today.

IMG_8178.CR2The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
This eminently dismissable comedy belongs to that burgeoning genre featuring older British actors exploring the bittersweet experience of old age. All the people you expect are here in roles that now comprise a separate subset of stereotypes: the widow (Judi Dench) suddenly thrust into a life of solitary meaning; the couple (Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton) whose incompatability is papered over by decades of mutual accommodation; the retiree (Tom Wilkinson) who tries to reconnect with his first love; the randy diehards (Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup) who still think they can get it up; and the cantankerous spinster (Maggie Smith). They all come together at a Jaipur hotel, which its ambitious owner-manager (Dev Patel) promotes directly to UK seniors. The place offers less than its PR promises, but that’s half the fun as the harried guests mix, match, and come to terms with their respective situations, not to mention mortality. Most of the conflicts are romantic in nature, and while the script offers nothing fresh, the principals are too self-consciously good at what they do to let director John Madden get by on sentiment alone. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

cesareCaesar Must Die
Initially, the new movie by the Taviani Brothers comes across as a documentary, a record of the staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Italy’s Rebibbia prison with inmates, including convicted murderers and drug dealers, playing the parts. But after the humorous and revealing auditions, in which the actors not only explain their reasons for participating (“I want to know about art”) but also describe their felonious careers, the movie turns into something different, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between dramatic artifice and real life. The play’s director, Fabio Cavalli, eventually fades from the screen, and without the benefit of explicatory framing devices such as rehearsals the entire prison becomes a stage, and comments that could be about anything impinge on the story being acted out. Consequently, the performances themselves are indistinguishable from the actions of men who are constantly compelled to prove their loyalties—which is what the play is about. Even the guards get into it, and it hardly matters if their own opinions are inadvertent. In Italian. (photo: Kaos Cinematografica – Stemal Entertainment – LeTalee Associazone Culturale Centro Studi “Enrico Maria Salerno”)

Produced by B-movie impresario Roger Corman and directed by one of the most revered exploitation directors of the era, Monte Hellman, this 1974 adaptation of Charles Willieford’s novel wasn’t lurid enough for the yahoos or arty enough for the eggheads, though it would have been weird enough to appeal to both camps had it been promoted properly. Warren Oates plays Frank, a legendary rooster trainer on the illegal Southern cockfighting circuit who, after losing a stupid bet to his eternal rival (Harry Dean Stanton) because of his big mouth, pledges to not talk until he wins the Cockfighter of the Year award. This conceit gives Hellman a narrative convenience: Frank’s voiceovers explain the niceties of the sport without breaking the fourth wall or interfering with the development of the story. It also lends him a childlike quality that explains the appeal of cockfighting separate from the gambling aspect. These men, and a few women, enjoy seeing animals tear each other apart. You could never make a movie this realistic in this day and age. For what it’s worth, it’s a genuine American artifact. (photo: Rio Pinto Prod. and Artists Entertainment Complex)

THE_FUTURE_PHOTO_main_sThe Future
Miranda July’s prosaic take on life in the 21st century is interesting, but her tendency to imbue all statements of purpose with a tone of whimsy eventually undermines her thematic intentions. In her latest work she plays Sophie, whose mildly depressive state prompts her to quit her job (part-time children’s dance instructor) for no understandable reason, while her live-in boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater) quits his job (remote computer tech) to sell an eco tree-planting scheme door-to-door. Since neither action makes economic sense and the couple already sees middle age looming and nothing to show for their lives, it’s difficult to get a handle on just what it is July wants to tell us about the future, or the present for that matter. Here the future is defined as a cat dying of kidney failure, which Sophie and Jason have pledged to adopt and care for during its last days, but custody of the feline is pushed back for veterinary reasons, thus postponing the future even further. The cat, in fact, provides an explanation, which in July’s cracked soprano should be insufferable but is actually one of the more illuminating touches in the film since it provides context to a story that otherwise doesn’t offer any familiar touchstones to work with. Phoebe, trying to sell her dances on YouTube and suffering from agoraphobia, falls inexplicably into a love affair with a man she accidentally calls on the phone, while Jason gets even further from reality by getting stuck in a time slip that literally keeps the future on hold. Thus the parallel storylines move on separate temporal planes whose function, like that of Phoebe’s depression and Jason’s employment switch, seem to exist only in July’s very busy imagination, which also produces scenes involving a young girl burying herself up to her neck in her yard and Jason talking to the moon and the moon answering back. If July weren’t so gentle with her characters one might accuse her of misanthropy, but in any case the existential despair she alludes to has no purchase on the viewer’s sympathies. We understand that the atomization of society makes daily intercourse scarier than before, but neither Sophie nor Jason, whose mutual resemblance seems purposeful, give any indication that they’ve ever formed any other meaningful relationships. I get it that people want to stop time in order to get their shit together, but the only benefit of this magical realist device is that it allows July to stage a beautiful scene involving stopped city traffic at night. Elsewhere she fails to justify the movie’s quirky hopelessness. (photo: The Match Factory)

855481 - Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceGhost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Given their ubiquity action sequels tend to write themselves, but this follow-up to the 2007 Marvel comic-derived fantasy of a daredevil motorcyclist making a pact with the actual devil has scant connection to said original. Most of the decisions, technical or narrative, were likely dictated by the necessity of filming in Eastern Europe, where the money came from. The titular flame-head, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), comes to the rescue of another diabolical deal-maker, a woman named Nadia (Violante Placido) who supposedly signed away her first-born male child, now testing puberty. Like the Hulk, Johnny’s transformation into the Human-Torch-On-Wheels is occasioned by moments of duress, and too much exposition is granted to the biker’s excuses for not being able to “control the Rider.” In the hands of the Great Cage such dialogue has the potential to be as enlivening as an evening’s worth of Olivier declamations, but directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor understand what the Eastern Europeans want: Lots of fiery explosions and death by incineration. Cage’s antic foolishness simply melts in the heat. (photo: Columbia Pictures Industries)

ONE SHOTJack Reacher
Tom Cruise represents a unique brand of camp, and it hardly matters if the star is in on the joke. In fact, it’s more satisfying to imagine he isn’t. Though he’s been coasting (cruising?) for years on his ability to exude cool control as a certain kind of leading man, he is perfectly willing to send up that image if it suits him (Knight and Day). In that regard, Jack Reacher, the first cinematic rendering of bestselling novelist Lee Child’s former-MP detective, comes close to being the perfect Cruise vehicle, especially at his current age. Reacher is an old-fashioned loner, the guy with no fixed address, no clinging relationships, no clothes except the ones on his back. This guy doesn’t even have a drivers license, though that doesn’t stop him from “borrowing” several cars during the course of the movie and busting them up. He isn’t even “called” into a case the way a detective normally is. After five people are killed by a sniper seemingly at random outside a Pittsburgh stadium in broad daylight, the local homicide cop (David Oyelowo) arrests an Iraq War veteran whose fingerprints are all over the scene. Instead of confessing or denying, the guy simply writes on a sheet of paper, “Get Jack Reacher,” and before you can say “David Blaine” the man in question is strutting through the hospital door—but not before the suspect is beaten into a coma by some randy guards. This sort of super-convenient plotting is handled wryly by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who made a name flaunting his cleverness with The Usual Suspects. Reacher’s almost superhuman ability to second-guess anyone on either side of the law is the series’ selling point, and Cruise doesn’t disappoint in embodying that aspect. Though Reacher isn’t convinced the suspect isn’t the real sniper, he knows the guy from his stint in the army and doesn’t see him as a cold-blooded killer. As he delves deeper into the case with the help of the suspect’s lawyer (Rosamund Pike), who happens to be the daughter of the district attorney (Richard Jenkins), he becomes the target of beatings, intimidations, and generally dirty looks, none of which faze him in the least. “You don’t want to do that,” he tells four hirelings who threaten to stomp the crap out of him in a bar, and, yes, they’re sorry they even tried. Cruise makes this foolishness look really easy, and that, of course, is the value of a movie star and exactly why Stanley Kubrick hired him for Eyes Wide Shut. McQuarrie earns hipster points by casting Werner Herzog as a mysterious Russian mastermind but he doesn’t use him effectively. With Cruise, however, he got what he paid for, and it’s painful to imagine what a potboiler like this would have been like if he hadn’t deigned to be in it. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

JiroJiro Dreams of Sushi
The chamber music is a dead giveaway. This is going to be a serious documentary about something simple, and what could be simpler than sushi? As seriousness goes, there is nothing ridiculous about a man who has done nothing for 70 years but make sushi and thought about nothing except how to make sushi better, if such a goal is actually quantifiable. American David Gelb was drawn to 85-year-old Jiro Ono because his little sushi bar, tucked into a basement corner of Ginza Station, earned three stars from the hallowed Michelin Restaurant Guide, the highest honor that august publication hands out. The problem for Gelb is how to make a subject whose appeal is so narrow interesting for a full-length documentary. The solution seems to be to make the documentary interesting to watch, so we have the chamber music, the tracking shots, the closeups of glistening slices of fish, and more than a few slow motion sequences of hands folding neta onto shari. In between, the portrait of Ono requires more expansion than the chef himself is willing to provide. He frets that his dedication to his craft has made him “a poor father,” so the camera shifts to his 50-year-old son Yoshikazu, who will someday inherit the 10-seat establishment and has nothing really to add to his father’s self-incrimination. Maybe he’s afraid of being disinherited. Then there’s the second son, Takashi, who owns an affiliated sushi bar in Roppongi Hills and seems more self-possessed, probably because he doesn’t have to please the old man on an everyday basis. This isn’t to say Jiro is oppressive in the master-acolyte way—if anything he seems laid-back—only that Gelb doesn’t have the wherewithal to explore the emotional dynamic that explains apprentices who spend ten years learning how to use a knife before they even prepare one nigiri-zushi. Stray tidbits cling to the memory: a meal is about ¥30,000 and takes only 15 minutes; reservations have to be made at least 3 months in advance and the patrons are invariably “tense,” as food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto points out; there is only one way to squeeze the water out of a towel. Gelb gets into more useful territory when he leaves the basement and goes to the Tsukiji fish market, where we learn the difference between chutoro and otoro, and meet men who are even more anal about their jobs since all they do all day is look at one species of crustacean. Though Gelb does get into relevant issues such as over-fishing, he is too reverent to suggest that any of his subjects are obsessed, and one yearns for a bit of humor or at least some context and perspective—maybe interview somebody who makes sushi for the hoi polloi, or would that ruin the film’s pristine purity of purpose? In Japanese (photo: Sushi Movie LLC)

lifeofpiLife of Pi
It’s easy to understand why fundamentalists don’t trust ecumenism. The idea that all religions have something in common will sound sensible to someone with a tentative grasp of spiritual matters, but to those whose grip is sure it contradicts their belief system. Nevertheless, the ecumenism at the heart of Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel is itself a kind of fundamentalism in that the movie has no meaning if you don’t accept the existence of God. Framed as a first-person tale told to a writer, the story comes with its own commentary track filled with pieties and pronouncements. The middle aged Pi (Irrfan Khan), settled in his comfortable Toronto home, entertains a novelist (Rafe Spall) with his incredible tale, and it says something about Lee’s confidence in the tale that he treats this hackneyed narrative device solemnly. Growing up in a picturesque town in southern India, Pi was enamored of all religions, branching out from Hinduism (“their deities were like superheroes to me”) to Islam and Christianity. This predilection is treated as something odd: Pi’s worldly, even-handed parents are concerned because they think the boy is spreading himself too thin, but rationalists are so square. Pi’s credo is challenged in an elemental way by a tiger that his family keeps in its zoo. His initial near-deadly encounter with the beast neatly sets up the movie’s most impressive passage. When Pi becomes a young man (Suraj Sharma), his family is compelled to move to Canada, and they decide to take the menagerie with them, but their vessel is hit by a typhoon while crossing the Pacific. There’s nothing like a rolling ocean to make you question nature’s benevolence, and Lee and his crack 3D-CGI team create a world of such monstrous beauty that you may very well see God in the sinking of the cargo ship, which Pi survives in the company of four symbolic animals, including the tiger, whose funny name, Richard Parker, also lives through the disaster. Had the movie only been about this lost-at-sea tale, it might have been the allegorical masterpiece Lee believes the book to be, since it approaches nature with as much awe as most monotheistic religions express toward God. The relationship between Pi and the tiger, which changes day-by-day as the lifeboat they inhabit drifts on a placid sea, is marked by fear and competition, which morphs into inexplicable love. Lee’s digital visualization of the animal obviates the need for abusing a real one, but that knowledge doesn’t spoil the drama. It’s only when Pi is rescued and applies the lessons of his adventures to his spirituality that things get murky. Why spoil such a beautiful vision with religion? (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

principleLife Without Principle
Johnnie To is so closely identified with Hong Kong crime cinema and the art of the shootout that it’s easy to overlook his superior skills as a storyteller. Though Life Without Principle includes gangsters and violence, the overarching tension is provided by current financial travails whose effect on three protagonists is studied for contrast. Teresa (Denise Ho) is a banker who isn’t meeting her quota of BRICS-related fund sales, and resorts to pressuring a naive older woman into buying the high-risk instruments. Panther (Lau Ching-wan) is an old-school mafia factotum, loyal to a fault, who rushes around collecting bail money for an arrested associate. Inspector Cheung (Richei Ren) is a harried cop who doesn’t pay close enough attention to his wife’s desire for a condo they can’t afford. Though To does a fine job of threading these three stories through the needle’s eye of a loan shark’s murder, he best demonstrates his mastery of narrative concision by explaining the mechanics of markets without ever boring or condescending to the viewer. You’ll learn something, and be thrilled in the process. (photo: Media Asia Films Ltd.)

moonriseMoonrise Kingdom
Though Wes Anderson is characterized (often derisively) as having adolescent preferences, he hasn’t addressed adolescence this thoroughly since Rushmore. By setting his movie in the 1960s he precludes conjecture that it might be autobiographical (Anderson was born in 1969), but all his films have a deeply nostalgic mood that feels more imagined than experienced. And while the fictional New England island is a remarkable recreation of a certain image of American innocence, it’s as much a fantasy as the Tennenbaums’ Queens or Steve Zissou’s aquatic compound. Recreation is Anderson’s forte, and we take the precocious pronouncements of the two protagonists, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), with a grain of salt since you never hear kids their age talk like this, even if what they express is something you thought about when you were 12. Isolated from the more hazardous urban or suburban milieu where such stories usually take place, the pair’s adventure is never perilous, even though a storm is brewing as our narrator (Bob Balaban) constantly informs us. Sam is an orphan and a member of a Boy Scout-like troop that is learning survival skills for the summer. Their mentor is the earnest and upright Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), but he isn’t perceptive enough to sense the antagonism the other scouts direct toward Sam, who has just been sent back to the orphanage by his latest set of foster parents. Sam is “difficult” as only a cinematic orphan can be, and his mastery of the scouting arts is presented as a purely practical achievement: he means to run away, and, Suzy, a girl he met the previous autumn and with whom he has maintained a correspondence, also wants to run away from her lawyer parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), who live on the island seemingly year-round with their large brood as a kind of model family that Suzy finds stifling. With Sam’s talents and Suzy’s penchant for novels, their tryst in the wild becomes a tale of Romance and Adventure, made all the more exciting by the anxiety they cause the adults in their orbit—not only Suzy’s parents and Scout Master Ward, but the island’s police chief (Bruce Willis) and the head of Social Services (Tilda Swinton). Charity is the operative response, and the scouts correct their former patronizing attitude and help Sam and Suzy elude the adults, who will surely send Sam back to the orphanage. The action and childish rhetoric all come to a head in what is perhaps Anderson’s most effective set piece ever, a rescue in the midst of a punishing hurricane. It’s literally taut and gripping, and deeply resonant for anyone who used to be a kid. (photo: Focus Features)

soundoflightThe Sound of Light
When his father is injured, Yusuke (Yoshitomo Fujihisa) returns to his hometown in Okayama Prefecture after an indeterminate number of years trying to break into the music biz in Tokyo. He is determined to take over the family dairy and seems attracted to Yoko (Eri Mori), the bartending widow of the town’s only veterinarian, who recently died in an accident. Director Junichiro Yamasaki, himself a farmer, upends the usual conflict in this type of story. Instead of rejecting his constricted upbringing and fleeing to the big city, Yusuke rejects the city and tries to reinhabit his old lifestyle, and his family thinks him a fool for it. “You should play music if that’s what you want to do,” his father says, since Yusuke is unable to explain why he wants to take over the farm. Yamasaki doesn’t make the viewer’s job any easier in understanding Yusuke’s motives. Except for a nerve-wracking calf-birthing scene, dairy farming comes across as tedious, and maybe that’s the point. You admire Yusuke for his fortitude without deriving any dramatic pleasure from it. In Japanese.

zerodarkZero Dark Thirty
At this point it’s impossible to judge Kathryn’s Bigelow’s blockbuster about the search for Osama Bin Laden on its merits as a film. The controversy over its depiction of torture and whether or not “enhanced interrogation methods” were instrumental in finding the Al Qaeda leader has overpowered not only debate about the movie, but discussions about Hollywood this Oscar-promoting season; and make no mistake, this is a Hollywood blockbuster in every sense of the term. The participation of the U.S. military is central to its success as an action movie, and for once the verisimilitude has a function that goes beyond stimulation. The final act, in which the Navy Seals invade Bin Laden’s compound in the middle of the night, deserves kudos for the way it involves the viewer in the violence, and is the more disturbing portion of the narrative. The Seals indiscriminately kill any adult they encounter, not just Bin Laden, though their victims offer no immediate threat. The thrust of Mark Boal’s screenplay is that the hunt has been so intense, so frustrating, so fraught with moral compromise that by this point killing anything that might prevent the accomplishment of the mission is acceptable. Torture was only the beginning of the CIA’s march up the slippery slope. The whole operation, though supported by the American public, needs to be studied from this aspect, and that is the point of the movie; which isn’t to say Bigelow and Boal don’t need to answer the charges of using torture for the sake of dramatic effect. Daniel (Jason Clarke), the operative carrying out the interrogations, is too much a goon, the guy who in movies always carries out these unpleasant duties. “If you lie to me, I hurt you,” he says to the detainee (Reda Kateb) before a beating or simulated drowning, sounding like someone in thrall to Jack Bauer. This motivational fuzziness muddles the depiction of torture, and the threads that critics claim lead the viewer to conclude that it was necessary in locating Bin Laden are too tangled to be reliable. The point Bigelow and Boal make is that the project lacked a clear idea of what was permissible and what wasn’t. The agent whom the movie calls Maya (Jessica Chastain) made the raid happen through her own dogged refusal to ignore even the smallest lead, and some of the most compelling scenes are those that involve bureaucratic intransigence, because the U.S. wasn’t going to risk a PR disaster by invading a compound where Bin Laden wasn’t holed up. In that sense, Zero Dark Thirty is a victim of its own technical excellence. It’s so thorough and efficient that it calls into question the entire ethical prosecution of the War on Terror, of which torture was only a part. (photo: Jonathan Olley 2012 CTMG)

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