June 2013 movies

Here are the movies reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which will be distributed in Tokyo tomorrow.

celesteCeleste and Jesse Forever
Though ostensibly a two-hander, this melancholic romantic comedy is mainly a showcase for Rashida Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with former signficant other Will McCormack. Jones plays Celeste, a gainfully employed young woman who still has a very close relationship with ex-husband Jesse (Andy Samberg), an artist who has yet to make an impression on the market because he’s so easily distracted. Jesse still holds out for some sort of reconciliation with Celeste and continues to live in a bungalow in back of their modest L.A. house. In fact, it takes a little time for the viewer to realize that they are divorced since the opening scenes show them joking and making plans as if they were still married. Certainly the most vital component of the film is Jones’ and Samberg’s easy chemistry, a virtue that underlines how much romantic comedy has changed since its heyday. The banter is so breezy and situationally specific that it risks alienating the audience, who may feel left out of the gags, but it feels more natural even if the dialogue has been devised to evoke just such a reaction. If the methodology is up-to-the-minute (boomers will likely wince at the diction), the emotional parameters are the same as they’ve ever been in romantic comedies. It’s Jesse who won’t let go, but he’s also the first one to take a stab at dating, and in a plot device that should come across as trite but actually has impact, he knocks up a one night stand (Rebecca Dayan). Though the movie chronicles Jesse’s determination to be a good dad, it mostly lingers on Celeste’s difficulty in accepting the news, since one of the reasons she divorced him is that she didn’t think he could ever be the father of her children, a rationale that, in the beginning, is the movie’s best joke but as the relationship becomes clearer seems more like a convenient excuse that backfires. On the surface, Celeste has everything in that her marketing job fully engages her creative impulses; while Jesse, ostensibly the more creative one by lieu of his status as an “artist,” is so economically at sea that he scans as a loser. The script turns those stereotypes around, mainly through the character of Riley (Emma Roberts), a precocious pop idol assigned to Celeste by her company. When Jesse actually gets a job and seems on the verge of making the sort of life Celeste says she always wanted, her self-regard crumbles and she turns to the petulant, seemingly vacuous Riley for comfort—and finds it in the most disarming way. It’s not enough for a romantic comedy to overturn expectations. It has to do so for a reason, and without sacrificing what makes it a comedy. Celeste and Jesse Forever isn’t perfect in that regard, but it succeeds on its own modest terms. (photo: C&J Forever LLC)

G.I.??? ????????G.I. Joe: Retaliation
The G.I. Joes of this newest franchise are to the original Hasbro action figures of the 60s as TV’s The Unit was to Combat: a means of making the U.S. military sexier and more amenable to what action films stand for. The villians don’t represent countries or ideologies. It’s the old idea of a maniacal genius who wants to take over the world. During a seemingly routine mission to retrieve an errant nuclear device in Pakistan the “Joes,” lead by the human tank Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), are caught in friendly fire and left for dead, so they have to remain incognito to save the planet from domination (though London, in the movie’s most disturbingly gratuitous scene, isn’t spared), along the way persuading a freelance ninja (Lee Byung-hun) to help them out against his better nature. Director Jon M. Chu delivers some stunning action set pieces, in particular a fight on the side of a sheer mountain cliff, but the film’s narrative is so patchy and juvenile that it drags the whole production down; which doesn’t mean there won’t be a second sequel. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

grandmastersThe Grandmaster
Wong Kar Wai’s hotly anticipated biopic of kung fu legend Ip Man (Tony Leung), the master who taught Bruce Lee all he knows, is too cerebral for martial arts freaks and too anally fixated on technical minutae to appeal to Wong’s core audience. Because so much care and process is dedicated to depicting the philosophies and sensibilities behind the various styles of fighting on display there’s no room for Wong’s patented romantic reveries. Ip’s odyssey through 20th century China hits all the historical milestones without any of them making an impression. His ongoing relationship with the resentful, proud daughter (Zhang Ziyi) of a rival grandmaster hints at something deeper but never goes there. Reportedly, Wong spent an inordinate amount of time on the action sequences so that the actors could correctly recreate the peculiar traits of the regional fighting modes they respectively represented, an effort that’s lost on the audience, who doesn’t have the inclination or the experience to tell them apart. It’s a movie that begs for a narration track and some interactivity—if you care that much. In Mandarin & Japanese. (photo: Block 2 Pictures)

If you appreciate that sort of thing, the recreation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that devastated a coastal resort of Indonesia is appropriately detailed in the most stomach-churning ways. Director Juan Antonio Bayona focuses on a mother (Naomi Watts) and one of her three sons (Tom Holland) as they are swept away by the monster wave. Barely surviving, they then have to find the rest of their loved ones: the woman’s husband (Ewan McGregor) and their two other sons. Bayona demonstrates an admirable command of time and space, working his way through the chaos that followed the disaster as the family desperately try to reconnect. The focus is so intense, in fact, that one loses sight of the larger picture, which is that tens of thousands of people were in the same situation, the vast majority of whom did not have the material resources these well-connected middle class white tourists did. You quickly realize that, for all the heart-rending drama of barely missed connections and selfless acts of kindness, this particular family’s outcome was never in doubt. (photo: Telecinco Cinema, S.A.U. and Apaches Entertainment, S.L.)

anotherIn Another Country
Because Hong Sang-soo’s latest sex comedy again follows an unusual structure, critics will judge it by the same narrative and thematic criteria, but the casting of Isabelle Huppert as the same central character in the three overlapping tales points to something more playful though no less ambitious in the director’s ongoing interrogation of modern Korean sexual mores. By bringing in a foreign woman, Hong gets to do more than just poke fun at the stereotype of the over-sexualized Korean male—a stereotype Hong has had a hand in reinforcing. If one component of that stereotype is the obsession Asian men have for Western women, then In Another Country can be called degenerate, since it plays it up with humor that cuts pretty close. In two of the stories, Anne (Huppert), a French visitor to the drab coastal resort of Mohan, interacts on a romantic level with two Korean men. “You’re the beautiful French woman I’ve always dreamed of,” one character says to her and you just have to laugh at Hong’s chutzpah. Jung Yoo-mi plays the less likable stereotype. In one story he’s the French woman’s Korean counterpart, who is married but nevertheless attracted to Anne and misinterprets her signals; and in another, he plays Anne’s lover, whom she’s meeting for a clandestine tryst since she’s already married. The third story upends the previous two by having Anne the victim of an infidelity. Yoo Jun-sang impersonates a different take on the stereotype, the innocent who acts on his childish impulse to worship the blonde foreign goddess, and nothing in any of Hong’s films has ever been as hilarious as this linguistically challenged life guard putting the make on Anne as she tries in vain to locate the resort’s only meager tourist attraction. In one, he actually succeeds, but not before getting her drunk, a plot device that is as central to Hong’s work as May-December love affairs are to Woody Allen’s. That Hong has presented these three tales as flowing from the pen of a bored young woman who is wiling away her time in Mohan with her mother, trying to come up with a screenplay. In the so-called real world, these three tales are drafts, attempts to get at something the young woman can’t quite articulate, but on the screen they cover all the territory Hong wants to cover without relying on one hermetic story; and even better, each tale, while following the same general narrative trajectory, is entertaining in its own way, thanks mainly to Huppert’s command of her characters, each of which represents its own stereotype. Some viewers will find it facile, but I thought it was fun, and whatever else you want to say about this farce, it looks as if everyone had a ball making it. In Korean and English.

Tom Cruise beats Will Smith to the finish line in this summer’s race of the sci-fi doomsday epics. Both Oblivion and After Earth are about our planet in the future after years of non-inhabitation. Both are also, in a way, domestic dramas, since the main narrative entry point is the films’ respective identification with family. In the case of Oblivion, Cruise plays Jack Harper, who, as outlined in the overly explained introduction of how the earth turned out like this, is in charge of monitoring the eastern seaboard of the U.S. after it has been decimated in a war with an alien species. While the rest of humanity prepares to relocate to a moon of Jupiter and cools its heels in a huge space station orbiting above, Harper lives in a tower with a female companion (Andrea Riseborough) who plays the dual roles of wife and technical assistant when Jack travels to the surface to make sure the defeated aliens haven’t returned and maintain the drones that patrol the ruins. Exactly what these drones are protecting now that it’s been decided everyone is going somewhere else isn’t clear, and the audience is expected to keep that question in the back of its collective mind as Jack engages with shadowy aliens in dark lairs and dons his Yankee cap to look out over what was once New York City. Joseph Kosinski, who wrote and directed this very expensive vehicle based on his own graphic novel, has borrowed liberally from recent sci-fi hits, mainly Wall-E and Total Recall, so when Morgan Freeman shows up at the end of the second act you know exactly what he’s doing there and what kind of character he’s playing. If you’re at all surprised by the sudden plot twist, it likely means you weren’t paying close enough attention or have forgotten too quickly how sci-fi operates in the post-Dick world of stunted irony. The only really interesting idea is the domestic one. After Jack rescues a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) from an errant space ship, his relationship with his wife changes accordingly, and it’s jealousy as much as adherence to duty that causes a rift you didn’t see coming. Though this sort of inventive tinkering with formula hardly tests Solaris-level sophistication, it does raise the stakes and breaks the monotony of watching Cruise go through his expertly executed action figure motions. Some of Kosinski’s visuals are stunning, and he knows how to generate suspense even if he doesn’t always follow it through with something satisfying; that is, until the ending, which has a certain Kubrickian grandeur and hallucinogenic power. Just don’t think too deeply about what it all is supposed to mean. (photo: Universal Studios)

Kim Ki-duk returns to what he does best—outlandish religious allegory—and ends up with his most compelling movie since Spring, Summer, Fall… Winner of Venice’s Golden Lion, Pieta tells the minimalist tale of loan collector Gang-do (Lee Jung-jin), whose sadistic m.o. indicates a stilted personality constructed over a profound spiritual void. When radiant, reticent, middle-aged Mi-Seon (Cho Min-soo) enters his life, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a child, Gang-do responds defensively at first, but after several scenes of almost risible sexual suggestiveness, he grows to accept her and, in the process, develops a compassionate regard for his fellow bottom dwellers. Of course, nothing is as it seems, and some credit should go to the wily Kim for making the absurd intrigues as intriguing as they are, but the wonder of the film is its austerity. The brutality is filmed with such unflinching attention to the stupidity of material want that you can’t help but laugh as you peer through your fingers. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s solidly evocative filmmaking. In Korean. (photo: Kim Ki-duk Films)

pinesThe Place Beyond the Pines
Simultaneously pulpy and impressionistic, this curious drama by Derek Cianfrance offers one of Ryan Gosling’s typically reticent performances as Luke, a carnival motorcycle daredevil who decides to do the right thing and settle down with the woman (Eva Mendes) he unwittingly made pregnant during a previous swing through her upstate New York town. That she is both attracted to the prospect and troubled by it—she has since taken up with a new boyfriend who has willingly taken on the role of her infant son’s father—says more about Gosling’s appeal as a matinee idol than anything credible in the script, which goes from one incongruity to another in an attempt to create a situation fraught with all sorts of meaning with regard to the sins of the fathers. She rejects Luke’s offer, and as it turns out his trespasses—besides loving ’em and leaving ’em, he takes up bank robbery in order to provide his son with money to make up for his initial lack of support—pale in comparison to those of Avery (Bradley Cooper), the local cop who becomes a hero thanks to Luke’s lack of common sense and then spends the resulting social capital on a political career that pulls him further away from his own troubled son. If we accept Luke as a jerk we cut him some slack because he’s stereotypically “bad” in the way of someone who was brought up wrong. Avery, on the other hand, poisoned his own well in pursuit of fame and wealth. If it sounds like an old story, it is, and while Cianfrance presents it in a compellingly naturalistic way, he can’t paper over the contrivances and the cliches, which are so carefully worked out you can practically hear the gears grinding into place. It would be tempting to say that the director’s ambitions outstrip his capabilities, but so many scenes justify his reputation as one of the most forward-looking of mainstream American filmmakers. His mastery of the way a moving vehicle cuts across the picture frame is breathtaking, and the bank robbery scenes are small masterpieces of exposition. And as with his previous film, Blue Valentine, Cianfrance demonstrates a fine sense of place. We get a genuine feel for Schenectady that distinguishes it from every other blue collar middle American enclave. But while his choice of themes is novelistic, he lacks a good novel writer’s skill in getting his characters from point A to point B without drawing attention to the process. By the time the film brings the real protagonists, Luke’s and Avery’s respective sons, into the spotlight the viewer has grown suspicious of the storyteller’s motivations, and the two boys’ relationship feels forced. The sins of the fathers don’t explain nearly as much as they should. (photo: Kimmel Distribution LLC)

polanskiRoman Polanski: A Film Memoir
During his house arrest in Zurich in 2010 awaiting the Swiss court’s decision on whether to extradite him to America, Roman Polanski granted a filmed interview to his friend Andrew Braunsberg. Basically a memoir, the film presents Polanski’s versions of all the events of his life, and to Braunsberg’s credit he doesn’t pull any punches with regard to the rape conviction or Polanski’s subsequent decision to flee the US when it appeared he would have to spend a longer time in jail than his original sentence. The conversation’s value is the context of the life in which that occurred: living through the Holocaust that killed his mother, becoming a child actor in Communist Poland and eventually a director, leaving Poland for a successful career in London and then Hollywood, the murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson cult. They puts things in proper perspective regardless of how you feel about Polanski’s actions. But the film does feel like it has an agenda, since there isn’t much depth. The movies are more revealing. (photo: Anagram Films Ltd.)

springSpring Breakers
Thanks to the Internet, no one in the free world is disabused as to what really goes on during Spring Break, that lacuna of hedonistic release when college students head for Florida or Mexico and act out. Harmony Korine lays it out in the opening scene of his most colorful and conventional film: sex, drugs and rock’n roll, which is what we always knew it was about regardless of what MTV would have us believe. It’s a fitting introduction to a movie about adolescent foolishness and the rot of pop culture imagery, though Korine might simply say it’s something cool to film. His subjects are four coeds who couldn’t care less about their grades and are itching to go south for the big bachanalia but lack the financial wherewithal. Three of the girls, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife) are dumb blondes, while the fourth, Faith (Selena Gomez), is a little more down-to-earth owing to a more tenacious hold on religion. Nevertheless, she’s easily talked into assisting the other three in knocking off a diner, which Korine films in ecstatic slow motion so as to establish his overriding theme: Sex is fun and crime is as much a sexual release as it is an economic imperative. It also sets up in the viewer’s mind the possibility that this is all an elaborate fantasy. After all, he’s cast two American Disney sweethearts, Gomez and Hudgens, in roles that require them to be dressed in bikinis for most of the film’s running time, during which they make numerous unsubtle references to their own sexual appetites. If anything Spring Breakers is charged fantasy fulfillment, and the subsequent cavalier attitude toward narrative rigor can thus be explained. With their ill-gotten gains, the quartet arrive in Florida and party hearty, resulting in their arrest for being in the proximity of illegal drugs and the introduction of their savior and enabler, Alien (James Franco), a white, dreadlocked gangsta who bails them out in order to use them for his own nefarious ends. “I’m the answer to your prayers,” he says, and you get the joke. Having already lost their criminal virginity, three of the girls are totally up for it, though apparently this particular prayer isn’t in Faith’s catechism, and she bails, having fooled herself into believing that she would find some sort of “utopia” in the southland. Alien means to strike out at his mentor in the local drugs and arms trade, and Korine finally does what he does best, which is push buttons. Alien’s psychological manipulation of these three girls makes for pure grindhouse exploitation, and the sex and violence that ensues is all the more ridiculous for the shouts of “Spring Break forever” during the mayhem, but no less disturbing. Korine sees beauty in debauchery, since it points to truths we usually don’t acknowledge. (photo: Spring Breakers LLC)

Though less florid than his Korean movies, Park Chan-wook’s English language debut retains the Old Boy director’s penchant for perverse imagery and general unpleasantness. In fact, Western viewers can finally judge for themselves if Park’s celebrated ouevre had as much depth as his supporters claim. Given the cultural and linguistic barriers, it was difficult to tell if his Vengeance Trilogy was a trenchant comment on man’s incontrovertibly violent nature or simply a collection of really cool shock scenes. Stoker has a few, but the story, written by Wentworth Miller, isn’t precise enough to gain anything thematically from Park’s contributions. Basically we have a girl, India (Mia Wasikowska), who is being raised by her cold-as-porcelain mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), alone on a huge, seemingly empty estate after the death of her father in a car accident. India’s morbid predelictions and misanthropic pronouncements aren’t explained right away so we wait patiently for the other shoe to drop. As she makes her way fitfully through adolescence, the house is visited by her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whose own brand of morbidity is more on the playful side. His presence has an intensifying effect on India, who reacts to school bullies with swift violence and makes improper comments at dinner. This pair’s hitherto unspoken bond is sealed when India receives untoward advances from a high school boy who previously made a point of standing up for her. But even this development feels half-baked, and as startling revelations accrue the viewer may feel cut adrift. It’s as if Chan himself didn’t fully understand the purport of the script and wasn’t compelled enough to ask. So when Evelyn confronts her daughter with the observation, “I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” you seriously wonder what prompted such a venomous statement. Stoker is about how dangerous sexual coming-of-age can be, but the pathologies on display are so disconnected from normal life as we know it that one gets the feeling they could be considered perfectly normal given the special circumstances. Are the police in this town really so stupid? How on earth did anyone conclude that India’s father’s death was an accident? Where did these people get their money? Trying to work around these obstacles, Park has his work cut out for him. A scene where a busybody aunt (Jacki Weaver) is dispatched in a deserted parking lot is filmed from the killer’s POV as if in a Hitchcock mystery, a laughable device because we know exactly who the killer is, but Park needs to show us what he’s got. The film is masterfully directed and inventively acted—Kidman has this ice queen character down—but you keep asking yourself: To what end? (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

3sistersThree Sisters
Three years after his feature film debut, The Ditch, Wang Bing returns to documentaries with his most moving film yet. Shot over a period of 14 months in the mountains of Yunnan Province, Three Sisters focuses on the titular Sun siblings, ranging in age from 4 to 10, who are on their own since their mother has run away and their father is in an unnamed city earning money. Working his usual m.o. Wang simply observes, sometimes for interminable stretches, as the girls putter around their filthy hovel preparing meals (mostly potatoes), wrangling pigs and goats, and horsing around as children do. Though nothing except the crushing poverty seems unusual, the visual sameness bears down on the viewer. Almost constantly enshrouded in fog, this village of 80 families might as well be on the moon for all its relation to China’s economic success. In one of the doc’s few moments of penetration, the village leader despairs that the authorities are going to crack down on the residents’ failure to pay their health insurance premiums. Good luck with that. In Mandarin. (photo: ALBUM Prod., Chinese Shadows)

RomeTo Rome With Love
At this point, Woody Allen’s themes are so familiar that the attendant jokes in this omnibus feature set in the eternal city arrive pre-digested. He miscasts himself as a retired record producer who, while meeting his future son-in-law in Rome, decides to promote the boy’s father as the next Pavarotti, though the man can only sing in the shower. The one-note gag is good, but Allen’s presence undermines the jollity with his relentlessly sour demeanor. The other stories provide diminishing returns. Jesse Eisenberg as an architecture student taking life lessons from a ghost-like mentor (Alec Baldwin) as he cheats on his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) with her visiting actress friend (Ellen Page) is so far past its sell-by date it curdles on contact with the screen. Roberto Benigni does all the heavy lifting in a skit about an unexceptional man who becomes a celebrity, and the cautionary tale about a newlywed forced to pretend a whore (Penelope Cruz) is his wife is so undercooked you wonder if the Italian was ad libbed. To Rome With Love succeeds as little more than a quirky travelogue. In English and Italian. (photo: Gravier Prod. Inc.)

werewolfA Werewolf Boy
Yet another Korean melodrama predicated on the appeal of impossible love, A Werewolf Boy occasionally flirts with something more significant but in the end comes across as a failed attempt to create a Twilight-like cult of personality. Told in flashback, the story takes place in the 60s at a rural resort where teenage Suni (Park Bo-young) has relocated for health reasons with her impoverished family. The dandified asshole of a landlord (Yoo Yeon-seok) immediately draws a bead on the girl but her attentions are soon commandeered by a boy (Song Joong-ki) who is discovered in the barn. Incoherent and uncivilized, he was raised as a wolf as part of an experiment left over from the Korean War. Suni tries to civilize him, and an unbreakable bond is formed between that the landlord endeavors to sunder any way he can. Jo Sung-hee’s soft-focus direction and the rustic production design make for an effective romantic fantasy that is interrupted rudely every so often by surges of political intrigue and savage violence. It’s three different movies vying for dominance. In Korean. (photo: CJ E&M Corp.)

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