July 2013 movies

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

1108146 - After EarthAfter Earth
At the press conference for After Earth last month, producer-star-story creator Will Smith bragged about talking M. Night Shyamalan into directing the movie and it was difficult not to smirk. Given Shyamalan’s track record lately, it doesn’t sound like something you would boast about, but besides being Hollywood’s strongest stalwart after Tom Cruise, Smith is also something of a naif. To give credit where credit is due, After Earth isn’t as bad as  Shyamalan’s last several movies, probably because it started out as Smith’s project and is thus fairly simple in design and theme. Its main purpose is to showcase him and son Jaden as a bankable box office team, though in the long run the aim is to position Jaden as a star on his own, which is why he gets billed over Dad. And while Shyamalan earns a writing credit, rumor has it that all he contributed was the concept of “ghosting,” a new agey warrior skill that is central to the plot but more or less a gimmick in the patented Shyamalan style. Basically, After Earth is a bonding story. Set a thousand years into the future, when earth has been long abandoned by the humans who spoiled it, the movie presents Smith as Cypher, a general of the elite Rangers who protects the human race from a different species called Ursa and whose son, Kitai (Jaden), is trying to emulate his father but without much success. Kitai feels responsible for the death of his sister, who was killed by an Ursa as he watched helplessly, an incident that Shyamalan keeps referring to in flashback. Understanding that the boy needs some sort of practical experience to bolster his bid to be a soldier, Cypher takes him on a routine mission to dispose of a living Ursa and on the way the ship is damaged by an asteroid shower and crash lands on, of all places, earth, where the local fauna has somehow developed an instinctive urge to kill anything human, as if resentment for man’s folly was built into their DNA. Only Cypher and Kitai survive the crash, but Cypher is disabled and thus Kitai has to travel alone to retrieve a beacon device in the other part of the ship that landed far away. As Kitai performs his Walkabout as a Ranger, Cypher directs him remotely from the ship and, predictably, father-son conflicts that have been simmering boil over. It’s a good plot device as far as it goes but Shyamalan has an annoying tendency to break the development with flashbacks and concentrated masses of exposition that focus your attention on the acting, which is pretty bad. The elder Smith, feigning seriousness, looks constipated, while the younger can’t quite make Kitai’s desperation look like anything more than petulance. (photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Jack Black has a talent—though some might call it a flaw—for taking over the movies that he appears in; which is why directors always make sure the vehicle fits the driver and is never too small. Richard Linklater wrote Black the perfect part with School of Rock, but his casting of the hyperactive actor in his latest movie seems fraught with peril since it’s based on a true story. At first Bernie Tiede, an effeminate assistant funeral director in the East Texas town of Carthage, seems an ill fit. Bernie is too tidy, too soft-spoken in his enthusiasms, whereas Black works best when he’s hyperventilating. But Linklater does something brilliant. He opens with Bernie dressing a corpse for display and explaining the process to mortuary students, and Black’s urge to perform dovetails perfectly with Bernie’s eagerness to please. From there Black slips into the character effortlessly, whether singing gospel at the top of his lungs while tooling down the street, consoling the survivors of his charges with preternatural tact and understanding, or fretting over his momentary lapses of decorum, the most serious of which is his killing of the town’s wealthiest woman, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), in an unusual fit of pique. The contrast between the saintly Bernie and the miserly bitch Marjorie pivots our sympathies toward the former, and Linklater reinforces this bias with extensive interviews of locals—many of whom are real—who testify to Bernie’s good nature. To them, the old girl deserved it, though to understand why you have to know how Bernie became her confidante and constant companion, a process that is kept slightly vague since Linklater doesn’t want us to get the idea that Bernie was after her money (though it’s impossible to dismiss the notion). Still, the effect is blacker than anything this side of a Coen Brothers joint. Bernie, a kindly, considerate, probably closeted gay man hides Marjorie’s death for months, thus compounding homicide with downright lying, two incivilities the residents of Carthage overlook because in all the important civilities Bernie passes the test. The only person who doesn’t buy it is the town’s D.A. (Matthew McConaughey, with ridiculously big eyewear), who after Bernie is caught decides he can only get a guilty verdict if he moves the trial to a different town. Though they rarely spend any time on the screen together, Black and McConaughey complement each other perfectly: the sincere, calm dilettante and the loud, earnestly acidic legal mind who is suspicious of anything that smacks of culture (he gleefully mangles the pronuciation of “Les Miserables”). One takes the veracity of Linklater’s version with a grain of salt, but his always meticulous direction is rewarded by two of the best casting choices of recent memory. (photo: Bernie Film, LLC, and Wind Dancer Bernie, LLC)

captiveThe Captive
Philippine director Brillante Mendoza inches toward international acceptance with this thriller based on the real life kidnapping of tourists and missionaries by Abu Sayaf separatists in the southern Philippines in 2001. Though dramatic in scope, the film keeps a documentary distance for presumed purposes of balance, and in the end the only identification the audience generates is with the French social worker (Isabelle Huppert) who continually negotiates with the captors for the safety of fellow prisoners over the course of many months as the group is moved from one jungle encampment to another. Mendoza earns points for revealing the cross-political venality that has made the militants rely on ransoms to keep their cause solvent while the cause itself is mostly forgotten, but too much of the movie is needlessly incoherent. The daily horrors of red ants and trigger-happy peasants are contrasted with the sheer boredom of waiting and the result is a film light with meaning and only a single means of entry: Huppert, the sole participant who gives the impression that there’s a movie rather than a point to be made. In English and Tagalog. (photo: Swift Prod./Arte France Cinema/Centerstage Prod./B.A. Prod./Studio Eight Prod.)

Though not exactly clinical in its approach, Craig Zobel’s exercise in unpleasantness is single-minded enough that it leaves little room for interpretation or even analysis. It am what it am, a dramatization of a real-life event at an Ohio fast food restaurant that escalated into horrible ludicrousness. Zobel perhaps gooses the matter unnecessarily with his clever but somewhat suspicious perfect storm of circumstances. The manager of the chicken joint, Sandra (Ann Dowd), arrives for work and realizes someone left the freezer door open overnight, spoiling thousands of dollars worth of food. Already touchy and resentful, she’s open to suggestion that her employees are untrustworthy, and when she receives a call from a man claiming to be a police officer and accusing one of her staff of stealing from a customer, she reacts accordingly. The cop says he has the employee, a young girl named Becky (Dreama Walker), caught in the act on a “surveillance tape.” Unfortunately, he cannot come to the store immediately and advises the manager to keep Becky in a back room and search her for the money. Having already experienced the wrath of authority in the form of her regional manager, Sandra is open to the suggestion though she does initially seem puzzled—not so much by the claim, which she readily believes, but by her sudden deputization. She carries out the policeman’s instructions, eventually making Becky strip naked and performing a body cavity search; and when the usual Friday night crowds show up in force she has to enlist the help of not only other employees but her boyfriend, who arrives drunk and thus is more susceptible to the policeman’s escalating demands. Though several people involved question the veracity of the cop’s statements, their own histories of guilty behavior, something the caller takes for granted, give them enough of a reason to go along with the game, regardless of how dodgy it sounds. By the time matters get truly out of hand the viewer is left puzzled as well as sickened: How could these people not question someone who won’t actually show up in person to carry out these bizarre actions himself? Though some have likened Compliance to the work of Michael Haneke, the Austrian director’s queasy m.o. usually has a touch of mystery about it. Zobel is straightforward and meticulous. He really wants you to understand how such a terrible thing could happen to nominally well-meaning people, but the more detailed and careful he gets, the less convincing the material is. The viewer isn’t so much implicated in the activities as made to wonder what humanity has come to, but in that regard he will get more emotional catharsis from a good episode of The Sopranos. (photo: Bad Cop Bad Cop Film Prod., LLC)

GFPBunnyGFP Bunny
In Yutaka Tsuchiya’s award-winning video-movie, someone says, “There is no such thing as a story.” Real life does not follow a narrative, the form in which movies are usually presented. The main character, an unnamed teenage girl played by Yuka Kuramochi, is obsessed with “observing,” because she only believes in what can be proven empirically. The movie itself is rather cold, and the fictional content often interrupted by interviews with real experts who expound on the subjects being covered. If GFP Bunny can be said to have any kind of story, it’s one based on a real incident that happened in 2005. A girl secretly and methodically poisoned her mother with thallium, recording her observations on her blog, dutifully noting dosages and physical reactions. She also dissects live frogs, takes numerous photos and videos of natural phenomena with her phone camera, and experiments on one of her mother’s pet goldfish. “It’s about control,” she says to the director, who occasionally breaks through the fourth wall to talk to her. “It’s the same as what you’re doing to me.” Some viewers will misunderstand the movie’s dramatic component if they approach it in the usual way. In several scenes, the girl is mercilessly bullied by classmates, and when the original case was reported the media implied that her behavior was a reaction to the abuse. In one scene the director even confronts the girl directly with this interpretation and she vehemently denies that the bullying affects her. She won’t even acknowledge her tormentors. By the same token, a rather slimy male teacher (Kanji Furutachi) tries to get her to admit, in a patronizing fashion, that she is being abused. She responds with undisguised contempt. The teacher does not represent an ineffectual education system so much as a generation that cannot adapt to this changing definition of humanity. In contrast, the extreme body modification aficionados depicted in the movie are more honest, maybe even freer. The girl’s mother (Makiko Watanabe) is presented as a ridiculous figure, partly because she undergoes cosmetic surgery to counteract the effects of aging. Cosmetic surgery is regressive adaptation, since it represents an effort to achieve or return to a conventional idea of youthful attractiveness. Body modification enthusiasts want to change into something new. Tsuchiya suggests this is a means of artificially speeding up evolution, a concept that informs the titular metaphor of a rabbit that has been genetically engineered to glow in the dark, which is seen as an “improvement,” though society has yet to reach a consensus on the matter. As thought-provoking and visually arresting as the movie is, some may find it discomfiting, especially Tsuchiya’s use of live animals. Progress moves in mysterious ways. In Japanese.

Few great American novels have expanded on their context as effectively over the years as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, and the genius of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation is the way it demonstrates that heedless youth is not only a timeless phenomenon, but one that always manifests tragedy in the same familiar way. “We drank too much,” is the opening line here, spoken by narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who, existing somewhere outside the purview of the book, has checked into a sanatorium to dry out and recover from the horrible experience of seeing someone he admires self-destruct. The book is his therapy exercise, which sounds like a hackneyed device but Luhrmann loves hackneyed devices with a passion, and Carraway’s voiceover narration, which quotes Fitzgerald’s florid prose directly, thus sounds more emotionally mediated. Carraway isn’t just remembering, he’s reinventing, and the bizarre touches that Luhrmann adds make more sense. The delayed entrance of the title character (Leonardo DiCaprio) contains more suspense. “Richer than God,” someone says, a hyperbolic statement that Luhrmann illustrates with the size and grandeur of the famous parties Gatsby throws at his huge estate on Long Island for the purpose of attracting his lost love, Daisy Buchanan (Carrie Mulligan), who happens to live across the bay in almost equal splendor with her cad of a husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). The garishness of the parties—huge, CG-fortified bacchanalia that make the Jazz Age look like the height of Western decadence—contrasts markedly with Gatsby’s reserve. He glides onto the scene, making the acquaintance of Nick, who has rented a cottage on his estate while he pursues a hapless career on Wall Street, in almost innocent fashion. DiCaprio’s strained cultured accent, along with his acquired diction (everyone is an “old sport,” which today might translate as “dude” or “dog”) expose him for the nervous arriviste he is, and as you share the general populace’s curiosity as to how he came to his money at such at early age and snicker at his taste (those pink suits), you also feel a touch sorry for him. He tells his story more than once, and the wonder of Luhrmann’s direction is how all production choices serve Fitzgerald’s carefully calibrated but essentially ridiculous plotting. The princeliness of the mansions, the sodden filth of the ghetto, the raucous energy of the city are all heightened by detail and propelled at your senses by 3D, which, while hardly necessary, isn’t wasted on the material. Gatsby’s impossible rise and fall, and the equally impossible impetus behind his ambition, are rationalized by a filmmaker who knows we live larger on the screen that we do in our seats. The Great American Novel deserves nothing less than the Great American Movie treatment. Today’s Hollywood doesn’t deserve Baz Luhrmann, a man out of time. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

The presumed appeal of this true-life adventure film prompted producer Jeremy Thomas to film two versions, one in Norwegian, the other in English, and that same attention to the audience dominates the storytelling, which is risibly uplifting, and the characters, who are cinematic constructs not real people. Norwegians know the story of Thor Heyerdahl (Pal Sverre Hagen), the ethnographer who built a papyrus raft in 1947 to prove that South Americans populated Polynesia in pre-Columbian times, and the rest of the world should know, too, since he filmed his adventure and turned it into an Oscar-winning documentary. The details are fascinating, but directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg only exploit them to show how fixated Heyerdahl was without making him seem monomaniacal. He’s determined and his crew accepts that, though it endangers their lives. Even his wife understands, though she leaves him in the end in one of the most amicable divorces in the history of marriage. The movie is worth seeing for its seafaring thrills, which are much better than the ones in Life of Pi. (photo: Nordsk Film Prod. AS)

latequartetA Late Quartet
When the the cellist and eldest member (Christopher Walken) of a famous string quartet discovers he’s got Parkinson’s, he endeavors to do what he can to keep the ensemble in tact, including finding his own replacement. The rest of the group quickly falls apart as long-simmering doubts and disappointments boil over. The second violinist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) asserts his desire to share in some of the first chair duties jealously guarded by the Russian (Mark Ivanir) who founded the quartet, while his wife and violist (Catherine Keener) discovers not only that her husband is cheating, but that their violinist daughter (Imogen Poots) is sleeping with the first chair. Set in a rarefied, New York City milieu that feels purposely chilly, the movie’s more melodramatic scenes leap out at the viewer ostentatiously, as if to say, look, these highbrows have feelings, too. But it’s difficult to care about the soap opera situations, and only Walken conveys a real sense of earned artistry in one of his most quietly effective performances. The ending is as pat as a Mozart coda. (photo: A Late Quartet LLC)

The Godfather as filtered through the legend of the Hatfields and the McCoys, this ultra-violent Prohibition-era drama set in the moonshine-soaked hills of Virginia trades in blood-bonded revenge as its sole dramatic imperative. Though screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat flesh out their characters with enough personality to make them distinctive, in the end the tit-for-tat shootings and throat-slittings reduce everything to reactionary pulp. Shia LaBeouf is the audience surrogate, the runt of the bootlegging Bondurant clan, whose mumbling, honor-bound patriarch, older brother Forrest (Tom Hardy), is only two strokes of conscience higher on the treachery scale than the dandified federal agent (Guy Pearce) who means to clean up the territory by any means possible. Though the movie makes no real claim to anything other than wild entertainment, the requisite romantic subplots and general absence of compelling development render the set pieces as little more than gratuitous brutality. Gary Oldman makes more of an impression in his brief scenes as Chicago interloper Floyd Banner than everyone else combined, probably because his aims are simple: just take over. (photo: Bootleg Movie LLC)

marionSong for Marion
The British film industry’s ongoing fascination with the indignities of old age—a function of the country’s wealth of acting talent—continues with this gloss on Young at Heart. Grumpy pensioner Arthur (Terence Stamp) isn’t thrilled that his wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), dying of cancer, spends all her cogent hours in rehearsals with a choir of old folks doing versions of heavy metal, hip-hop, and other nominally youthful music styles. Though she’s obviously having the time of her life he believes the effort is shortening it, and bristles at the suggestions of her chums and choirmaster (Gemma Arterton) that Marion is happiest when singing. Arthur’s stubbornness is little more than a dramatic device, a way of gearing up the emotional tension for the inevitable big break. Director Paul Andrew Williams’ script is awkwardly structured to deliver the weepy moments on cue, and the cognitive dissonance of seeing old people doing Cee-lo Green and Motorhead is purposely exaggerated by having them perform these songs in genre-appropriate drag. But the acting is honest enough to deliver those weepy moments without much resistance. (photo: Steel Mill [Marion Dist.] Ltd.)

Though a familiarity with movie lore and technique will certainly help the viewer better appreciate critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes’s third film, the slow pace and pokey plot are mitigated greatly by the filmmaker’s light touch. He’s a Latin Aki Kaurismaki, enamored of the deadpan school of dramatic exegesis but unable to suppress the passionate undercurrents that naturally occur to someone who grew up in a warm climate. Structured as two distinct halves with a sharply defined prologue and filmed in crisply lensed black-and-white, Tabu filters a classic tale of lost, bitter love through a modern movie fan sensibility. We get all the romantic melodrama we crave but with no condescension to crude taste. If anything, there’s a sly sophistication to Gomes’s use of wry humor. All the characters in the first half, titled “Paradise Lost,” are residents of present-day Lisbon, at least middle-aged, and living lives of lonely desperation. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) seems dragged down by the aloofness she wears to protect herself from disappointment, but her native kindness is evident in her solicitude toward young travelers (her sofa is open to backpackers) and her concern for her elderly neighbor, a frail, demented rich woman with a gambling addiction named Aurora (Laura Soveral), whose Cape Verdean maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), cares but can only respond by dint of habit. On her deathbed, Aurora reveals to Pilar the source of her melancholy, a love affair that ended badly in the 1960s, and she asks the younger woman to track down the lover, whom she hasn’t seen since they broke up. The second half of the film is the story of that affair, narrated by the rejected lover, Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), but imagined by Pilar as she listens to him over coffee. It’s a curious and tantalizing recreation. Gomes eschews dialogue, letting Ventura’s voiceover describe everything with some carefully placed sound effects thrown in and the occasional Phil Spector song for period color—though he uses different versions of familiar hits by the Ramones and a Portugese ensemble, thus fortifying the idea that this is Pilar’s reimagining. Aurora (Ana Moreira), an heiress living on a successful plantation in colonial Africa with her well-meaning but dull husband, falls in love with the wandering playboy-musician Ventura (Carloto Cotta). Their secret affair is impassioned and volatile in the usual movie way, but Gomes’s distancing devices make it more personally intense for the viewer. The effect is both whimsical and affecting, a love affair predestined to fail like the Portuguese colonial experience itself. This section is called “Paradise,” and it’s clear that the memories on display are polluted by nostalgia. Gomes doesn’t try to justify or even explain the colonial mindset. He simply shows it for the delusion it was. It’s that simple. In Portuguese. (photo: O Som E A Furia, Komplizen Film, Gullane, Shellac SUD)

21 and Over21 & Over
Two dudes walk across campus wearing nothing but socks on their penises. “None of that ever happened,” one says to the other. Directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who wrote The Hangover, 21 & Over is another disgusting journey to the end of the night, though less complicated than their more famous franchise. The naked dudes are high school buddies who meet up in the college town of a third on his 21st birthday to help him celebrate. After he passes out during a night of debauched bar-hopping they realize they don’t know where he lives. Since he has a big med school interview in the morning and his father is a holy terror, they spend the wee hours running down the address and in the process enrage a Latina sorority, mess up a pep rally, and steal more than a few vehicles. The banter is blue, the behavior reprehensible, and the lessons predictable; though the rote sexism gets turned on itself when they are forced by the Latinas to make out with each other. “With tongues!” the headmistress insists. Justice served. (photo: Relativity Media)

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