August 2013 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on July 25.

Though most scholars think that Hirohito was more responsible for the Pacific War than is traditionally believed, his vague position as the ceremonial head of Imperial Japan, not to mention his status as a “living god,” has made such a historical position difficult for the average world citizen to understand. Whatever his weaknesses and prejudices, he was not a charismatic leader like Hitler. Consequently, the conventional idea that he was more a puppet than an instigator of the war has prevailed over time even as evidence comes to light that he had a central role in its prosecution. This expensive American-Japanese production attempts to reinforce convention by means of stale thriller devices. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones, looking and sounding too much like Tommy Lee Jones to be effective as one of the most important Americans of the 20th century) arrives in a devastated Tokyo to oversee the Occupation in 1945, one of his most pressing tasks is to determine the culpability of the emperor, and he assigns the foot work to Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), an expert on psychological warfare. Fellers’ work is complicated by his reunion with a Japanese woman, Maya (Eriko Hatsune), whom he knew in college when she was an exchange student. Their budding romance gives Fellers extra insight into the Japanese mindset, which is constantly described to him as being more nuanced than he could imagine. MacArthur holds the position that his job would be easier if Hirohito remained emperor since he believes that without a figure of permanence, the Japanese people will turn into zombies or lemmings or whatever. However, he’s under immense pressure from Washington to hang the emperor. So while the movie contrives to present Fellers with a seemingly impossible mission, it also sets up the obvious without actually interrogating the Japanese people’s true feelings about the emperor. (There is some research that shows many Japanese at the time would have gotten over the emperor’s removal without much trauma) Most of Fellers’ sentimental education is provided by Maya’s uncle (Toshiyuki Nishida), an officer and member of the nobility who regrets the war and explains Japanese behavior in bite-sized nuggets of received wisdom. The character, like Maya, is a fictional construct and thus functions as a convenient plot stabilizer. The parade of real Japanese figures, from a silent Tojo (Shohei Hino) to an awkwardly voluble Fumimaro Konoe (Masatoshi Nakamura), are just as convenient stick figures whose only purpose is to make Fellers’ job harder. And since true love is as difficult to obtain in this environment as the truth, the romance, which never took place, is seen as being just as compelling as the fate of the Japanese polity. That’s what makes the movie unreliable from the start. (photo: Fellers Film LLC)

Tommy Lee Jones;Meryl StreepHope Springs
Shot and paced like a conventional romantic comedy, this two-hander featuring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a middle class couple whose marriage spark went out long ago doesn’t offer much in the way of humor unless you consider Streep contemplating the vocational uses of a banana funny. Jones is almost too perfectly cast as a tax accountant whose idea of connubial bliss after 31 years is writing off a weekend away as an expense, but he’s totally against his wife’s appointment with a couples counselor (Steve Carrell) who endeavors to find out why they haven’t had sex in half a decade. It takes the counselor a full day to figure out that they actually sleep in separate rooms. Streep’s character is sympathetic by default and Jones’s despicable by design. When each tries to accommodate the other it feels preordained (Al Green as makeout music). Neither actor has much room to work with and while they end up with something moving, it’s always less than credible, which is strange since it’s such a common problem. (photo: GHS Prod. LLC)

MM-CB-01390rv2Bc2Magic Mike
As suggested by his place on the cover of this month’s issue, Channing Tatum is a Hollywood phenomenon of the old-fashioned kind: good-looking, ambitious, cognizant of his limitations but resourceful with them. This pseudo-indie is presented as his stab at cultural respectability, at least as a producer, though the subject matter and the way it’s treated is as Hollywood as Casablanca. Tatum was a stripper in his late teens, and director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin have taken his story and adapted it as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of ignoring one’s ideals to achieve something better in the long run. At first, Mike’s (Tatum) status as the star of the Tampa strip club Xquisite is presented as the result of talent and pluck, and while Mike doesn’t disparage or hide the fact that he makes good money at what he does, he is also quick to point out to whomever asks (usually women he sleeps with) that he’s just saving his money to open a furniture design business. During a roofing job he takes for extra cash he befriends a rudderless 19-year-old he dubs Kid (Alex Pettyfer), and inducts him into the brotherhood of the thong through trial by fire. When one of the strippers is unable to go out on stage, Mike pushes the Kid out and he takes to showing the bod like a fish to an aquarium tank. He digs it—the easy money, the easy sex, the plentiful drugs—but he doesn’t have the emotional maturity to understand that good-times-all-the-time isn’t a sustainable lifestyle, though his older sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), a registered nurse with her feet planted firmly on the ground, does, and repeatedly warns her little brother that he’s headed for a fall. The dynamic between mentor Mike and scold Brooke recalls the kind of contentious bantering that informed the great screwball comedies of Hollywood’s golden age, a device that indicates these two are somehow meant for each other, but only after the relationship peaks in crisis, which happens when the Kid stupidly and blithely gets involved in a drug deal. Soderbergh is too smart to let the cliches get the better of him, but the dramatic aspects of the movie are too familiar to make an impression. What does impress is the socioeconomic aspects, the idea that Mike thinks he can easily move from a cash-only underground system to normal middle class comfort without having to do anything more than put on a suit for a loan interview. In that regard, the movie’s true locus of interest is Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the owner and conceptual guru of Xquisite, whose every thought is channeled into generating lucre from sexual suggestion. He’s a real entrepreneur, and thus a cautionary model for us all. (photo: The Estate of Edmond Barry LLC)

IMG_6487.CR2The Moth Diaries
Vampirism is the hook and gothic atmosphere the cinch in this “young adult” treatment of grief compensation. Sixteen-year-old Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) has been recovering from her poet father’s suicide going on three years, and when she returns to her leafy boarding school she takes comfort in her friendship with Lucy (Sarah Gadon), which is tested by the arrival of spooky Ernessa (Lily Cole), under whose spell Lucy falls. Jealous and hurt, Rebecca starts believing that Ernessa is an otherwordly being, a ghost or undead presence who is taking over Lucy’s soul. Her desperation is shared with other friends who fall by the wayside in succession, leaving only this menage a trois. If the sexual analogy sounds forced (or hopeful), director Mary Harron makes the most of it without getting too explicit, and even when a handsome, ethically compromised male teacher (Scott Speedman) enters the picture, it’s as a contrasting element. There’s enough hot-blooded potential here for a good bodice-ripper but Harron doesn’t provide enough reason for us to doubt Rebecca’s mental facilities. The gothic thing is half-assed. (photo: MD (Quebec) Prod. Inc./Samson Films)

SSD_0609.DNGPacific Rim
Not much is left of Guillermo Del Toro’s ambitious film version of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which he worked on for years only to have the rug pulled out from under him by Hollywood. The ambitions were such that there was no way he could realize such a project without the help of a huge studio (or two), so he channeled what he had already done into a project that the studios would accept more readily: an old-fashioned Japanese monster movie, but one done to the kind of exacting standards Del Toro is famous for. The money just poured in, and while the result is everything you would hope for from such a premise, one still misses the Lovecraft. The part that seems to have been retained is the idea of skyscraper-sized creatures from another world called “kaiju” entering our world through an inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. These are real monsters: huge, ugly, destructive brutes that can pulverize a major city as easily as Godzilla destroyed Tokyo all those many times in the 50s and 60s. This being a summer blockbuster, humankind has not rolled over, of course, but defended itself through the invention of “jaegers,” equally humongous robots operated by teams of specially trained soldiers whose minds are melded by means of a process called “drifting,” which allows them to motivate the robot in perfect reflexive mode. Our hero is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) a jaeger hotshot who quit the game when his brother-partner was killed in battle. The trauma drives Charlie underground, into anonymous construction work, until a resurgence of kaiju activity prompts his former supervising officer, the formidable jaegermeister Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), to seek him out and re-recruit him for the final battle, as it were. Raleigh’s hesitation to reenter the fray is contrasted with the determination of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who was orphaned as a child by a kaiju attack on Tokyo, thus bringing the film’s pop culture themes full circle. These two team up in a rare bit of trans-Pacific solidarity, and if Del Toro’s movie is light on the emotional involvement it does have a certain PC rigor that shows up every other sci-fi blockbuster this summer. Though most of the characters scan as North American, the movie really does take in the Pacific Rim as a state of mind, and the story’s real heart is in Hong Kong, where kaiju parts are traded on the black market and the extra-territorial Pentecost bases his paramilitary operations. In fact, the jaegers that eventually fight in the climactic battle to the death are Japanese and Chinese. So there, America, sometimes the world just has to be saved by somebody else. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment & Legendary Pictures Funding LLC)

paperboyThe Paperboy
Director Lee Daniels gets material more appropriate for his gritty style than Precious with this Tobacco Road ripoff set in early 60s Florida. Zac Efron, channeling the spirit of Troy Donahue, plays the titular adolescent Jack, whose older brother, journalist Ward (Matthew McConnaughey), is pursuing a local potboiler about a man (John Cusack) who may be falsely imprisoned for killing a cop. Jack’s purpose isn’t expository—the tale is framed by the testimony of Jack’s newspaper-owning family’s salty maid, Anita (Macy Gray). Jack’s purpose is to give Charlotte (Nicole Kidman channeling the spirit of Ann-Margaret) a physical repository for her libidinous impulses. Charlotte craves attention and professes to be in love with the clearly psychotic inmate. Ward uses her to get what he wants—access—while Charlotte uses Jack to get what she wants—sex, if only deferred sex. The story is lively without being coherent, and the climax actually outdoes the rest of the movie in terms of sheer pulpy abandon. But just because everyone brings their A-game it doesn’t mean The Paperboy is an A-movie. (photo: Paperboy Prod. Inc.)

garbagePolluting Paradise
While filming his feature The Edge of Heaven, Turkish-German director Fatih Akin fell in love with his grandparents’ homeland of Cambrunu, near the Black Sea, and became aware of protests against a landfill project that threatened to turn the idyllic landscape into a garbage dump. He started filming with the intention of intimidating Turkish officials into cancelling the project, but bureaucracies are indefatigable, and once an endeavor this size gets going the momentum is unstoppable. Using footage shot by a local photographer whom Akin personally trained, the documentary chronicles the growth of the landfill project from a plastic lined cavity carved into a mountain to a seething lake of filth that overflows into tea groves that have been here for thousands of years. Even more depressing is the total lack of recognition of the protests, which though led by the mayor seem to be projected into a vacuum. The stench and the difficulty in containing the sewage is blamed on nature, but even these devout Muslims know that God isn’t responsible for everything. In Turkish.

This French take on frothy American sex comedies of the early 60s by the crew who did The Artist gets the froth perfect, and that’s the problem. Deborah Francois plays Rose, a small town girl who comes to Paris to make her way in the world and impresses Louis (Romain Duris), a one-man insurance firm, who needs a secretary. Though Rose has no experience, her two-finger typing method impresses the no-nonsense manager and he hires her. Playing Higgins to Rose’s Eliza, Louis endeavors to mold her into the perfect typing machine by breaking her into the touch method and then training her as if she were an Olympic sprinter so that she can enter a nationwide contest. In the process they fall in love and director Regis Roinsard has a hard time making the romance at all compelling. Maybe it’s the mood, enhanced by the bright Technicolor production design, which is so insufferably upbeat the viewer can’t get a bead on what’s at stake. For one thing, Rose wins every competition she enters. Where’s the dramatic conflict? In French. (photo: Les Productions du Tresor-France 3 Cinema-France 2 Cinema-Mars Films-Wild Bunch-Panache Prod.-La Cie Cinematographique-RTBF)

It matters little if this documentary about Snoop Dog’s embrace of reggae and Rastafarian culture is a promo for the album of the same name or vice versa. Though presented as a journey into a new spiritual realm, the game seems rigged from the start, despite Snoop’s claim that it was spurred by the death of Nate Dogg. Between uncomfortable closeups of the Long Beach rapper explaining his evolution as the “the lovable pimp,” he meets with Jamaican notables on their own turf, including Bunny Wailer whose florid patrician English makes him sound like a gatekeeper, and some ancient Rastafarians who dub their guest Snoop Lion. Snoop is in Kingston to make an album, so studio time is covered in boring detail, but music-making always takes a backseat to weed-smoking. Though he has never been coy about his pot consumption, the dispensation accorded by the Rastas makes it a natural religion for him to follow, certainly more than the Nation of Islam, which appears to be competing for his devotion. Farrakhan has his work cut out for him. (photo: Vice Films & Snoopadelic Pictures)

artofrapSomething From Nothing: The Art of Rap
Ice-T’s cultural impact has more to do with his forceful personality than with any rapping or acting skills he possesses. As the original gangsta he had a lot to deal with, and it was the masterful way he molded a career out of an attitude that marks him as a true original. His documentary about the art of rapping tries to pass itself off as a comprehensive survey, though the only post-millennial MC on hand is Kanye. Some of the interviews are golden (Q Tip, KRS One), some are incoherent (Immortal Technique, Melle Mel), and some too short to mean anything (Ice Cube, Nas). Most of the rapping is of the demonstrative rather than the performative kind, though Kanye gets so worked up he comes close to hysteria. The themes aren’t very original—why doesn’t hip-hop get respect, how the idea of “battling” makes one a better MC—and T is too chummy and nostalgic to make an effective interlocutor, but that’s understandable since it’s more about individual egos than it is about rapping. (photo: The Art of Rap Films Ltd.)

tothewonderTo the Wonder
Given its temporal proximity to Terrence Malick’s last film, Tree of Life, the director’s new movie may strike fans as an indication of increased productivity in the face of old age; and while the themes and production values line up with Malick’s past work, there’s something even more tenuous about To the Wonder, whose improvisational character makes it look almost like a parody of a Malick film. Our two lovers, American Neil (Ben Affleck) and European Marina (Olga Kurylenko), are given names but little in the way of identities. We have no idea how they met or what draws them to each other. Much of what passes for expository dialogue is presented as fleeting thoughts in voiceover. The accompanying visuals show the couple traveling through Paris and the rest of France, deep in the throes of new love, and then making their way across the very flat plains of the American Midwest, where Neil lives in a typical two-by-four suburban house in a nondescript subdivision. Marina has brought her daughter by another man, a girl who knows only French and slowly learns to resent her step-father, some kind of geological engineer who drills holes that produce ugly effluvia. Though the lack of a linear narrative is not a problem—Malick’s narratives have never been conventional but nevertheless always tell a story—the mounting domestic drama in Neil’s home has no context in which to gain emotional traction. When Rachel McAdams appears and starts nuzzling Neil, it takes more than a few beats to realize that Marina has gone back to France, following her daughter, who has already left America to be with her father. McAdams is playing Neil’s former girlfriend, a character with even less purchase on our imaginations than Neil or Marina. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem plays a priest who comforts the poor and desperate in this lonely stretch of America, which, in typical fashion, Malick shoots in fussy wide angle to emphasize its emptiness. The priest has no purpose in the film except to literalize the spiritual component of Malick’s exercise, but Marina did that better when she walked down the aisle of an American supermarket stunned by the idiotic wealth of choice. Who needs God when you have fifty different kinds of cat food? Unlike Tree of Life, where Malick’s religious conundrums were successfully illustrated by two parents who had completely different ideas of how the universe worked, To the Wonder assumes the viewer will get Malick’s amorphous points through the contact high of his amazing compositions. The fact that they are more amazing than ever means nothing, though. He still needs human beings to get his philosophical point across, and the ones here aren’t interesting enough to care about. (photo: Redbud Pictures LLC)

2daysnewyork2 Days in New York
To put things in a perspective that will make sense to most moviegoers, Julie Delpy’s new comedy is funnier than anything Woody Allen has made in the last 20 years but not as good as its predecessor, 2 Days in Paris. By replacing one contentious BF (Adam Goldberg) with another who is more conciliatory (Chris Rock), Delpy loses the bite that made Paris so stimulating. Again, the French are the cultural targets, as Marion’s (Delpy) father (Albert Delpy) and sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau), come to NYC to visit her and Mingus (Rock) in their funky apartment. Since Marion is now a mother (the father is not Mingus) the sex talk is playful except where it involves the European would-be in-laws, especially Rose’s tagalong boyfriend (Alex Nahon, co-scriptwriter), who shamelessly scores drugs and propositions Mingus’s sister (“You are better looking than Beyonce”). Delpy knows exactly how to play this sort of modern farce and her flustered, deluded hipster is a genuinely intriguing invention, but Rock, seemingly out of his element, can’t do anything with the jokes he’s given. (photo: Polaris Film Prod. & Finance, Senator Film, Saga Film, Tempete sous un Craine Prod., Alvy Prod., In Prod., TDY Filmproduktion)

?????????????White House Down
The very nature of mass popular culture has rendered the summer blockbuster redundant in the most literal way. This year we had two, White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen, that involve the takeover of the US presidential mansion by terrorists. The inevitability of such a development trumps any feeling of, “Wow, what a coincidence!” The larger reaction is, “Strange, it took them this long.” Having not seen OHF I have nothing snarky to say about it, but by rights Roland Emmerich should own this concept anyway, and thus WHD comes out the more deserving of ridicule. In fact, Emmerich makes this point clear in an early scene involving a White House tour in which the guide (Nicolas Wright) mentions Independence Day, the first Emmerich movie where the structure was destroyed. Some will assume it’s a joke at the movie’s expense, but I received it as proof of life: Emmerich doesn’t want you to forget that he practically invented this shit. But, actually, no. John McTiernan invented this shit with the first Die Hard in 1988, and Emmerich means to appropriate it for his own uses. The McClane cognate is John Cale (Channing Tatum), an ex-war hero whose lack of a college degree has relegated him to bodyguard duty for the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) when what he really wants is a Secret Service gig. Actual SS honcho Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) disabuses him of this ambition rather succinctly during an interview in the actual White House, where Cale has brought his mildly estranged daughter (Joey King) as a means of currying favor, since she’s a WH otaku. While this is happening, a team of domestic terrorists are sneaking into both the White House and the Capitol in a bid to commandeer the whole government apparatus and kidnap the president (Jamie Foxx), who has just brokered a deal with the new leader of Iran to remove all American military forces from the Middle East. You don’t have to be George Will to understand whose “side” the terrorists are on, but the fact that bona fide conservative pundits have protested White House Down for its supposed left wing bent is even more laughable than the howlingly ludicrous plot. Cale, with his no-nonsense attitude, is above politics and gets the job done by not only protecting the president but making him his sidekick. In the movie’s most telling scene, these two race around the White House lawn in an armored limo being pursued by another armored limo of terrorist thugs, with the president firing RPGs at snipers on the roof. Thus in one fell swoop, Emmerich gets his car chase, his heavy-duty fire fight, and his injection of a nominally non-combative figure into a combat situation. That’s what summer blockbusters are all about: getting all the elements in there, preferably in new, exciting configurations. Nobody does it better than Roland. (photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment)

worldwarZWorld War Z
Though there is obviously a demand for an intelligent zombie movie, the genre has always been rife with the kind of subtext that makes even the most gratuitous gore-fests pregnant with dialectical potential. Marc Foster’s and Brad Pitt’s adaptation of Max Brooks’ bestseller avoids the gore at its own peril, since there isn’t much visually on display to make us forget 28 Weeks Later, which covered pretty much the same thematic ground but was much more powerful in the immediate experience and, especially, the memory. As it stands, I have trouble recalling the story interstices connecting various set pieces in World War Z. Pitt is pretty much the whole show, a retired U.N. operative who is called back to duty when a zombie plague overruns the world. Gerry Lane’s specific area of expertise is never described sufficiently, so he comes across as a sort of superhero without portfolio, a guy who gets things done not because of a distinctive skills set but because he’s got a hero’s temperament. We know that because of the way he acts around his family. When Gerry first encounters zombies he’s stuck in a traffic jam in Philadephia with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters. In the distance cars are flipping and crowds of panicked people come running past. Gerry’s first, natural impulse is to save his brood, but Foster doesn’t use this rote action-movie setup for its full suspense potential. Though these zombies are the sprinting, attack dog type, we never see them in action—only a blur of frantic movement and the bodies left behind. After a while the viewer settles into his chair safe in the knowledge that he isn’t going to be confronted with anything truly disturbing. And because Lane’s family is eventually ensconced on a naval ship far from harm’s way, there is little at stake personally in his desperate mission to locate “patient zero,” though his superiors do hang the threat of kicking the family off the boat if he doesn’t produce results. In his quest, Gerry does get into some tough spots that Foster makes tense for as long as it takes to resolve the situation, but none of these scenes build to anything, and the climactic scene at the WHO laboratory in Wales, where Gerry has to figure out a way of getting past a zombie hoard to the experimental section, is actually anticlimactic because its intellectualized resolution doesn’t feel earned. Much is made of the CG-assisted seige of Jerusalem, with churning masses of zombies climbing the walls. It’s only effective in that it stands out amidst the pokey exposition as something startlingly visceral. It makes you miss the excitement of a real zombie movie. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

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