October 2013 movies

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

brokencityBroken City
The kind of movie that Sidney Lumet turned into a cottage industry, this crime drama suffers a bit from New York’s emergence in recent headlines as one of the safest big cities on the planet. The “broken” in the title refers to New York’s politics, though director Allen Hughes and screenwriter Brian Tucker expect the audience to bring to the theater prejudices that are mostly outmoded and characteristic of an era when movies set in New York came with their own special baggage. Consequently, when police detective Billy Taggert (Mark Wahlberg) is laid off following his acquittal for the wrongful death of a man he was following, we’re supposed to think it has something to do with “corruption,” though on the surface it just looks like Taggert really is racist and trigger-happy. The mayor (Russell Crowe) personally congratulates Taggert because the man he killed was a known rapist-murderer who was on the streets due to a legal technicality, but the police chief (Jeffrey Wright) knows of evidence that was not introduced into Taggert’s court trial and talks the policeman into quitting before such evidence comes to light. Fade to seven years later, when Taggert is a private eye spending more time strong-arming clients to pay their bills than on actual cases. He is summoned by the mayor to tail his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who he believes is cheating on him. Since the mayor pays up front, Taggert takes the case more than willingly, and while it turns out to be a cinch to carry out, what he uncovers is problematic because it appears that the man the mayor’s wife is seeing is the campaign manager of his opponent (Barry Pepper) in the upcoming election. At first, the implied corruption is not what it seems, but actually it turns out be exactly what it seems, which makes most of the emotional motivation on display suspect, Taggert’s in particular. The ex-cop is a confounding amalgam of macho swagger and professional naivete. He’s down with gay folk but can’t countenance his actress girlfriend’s love scenes in the “indie movie” she appears in; and while he can’t trust the greasy mayor as far as he can throw him, he does exactly that for the longest time and pays the price in a way that makes you wonder how anyone would rely on him as an investigator. The mayor is such a straw man that Crowe abandons any attempt at subtlety early on and just draws him as a flaming asshole with the biggest ego this side of Newt Gingrich. In other words, it’s the kind of lazy thriller where plot twists are delivered not once, but twice by means of secretly recorded conversations. Is Lumet laughing or spinning? (photo: Georgia Film Fund Seven LLC and Monarch Enterprises)

The most resilient plot device for movies centered on teenagers is the unpopular or insecure boy who comes to realize his full potential as a person. These are stories born of a common adolescent fantasy of standing up to a bully or winning the pretty girl or impressing the student body with a hidden talent. Chronicle doesn’t do anything fresh with this idea, but because the talent involved is supernatural in nature, it’s kept hidden from the general public, which defeats its purpose in terms of self-actualization. But, then again, the filmmakers have something different in mind. So what really defeats the purpose is the framing device of presenting the film as something the protagonist, Andrew (Dane Deehan), is creating himself. Andrew buys a video camera to chronicle his life, every minute of it, and it’s never really clear why, though the implication is that he wants to put some distance between himself and his everyday existence, which includes a mother dying of cancer and an alcoholic father who beats him. But for the most part carrying around a camera attracts attention, which he desperately craves even if he would never admit it. So one night at a party, his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), and the local BMOC, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), recruit him to record a hole they find in the ground in a clearing. Drunk, they descend into the hole where they confront a giant, glowing crystal. The next day, all three discover that they have acquired telekinetic powers. “It’s like a muscle,” Andrew says. “The more you exercise it, the stronger you become.” At first, they use their secret powers for pranks and other childish stunts, but the desire to take it further is always there, and eventually all three learn how to fly, and because Andrew can control movement without his hands he can bring his camera along on every adventure. In the sparkling clear format of Beta video, the flying looks more realistic than it usually does in your normal superhero movie. Andrew demonstrates his powers during a school talent show, pretending it’s magic, and of course he’s instantly popular, a development so sudden he can’t process it properly and when he’s humiliated as a result the pain is sharper, pushing him past the point of “hubris,” as Matt, who loves to quote Schopenhauer and Plato, puts it, and into the black hole of resentment. Andrew is only a family crisis away from snapping and once he does there’s hell to pay. Though Chronicle has the appeal of a one-off gimmick, it leaves itself open to a sequel, which would probably be a mistake. In any case, they’d have to drop the whole self-documentary subterfuge, which you can only do once as Blair Witch Project 2 proved. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

despicable2Despicable Me 2
Most of the ironic subtext inherent in the Despicable Me premise was exhausted in the first movie, and now that Slavicly-accented, monochromatically-attired Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) has been domesticated by his three adopted daughters, there’s really nowhere to go with the concept of an old-fashioned baddy who lives to cause destruction but resides in a typical suburban subdivision. That may explain why the sequel spends so much time with Gru’s minions, those yellow capsule-shaped, overalls-wearing creatures who run his manufacturing operations, eventually turning them into monsters at the hands of a different super villain, but if you can remember any of their specific mischievous deeds after the movie is over you’re a better critic than me. In fact, it’s difficult to remember much about Despicable Me 2 since it doesn’t present much in the way of story or premise that makes an impression. “Family” is as close it gets to establishing a theme, what with Gru acting as both parents to his adorable trio of orphans, and so the writers give him a romantic interest in the way of lovably loony Lucy (Kristen Wiig), an agent of the Anti-Villain League, which has recruited Gru to help catch a real bad guy who uses a giant flying magnet to steal entire buildings. They think he is holed up at the local mall, but they’re not sure which store he works at. And while Gru’s youngest, Agnes (Elsie Fisher), expects Lucy to join their household as the maternal force in their lives, eldest Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) has developed a crush on Antonio (Moises Arias), who turns out to be the son of Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt), the Mexican restaurateur who Gru suspects of being the villain the AVL is after, though Gru once knew him as El Macho, a moniker that doesn’t do justice to Eduardo’s pneumatic muscle-bound physique. Nevertheless, the AVL eventually arrests another shop owner when they find a jar in his store that was taken from one of the stolen buildings. Unbeknownst to Gru, his former technician, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), who quit his employ because he “missed being evil,” is now working for the mysterious villain, and the movie could use more of Nefario, or, at least, his inventions, such as the fart gun, which is used here to subdue the villain in the final reel. Nefario is also responsible, prior to his resignation, for sinking Gru’s legitimate business, which is jams and jellies so sweet they make people sick. As with the first film, this one ends with a hugely complicated chase scene, but without the payoff of Gru becoming a better person it feels over-determined. The only thing to look forward to is Gru’s and Lucy’s eventual nuptials, but where will that leave Despicable Me 3? (photo: Universal Studios)

It’s not so much that Naomi Watts doesn’t resemble Princess Diana or fails to connect the viewer’s memory to the late royal’s distinctively quiet manner. The real problem is that this spineless biopic attempts a revisionist narrative without giving you any reason to doubt the accepted one. Focusing on the months between Diana’s controversial BBC interview and her hooking up with Dodi Alfayed, it makes the case that Diana’s secret love affair with a Pakistani heart surgeon was more than just a sexual fling; that, in fact, she pursued Alfayed in order to make Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) jealous. Khan disavowed the movie before it even began, and it’s difficult to accept his portrait here, which is built on easy assimilating items such as football, jazz, and the forbidden pleasures of tobacco. Diana’s storied spikiness comes across as petulance, and the presumption that she was “schooled” in the ways of the world by Khan is probably more insulting to her legacy than any suggestions of licentiousness. We don’t even get a Prince Charles to laugh at. (photo: Caught in Flight Films)

doesyoursoulDoes Your Soul Have a Cold?
The title of Mike Mills’ documentary is the catch copy of an ad campaign lauched by the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo in 2000 to promote anti-depressants in Japan, a country where depression was rarely discussed as an illness. The idea was to convince the Japanese that it was a treatable condition, and it worked in that many people with depression sought help and are now on medication. Mills interviews five such people, who clearly have emotional problems though Mills’ point seems to be that the rush to solve their issues with drugs has created its own set of issues. One young man obviously uses his depression as an excuse to not seek help, spending all his time in his cluttered room popping pills and drinking alcohol. As one woman puts it, “I don’t have to keep it together, I’m sick.” Mills is careful not to put too much emphasis on cultural distinctions, but in any case his five subjects are disarmingly articulate about their situations, especially one suicide survivor who describes her anxiety as being triggered by “people in power abusing their authority.” In Japanese & English with English subtitles.

dormantDormant Beauty
Marco Bellocchio is almost too even-handed in his approach to the controversy over Eluana Englaro, a young woman who quickly entered into a vegetative state in 1992 after an accident. Her family wanted to take her off life support but was unable due to religious and ethical objections that set off a nationwide argument in Italy until 2009, when her doctors permitted her respirator to be unplugged, sparking a Constitutional crisis as lawmakers tried to pass a law to keep her on life support and people took to the streets. Bellocchio’s movie takes in a two-day period with four tales that try to cover every angle: a politician who bucks his party line to vote for euthanasia; his devout daughter joining the anti-euthanasia demo, during which she falls in love with a young man from the opposite camp; a famous actress devoting all her time to her own coma-stricken daughter while ignoring her family, friends, and career; and a doctor who tries to prevent a young drug addict from ending her own life. The stories are moving when they aren’t straining credibility. In Italian. (photo: Cattleya Sri – Babe Films SAS)

IMG_3331.CR2The Frozen Ground
As serial killer movies go, The Frozen Ground has the advantage of being based on an actual case, so it feels less exploitive. In the late 70s a man in a suburb of Anchorage preyed on prostitutes, holding them in a cabin and then flying them to a remote area where he shot them and buried their bodies. Director Scott Walker tries to stick to the facts, the most relevant of which is that the suspect, Robert Hansen (John Cusack), had already spent time in jail for rape. But without something like a murder weapon the local district attorney won’t let the police detective, Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), make his move, until Halcombe hears of a stripper (Vanessa Hudgens) who managed to escape Hansen’s clutches. Walker falls into the trap of making suspense out of Halcombe’s and Hansen’s parallel search for the girl, and the game feels rigged, what with all the sentimental back story wedged into the script. Cusack and Cage are less interesting than they usually are, as if a “true story” merited as little “acting” as possible. (photo: Georgia Film Fund Five LLC)

heavensHeaven’s Gate
It’s a mistake to think that this restored “director’s cut” of the most infamous flop in Hollywood history, a work of excess that not only ruined the career of its director but destroyed a studio, is for film geeks. It’s equally wrong to expect it to be the lost masterpiece so many critics have since claimed. What it is is a very long movie that will not bore you; a sentimental, old-fashioned melodrama, the kind where the powers-that-be tread on the poor; and a historical reenactment liberally retooled to reflect the time in which it was made. On the down side it’s got a miscast lead actor, anachronistic dialogue, and cringe-worthy production choices (such as its use of animals). On the up side it’s got an amazing color scheme and the kind of mind-blowing art direction that became extinct with the advent of PCs. Cimino reimagines the Johnson County War of 1890 as a battle between European immigrants, who flocked to Wyoming to take advantage of the government’s land offer, and entrenched, wealthy cattle barons, when actually it was between big cattle barons and little ones. But the thematic mileage Cimino gets out of his fictional class struggle may be even more resonant in the Age of Occupy than it was in 1980, when much of the criticism was reactionary. In the opening scene, the dean of Harvard (Joseph Cotten) exhorts the class of 1870 to oversee “the education of a nation,” a noble but patronizing idea that is put to the test in the Western territories, where the law is whatever powerful men say it is. One graduate, the independently wealthy Averill (Kris Kristofferson), has parlayed his law degree into a gig as the federal marshall of Johnson County, which is filled with Polish and German immigrants. When the immigrants figure out this land is not amenable to agriculture they steal cattle to feed themselves and Averill has not meted out the proper punishment in the eyes of the Stock Growers Association, whose self-appointed leader, an East Coast brahman named Canton (Sam Waterston), draws up a list of names of rustlers and enablers for execution by a hand-picked posse of mercenaries. Though Averill knows there is no way he can stop the coming slaughter, he tries to save those closest to him, in particular the bordello madame Ella (Isabelle Huppert), who sometimes accepts steers in lieu of payment for services. Cimino takes his time establishing the relationships, especially the romantic triangle of Averill, Ella, and the association foreman, Champion (Christopher Walken), who as the film’s most morally problematic character is also its most compelling (those eyes will break your heart). What ensues is exhilirating and frustrating, a true emotional experience. (photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.)

tasteTaste the Waste
Food waste is a well-known problem in the developed world, but most people think of it in individual terms. This German documentary says that most food waste is food loss, meaning edibles thrown away even before they reach the cashier. In the EU, some 90 million tons of fresh produce, meat, and fish is discarded along the distribution line due to government rules and industry customs. Fruits and vegetables are considered flawed if they aren’t the right shape, size, or color. In the film’s most effective passage an African woman in France who works for a wholesaler takes discarded food home to feed her extended family and is eventually fired because of it. The film also covers Japan, mainly as a corrective; some large retailers have made efforts to recycle unsold food. (In the U.S., it seems the waste is more individual than commercial) It also takes in pollution (wasted food=methane), poverty (Europe’s annual waste could feed the world’s hungry two times over), and related cultural phenomena (dumpster diving). It’s a pretty complete survey. In German, French and English. (photo: Schnittstelle Film Koln, Thurn Film)

tangolibreTango Libre
Some will say director Frederic Fonteyne and screenwriter Anne Paulicevich’s movie about a Belgian prison whose charges go crazy for tango doesn’t showcase its oddball premise prominently enough. While the dance scenes are inventively shot and seamlessly incorporated into the story, that story steers into so many different directions that tango seems merely incidental. After J.C. (Francois Damiens), a shy prison guard, becomes enamored of Alice (Paulicevich) at a community tango class he learns she’s the wife of one of the inmates, Fernand (Sergi Lopez), where he works. His feelings become even more complicated when he realizes that not only does Alice still love her husband, but that she also has feelings for Dominic (Jan Hammenecker), Fernand’s partner-in-crime who is serving a 20-year stretch with him for armed robbery and manslaughter. When Fernand hears about Alice’s extra-curricular activities he convinces an Argentine convict to teach him the tango, too, and suddenly everybody wants to learn. Though Fonteyne avoids any Full Monty pitfalls, the domestic melodrama, which also involves Alice’s teenage son, gradually loses all credibility by the breathless climax. In French and Spanish. (photo: Artemis Prod. – Samsa Film – Liaison Cinematographie – Nord-Ouest Films – Minds Meet)

It’s a common and thus trite film-crit ploy to point out that a good director can mask the problems of a flawed script with a striking visual style, but as Christopher Nolan proved so conclusively with Inception, sometimes the striking visual style can accentuate the flaw, which in that movie’s case was general incoherence. Danny Boyle struggles with much the same dilemma in Trance, a film that bears his signature manic pretensions but feels like a puzzle he was paid to work out. And for at least half the movie you buy it because the premise is so brilliant, the setup so charming and sexy. As London auction house factotum Simon (James McAvoy) explains the intricacies of the fine art trade and how security has evolved to address ever cleverer thieves, Boyle provides a distracting montage of illustrations before dropping the viewer into an actual auction that tests both Simon’s tutelage and the audience’s ability to absorb and utilize the knowledge it has just gained. So when the auction is invaded by the same species of clever robbers that this sophisticated security apparatus is supposed to foil the action has a double purpose: to accelerate the excitement and make the viewer doubt Simon’s reliability. This mode of narrative trickery is maintained for the length of a very convoluted tale, and because Simon is at the center of it all cognitive burnout is inevitable, especially given Doyle’s hyperactive cutting and Rick Smith’s booming techno score. It’s not spoiling anything to say that Simon is in on the heist, and during the actual job he is hit on the head by crew boss Franck (Vincent Cassel) when Simon, perhaps as part of the “act,” refuses to give up the painting that’s being stolen (Goya’s “Witches in the Air,” in case you’re interested). Actually, he has already stashed it somewhere else, but the crack on the noggin messes with his brain and when he wakes up he can’t remember where the painting is. Franck and his goons think Simon is lying and promptly torture him to no avail. Finally accepting Simon’s claim of amnesia, they allow him to patronize a professional hypnotist (Rosario Dawson), who soon figures out why Simon needs his memory jogged and makes demands that Franck resents but has no choice but to accept. And then things just get weirder. Since Boyle has been a master of alternative mind-reality cinema since Trainspotting, the hypnosis scenes are particularly fun, but once the POV starts moving out of Simon’s purview the conundrums pile up like vodka bottles in an alcoholic’s trash bin, the result being that the climactic reveal, a compendium of every urban action cliche choreographed to the rhythms of MDMA, overwhelms the viewer without actually enlightening him. You literally won’t know what hit you. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

Thanks to host and co-producer Jeremy Irons’ entertainingly erudite style the sobering statistics go down relatively easy in this report on the worldwide garbage crisis. With his smart headgear and distinctive rumbling tone, Irons often upstages the material, which is still shocking even though the planet’s issues with refuse have been well documented for decades. Hopping from a horrific beachside landfill project in Lebanon to ugly refuse pits in central England and the tainted shores of the Pacific rim, Irons makes the inescapable point that there is no place left to put our trash. The main culprit is plastic, which can’t be buried or burned without causing harm and is quickly destroying the world’s oceans by suppressing plankton reproduction. Though the scare stories are redundant and slightly undermined by Iron’s self-effacing attempts at “journalism,” the movie does offer hope of a more practical kind. San Francisco is presented as a place that does recycling right within the accepted parameters of consumer capitalism, meaning collective action can be effective in the short run as well as the long. (photo: Blenheim Films)

warmbodiesWarm Bodies
LIke the undead themselves, zombie movies keep trudging on to screens with sickening regularity and no measure of “concept” seems too outlandish. The latest attempt at exploitation gives us a story from the point-of-view of a zombie, which has been done before. What hasn’t been done before is the kind of wry voiceover that writer-director Jonathan Levine (working from a novel by Isaac Marion) provides for his hero, called R (Nicholas Hoult) because he doesn’t remember anything of his past. However, he’s pretty intelligent and certainly more observant than your average teenager, and thus understands his situation very well. The upshot is that while he can’t express these thoughts verbally they do dictate behavior, at least up to a point. So when he and other corpses—which is what humans call them in order to distinguish their slouching numbers from “boneys,” zombies that look like skeletons and are quick-footed and vicious—corner a group of zombie hunters in a pharmaceuticals supply room, he kills one young man and while chomping on his brains falls instantly in love with the unfortunate guy’s girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer). Working quickly, he spirits her to his bachelor pad, which is in an abandoned airplane, in order to protect her from his shuffling compadres. Naturally, she doesn’t dig it and he has a tough time trying to convince her of his good intentions. It helps that he has a record player and lots of LPs. Why LPs? “They sound more alive,” he says to us, but since another character at one point rues the loss of the Internet in this post-apocalyptic world, we can assume MP3s aren’t readily available. In a way, it’s a nice stylistic touch, though considering Levine’s other choices it’s easier to believe the LP gambit was incorporated to justify the classic rock soundtrack. Over-30s certainly aren’t going to see another teen zombie movie just because John Malkovich is in it, playing—incongruously—Julie’s father, who also happens to be the leader of the human colony set up behind giant barriers in the middle of the city. As Julie gets to know R he starts to “warm,” so to speak, thus indicating that undeadness is curable by, of all things, sexual love, and when the other corpses realize this, they, too, feel their hearts trying to beat. As Romeo & Juliet stories go, Warm Bodies is rather tepid and could use more zombie humor. It’s most satisfying when it explores R’s thoughts, since there are things that need to be said about zombie movies and he covers quite a few of them. “Why do I have to be so weird,” he says at one point, a typical adolescent cri de coeur that takes on special significance when you can’t feel the bullets ripping through your flesh. (photo: Summit Entertainment)

appleYou Are the Apple of My Eye
This debut feature by Giddens Ko, based on his autobiographical novel, was the top box office hit of 2011 in Taiwan. Ko Ching-teng (Ko Chen-Tung) is a lazy adolescent whose parents send him to a private high school in 1994. He is the only member of his goofball clique who is not interested in the class brain, Shen Chia-ya (Michelle Chen), but has to acknowledge her when, as a form of punishment, he is forced to sit behind her in order to absorb a sense of discipline. In accordance with the narrative rule of “opposites attract” they grow closer, but not enough to spark a romance, which develops long-distance while both are attending different universities. Though Giddens has been praised for the “realness” of his love story, his frequent, crude attempts at humor—every other scene seems to contain a masturbation joke—make it difficult to take it seriously, and the secondary characters, whose presence is so central to the story’s theme of accepting maturity on one’s own terms, are imagined in one-dimensional terms only. In Mandarin and Taiwanese. (photo: Sony Music Entertainment Taiwan Ltd.)

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