November 2013 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the November issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last Friday.

2guns-main2 Guns
The Lethal Weapon series has a lot to answer for. Or is it 48 Hours? Either way, the biracial crime buddy movie is a subgenre of questionable value, even as a means of satirizing America’s foibles regarding race relations. The basic idea is that, working together in order to accomplish a shared task, which is to solve a case or bring someone to justice, a white cop and a black cop transcend whatever cultural differences might arise if they were interacting socially. Along the way if they learn to get along, it’s just gravy, but everyone knows its a rigged game in the movies. In this post-Obama buddy comedy, racial differences are mostly beside the point. Bobby (Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) are undercover government agents who pretend to be partners in crime, which is funny because each one doesn’t know the other is a fed, probably because they work for different organizations (Bobby DEA, Stig NCIS). They also don’t know that the guy they’re after on their own, a Mexican drug lord (Edward James Olmos), is an informer for the CIA. There are other people involved who aren’t on the up-and-up either, but by the time our two heroes figure this all out they’re protecting $43 million in cash they stole from a New Mexico bank, mainly from their own superiors, who turn out to be just as corrupt as the nominal bad guys. The convolutions of the plot will only bother those who think that cop-buddy movies are adolescent hokum in the first place, but they’re not going to see this movie anyway, which means it’s better for your peace of mind if you don’t think too carefully about the story and just enjoy the action set pieces and the wise-guy banter, which isn’t stingy with the offhanded racial put-downs, all at Stig’s expense. “Are those your people?” Bobby says about some dangerous hombres, and you’re not sure if he means NCIS goons or white folk. There’s a certain subtextual satisfaction to the knowledge that it’s Wahlberg who is on the receiving end of these wisecracks because of his history of race-baiting when he was a white-boy rapper, but who among this movie’s target demographic remembers that? Thanks to his stature as a star, Washington gets away with a lot he shouldn’t, such as the poorly conceived romantic dalliance that Bobby carries out with a fellow DEA agent (Paula Patton). It’s not the age difference that grates but rather the need to have Washington do a sex scene he doesn’t seem to enjoy for no purpose other than boosting a betrayal subplot, which is already off the meter. It’s only fun to see so many people blown away when there are clear boundaries, and 2 Guns never bothers to erect any. (photo: Columbia Pictures)

CandelabraBehind the Candelabra
Announced as Steven Soderbergh’s last movie, this lushly meticulous biopic of Liberace was not picked up by any American theatrical distributor and ended up premiering on cable TV, which is appropriate given the subject matter. Liberace, the classical piano prodigy who made his reputation “playing saloons” as a youngster, benefited immeasurably from TV exposure in the late 50s and 60s, when rock’n roll was ascendant and his type of self-knowing showmanship appealed to middle class arrivistes who weren’t comfortable with cultural progress. That Liberace was a flaming queen who didn’t really hide his predilictions on stage made both his TV fame and his later incarnation as the king of Vegas glitz so ironic that his self-generated image as the defender of all-American values was just taken for granted, because who could possibly deny what was right there in front of their eyes? Soderbergh knows that anything he reveals is gold, so he reveals everything in plenitude. Matt Damon plays animal wrangler Scott Thorson, a young man comfortable in his casual homosexuality who falls into a relationship with the older Liberace after being invited backstage following one of his shows. This being the pre-AIDS-aware 80s, the sex is free and the extravagance mind-blowing. And if you feel uncomfortable watching Michael Douglas, who, playing Liberace, for once performs as something other than himself, and Damon make out in marble bathtubs or hump under the covers of a boat-sized bed, don’t buy a ticket. At this stage the depiction of gay love is no big deal, but the whole point of Behind the Candelabra, as indicated by the title, is that this is still considered naughty, not just by society but by the two men we’re watching. And give credit where it’s due: the chemistry between Douglas and Damon is infectious, which makes it all the more inevitable that their breakup will be messy and violent. There are more masks being worn than the one that Liberace dons for his adoring legions of housewives. He pops pills fearlessly, undergoes horrendous plastic surgery (forcing him to sleep with his eyes open), and cheats on Thorson with the abandon of a tom cat while insisting that the younger man remain faithful. When he demands that Thorson go under the knife to resemble him more, and thus pass as his “son,” the story moves into the realm of tragic farce. Thorson acquires all his mentor’s demerits without the trappings that make them survivable, namely talent and money. Though the story arc is predictable, Soderbergh and his able cast, which also includes Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s vile manager, Rob Lowe as the opportunistic plastic surgeon, and Debbie Reynolds (!) as Liberace’s Polish mother, have their mojo working full tilt throughout. It’s an entertainment as gaudy and effective as a Liberace show. (photo: Home Box Office Inc.)

Michael Winterbottom’s latest is more interesting in theory than in execution. Commissioned by Channel 4 to do something about the British prison system he fashions a movie with documentary trappings to heighten the realism of his narrative about the relationship between prisoner Ian (John Simm) and his wife Karen (Shirley Henderson), who has to work several jobs to raise their four children. The story revolves around Karen’s visits, sometimes made alone and sometimes with the kids, and in order to maintain the realism Winterbottom shot the film over a five-year period, so we see the children growing up on camera. The director can’t always maintain the emotional continuity necessary to properly dramatize the situation, though the scenes outside the prison documenting Karen’s affair with another man and the kids’ adjustment to life without a father figure gain a lot from the dedication to what’s real. Sometimes Karen stresses her self-sacrifice while at others she asserts her personal style as a means of showing she can be independent of Ian. If the viewer fixates on the gimmick rather than the theme it’s not because Winterbottom does. The young actors do well for amateurs but they aren’t sufficiently trained to remember where they left off in the script a year earler. (photo: 7 Days Film Ltd.)

hannahHannah Arendt
What a marvelous exercise in cinematic hubris to make a biopic of one of the most contentious philosophers of the 20th century as something that might actually appeal to the average multiplex habitue! Of course, Margarethe Von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt could never succeed in such a mission, but the fact that it was made at all and is as salty and rigorous as its titular heroine makes it a true event. For those who don’t know, Arendt, played by one of Rainer Fassbinder’s 70s muses, Barbara Sukowa, was the German-Jewish student who seduced future Nazi “philosopher king” Martin Heidegger while writing her dissertation on St. Augustine. Arrested for illegal Zionist activities by the SS, she managed to escape and smuggle herself out of Germany, slipping through Vichy France and finally arriving in New York, where she remained the rest of her life, actually making a living as a publishing philosopher, in both German and English, who formulated the most trenchant theories on the central political issue of the mid-20th century, totalitarianism. However, it was her report for the New Yorker on the 1961 trial in Israel of former Nazi “Administrator for Jewish Affairs” Adolph Eichmann that brought her to the attention of the general public and which forms the dramatic kernel of the film. When her coverage was published in 1963, nine months after Eichmann was executed, it caused a shit storm, and not just in intellectual circles. Arendt had the nerve to suggest that Eichmann was not Satan on earth but merely a “mediocre opportunist” and a bureaucrat. Moreover, she pointed out the role that the Jewish Councils of Germany and Austria played in the the Final Solution by supplying names to the Nazis, albeit to save their own lives. What the movie brings home with uncommon force was that, while Arendt did not necessarily expect such a backlash, she willingly provoked it and, in the end, welcomed it as well. The movie is filled with intellectual superstars of the day, including Lionel Abel and Norman Podhoretz, not to mention Arendt’s most ardent feminine foil, novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), and while some of the backbiting and intellectual gamesmanship doesn’t translate successfully to this sort of dramatic recreation, the movie has more spirit than anything in the last few Fast and Furious installments. The main drawback, as in most German productions, is the rendering of English dialogue, which often sounds stilted, especially when people are discussing the “contextualization of desire” and such, but Sukowa makes a brilliant case for Arendt’s legendary passion for all endeavors, whether mental, culinary, or sexual; and her interaction with the cream of New York intelligentsia, especially the prima donnas at the New Yorker, is pricelessly entitled. “Philosophers don’t make deadlines,” she growls at an assistant editor. That’s telling those philistines! In English and German. (photo: Heimatfilm GmbH+Co KG, Amour Fou Luxembourg sarl, MACT Prod., Metro Communications)

AMF_1304 (107 of 180).NEFThe Iceman
Though touted as a true story, Ariel Vromen’s biopic of contract killer Richard Kuklinski is based on a novelized treatment of his story. Kuklinski ended up dying in prison, and his biography is mostly unknowable since it is based on his own recollections, which aren’t reliable. Nevertheless, Vromen approaches the tale in almost-documentary terms. The look is that of old film which has been shot on the fly and under-processed. Some scenes are dark and muddy, and amidst this moody calculation is Michael Shannon as Kuklinski, a man who doesn’t necessarily know himself as well as Vromen does. The hook is that he led a life as a loving family man in the leafy suburbs of New Jersey while carrying out hundreds of murders over the course of three decades. The parallels to another mob-associated screen character, Tony Soprano, is irresistible, but Vromen doesn’t attempt to get into Kuklinski’s psyche. He allows Shannon to do with the character what he wants, and the portrayal is riveting in its contradictions. We first meet Kuklinski in the early 60s wooing his future wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), with awkward come-ons. In a truly shocking scene he kills a bar patron who casually insults Deborah, thus showing how little control Kuklinski has over his impulses. He distributes pornographic films, and when a shipment is late he’s visited and threatened by Roy (Ray Liotta), the crime boss who ordered the films. Kuklinski seems unimpressed, but Roy is, dubbing him the Iceman for his cool temperament and recruits him as a hit man, an occupation he takes to with skill and imagination. Deborah, to whom he’s now married, believes all this money is coming from a currency exchange job (when he was in porn she thought he was dubbing Disney films), and the subterfuge holds even after they buy a house and start raising two daughters. She refuses to see the reality for the sake of middle class security, but Kuklinski is nothing if not a careful cipher. When mob politics reduces his workload considerably he teams up with a freelance assassin (Chris Evans) who has hit on the idea of freezing corpses in order to make them more difficult to identify. The problem is, Kuklinski isn’t supposed to be working for anyone other than Roy. Though he’s good at what he does, Kuklinski isn’t bright and Vromen doesn’t try to make him out to be a victim of anything other than his own capacity for self-delusion, despite his loyalty to his family. When he tries to slip in something about being abused as a child, it feels superfluous. The panicked gaze embedded in the cold scowl are proof enough of a damaged personality. (photo: Killer Prod. Inc.)

If the m.o. of the Hollywood biopic is to show the hero warts and all, this ode to the co-founder of Apple inadvertently gets the warts right by showing how Steve Jobs succeeded by being not only a perfectionist asshole, but a precious, petulant jerk, too. Following Jobs only until he returned to Apple in the mid-90s—before all his most important innovations—the film showcases his inability to compromise, which is portrayed as the source of his creativity but comes across as general unpleasantness. In order to make this concept work director Joshua Michael Stern has to show how everyone around Jobs is either a bully, a sycophant, or a moron. The fact that Ashton Kutcher looks a lot like Jobs makes the film more unbearable because he’s so obviously trying to mimic the man’s vocal inflections and body language, and you half expect the Saturday Night Live crew to pop out into the frame. It’s as if Jobs himself engineered the movie so that no one would ever have any idea what kind of person he really was. (photo: The Jobs Film LLC)

Robert De Niro has made some dodgy movies, but at least he’s never sunk to working with Luc Besson…oops, spoke too soon. De Niro plays the patriarch of a mafia organization spirited out of New York in a witness protection program. When we meet up with the “Blake” family they’ve already blown one cover on the Riviera by killing off a nosy neighbor. Dad can’t help himself, and now they’re setting up a new home in a sleepy Normandy village, and before long mom (Michelle Pfeiffer) is blowing up the local supermarket and junior (John D’Leo) is networking at his high school to put the squeeze on the class bullies. Tommy Lee Jones provides a perfunctory cameo as the family’s fed handler, who has his hands full cleaning up the carnage. This is a comedy in the Besson style. The humorous situations go beyond tone-deaf to the utterly mind-numbing. In the final shootout, the family survives unscathed while a dozen innocent villagers die gratuitously in the crossfire. Doesn’t Besson have any sympathy for his fellow countrymen? (photo: Europacorp – TFI Films Prod. – Grive Prod.)

othersonThe Other Son
Conscientious to a fault, Lorraine Levy’s trite tale of two boys, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, switched at birth can’t quite make its insights more compelling than its plot conceits. Joseph (Jules Sitruk), a talented young musician about to turn 18, attempts to join the Israeli air force, presumably to please his army officer father, Alon (Pascal Elbe). The required blood test shows that he can’t be the son of Alon and his French mother (Emmanuelle Devos), who takes the initiative once the inevitable is revealed and seeks out Joseph’s real parents, Palestinians living in the West Bank. Their son, Yacine (Medhi Dehbi), has, conveniently for the movie’s over-burdened linquistic load, just completed a pre-med course in Paris. The initial shock, resentments, and self-recriminations provide lots of material for contemplating the cross-checkpoint standoff, especially with regard to Yacine’s radicalized brother, Bilal (Mahmood Shalabi), who can’t stand the idea that the brother he has loved so dearly is actually a Jew. But the resolutions are too expeditiously laid out, probably because there are so many characters to deal with. In French, English, Hebrew & Arabic (photo: Rapsodie Prod./Cite Films/France 3 Cinema/Madeleine Films/SoLo Films)

7psychopathsSeven Psychopaths
Colin Farrell gets to act an Irishman for once. In fact, he gets to act the part of Martin McDonagh, the screenwriter of this sick caper comedy, who also directed. Farrell’s Marty is adrift in Hollywood, blocked but expected to deliver a thriller that turns into the movie we’re seeing. After Marty is sucked into one of the dog-napping schemes his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) and slick criminal Hans (Christopher Walken) carry out to make a living, the plan goes awry and the trio heads out for the desert. Though convention dictates threats and torture and payback courtesy of the offended party (Woody Harrelson), the script shifts back-and-forth between the story Marty is writing in his head and the one actually taking place…or is it? Marty is torn between writing the kind of ultra-violent comment on America that Hollywood now thrives on and something more pointed (i.e., British). The conflicts and contrasts, ironically or not, get lost in the bloodbath, but the dialogue is occasionally brilliant. McDonagh is no Charlie Kaufman, but the cast obviously had a ball. (photo: Blueprint Pictures (Seven) Ltd., The British Film Institute, Film4)

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