December 2013 movies

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

aiweiweiAi Weiwei: Never Sorry
The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is the perfect public figure for the social media era, not so much because he interacts through his Twitter feed, but because he makes of his life a social situation that begs to be recorded. Alison Klayman started hanging around Ai in 2008, but her documentary almost seems redundant since it seems everything Ai does is already being recorded by himself or an acquaintance. It’s this aspect of his celebrity that bugs the authorities the most, that and his rare ability to speak truth to arrogance. After he’s beaten up by cops who object to his memorial project for victims of the Sichuan earthquake, he makes a point of filing as many lawsuits as possible, because, as he says, you can’t rightly protest without at least trying to work through the system. Klayman’s film does a good job of explaining Ai’s conceptual art, but it does a better job of conveying his singular outlook about social justice, which may have been formulated during his decade in New York but is nonetheless born of a sense of patriotism. In Mandarin and English. (photo: Never Sorry LLC )

bigweddingThe Big Wedding
Writer-director Justin Zackham based this family comedy on a French movie and you wonder why he bothered. The big, expensive cast is even more puzzling. Did all these stars sign up because all the other stars did? At the top of the heap are Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton as a long-divorced couple who pretend to still be together for the sake of their adopted son (Ben Barnes), whose biological mother (Patricia Rae) is Brazilian and so Catholic she’ll die of mortification if she learns the people who raised her son aren’t married any more. This causes consternation for De Niro’s current squeeze (Susan Sarandon), who’s actually throwing the wedding, not to mention the siblings and progeny, all of whom have their own hackneyed personal problems. Making matters worse is Robin Williams as a wisecracking priest who doesn’t seem particularly bothered by the fact that he has to sanction this subterfuge. What few laughs the movie evinces are either inadvertent (artist De Niro’s “work”) or adolescent (anything having to do with sex), and even the predictable pre-wedding meltdown feels forced. (Photo: Wedding Prod. Inc.)

Bling_mainThe Bling Ring
Many people who have already seen it think Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring intensifies some of the less salutary themes that often show up in the director’s ouevre, and while it’s impossible to deny that Coppola’s fancy for privileged youth is more than just passing, she has found a story that’s perfectly tailored to her whims. The fact that it’s also true naturally renders it irresistible, but the director’s normally detached style makes it look as if she’s bored with what she’s presenting. How exactly does one approach the tale of a group of rich teens who break into the homes of even richer celebrities and steal their junk? Certainly not seriously, and once the premise is established the movie has nowhere to go until the inevitable reckoning, which means it’s basically a series of burglaries and inventories of expensive loot. This skeletal structure allows room for character development, which is always a risk with people this young and foolish, but Coppola does a good job of outlining the dynamic among the different members of the team. At the center is Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Mark (Israel Broussard), best friends who share an inability to take school seriously. It isn’t that each has a guaranteed lock on the future in the form of, say, a trust fund. Their concept of cool is to be so in the moment that anything which reminds them of the future is immediately banished from their ken. They ride around Beverly Hills in Katie’s car talking about stuff and once while trolling celebrity news sites they realize Paris Hilton is on the east coast promoting something, so Katie decides to break into her house, which turns out to be surprisingly easy. These trespasses become addictive for the two, who filch what they want from closets so stuffed with crap it’s easy to understand why they got away with it for so long—the owners didn’t realize anything was missing. Being teens, their small circle of friends hear of their escapades and want in. The most enthusiastic of this group is Nicki (Emma Watson), a valley girl whose intense snarkiness is an obvious reaction to her mother’s (Leslie Mann) New Age religiosity. Coppola doesn’t so much lampoon these attitudes as allow her actors to play them up as histrionically as they like, and the contrasts prove to be instructional. The British-born Watson has such a grand time creating a hideously self-regarding automaton she commandeers the movie even though her screen time is spare. And if Mark, whose latent homosexuality is never remarked upon out loud, is the character with the most dramatic potential, it’s Rebecca that carries the bulk of the film’s thematic weight as someone who seems to have nothing to live for once the jig is up. (photo: Somewhere Else LLC)

??????????????Captain Phillips
The one undeniably positive thing you can say about Paul Greengrass’s films is that though they tend to be long and dense, they seem to fly by in no time, a function of the director’s uncommon ability to present chaotic action as a coherent visual whole. But that’s not the only positive thing about Captain Phillips, a true story that would never resonate as well as it does had it been helmed by a more conventional action director. As Greengrass has said in interviews, the difficulty in presenting a story about poor Somali fishermen terrorizing an American cargo ship is how to maintain tension without choosing sides. His solution is to tell it as straight as he could, a mission that necessarily hits bumps in the beginning as we’re introduced to both principals, the titular captain of the cargo ship (Tom Hanks), and the Somalian, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who is charged by a monomaniacal warlord with hijacking the ship for ransom. Though the material differences between these two men are practically astronomical—Phillips lives in a fine New England clapboard house, while Muse wears rags and looks as if he partook of his last full meal in 2011—the behavioral indicators are Manichean. Phillips’ first rule of business is to protect his men and cargo, and because he knows the waters off the coast of East Africa are dangerous he immediately calls a drill. In the meantime, Muse is arguing with a rival skiff commander over who will get the lion’s share of the loot. This distinction between scared prey and determined hunter requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief: How on earth is a puny skiff with four people, albeit armed with automatic weapons, going to take over a massive vessel with dozens of well-fed Americans? Because Greengrass has the facts on his side he doesn’t sweat the details and can make the boarding as tense and perilous as he wants. From that point, the movie never really lets up, and while the progress of events isn’t always clear they’re always comprehensible on a gut level: What they present is two forces who understand each other more than they know. The conflict is less about Phillips versus Muse than about the pirates as a group versus the even more enormous power of the U.S. Navy. Now is when you have to start worrying about who is going to survive the ordeal, and thanks to Hanks and Abdi (and to a lesser extent the actors playing the other pirates) it’s never certain who will, even if the outcome is plainer than the sweat on Phillips’ brow. “We all got bosses,” someone says, and it speaks to the power of this movie’s implications of what the term “world order” means that you can’t remember if it’s Muse or Phillips.

cutieCutie and the Boxer
Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary about New York artist Ushio Shinohara tries to be many things, but it’s mainly a study of a marriage. Shinohara was already a cause celebre by the early 70s with his boxing-glove-aided abstract expressionist paintings and clever cardboard statuary when he met art student Noriko, fresh from Japan and 21 years his junior. They fell in love the way fellow art-expats do and Noriko sublimated her own creative ambitions to “assist” her husband in maintaining a reputation he never built on thanks to drinking and a stubborn refusal to consider the financial ramifications of his unsustainable lifestyle in a place like New York. Though we get a clear idea of Shinohara’s imaginative stagnation Heinzerling seems uninterested in it as a theme. He’s more interested in the conjugal dynamic, which is alternatingly comical and frustrating, especially since Noriko has recently come into her own as an artist, albeit one who is fixated on a limited style—a manga-like revelation of her own victimhood at the hands of her demanding husband. In English and Japanese. (photo: Ex Lion Tamer Inc.)

47RONIN47 Ronin
Even with the juicy behind-the-scenes news stories about budget overruns and a first-time director in over his head, it’s difficult to see the appeal of this English-language, Hollywood-approved version of Chushingura. Keanu Reeves’ participation in an otherwise Japanese cast doesn’t justify its existence as a prank, and the plot device of making him a mystical half-breed only draws attention to the production’s gimmicky aspects. The producers wisely veered away from the original story, padding it with CGI monsters and a witch who provides the screenwriters with a means to escape all the narrative dead ends that accumulate when you reduce a tale that, on stage, lasts 12 hours to a mere two. Reportedly, the studio commandeered the editing room to make sure the movie that ended up in theaters was not only commercially viable but coherent, and the result is an acceptable distillation with lots of romantic filigree tacked on. Kai (Reeves) is found as a child in the woods and raised by Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) as a servant, but one who picks up the art of the samurai by osmosis. Though favored by the lord and pined after by his daughter, Mika (Ko Shibasaki), Kai is looked down upon by Asano’s samurai, especially their captain, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada). A neighboring Lord, Kira (Tadanobu Asano), is dispatched by the shogun to visit Asano, probably to spy on him, and during the night Kira’s concubine (Rinko Kikuchi) puts a spell on Lord Asano, who hallucinates that Kira is ravishing his daughter. He attacks Kira and as punishment is forced to perform ritual suicide. His men are now masterless, with no purpose in life, and they plot their revenge against Kira. Kai, the ringer, comes into his own during the year that passes as the samurai assemble their plan, and he eventually wins the respect of his fellow warriors even if he can never technically be one of them. Though the production design is impressive enough and Rinsch’s direction is not as bad as the blogosphere would have you believe, the script is howlingly hokey, since it approaches bushido as a sacred code that is meant to have some relevance to the way we live. It’s comic book nonsense minus the kind of mindless pleasure that comic books are supposed to deliver. And since Kai is not expected to follow the code to the letter, he can be impulsive (i.e., American), which just mucks up the spiritual side of the tale. Japanese people will be too polite to call bullshit on the enterprise but for the record the cast’s English is serviceable, especially Shibasaki and Jin Akanishi as Asano’s heir. Akanishi, you’ll recall, was a Johnny’s idol banished to America for the sin of insubordination. Nice to see he got something out of it. (photo: Universal Pictures)

Already hailed as the first art movie in decades to top the box office list for more than a week, Alfonso Cuaron’s not-quite-sci-fi tour de force is an illusory entertainment in multiple ways. Experimental by definition, it plays fast and loose with science fact to deliver the goods in terms of thrills, both visceral and existential. It’s one of the simplest movies ever conceived, while being one of the hardest to pull off, and at least half the enjoyment is derived from watching Cuaron do the latter. There’s the veteran space cowboy with the blue collar name and sense of impermanence to match, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), pitted against the insecure rookie with the amorphous name, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), both floating in space as the latter repairs the Hubble telescope and the former zips around cracking wise and generally creating atmosphere (“Can’t beat this view”), so to speak. It’s an amazing tableau that justifies the 3D component, but helplessness is built into one’s awe of the spectacle, and when the debris of an exploded Russian satellite comes zooming through, preceded by a panicked alert from mission control, your blood freezes. It’s enough to witness what this cloud of shrapnel does to the space shuttle, but Cuaron makes sure we see what it does to the rest of the crew, and you’re thankful he didn’t introduce them. Kowalski and Stone are left adrift, with the latter dependent on the former, who soon becomes the soothing voice from the abyss, as they struggle to find a way to reach the international space station. That’s all you need to know about the story, though it doesn’t prepare you for the games that zero gravity, lack of air pressure, endless nothingness, and the occasional reappearance of that satellite debris play on your nerves. Even while you gape in wonder at the way Bullock’s body spins and pivots, whether in her bulky spacesuit or out of it, terror lurks at the edge of your consciousness. Space is not indifferent, as we are meant to believe. It’s a threat, a challenge to biology, something Cuaron never ignores even if he decides that some of the logistical and physical aspects can be stretched. And casting is paramount when your blockbuster only has two characters. Bullock’s normal-person vulnerability has never been exploited to such excellent effect, and we hardly need the tedious backstory of the dead daughter (i.e., she has nothing to live for) to make us feel for her. Nature, as they say, hates a vacuum, but since vacuums don’t respond in kind human behavior under such circumstances is presented in its rawest manifestation, and Stone behaves with grace and dignity. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

liarA Liar’s Autobiography
However sophisticated one thinks Monty Python’s humor was, their approach was anything but complex. In indie terms it might even be called lo-fi, so this genuinely complex fake documentary about late Pythonite Graham Chapman, cobbled together from adapted passages of an audio memoir carried out by 14 different animation studios and overseen by three directors, none of whom have any direct link to the beloved British comedy troupe, confounds one’s expectations. And then it’s in 3D. What we get is the portrait of a desperate homosexual alcoholic that not only fails to reveal the source of his comedic genius but actually tries to derive laughs from his genuinely tragic circumstances. Which isn’t to say we don’t learn things—Chapman’s wasting away among the equally decadent celebs of LA in the 1980s is shockingly graphic and might have made an interesting experimental film on its own. Needless to say it’s a must-see for Python fans though the digressions are so thick and frequent that even they will be pulling up Chapman’s Wikipedia page for clarification. (photo: Liar’s Films Ltd.)

Behind the Scenes PersonaLiv and Ingmar
Like the Shinoharas, the couple identified in the title of this doc were separated in age by two decades, but their time together was much briefer. Ingmar Bergman was already a world class filmmaker when he hired Liv Ullman for Persona, and though they would go on to make eleven more films together, their intense love affair (both were married to other people at the time) lasted less than five years. Since Ullman narrates the story, in English, from the comfy couch of hindsight, the story is necessarily one-sided, and if Bergman comes off as an old-world white male—he virtually kept Ullman prisoner on their idyllic but remote island—she gives him the benefit of the doubt because of his genius, and the movie’s poignancy is diminished as a result. There are no other voices to offset the self-dramatizing tone of the narrative, which is taken from Ullman’s writings when it isn’t coming directly from her mouth. Still, she’s wonderfully articulate about her own career. It’s easy to forget the enormous impact she had on film acting in the early 70s. In English and Swedish. (photo: Nordic Stories)

love&bruisesLove and Bruises
Given his five-year ban on filmmaking by the Chinese government, it was inevitable that Lou Ye would make a movie in France. This Paris-set love story is adapted from another banned work—Jie Liu-falin’s novel Bitch—and pits a 28-year-old student named Hua (Corinne Yam) against a working class brute named Mathieu (Tahar Rahim) in a series of energetic but not necessarily explicit sex tableaux. The dynamic is clear as soon as Mathieu basically rapes Hua after their first date, and though Lou gets more than enough mileage from the West’s fascination with the mysterious East, what gives the film its discomfiting charge is the class dichotomy, or, more precisely, the split between Hua’s cautious, university-tempered outlook and Mathieu’s more instinctive and often reactionary behavior. Both have vaguely disturbing back stories, but Hua remains the real mystery as she subjects herself to male dominance in both France and China, seemingly against her better judgment. Though the film is convincingly acted and bracingly shot, it has nothing to draw you in except Hua’s beautiful, empty gaze. In French and Mandarin.

"only lovers left alive"Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch can still produce movies that are about more than the uneventful matters they portray. Though for much of this vampire drama the viewer longs for conventional vampiric behavior, Jarmusch’s theme of a race whose aesthetic tastes are no match for the “zombiefication” of modern life holds up. Tom Hilldleston is Adam, holed up in post-recession Detroit where he dabbles as a musician with no real audience, meeting with his human factotum to score supplies while occasionally sojourning out to secure sustenance from a medical laboratory. Tilda Swinton plays Eve, who resides in the more louche environment of Tangier, where she can be close to mentor Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), but she travels west to be with Adam, if only for the succor of a like-minded dilettante. Though the dialogue is too clever by half, the idea that the world has to end even for the undead is intriguing, and reaches a conclusion that would make for a dandy sequel. I wouldn’t mind if Jarmusch abandoned his fine principles and directed one. (photo: Wrongway Inc., Recorded Picture Co. Ltd., Pandora Films, Le Pacte & Faliro House Prod. Ltd.)

Less a send-up of tired spy flick cliches than an assertment of boomer entitlement, this totally unnecessary sequel centers its dynamic on the romantic relationship already established between civilian dork Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) and retired super spook Frank (Bruce Willis). The latter is happy to be through with the cloak-and-dagger while the former misses the excitement, so when LSD-rattled Marvin (John Malkovich) pulls them back into the game the guns-and-bombs hijinks are tempered by fits of domestic bickering, and Parker comes off the worse since these scenes require her to be bubbly and homicidal at the same time. She’s also supposed to be jealous of Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Frank’s old Russian nemesis and lover. When Anthony Hopkins shows up late as a nuclear scientist with designs on destroying the world (just because he can), you wonder which ridiculous subplot you’re supposed to pay attention to. The clutter of cross purposes is itself purposeful, and if it isn’t as funny as the first movie, recall that the first movie wasn’t funny to begin with. Boomer entitlement comes with diminishing returns. (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)

052011_SurrogateJ_06.dngThe Sessions
It’s a sad commentary on our physical awareness of the world that the physically handicapped often have a better grasp of their environment despite their more limited access to it. In this careful recreation of one man’s sexual awakening, romance is stressed at the expense of sensual pleasure, even though sensual pleasure is the desired thing. Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a polio victim, has been prone and reliant on an iron lung since he was an adolescent. It’s not enough to say he’s a virgin, because as we learn early in this true life tale, based on an article that O’Brien wrote in the mid-90s, people in Mark’s condition still have desires that can be satisfied. Mark comes to this realization in a roundabout way. Having become a minor celebrity by achieving a degree from UC Berkeley while hooked up to ventilator, he’s managed to make a life for himself, and resides in a snug California bungalow, assisted by caretakers. After firing one of these because of her grumpy demeanor, he falls in love with her successor, a pretty young woman named Amanda (Annika Marks), who seems to reciprocate his feelings but when he asks her to marry him she panics and flees. Being a strict Catholic, Mark consults his priest (William H. Macy) and tells him of his sexual needs, but in order for the good father to have any integrity in this story he has to take on the role of a drinking buddy who can only give advice in a secondhand way. Mark studies the literature and learns about sexual surrogacy for the handicapped. He signs up and is assigned a professional named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who meets with him alone in the bedroom of a friend or in motel rooms to instruct him in the ways of sexual pleasure. It helps that while polio has rendered Mark’s muscles useless, he still has sensation. Though Cheryl insists she is not a prostitute, viewers will draw their own distinctions, since she is nude for most of their sessions and in the end the goal is to achieve penetration, even climax. Lewin, who himself is handicapped, presents it all in such a tasteful manner that the intimacy almost becomes unbearable, which may be the point. Most people prefer not to separate sex from love, which puts Cheryl, who is married, in an awkward position, and it’s difficult to believe she hasn’t had this same problem with “clients” in the past. (She is strict about limits, though tender with her ministrations) If the moral of the story is that it’s perfectly normal to have sexual urges and act on them, the particular difficulty of this movie is that Mark is even more special than his infirmity. He’s a cosmic soul whose poetry is so effective, it almost destroys Cheryl’s marriage. In life, orgasm is only a short-term goal. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

tamakoTamako in Moratorium
Thanks to a surprisingly nuanced performance by former AKB idol Atsuko Maeda, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s bittersweet comedy isn’t as slight as it could have been. Maeda plays the titular college grad, who returns to her father’s sporting goods store in Kofu without job prospects or any drive to go out and drum them up. She lazes around the house watching TV and reading comics, and becomes more stubborn when dad (Suon Kan) tries to light a fire under her. He gives up, which just makes Tamako perverse. Yamashita has some fun with Maeda’s subtext by having Tamako endeavor to audition for a talent agency before deciding it’s a ridiculous thing to do. “I’m tired of being told I’m cute,” she yells in disgust. But grumpiness can be cute, too, and the movie runs the risk of trite melodrama when Tamako tries to discourage her father from dating a local woman. At least she doesn’t try to engineer a reconciliation between her divorced parents (mom lives in Tokyo). It’s not much, but Tamako in Moratorium does somewhat resemble real life. In Japanese. (photo: Moratoriamu Tamako Iinkai Seisaku)

20feet20 Feet From Stardom
The great backup singers of the rock era are given an overdue and deserving spotlight in Morgan Neville’s film, and they grab it with relish. Darlene Love, exploited mercilessly by Phil Spector, is the godmother of this clique, though her blend of resentment at her treatment as a teenager and sense of triumph with a late career renaissance thanks to legacy rockers like Bruce Sprintsteen fails to provide an overarching theme. Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, and Tata Vega offer testimonials to the difficulty of turning a successful background gig into a livelihood as a solo artist. Because folks like Springsteen, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, and Sting give witness to the technical and artistic expertise of these women (most of whom are black and from the church) the mood borders on the patronizing, and then Clayton explains why she agreed to sing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” an apology for Southern attitudes in the aftermath of the civil rights movement: “We gonna sing the crap out of you.” That’s the kind of insight we want. (Photo: Project B.S. LLC)

The Japanese title of this Saudi Arabian feature is “The Girl Rides a Bicycle,” which in the context of the story is more momentous than it sounds. In movies about children, bicycles are thematically powerful, representing freedom, growth, the formation of identity. In this movie those attributes are multiplied since girls in Saudi Arabia don’t ride bicycles at all. We know 10-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammad) is different from her peers because of her footwear: high-top sneakers that jut out from under her long cloak. Some of the girls at her school paint their toenails, but decorations can be hidden, and when Wadjda is at home in the privacy of her room she listens to Western pop and pads around in blue jeans. But the sneakers give her away at school, which is overseen by the stern, albeit makeup-loving headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd). “Put on black shoes,” she orders Wadjda, who complies by coloring in the white portions of her sneakers with a black marker. In any Western movie this show of rebelliousness would be a gag, but here it’s transgressive, though not as contrary as her desire for a bicycle. When a male acquaintance taunts her from his own two-wheeler, she promises to beat him, but with what? Her mother (Reem Abdullah) tells her, not altogether ingenuously, that girls who ride bicycles end up sterile, a point that has significance in their home since the mother, it seems, can no longer have children. Though Wadjda’s father adores her, he lives with his parents, who are pressuring him to take another wife who can give him a son. Wadjda is perceptive enough to understand the tensions at home and the difficulties her mother faces, but she’s also more than obsessed with the green bike that’s sitting out in front of a local store and most of the time she’s scheming of ways to raise money to buy it. So when the school holds a Koran memorization competition with a cash prize, she enrolls immediately, much to Ms. Hussa’s surprise, since Wadjda has demonstrated little in the way of cultural application, much less religious zeal. The plot points could fit on the head of a pin and while they follow a predictable arc the movie feels fresh thanks to director Haifaa Al Mansour’s insistence that all the characters be recognizably human, even those with less sympathetic axes to grind. Maybe it’s because she is a woman who, in fact, can’t make movies publicly in Saudi Arabia (she had to direct many street scenes remotely). That fact doesn’t automatically make for a great film, but it certainly made her more aware of her responsibility. In Arabic. (photo: Razor Film Prod. GmbH, High Look Group, Rotana Studios)

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