Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.
One of the great experiments in the history of film, Richard Linklater’s collaboration with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke derives its irresistible appeal from its unpredictable nature. In the first installment, Before Sunrise, twenty-somethings American Jesse and French Celine met cute on a train bound for Vienna and then spent the day and night in each other’s company, discussing all matters personal and political while falling in love in front of our eyes. Everything was a suprise, because that’s what falling in love is about. In Before Sunset, set in Paris, where Jesse has journeyed to promote a novel based on the Vienna adventure, he reunites with Celine, and though a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the intervening 9 years, the romantic tension is still taut and the surprises even more plentiful. The ending left their mutual fate in the air, though common sense told us where it was going, and that premonition is confirmed in Before Midnight, which takes place in Greece while Jesse and Celine, together now for eight years and the parents of twin girls, are on vacation. The 9-year lucanae is filled partly by the appearance of Jesse’s adolescent son with the wife he left for Celine. We see Jesse being the good dad as he sees his son off at the airport, giving him advice and attempting to draw a show of affection. The kid resists and tells the old man not to try so hard. This encounter casts a cloud over the rest of the film, which follows the structural precedent of its predecessors as a peripatetic two-way dialogue, but the stakes have changed. There is no longer the “will-they-or-won’t-they” uncertainty factor. Jesse remains a modestly successful writer (though he also teaches at the American school in Paris, where the pair make their home) and an American kid in temperament, while Celine frets about her own job prospects in the non-profit sustainable energy field and bears the usual burdens of encroaching middle age. So when Jesse indirectly suggests that he wants to be near his son back in the U.S. during these “very important years,” Celine feels both threatened and betrayed, but the force of her feelings don’t emerge until the couple is ensconced in a luxury hotel room for the night, a gift from one of their Greek hosts that was granted for the purpose of some much-needed solitary sexual comfort. But those feelings can’t be denied. As in the first two movies, the dialogue is delightfully circuitous, following the contours of real conversation without losing narrative cohesion. Jesse and Celine are, if anything, more compelling characters in their settled ripeness if for no other reason than that they have much more to lose now. (photo: Talagane LLC)
The appeal of Orson Scott Card’s cautionary 1980s sci-fi novel, Ender’s Game, centered on its future vision of video game technology. The movie version is prophetic for a different reason, since the story extrapolates the current penchant for drone strikes by positing a war between humans and an extraterretrial race that is waged, at least by the human side, through remote controlled starships. These vessels still have human crews, but in the context of the movie the soldiers count for nothing, since it’s all about the adolescents who are trained from childhood to command them strategically, as if they were indeed playing a computer game. The trouble with Card’s story is that when it was prophetic it might have seemed fresh and provocative, but now that it has entered the realm of the possible it feels beside the point. Drama is derived from the kind of angst that defines coming-of-age stories. Our hero, the boy genius Ender (Asa Butterfield), is an awkward child who is bullied for his awkwardness by his fellow recruits in the battle academy of the International Fleet. After Ender sends one of his tormentors to the hospital, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) recognizes the traits he needs for a commander and summarily promotes the boy to the top echelons of the training program. Gavin Hood’s measured direction and the impressive production design combine to make the film a smooth entertainment, but it never fulfills its promise of being the last word on the future of warfare. The bulk of the story is merely preparation for Ender’s big test in a climactic battle that could mean victory for the humans, and until then we have to sit through smartly staged scenes that do nothing except prove Ender’s capabilities, but in ways that are impossible to gauge. The movie’s centerpiece is a bloodless war games analog in zero gravity that Ender wins for his team with what we are told is a brilliant tactical move. We’ll take the filmmakers’ word for it, but Ender’s accepted prodigal status weakens every subsequent conflict, whether it’s with new bullies or the battle academy’s tattooed disciplinarian (Ben Kingsley). All the while, the boy is haunted by dreams of his long-distance enemy, the Formics, who once attempted to invade Earth and were repulsed, thus sparking the war. Through these dreams, which may be remnants of direct communications from the Formics, Ender realizes that the humans have never even tried to negotiate a peace, but instead are bent on total annihilation of the Formics, who militarily have been in a solely defensive posture since that first battle. It’s a theme worth exploring, as is the idea that teens are better warriors because they lack discretionary override, but the movie subordinates them to meaningless marshal melodrama and hormonal panic. (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)
An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker
Circumstances that critics call Kafkaesque describe everyday life in some countries, as demonstrated in Bosnian director Danis Tanovic’s unusual drama, which recreates a true story that reportedly shocked the public. Moreover, he uses the actual people involved. Tanovic doesn’t stylize anything. It’s supposed to look like a documentary, but ends up being something unique. Nazif (his real name) is a Roma day laborer who barely makes a living selling scrap metal he finds laying around, a job that’s more labor-intensive than it sounds since it often involves stripping entire abandoned cars. When his pregnant wife, Senada, suffers a miscarriage she cannot receive medical attention due to lack of state insurance owing to the fact that the couple has no fixed income, which places them outside the system. Nazif cannot afford the cost of regular care and has to improvise desperately. Tanovic presents it all in a dry, matter-of-fact way that does not detract from the incipient horror of the situation, and the viewer is confronted not only with the institutional racism involved, but the underlying absence of human compassion.
Zhang Yang’s career exemplifies what happens when an idiosyncratic director is coopted by the mainstream in a market like China’s. Full Circle might have been an incisive look at the problem of aging in today’s China, but Zhang, who also wrote the script, is more determined to get tear ducts pumping. The residents of the rural Guanshan Nursing Home struggle to maintain their dignity and individuality as their strength and savings desert them, but the facility’s rules-oriented staff discourages any activity that falls outside the lines of their job descriptions and conventional propriety. Retired driver Zhou (Wu Tianming) concocts an elaborate plan to bus several seniors hundreds of kilometers to a regional talent show under the noses of their keepers, and Zhang alternates moments of poignant solidarity with sequences of slapsticky action-intrigue. His motives are irreproachable and the effectiveness of his storytelling assured, but compared to the truly moving life stories conveyed in Sunflower and his masterpiece Quitting, Full Circle feels more like an ambitious After School Special, a lesson you enjoy without gaining much insight. (photo: Desen International Media Co., Ltd.)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
In the wake of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchise successes, the limited multi-part movie blockbuster, usually based on a book series, is obviously a model that’s here to stay, and so while we’ve arrived at the middle volume of Suzanne Collins’ three-novel story, we still have two more movies to go since, according to this model, the last chapter is stretched out over two parts to maximize its economic effectiveness. Consequently, Catching Fire is seen as a holding pattern, a means of intensifying themes and drawing together loose ends before the main course is served. Indeed, there is something perfunctory about the film’s structure, which chronicles the tribulations of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in the aftermath of their unprecedented dual victory in the last Hunger Games, which is supposed to end with only one Tribute left alive. In order for the Panem regime, as embodied by its cunning, cynical president (Donald Sutherland), to justify this rent in the fabric of order represented by the Games, a “narrative” is approved that says Katniss and Peeta are lovers who would rather die together than survive alone in a world without the other. Since Peeta is, in fact, in love with Katniss, there is some truth to this fiction, but the point is to keep the masses, who rightly suspect the pair is resisting a system that glorifies the sacrifice of adolescents for their nominal home disctricts, in line. Under threat to their loved ones, Katniss and Peeta are forced to embark on an elaborate tour of the hinterlands, complete with pre-scripted speeches and dramatic stage direction. In Collins’s YA books, the power elite use the media to keep the poorer majority in its place, and in that regard Catching Fire does more to advance this idea than the first episode, which was mainly an action movie with a simplistic political context that probably didn’t mean much to the movie’s core audience. This one projects the context to the fore through the agency of Katniss, who is forced to be a symbol against her will, and Lawrence makes sure Katniss’s inner struggle is always conveyed. Her death-defying gambit at the close of the first movie seems to have provided her with life insurance, but the nature of her victory means she will always be under the thumb of the authorities, who soon decide, based on the restless, rebellious reactions to the tour, to hold a provisional Hunger Games tournament, the Quarter Quell, ostensibly for bringing together winners of past contests—a kind of greatest hits show—but actually to finish off Katniss and Peeta once and for all. So in the end, you have your sociopolitical commentary and eat your suspense-action requirements, too. (photo: Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.)
In this bloody two-hander, the Bosnian War is the nightmare from which its two protagonists can’t awake, but while director Mark Steven Johnson is determined to make us believe he knows the particulars about that war and its attendant genocide, he’s more determined to throw as much macho S&M up on the screen as he thinks the audience can stomach: arrows through the calf or cheek, salt literally rubbed into wounds, waterboarding. John Travolta plays a member of a Serbian death squad and Robert De Niro the career American soldier who, sickened by the vile carnage of the war, summarily executes several of its members, but Travolta miraculously survives and vows vengeance, which comes years later when he tracks De Niro down in a remote cabin in the Appalachian woods, pretending he’s there to hunt game. Once his intentions are clarified, in one of the sloppiest reveals ever executed in an action film, it’s a tit-for-tat struggle that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. Both men are killers and damaged goods, and they explain themselves way too much. (photo: Promised Land Prod. Inc.)
The cred behind this classic example of Southern romantic fiction is provided by its director, Jeff Nichols, whose last movie, Take Shelter, was not only one of the most original American dramas of recent years, but a minor hit. Mud boasts several A-list actors—Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon (the star of Take Shelter and a Nichols mainstay), Sam Shepard—as well as legends like Joe Don Baker, in supporting roles. For his leads, however, Nichols hired one A-lister, Matthew McConaughey, and a total newcomer, Tye Sheridan, and there’s something about the contrast between McConaughey’s familiar edge-of-Southern-comfort demeanor and Sheridan’s freshness that makes Mud more than just the sum of its hand-tooled swamp-gothic cliches. The unspoiled beauty of this stretch of the Mississippi River adds considerably to the movie’s appeal as we follow adolescents Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) on an early morning excursion to an island where an abandoned boat has mysteriously ended up in a tree; except, once they start exploring it they find it isn’t abandoned, but occupied—and claimed—by a charming, paranoid, and disturbingly desperate man who calls himself Mud (McConaughey). Though at first intimidated, the boys are soon taken with Mud’s story of persecution and his flight from the law for having killed a man who took advantage of Juniper (Witherspoon), the woman he loves. Ellis, who is in the nascent stages of puppy love, eats this story up, and the viewer slowly braces for the letdown, because Mud’s way of spinning a yarn has all the earmarks of a tall tale. The two boys become the fugitive’s conduit to the outside world, where they realize that there are extralegal parties looking for Mud. They not only ferry supplies to him, but secretly contact Juniper, who is holed up in a motel, supposedly waiting for Mud to spirit her away. Things are not so simple, but not because Mud may be a liar. Ellis’s parents (Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon), for instance, seem headed for a separation that’s exacerbated by a forced eviction from their houseboat. And Ellis’s crush on May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a slightly older girl in his school, isn’t requited in the fashion he expected, thus giving him false insight into what he interprets as Juniper’s betrayal of Mud. Nichols’ movie is rich in character detail that allows the actors plenty of room to explore all their emotional corners. Sheridan is especially fine, registering the hurt of fallen expectations with a directness that’s piercing. If Nichols gives the impression that he doesn’t know how to end this story—the climax is a jumble of incongruous action movie tropes—he nevertheless provides a satisfying overall dramatic adventure, an old-fashioned coming-of-age story that’s still timeless.
A hybrid of occult thriller and teen comedy, this adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel by Stephen Sommers sounds like a personal project and looks like a train wreck. Reportedly it’s unscreenable in North America due to a legal dispute. Anton Yelchin plays the title character, a short-order cook in a sleepy desert town who sees dead people and other supernatural phenomenon. When he isn’t chasing murderers on tips from the mute deceased and cracking wry in voiceover, he’s romancing his cute girlfriend, Stormy (Addison Timlin), or helping the town’s enabling police chief (Willem Dafoe). Occasionally he spots shape-shifting ghouls called bodachs, which swarm when there’s about to be “extreme operatic death and destruction.” The story involves Odd finding out where, when, and how this “apocalypse” will take place. Though the effects are clever, the film doesn’t hang together. It’s like a handful of horror non sequiturs pasted together with outtakes from bad 1980s music videos. Even the film’s saving grace, its charming light touch, is eventually thrown over for forced pathos, presumably to prepare us for a sequel. (photo: Two Out Of Ten Productions Inc.)
What Maisie Knew
It’s difficult to sense the hand of Henry James in David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s modern-day adaptation of his short novel. The situation of a little girl being knocked back-and-forth during a custody battle sounds very late 20th century, and apparently James thought the idea unusual enough to provide a window into the kind of human psychology he best appreciated. In fact, Siegel and McGehee, along with their screenwriters Nancy Doyle and Carroll Cartwright, take very little from the novel except the premise of filtering the drama through the eyes of a child who knows less than the audience does about human behavior but more than the audience does about what’s actually going on. In that regard, Onata Aprile, who plays Maisie, is a great casting choice. Cute and proper in a way that James probably would approve of, she knows when to tense up and when to relax, and when she’s on screen the movie makes much more sense than it does when it dwells exclusively on the circumstances of her two awful parents. The father, Beale (Steve Coogan), is a self-centered art dealer with a wandering eye, and the mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an aging rock star with the rock star’s trite lack of self-control. The split is so inevitable you assume the screenwriters shaped these two ghouls in such a way to obviate the need for explanations, and since both want to be seen as not being the monsters they really are, they each want custody of Maisie, even though neither is fit to be a parent. The money they spend so recklessly makes them look even less responsible. At times, the movie comes across as one big hatchet job, and you assume there must be something more to it than exposing Beale and Susanna as typical Manhattan phonies, and there is, though I’m not sure if it improves the film’s aims. After the separation, Beale takes up with Maisie’s nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), whom Maisie likes and trusts. Susanna starts dating Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a grounded bartender who is too starstruck to see the viper behind the playful facade. Eventually, they all marry, but the fact that Maisie’s two step-parents are more attentive than her real parents doesn’t go a long way in a movie that is supposed to reveal something about the “poetry” of human relations. It’s only Maisie’s reactions to what goes on around her that counts for anything. When Susanna and Lincoln wed after a whirlwind sexual entanglement, Maisie draws the startling conclusio, that “the court made my Mommy get married, too.” The truth suddenly dawns on you that Susanna may very well have calculated that marrying Lincoln would improve her chances of gaining custody. But, of course, she blows that chance, too, and the movie sinks under the weight of its own cynicism. Maisie doesn’t deserve these people, but the film doesn’t deserve her, either. (photo: Maisie Knew LLC)