February 2014 movies

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

935381 - AMERICAN HUSTLEAmerican Hustle
If you didn’t actually live through the 70s, you probably think it was all about hair, especially if you have David O. Russell’s clever movie to go by. In the opening scene, con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) goes to great lengths to turn his combover into a passable coif with the help of some glue and a couple of hairpieces. The fact that it ends up looking as it should but still like shit gives you some idea of the disco era’s priorities. Though Russell uses the infamous Abscam scandal as the template for his very well developed story, he intensifies those components of the FBI’s scheme to entrap prominent New York area politicians that stress misguided ambition and false appearances. Truth be told, everyone’s hair is outrageous, as illustrated hilariously in a scene where the fed who is orchestrating the sting, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), and Rosenfeld’s mistress/partner-in-crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), talk on the phone while both are ensconced in curlers. Still, as Sydney professes in one of the film’s many wry voiceovers, Irving was “not in the best of shape,” though that doesn’t mean she can’t love him. When he is smitten and tries to impress her by revealing the source of his income—a racket that cheats “investors” with the help of a fake Middle Eastern sheik—her disgust at the notion of larceny is overcome by her admiration for not only his chutzpah, but his candor. Only someone in love would do such a thing. Unfortunately, Irv is already married, to a loud-mouthed New Jersey shrew named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whose son by a previous marriage Irv adores. In fact, he seems to adore Rosalyn, too, but he would never tell her the real source of his income (he also legitimately owns a chain of dry cleaners). After Irv’s fortunes skyrocket thanks to Sydney’s assistance impersonating English nobility to goose the scam, they’re busted by Richie, who offers them a deal: Help him get some pols he thinks are taking bribes and he’ll cut them some slack. Their first target is the mayor of a New Jersey town, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), with his own extreme hairstyle. Hizzoner, as the viewer can rightly tell, is not a dishonest man. He just knows some dishonest people, and Irv isn’t comfortable entrapping him, especially as the two become close through the process of the operation. Meanwhile, Richie is hitting on Sydney and Rosalyn is sticking her nose everywhere. For once, Russell’s rambunctious style fits the tenor of the story, so you’ve no right to complain when everything lines up perfectly in the end. What d’ya want? A true story? (photo: CTMG)

butlerThe Butler
Throughout Lee Daniels’ entertaining, edifying, and frustrating history lesson, work is the thing that sets you free, which may sound like an odd observation for a movie about a black man hired as a house servant by an elderly Southern woman after her son kills his father in cold blood; but as Martin Luther King, Jr., tells the son of this man many years later, it is the black men and women servants who showed America how dedication to one’s work gives them pride of place in the society at large, and thus makes them “the real subversives,” no matter how hard white people try to keep them down. The son, Louis (David Oyelowo), is working in the civil rights movement at the time and is frankly embarrassed by his father, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), because despite the fact that he is now a butler in the White House, he is still a servant. Daniels’ purpose is to contrast these two overlapping African-American experiences, the accommodation with secondary status as a means of transcending it with the conscious refusal to accept any secondary status at all, and his difficulty is in showing how the two modes of progress complement each other. Based on the life of a real White House butler, Daniels’ story, written by Danny Strong, is highly fictionalized but follows the same life arc. In the middle of the century, Cecil left the employ of the house where he grew up and got a job as a waiter in a South Carolina hotel, from which he was recruited to work at an affiliated hotel in Washington, where he met many powerful men in national politics. Through his own industry Cecil gains a fine middle class life, marries a beautiful, intelligent woman (Oprah Winfrey), and raises two sons. This certainly qualifies as making it, but to David it’s selling out to the Man, and Daniels makes sure the paradox is plain. In one bravura sequence he cuts between Cecil serving at a White House dinner party and Louis being beaten and humiliated at a lunch counter sit-in. As it stands, Cecil’s domestic situation makes for fine melodrama in the classic American style (think Odets, Dreiser), but when he’s at work the movie comes across as a stunt mainly because of all those presidents. You can’t help but feel that Robin Williams is an odd choice for Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber a wry comment on Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack an even more bizarre Nixon that he needs to be, and Alan Rickman the most avuncular Reagan you could ever hope to see. Did Jane Fonda revel in her chance to play Nancy? All you can say is you’re glad he left out Carter and Ford. (photo: Butler Films LLC)

the eastThe East
Writer-actress Brit Marling’s and director Zal Batmanglij’s second feature demonstrates ambition worthy of studio interest, but the pair’s understanding of what’s needed to pull off this kind of thriller feels lacking. Marling plays a former FBI operative who takes a job with a private security firm to infiltrate a secret eco-terrorist collective at the behest of a corporate client. Utilizing a cold visual style, Batmanglij puts across Sarah’s careful, clever methodology in gaining access to the group, who then invites her to join, but once she’s in matters become less credible, owing mostly to Marling’s idea of what passes for loyalty to such a group—selflessness and a dictatorial compassion. As the group carries out operations against moneyed targets, Sarah starts to question her own loyalties, not just to her employer but to her Christian faith and core political values. Though its easy to sympathize with the group’s charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgard) and his most heartfelt acolyte (Ellen Page), Sarah’s conversion feels like a drop into Hollywood half-measures, as if the film’s ending had been decided by an impatient producer. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Corp.)

geboGebo and the Shadow
A static affair, Manoel de Oliveira’s latest is based on a play by Raul Brandao about a poor family who awaits the return of their prodigal son, missing for 8 years during which time he may have committed crimes. The patriarch, Gebo (Michael Lonsdale), is a bureaucrat who has failed to rise in the world due to his honesty and integrity, which extends to protecting his son despite the fact that the sentiment has never been returned. All the action takes place in the family’s front room as Gebo, his credulous wife (Claudia Cardinale), and their long-suffering daughter-in-law (Leonor Silveira) debate what to do once Joao (Ricardo Trepa) shows up. When he does appear, he sets a crisis in motion, since Joao’s disdain for his father’s supplicant status is clear and painful—modernism makes its ugly, disruptive entrance. The actors, which also include Jeanne Moreau as a chatty neighbor, relish their outsize roles, though it’s difficult to make these 19th century themes relevant dramatically. It looks like a gorgeous painting and sounds like a novel you read in college but didn’t understand. (photo: O Som e a Furia/Mact Productions)

excitedI’m So Excited
Pedro Almodovar’s movies are different because his campy proclivities actually temper the potential melodramatic overkill inherent in his stories, and this sky-bound farce demonstrates what happens when the stylistic exigencies are reversed. A flight from Spain to Mexico is beset by serious technical problems that force the pilot to fly in circles for hours until a solution is found. In order to keep the passengers from panicking, the captain tells the cabin crew to keep them happy with “sex and booze,” and while the audience expects a David Zucker-level of slapstick, Almovodar piles on the melodrama in the form of individual life stories revealed in the panic of impending mortality. The passenger-characters are typical of Almovodar—a psychic virgin, a professional S&M dominatrix, a famous woman-killing actor, a few “mysterious” types—and the flight attendants are all flaming queens with their own identity issues. Sex and drugs and disco ensue, but are interrupted by confusing commentary on weightier themes, like the venality of the world banking industry. Camp tempered by melodrama doesn’t work quite as successfully. (photo: El Deseo D.A.S.L.U.M.)

DSC_3500.NEFThe Immigrant
Joaquin Phoenix is cinema’s most discomfiting character actor. Working again with James Gray, at first he doesn’t fit the image of a Prohibition-era New York burlesque impresario, but The Immigrant isn’t really about him. It’s about Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard), a Polish refugee whose sister is immediately quarantined upon arrival at Ellis Island. Bruno (Phoenix) saves Ewa by bribing a guard and then promising the scared young woman he will get her sister released, but in the meantime she will work for him. Bruno’s manner is gentle and accommodating—until something rubs him the wrong way. After resisting for as long as she can, Ewa becomes one of Bruno’s whores and attracts the attention of his cousin, a magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner). The two men vie for her, though the source of their passion is enmity for each other. There’s some great acting here, and Phoenix shows up Cotillard through his willingness to come across as pathetic and venal, but the movie is anachronistic, an old-fashioned melodrama done up as a piece of social criticism in hindsight. (photo: Wild Bunch S.A. and Worldvier Entertainment Holdings LLC)

only godOnly God Forgives
Ryan Gosling shuffles through this nightmarish near-fantasy set in the Bangkok criminal underworld, expressing even less than he did in his last go-round with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, the relatively manic Drive. As Julian, the youngest male heir to a drug-dealing crime family now reduced to him and his psychopathic mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), Gosling has even less to say than he usually does and sets his jaw, even when bodies are being split in half in front of him. Mom expects more of him when older brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed after brutally raping a waitress, namely finding Billy’s murderers and getting revenge. That’s as far as Refn is willing to go in terms of plot, but it’s enough to hang his dark, deep red-and-blue tableaux upon, and with Vithaya Pansringarm’s blade-slinging policeman acting as Julian’s nemesis, the red takes precedent. But while the gore is plentiful, the stylized treatment renders most of it as so much dedicated production design. It’s obviously Refn’s ode to Asian cinema, but Seijun Suzuki fans will just scratch their heads. (photo: Space Rocket Nation, Gaumont & Wild Bunch)

pawnshopPawn Shop Chronicles
Though most younger American directors have readily adopted the style and manner of Quentin Tarantino, few have dared to copy Q’s quirky penchant for non sequitur plot points. Wayne Kramer and his scenarist, Adam Minarovich, have fashioned a Southern white trash omnibus out of nothing but non sequiturs, the stranger and more violent the better. Though each tale has some faint relation to the titular roadhouse establishment managed by a philosophical good ol’ boy (Vincent D’Onofrio), they’re self-contained and feature a bunch of male leads whose filmic heritage may fool you into believing there’s something here, but there really isn’t. Elijah Woods’ nerdy collector of sexual slaves is only slightly more despicable than Paul Walker’s clueless thief or Brendan Fraser’s pathetic Elvis imitator. Even Matt Dillon has to try very hard to get through his role as a newlywed who discovers the horrible fate of his former, missing wife while on his honeymoon. Despite the gleeful, Looney Toons tone of the action, the movie isn’t much fun, unless you have a thing for pure weirdness—or hate women. (photo: Pawn Shop Chronicles LLC)

Norwegian filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjaerg appropriates some of his country’s modern history for this whistle-blower thriller that has a very easy time of making the U.S. into the devil incarnate. After oil is discovered off the coast of Norway in the late 70s, the problem becomes how to transport it since pipes had never been laid so deep under the ocean. American oil interests, wanting a piece of the action, offer an experimental oxygen additive that alleviates the deadly side effects of pressure sickness. When the initial dive results in the death of one diver, the deceased’s brother (Aksel Hennie), who was with him, is blamed, but he believes his lapse of attention during the operation was caused by the additive, and eventually uncovers what he believes is a conspiracy involving Norwegian officials. Skjoldbjaerg’s muffled, dreamy visual style sells the paranoia while making the action set pieces emotionally vertiginous, but as often happens when Europeans take on American bullying, the Yanks come across as boorish stereotypes whom no sane person would trust with their money, must less their lives. (photo: Friland Produksjon AS)

ROOM237Room 237
One of the points made by Rodney Ascher’s delirious documentary that tempers the urge to roll one’s eyes at all the outrageous hypotheses being presented is the feeling among the featured five subject fans of Stanley Kubrick that The Shining (1980) was the film which first made them question his genius. All hotly anticipated his version of Stephen King’s bestseller and were disappointed with the results. As a Kubrick fan myself, I own up to the same reaction, especially since I thought the book was good; better than pulp and even within the King ouevre an especially resonant work. Kubrick’s elisions and additions seemed self-indulgent; just one meticulously staged thing after another. Some fans translated this reaction into a lifelong study of the film in order to figure out what was going on in Kubrick’s mind, what his intentions were. As Ascher points out—not directly, since there is no through-narration—this in-depth, ad hoc study of the film was only possible with the development and spread of the home VHS recorder, which allowed these fans to watch the film over and over again. After seeing Room 237 even King, who didn’t like Kubrick’s film, would have to admit that the prickly, idiosyncratic director purposely made a very different version. Several interviewees think Kubrick made a movie about the Holocaust, complete with coded, subliminal messages such as the titular room, where the bloody murders that haunt Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance’s dreams took place. Multiply the three numerals and you get “42,” the year the Final Solution was formally put into motion. History professor Geoffrey Cocks even wrote a book on the subject, and despite the trivial nature of some of his findings, sounds reasonably invested in the project. Not so the others, like the guy who has spent his life trying to convince people that The Shining was Kubrick’s means of conveying to the world, secretly, that he “directed” the Apollo 11 moon landing “hoax.” The accumulated details form a portrait of a subculture that feeds on itself, but as grist for a movie it’s nourishing stuff, thanks to Ascher’s ingenious visual sense, which honors Kubrick’s own in the way it juxtaposes sights and sounds that alter the viewer’s perception of both. By never showing his interlocutors he relegates them to the status of base sources, texts that illustrate the images, all taken from The Shining, Kubrick’s other works, and archival materials, rather than the other way around, which is how documentaries of this sort usually work. The result is a film that doesn’t so much advocate specific viewpoints as offer the viewer a chance to form new viewpoints of his own. If you’re a Kubrick fan, it’s candy; if you’re just a movie freak, it’s a revelation.

Though Ron Howard is considered a bankable Hollywood director, this film about the 1970s rivalry between Formula One race drivers James Hunt of Great Britain (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda of Austria (Daniel Bruhl) seems to have gotten most of its financing from outside of the U.S., and while that says something about the popularity of F1 in Europe, it also says something about Howard’s desire to work outside the system, since normally he only needs to snap his fingers to get funding. But you have to wonder what those European backers expected. Rush is rather obvious in its portrait of duality: Hunt the hedonistic show-off versus Lauda the intellectual sourpuss. Every line, every piece of exposition plays up this contrast as a means of questioning its veracity. The one thing about F1 is that it’s very, very dangerous, and Howard films the race scenes with this aspect in mind. The action is thrilling and scary and very loud, and Howard rarely allows the viewer a chance to catch his breath, but while Lauda’s near-deadly accident at the 1976 German Grand Prix is the story’s centerpiece, the director is so fixated on the rivalry he never gives each character enough personal space to be anything but the antithesis of the other. Rush is most compelling when it delves into the economic and technical details of motor racing—the way star drivers and their technicians are often at odds, how money is raised through sponsors, who gets TV rights and the like—but Howard treats is all with a dismissive air, which is to say, the scenes that actually drive the story are executed carelessly. Even the requisite romantic intrigues, between Hunt and his numerous one-night stands, not to mention his marriage to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), and Austrian Lauda’s devotion to his own wife, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), are played like soap opera. It’s only when the two men are neck-and-neck on the track or face-to-face off of it that the movie hits its thematic mark. It’s as if the title was the whole game: when there is nothing viscerally exciting going on, there’s not much to do. Consequently, the fine performances by the two leads are often over-determined. Hemsworth devises an attractive devil-may-care personality that probably had nothing to do with Hunt but nevertheless plays perfectly on the big screen (he’ll make a good Bond some day), while Bruhl, stuck with a buck-toothed dental appliance and terrible hair, is just annoying enough to make the upright, safety-conscious Lauda something of a prick. But since Howard doesn’t moderate his scenes, they both seem to be working overtime to make sure we understand these two guys hate each other, when, in fact, they didn’t. That much is clear at the end, though by then you won’t know what to believe. (photo: Rush Films Ltd./Egolitossell Film and Action Image)

One of the good things about living in Japan is that as a movie-goer you usually don’t have to put up with the political shenanigans of distributors in other countries. Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s eagerly awaited sci-fi epic will be shown in Japan in the same cut that South Koreans enjoyed when it was released there last year, and which prompted uncommon praise from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who flew all the way to Busan in October to participate in a discussion with Bong about the film. Unfortunately, movie-goers in America and Europe (outside of France) will have to contend with Harvey Weinstein’s much shorter version, which is a crime. This is truly an international production, mainly in English with an all-star cast, and a story with an appeal that transcends borders. It’s also a quirky piece of art, a flawed but relentlessly dazzling work of imagination that’s like no sci-fi epic you’ve ever seen, partly due to its ridiculous premise. Thanks to human stupidity, the earth is going through an ice age that has killed off all living things except those lucky enough to have boarded a train that constantly circumnavigates the globe with the help of a perpetual motion engine invented by its genius creator, the Oz-like Wilford. The train is a microcosm of the usual social order, except that instead of a pyramid, with the wealthy few at the top and the poor masses at the bottom, the unfortunates are in the rear cars and the more privileged in the front. Snowpiercer is basically a chronicle of a revolution, of the filthy, shivering hoi polloi in the back of the train moving deliberately and desperately toward the warmer front, mimicking the forward movement of the film itself. Like the train, if the revolution stops, it’s doomed. Why Weinstein thinks the movie is “too slow” is beyond me. Velocity is built into the whole concept. Leading the rabble is Curtis (Chris Evans), the hot-headed young acolyte of Gilliam (John Hurt), who knows the world before the Snowpiercer but is too old to lead the revolt. Representing the oppressors is Prime Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a patronizing Yorkshire-accented schoolmarm who insists that everyone has their “preordained particular positions.” At first, the mission is to locate and liberate the train’s head of security, Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), who knows the layout of the train, but even that knowledge costs the rebellion. With each car, the battles get bloodier—and the production design more mind-blowing. It’s likely that Weinstein feels the ending, which contains more twists than a bag full of pretzels, will hurt the brains of the average sci-fi audience, and while it does contain one too many preposterous turns, it satisfies the goals the movie presents at the outset. You couldn’t ask for anything more…or less. In English and Korean. (photo: Snowpiercer Co., Ltd.)

Thor2Thor: The Dark World
Though it may sound like a trivial distinction considering the plethora of superhero movies, but so far the Thor franchise has hewed closest to the spirit of Marvel Comics in its heyday, combining heavy-handed, even monumental dramaturgy with an appreciation of dumb adolescent humor. Though Spider-Man has always been the Marvel comic par excellence, it’s an exception, what with its Freudian focus on Peter Parker’s neuroses. Most Marvel storylines contemplate the God complex in superheroes, and since Thor really is a god it scratches that itch boys develop for larger-than-life characters. And Chris Hemsworth has proven himself equal to the task, what with those booming chest tones and a proven ability to strut and preen. Since last we saw the Norse god of thunder he’s been “keeping peace in the Nine Realms,” which doesn’t need further explication because it sounds so great, but Alan Taylor gives us a taste by showing Thor vanquishing a giant single-handed and thus bringing an entire enemy people to its knees. The viewer can be forgiven for thinking that this sequence has more to do with Tolkien than Marvel, but this is a Marvel movie, not a Marvel comic, and the difference is important, though the “dark force” on which the plot hinges borrows from both media equally. This force, called “ether,” has been kept under wraps for millennia in a separate dimension, and who happens to stumble upon it during her astrophysics experiment but Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor’s earthling squeeze, whom the hammer-tosser has jilted in the meantime—too busy with the Nine Realms, you know. When Jane lets the ether free, it also frees an evil elf (Christopher Eccleston) who had been imprisoned by Thor’s father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor has no choice but to solicit the aid of his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is also imprisoned. Thor tries to speak to Loki’s better nature, and for most of the film, the two siblings move back-and-forth between a violent rivalry and a brotherly alliance. If it ain’t exactly the stuff of Shakespeare, it definitely makes for some rousing fight scenes, and for once the bombast of the 3D CG effects matches the heroic cast of the story it serves. It’s supposed to make you feel like an insignificant mortal, but Thor remains down-to-earth, and not just when he rekindles his flame for Jane, who is brought to Asgard, the home of the Gods, because her discovery puts her in cosmic danger, and there she gets to do Norse cosplay, which is where the adolescent humor comes in. As it turns out, Jane is much better suited for Asgard than Thor was for Earth in the first movie. Girls are more adaptable than gods. (photo: MVLFFLLC & (c) 2013 Marvel)

ウルフ・オブ・ウォールストリートThe Wolf of Wall Street
A jab at the American tendency toward over-indulgence, Martin Scorsese’s epic, which claims to be the true story of 80s stock trader Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), meaning it is based on a book that Belfort himself wrote, is so enamored of its own capacity to enflame extreme emotions that it scans less as an indictment of greed than as an out-of-control frat party whose every disgusting moment is captured on videotape. There is such a thing as having too good a time. So while we’re meant to wince and roll our eyes at the chest-thumping arias of self-worth and demonstrations of willful assholism as these stockbrokers cheat their clients and screw every vagina in sight while snorting enough coke to blind a whale, we get into it—not so much as entertainment but as pure sensory overload. This is Gordon Gekko on speed and set to a New Wave beat. And in the end there isn’t much that’s edifying. We learn only as much about how Wall Street works to get us through the bloated plot, and because Scorsese doesn’t seem that interested in how Belfort’s shenanigans affected his  customers and the public at large, he has Belfort deliver all the story points in voiceover. Immoral entertainment is not a problem—ask Scorsese’s mentor, Roger Corman—but immoral entertainment that purports to be about something else is a scam worthy of the heroes of this black comedy. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

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