March 2014 movies

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

AIL_RF_09535.NEFAll Is Lost
Literally a down-to-earth version of Gravity, this seafaring thriller, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a singularly intense movie experience. Our nameless hero, played by Robert Redford, seems to be circumnavigating the globe by himself in a sailboat, and trouble looms right away when an errant cargo container smashes into his hull, leaving a large hole that quickly fills with water. For the rest of the movie it’s one thing after another, as our hero silently confronts each life-threatening problem and attempts to solve it with whatever resources are at hand, as well as his own ingenuity, which isn’t always enough. Though the container started it all, not only wrecking the integrity of the vessel but causing loss and damage to valuable equipment, such as the radio, it soon becomes clear that the elements are conspiring against our hero with storms and other natural indignities, but he perseveres, somehow confounding the nihilism of the title. After all, there is nothing to do but persevere. For an existential horror film, All Is Lost is refreshingly free of gratuitous despair. (photo: All Is Lost LLC)

AMF_7385 (67 of 317).NEFDallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance reaches its apotheosis with a performance that could have been a stunt but ends up being the most intense film presence of the year, regardless of whether or not the man portrayed, the late Ron Woodroof, was really the card-carrying homophobe he’s made out to be. The temptation was obvious: a good-ol’-boy, ten-gallon-hat-sporting Texan who likes to get it on with whores and cocaine before riding a real bucking bronc in his occasional rodeo adventures. When we meet Woodroof under just such circumstances he already looks emaciated to the point of illness, so it’s hardly a surprise that he’s shortly diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, though it’s a huge shock to him. Channeling his inner asshole, which he has a right to do in his own mind, he berates his doctors and walks out, unbelieving that he could have contracted a disease that in the mid-1980s was solely associated with homosexual behavior. When his condition worsens, thanks mainly to his refusal to give up drinking and fighting, he is forced to confront the news that he may have only 30 days to live, but his unruly temperament and self-serving demeanor seeks answers and he learns of experimental treatments being administered at a Dallas hospital. He uses his scoundrel’s resources to get an orderly to steal samples and sell them to him. Eventually, he’s found out and unable to get into the treatment program (which would offer the possibility that he’d get placebos anyway) he goes to Mexico where an expat doctor prescribes a cocktail of vitamins and sort-of-legal drugs that he has shipped over the border to his home. When these prove effective, he sets up shop selling the treatment to others with the disease, becoming not only an entrepreneur in the suffering of people who previously he would have nothing to do with, but also one of the country’s most strident, extra-legal advocates of alternative medicine. Though Woodroof is as inspired by the profit motive as he is compelled to stay alive, his venality is kept in check by his relationship with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual woman who also has AIDS and whom he meets cute in the hospital. If the relationship smacks of sentimental gimmickry it also adds a satisfying dramatic continuity, mainly through the emotional transaction that grounds their relationship. Rayon is both Woodroof’s business partner and keeper of the faith, and his love for her is palpable if never stated. What lifts Dallas Buyers Club above the usual preachy Oscar-baiting human interest film is its refusal to be sanctimonious. Woodroof is every bit the bastard in the end he was in the beginning, but now we know him, and it makes all the difference. (photo: Dallas Buyers Club LLC)

FRUITVALEFruitvale Station
21st century cinema has become overly reliant on “true stories,” but this debut feature by Ryan Coogler is actually more effective dramatically when it sticks to the quotidian elements of a day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), an unfortunate young man who, after serving a short stint for drug dealing, tries to turn his life around on New Years Eve 2008. Though the tragedy that befalls Grant is shown at the beginning of the film using real video footage of the incident at the titular BART station, the circumstances leading up to it are presented with an even-handedness that stress the difficulty of Grant’s determination to stay straight while demonstrating what an unexceptionally decent person he is. He loves his daughter and hectoring girlfriend, and listens to his mother (Octavia Spencer). But Coogler can’t resist the occasional reach toward predictive pathos, as when Grant encounters a stray dog that shows up dead in a subsequent one, and telegraphs the racial and social aspects that have a bearing on his fate, as if it were all preordained. (photo: OG Project LLC)

The beauty of Sebastian Lelio’s portrait of a divorced middle-aged woman on the prowl is that it doesn’t take anything for granted. Half the fun is being surprised at how complicated the love lives of late-50s Chileans are. Gloria (Paulina Garcia) isn’t coy about wanting sex, but she understands how much trouble her appetities can cause her. Trolling nightclubs and discos with her too-hearty laugh and oversized glasses, she doesn’t seem much of a catch, but men are attracted to her power and willingness. She doesn’t demand constant attention, but she’d prefer something more than a one night stand. In the recently divorced Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), she gets a passionate lover who is distracted by not only his needy adult children, but an ex-wife who isn’t doing as well on her own. Gloria also has kids, but Lelio wisely avoids getting too deep into her past, or even her present (her job seems serious but it’s not clear what it entails). Gloria lives in the moment so it’s only right that we join her there. In Spanish. (photo: Fabula-Muchas Gracias)

hobbit2The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Whether it bespeaks of seriousness of purpose or exhaustion, Peter Jackson starts the second part of his second Tolkein series right where he left off and with no consideration given to those unfortunate enough to have not seen the first Hobbit film. In other words, even those of us who did see An Unexpected Journey may be scratching our heads as to what’s going on here, especially since the opening scene takes place out of sequence, with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) confronting the exiled prince of the Dwarves, Thorin (Richard Armitage), with a plan to destroy the fire-breathing dragon, Smaug, who now occupies his former realm’s mountain stronghold. That much we remember from the firts bit, but the particulars of how the merry band of vengeful Dwarves, to which Gandalf has attached the titular short person, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), because every raiding party “needs a burglar,” are left to our powers of recall, which failed me right away. By this point in Jackson’s seemingly endless expansion of Tolkien’s ouevre he has less use for narrative integrity than for keeping the ball rolling with set pieces that maintain the viewer’s wonder at how limitless his imagination is. It sounds almost trite to say that you won’t be bored at all during these almost three hours, but the inventiveness of Jackson’s adventure produces diminishing returns when the plot barely budges over that same time period. Essentially, the raiding party gets from here to there, with digressions caused by their imprisonment by some warrier Elves headed by Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, who provides another link to the earlier trilogy, an attack by giant spiders, and a bloody battle between the Elves and some Orc attackers. The only really involving sequence is the one about the bargeman Bard (Luke Evans) who secretly ferries the Dwarves into Lake Town where they will be in spitting distance of their beloved mountain, though it isn’t entirely clear why they have to be snuck in in the first place. Still, the introduction of Bard provides some much-needed romantic drama, since Bard was the archer who failed to bring down the dragon when he conquered the region, and it’s clear he wants a second chance, which won’t come until the next part since the confrontation between the Dwarves and Smaug (voiced with convincing malice by Benedict Cumberbatch) is stretched out for almost an hour, thus giving Bilbo something to do and Freeman a chance to earn his paycheck. Entertaining and visually sumptuous, despite the crystal clear digital photography that makes everything look as if it were videotaped on a sound stage, Smaug proves that Jackson knows how to direct filler better than anyone in the history of cinema. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

???????????????????Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Though sold as a new addition to the late Tom Clancy’s ouevre and the reboot of a franchise that most people probably didn’t know existed, Shadow Recruit stands on its own as a spy thriller as long as it sticks to espionage. Chris Pine plays Jack Ryan this time, and we get a swift origin story that sets up the boy genius as a financial analyst working undercover on Wall Street when he discovers a Russian plot to sink the American economy. He goes to Moscow to audit the books of a leading oligarch (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed) and finds out the plot is even more nefarious. With the help of Kevin Costner as an old CIA hand and his physician-fiancee, played with typical lockjaw intensity by Keira Knightley, he manages to break into the oligarch’s corporation and steal data, but it’s not enough. He still has to go back to the U.S. and singlehandedly foil a related terrorist attack. Though Branagh’s tongue-in-cheek staging and Pine’s neophyte hamminess keep things entertaining, the requisite action finale is risible. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Agency, or lack of it, is the subtext of this biopic of the first major porn star, Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried), who was coerced and manipulated by her shiftless husband, titty bar owner Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), into performing her supposedly peerless fellating trick on camera. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman emphasize the obvious: Linda’s Catholic upbringing in late 60s/early 70s Florida, where her mother, a distressingly deglamorized Sharon Stone, represents the typical anti-teen values. (“What do you take us for, Protestants?”) As usual with this sort of movie, the 70s production values take precedent and Linda’s rise-and-fall seems to be a function of bad hair choices and garish interior decorating. For a movie about a singular event in the history of human sexuality, it contains very little that’s sexually compelling and only succeeds in rekindling memories for those of us who lived through those times of the way Deep Throat influenced popular culture. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem as big a deal as Epstein and Friedman make it out to be. Even as a woman’s cautionary tale it lacks credibility. (photo: Lovelace Productions, Inc.)

motelThe Motel Life
The Polsky brothers’ adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s well-received novel focuses on a pair of brothers who have been on their own since adolescence, when their mother died of cancer (the father already long gone). Lacking in common sense as much as worldly experience, the boys can’t catch a break, and after the older boy Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) loses a leg in a train accident, Frank (Emile Hirsch) is resigned to taking care of him the rest of his life. The movie is effectively sad and darkly atmospheric, taking place in various working class Nevada communities in the 80s, but it never coheres in terms of story. All the plot points, including the most salient one having to do with a lethal hit-and-run accident, come across as incidental, minor milestones on the brothers’ slow shuffle to ignominy. And the device of telegraphing their hopes and dreams via animated versions of Jerry Lee’s drawings and Frank’s made-up tales adds nothing but novelty. Despite some genuinely inventive and heartbreaking performances, the movie is emotionally indeterminate. (photo: Motel Life LLC)

Alexander Payne’s domestic comedies make trenchant observations about the American family life, and the director needs to get the physical component right first. The most striking thing about this woolly road movie written by Bob Nelson is how much Bruce Dern and Will Forte, playing a father and a son driving from Montana to Nebraska so that the old man can collect his winnings in a mail order sweepstakes, look like each other. The resemblance compensates for inconsistencies in the script, but only as the story moves forward. In hindsight, it’s difficult to remember why it seems so interesting. Dern’s Woody Grant is an alcoholic septuagenarian who suffers from mild dementia and full-blown irascibility. Believing one of those magazine subscription scams that promise the recipient a million dollars, he starts walking to Nebraska and can’t be dissuaded by his son, David (Forte), or loud-mouth wife, Kate (June Squibb). Giving up too easily, David agrees to drive Woody to the sweepstakes headquarters on what he knows is a wild goose chase, and the viewer wonders why Payne couldn’t come up with a more convincing excuse to get these two in a car for a long trip. Always stronger on character than plotting, Payne makes the trip worth it, with Woody’s cantankerous candor breaking through his shaky hold on lucidity to deliver lines that will go down in the history of old cootness. When asked why such a misanthrope like him had kids, Woody can’t lie: “I liked to screw and she’s Catholic.” Payne’s reasons for setting this pair on their southward trajectory become clear when they pass through the town where Woody and June once lived and which is still populated by relatives and old acquaintances, many of whom Woody wants to settle scores with either financially or romantically. Payne’s casting choices are usually irreproachable, and he wisely eschews big names that would only distract from the small town anonymity he wants to explore here, but these are some seriously grotesque Midwestern types, especially a houseful of in-laws who make fun of Woody’s and David’s driving technique as if it were a breach of masculine ethics. Moreover, though Woody’s mission to collect a fortune is obviously delusional, everybody tries to cadge money off of him, thus making it seem as if Woody’s cognitive problems are less age-related than regionally determined. Payne’s insistence on ordinariness extends from the black-and-white photography to the frequent shots of endless horizons, as if the Midwest’s storied flatness were a function of its population’s will to remain boring rather than vice versa, but the movie tests the viewer’s credulousness with its profane irreverence, and in that regard only Squibb, with her raw diction and a consistency of demeanor that conveys a life of connubial disappointment, carries Payne’s theme to a believable place. Everything else is cinema. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Formula One World Championship1
Paul Crowder’s busy overview of F1 racing complements the recent Ron Howard film Rush, not to mention the surprise hit doc about Ayrton Senna. It concentrates on the most salient feature of F1 as a spectator sport, its close relationship to death, focusing on that period in the late 60s and 70s when fatal crashes were almost monthly occurrences. Since the nature of competitive racers—to go as fast as possible regardless of the safety of the machine or the track—is integral to the sport, it was up to the worldwide racing association to guarantee safety, and they couldn’t be bothered. The attitude was that this is what the racers signed up for. Fortunately, Crowder gains access to every living driver from the period, as well as “car builders” and critics, and their comments are incisive and illuminating, much more so than what’s usual in sports docs. Some of the footage is even more thrilling than Howard’s more professional visuals, especially Senna’s on-board view of his surge through the streets of Monaco. (photo: Fast Track Films USA, LLC)

Unfortunate or not, the most compelling thing about Stephen Frears’ drama, based on a nonfiction book by Martin Sixsmith, is the backlash it occasioned for its depiction of the Catholic Church, or, at least, a certain convent under its governance. The practice of certain Irish orders in isolating unwed mothers and selling their babies to adoptive parents against their will, while forcing the girls to work under virtual slave conditions, has been well-documented in other media, most famously Peter Mullan’s scathing The Magdalene Sisters, but what makes Philomena different is that its titular protagonist, a victim of just such a system, is of a mind to forgive it since she remains a devoutly religious individual. Philomena Lee was a teenager in the 1950s when she became pregnant and her father sent her to the Roscrea convent, where she raised her son until he was three at which time he was given to an American couple. Philomena (Judi Dench) eventually left the convent, married, and had a “legitimate” daughter, but on the occasion of what would have been the boy’s 50th birthday she falls into a depression and finally unburdens herself to her daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), who, in an attempt to assuage her mother’s distress, contacts a journalist in the hopes that he might be interested in helping her find out what happened to the boy. Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC correspondent who has just been forced to resign in disgrace from a government PR position, is a dyed-in-the-wool cynic who, forced to take up reporting again, easily sells the story to a tabloid. The contrast between these two—the credulous, deeply religious Philomena and the skeptical, worldly, acerbic Sixsmith—provides the narrative with more conflict than it has room for, but once Sixsmith realizes the duplicity of the nuns who brokered the adoption, his ire is inflamed and he talks the tabloid into sending the two of them to the U.S. to look for her son, a journey that causes even more conflict but brings these two odd birds together. It also makes for an interesting contrast in acting approaches. Dench’s performance is informed by her deep sympathy for her character, and the softness of her portrayal is quite moving despite its sentimental shadings. Coogan, on the other hand, mostly sees Sixsmith as an adjunct to his own comic personality, and you can sense the actor reining himself in during his scenes with Dench lest he inadvertently upstage her. Dench makes sure he carries out his mission, which is to complement Philomena’s inherent sweetness with brusqueness and candor, since he is the one who undergoes the changes wrought by the investigation, not her. The story may have been modified too much for its own good, but the characters hold your interest. (photo: Philomena Lee Ltd., Pathe Prod. Ltd., British Film Institute and British Broadcasting Corporation)

David Twohy returns to Riddickville, which we first visited in 2000 with star Vin Diesel in Pitch Black, a nifty, simple-minded sci-fi thriller that took place almost completely in the dark. Diesel’s titular ex-con, an unrepentant murderer, appeared in one overblown sequel, but this is more like it, Diesel alone on a forbidding planet that’s crawling with carrion eaters and deadly water creatures. Eventually, two-count-em-two crews of bounty hunters arrive to recapture Riddick and bring him back to whence he came, and since it obviously means something that the bounty is bigger if he returns dead, the characters repeat it several times. But we don’t need to be reminded that Riddick is a badass. He repairs his broken leg by forcing steal bolts through the skin, and inoculates himself against the water creatures by injecting venom in his veins. Such a guy can easily handle a dozen hardasses with guns, lasers, and airbikes; though it takes him a few scenes to break down the defenses of the lone woman on the crew, who professes to be a lesbian. Not an obstacle for Vin. (photo: Riddick Productions)

Twenty-seven years after Paul Verhoeven debuted in Hollywood with the the most violent sci-fi film ever made at the time (and, yes, I didn’t forget Alien), Robocop receives its inevitable remake at a time when the speculative elements at the core of the story don’t seem so speculative any more. Brazilian director Jose Padilha, making his own Hollywood, English-language feature debut, and the team responsible for the script have carefully accommodated the headlines in their vision of mechanized security forces while expanding on America’s use of drones in overseas theaters of combat. Though the year isn’t identified, the U.S. is now involved in the liberation of Iran much as it was in Iraq ten years ago, and the military is using large robots to not only “pacify” the populace, but police it as well. When these machines are attacked by suicide bombers, who are treated with sympathy by the filmmakers, the movie seems disturbingly relevant. A fiery, right-wing TV pundit played by Samuel L. Jackson applauds the use of robots and asks why they can’t be used at home to fight crime in our cities. Well, it’s because a bleeding heart senator has sponsored a bill that outlaws such machines, which tend to be manufactured by a company called Omnicorp whose CEO, Sellars (Michael Keaton), sees huge money in law enforcement and endeavors to change the public’s image of robot cops, but how? As these political ideas are being entertained we watch Detroit undercover detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) try to catch a local gun-running operation in the act, and when he is found out by the kingpin of the operation is critically injured in a car bombing. Sellars’ chief scientist, Norton (Gary Oldman), thinks he can rebuild Murphy with cyborg additions, and Sellars finds his way in: a robot with a human conscience that will be acceptable to the public. It’s a lot of setup for a movie that is basically an excuse to perpetuate mindless mayhem, but that was Verhoeven’s movie. This is something else, and Padilha can’t quite square the humanistic angles inherent in the script with the action prerogatives of what is essentially an exercise in nostalgia-mining. Too much emotional capital is spent on Murphy’s family, who demand access even if the only parts of robocop that remain organic are his head, lungs, heart, and left hand. Sellars understands that while conscience will get him where he’s going, it compromises the effectiveness of the robocop’s mission, and so he demands that Norton secretly wipe out the human component. What makes this reboot wholly different from the original is that Murphy’s human traits break through the technology (he solves his own “murder” unilaterally). Only marginally compelling as drama, the movie lacks sufficient thrill power, as if Padilha were afraid of distracting from the pathos. As one factotum puts it with regard to robocop’s appeal, “Kids love it when he transforms.” That’s about it in a nutshell. (photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures & Columbia Pictures Industries)

waltermittyThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty
In attempting to make James Thurber’s classic short story relevant for our post-Internet age Ben Stiller loses the essence of the tale, which is that the mind is the only safe place for most mortals. Stiller’s Mitty works for Life magazine as a photo editor, and though he does fall into fantastic reveries that interlocutors interpret as “blacking out,” as the movie progresses he starts realizing his daydreams by taking off for places like Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan in an attempt to track down an adventurous photographer (Sean Penn) who has a photo he may have misplaced. There’s too much going here for Stiller’s own good. In addition to the global jaunt, Mitty is wooing a single-mother colleague (Kristen Wiig), and undergoing downsizing at the hands of a despicably condescending executive (Adam Scott). It helps that he has a mother (Shirley MacLaine) who understands him all too well. Otherwise, he’d have remained in his head, but that’s where the story belonged anyway. In the end, the movie comes off as merely a vehicle for eye-popping special effects, something Thurber couldn’t even have imagined. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

slave12 Years a Slave
Though much has been made of Steve McQueen’s arty pretensions, when his scripts demand it, his carefully wrought visual aesthetic can be breathtaking in its power to reveal. His first feature, Hunger, remains his best because the story of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’s hunger strike lent itself to depictions that didn’t need words to get its point across—even if the best scene in the movie was an unbroken two-way exchange that justified Sands’ suicide. The follow-up, Shame, was less successful since the theme of sexual addiction was already ripe for self-parody. His third movie, 12 Years a Slave, falls somewhere in the middle. Though McQueen rightly strips away all euphemism from the “peculiar institution” of Southern slavery, his poetic touches occasionally have the effect of making the horrors more interesting to look at than they have a right to be. Based on a famous memoir, the movie shows how Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African-American free man musician living with his family in upstate New York, was fooled into traveling to Washington with the promise of employment only to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northrup’s predicament is rendered doubly horrifying by his realization that any protests he voices to his situation will only make his life worse, since his various white captors, innately convinced that a black man’s role is to serve, see such protestations as an affront not only to their authority but to an over-arching moral order. He can’t admit that he reads and writes, though his violin-playing abilities get a pass since they have some use. At first, he is bought by a relatively understanding plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has to borrow money to pay for him. When Northrup’s superior knowledge of engineering shows up Ford’s foreman (Paul Dano), the latter makes his life even worse and the master is forced to sell Northrup in order to protect him. He ends up in the hands of the pathological Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose appetite for cruelty is matched by his desire for black flesh in the form of the teenage Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). At this point, McQueen pulls away from Nothrup to study the broader manifestations of slavery under a system that prided itself on decorum, and the brutality becomes even more sickening than it was in Tarantino’s cartoon, since the perpetrators pride themselves on being more civilized. The scene where Epps makes Northrup whip Patsey to bloody ribbons uses this idea and the power of McQueen’s visual artistry to exceptional effect, but elsewhere it comes across as just so much tantalizing filigree. Even more disconcerting is a cameo by Brad Pitt, also a producer, as a Canadian itinerant worker who gives an abolitionist speech that sounds gratuitous, as if we really needed to know Pitt’s own feelings on the matter. (photo: Bass Films LLC and Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l.)

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