April 2014 movies

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

actofkillingThe Act of Killing
Certainly the most unusual documentary to hit theaters in recent memory, Joshua Oppenheimer’s cinematic interrogation of the mass slaughter of suspected communists following the 1965 military coup in Indonesia presents a moral agenda that never stays fixed. Confronting perpetrators of those horrors who remain unrepentant to this day, Oppenheimer offers them the chance to reenact the killings, and they happily agree. Some results are hallucinatory, like a bizarre musical number staged outside a fish-shaped restaurant, but most are informed by the cheap Hollywood gangster movies the principals took in at night while they were raping, amputating, burning, and killing during the day. For what it’s worth, the recreations do provide a window into methodologies and psychologies that more graphic means would render unwatchable, but it’s the attitudes that appall. These men remain dark heroes in Indonesia, and even when word gets out of the movie they’re making nothing breaks their self-possession…until the end, when one of the old gangsters finally realizes what he’s done. His breakdown is moving and fitting enough, but it can hardly compensate. (photo: Final Cut for Real Aps, Piraya Film AS and Novaya Zemlya LTD)

saintsAin’t Them Bodies Saints
Whatever else David Lowery’s pretty tale of crime and punishment accomplishes, it puts paid to the notion that the 70s remains the most distinctive decade of American filmmaking. Conflating the magic hour styles of Terrence Malick and Monte Hellman, Lowery sets his tale in what looks like the 70s, though since the cagey opening title card announces “This was in Texas,” it might be anytime. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play Bob and Ruth, lovers who rob. When they’re cornered by police and their partner is fatally wounded, they give themselves up, with Bob confessing to wounding a patrolman who was actually shot by Ruth. He’s sent to jail while Ruth gives birth to a daughter. When Bob escapes to reunite with his “family,” Ruth is of two minds. She still loves the guy but now that she has a child she wonders if it makes sense. Of course, it doesn’t, and though the movie is beautiful to look at and interesting to contemplate, it doesn’t make much sense, either. With Keith Carradine for genuine 70s cred. (photo: ATBS Production LLC)

Tracy Letts adapts his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play for a movie directed rather uninspiringly by John Wells. Meryl Streep is completely within her element as Violet Weston, the matriarch of an Oklahoma family that comes together to mourn her husband, the respected poet and all-around wonderful human being Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), after he drowns himself. Though Beverly was a famous alcoholic the reasons for his self-annihilation are never explored, and in a curious opening scene meant to establish his relationship with the violently volatile Violet, he is interviewing a young Native American woman, Johnna (Misty Upham), to be Violet’s caretaker since she is suffering from mouth cancer. However, Violet’s bigger problem, especially for Beverly, is her pill habit, which apparently predated the cancer onslaught. She self-medicates to beat the band, and after Beverly’s death assembles children and siblings at her big home on the prairie and basically rages at them. What’s immediately suspicious about Letts’ intentions is that there is no one in this motley group who doesn’t have a shameful secret or disastrous character flaw. Most possess both. Violet’s three daughters are such calculated constructs that when they are inevitably put in the same room for a wine-fueled discussion you can practically predict what each one says. Ivy (Juliane Nicholson) is the most normal, the daughter who didn’t move away and who channeled her resentment into a love affair with her first cousin, who goes by the uncomfortable sobriquet of Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) in order to distinguish him from his father (Chris Cooper), who is married to Violet’s salty sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale). Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the batty free spirit engaged to the thrice-divorced entrepreneur (Dermot Mulroney). But the focus of the movie, when it veers away from Violet, is eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), who matches her mother curse-for-curse and thought she was rid of the old bat when she left home years ago. Violet’s sense of betrayal is acute and Streep practically tattoos it on her forehead, but there’s no denying that her bellowing insults are pretty entertaining. They might even be shocking if the revelations weren’t bungled so badly by Wells, who prefers to let Letts’ script speak for itself. If the direction were sharper the movie might not feel so dragged out (though it’s 90 minutes shorter than the play). And while the actors for the most part give as good as they get from Streep, no one will mistake them for a real family, what with Brits like Ewan McGregor and Cumberbatch pretending to be Midwesterners and looking pained in the process. (photo: August OC Films Inc.)

blueisthewarmestBlue Is the Warmest Color
Earnest and well-made, this long study of amour fou between two young women has trouble getting past its already established reputation, and if it seems unfair to focus on the three explicit sex scenes it has to be said that their inordinate length doesn’t really add anything to the story or the themes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary, only that they can’t help but come across as something attached to the movie rather than integral parts of it. Still, Abdellatif Kechiche’s film is provocative in more ways than that. Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a working class teen in Lille who seems desperate for experience and, as demonstrated by her eating habits, digs into anything that might make her a fuller human being. Though it doesn’t happen right away, she is easily seduced by the older art student Emma (Lea Seydoux), and their subsequent affair is characterized by Adele’s bumbling enthusiasm and Emma’s calculating control. In the end the viewer is not as shocked by the passionate abandon, which makes sense under the circumstanes, as by Emma’s increasingly cold treatment of her naive lover, especially when Adele makes the cardinal mistake of sleeping with a boy, something a self-professed open-minded creative type like Emma should probably take in stride, even laugh off. But if the melodrama that Kechiche folds into the story feels over-determined, as if he weren’t confident enough that the characters and their development would provide sufficient dramatic traction, the milieu is always intriguing. Adele’s practical world bleeds into Emma’s more pretentious one, and if the sex weren’t so dominant, Blue Is the Warmest Color would make a great study of social contrasts. After graduating, Adele takes a job as a kindergarten teacher, and in fact more footage is spent on her work day than on her romantic doings. In other words, there’s more to her life than sex or, for that matter, love; which is how it is for all of us. Kechiche’s even-handed approach to this young woman’s education isn’t all sentimental, but it is affecting thanks to Exarchopoulos’s defenseless performance. When Emma throws her out you feel as devastated as Adele does, and it seems to take as much time to recover. That may be why the long running time isn’t as controversial as the sex scenes: you don’t really notice it because Adele is the kind of person you want to know more about. It’s not just that she’s beautiful and vulnerable—with his love of closeups, Kechiche makes sure those two qualities never leave your consciousness—but that her environment and our perception of it makes her so. Similarly, the sex scenes are all the more powerful because of how well we have been prepared to observe this young girl exploring her capacity for pleasure. Is it pornographic when it’s so disturbingly real? In French. (photo: Wild Bunch-Quat’sous Films-France 2 Cinema-Scope Pictures-RTBF-Vertigo)

brokenThe Broken Circle Breakdown
A dark northern European sensibility informs this Belgian melodrama, a sensibility that sees desperation as the only outcome of certain conspiring forces of fate. Didier (Johan Heldenberch) leads an excellent bluegrass band that favors spirituals even if he’s an atheist at heart. He falls in love with tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who joins the band as a singer. They have a daughter, whom Johan indulgently names Maybelle, and at the age of six she dies slowly and painfully of cancer. Didier endeavors to move on but Elise can’t without serious adjustments, such as changing her name and asking Didier to take to heart some of the spirituality he sings about so passionately. Director Felix van Groeningen doesn’t leave room for either of these two distinct personalities to budge, and the fall is inevitable and far. But unlike similarly toned stories by Danish director Susanne Bier, this one relies on characters that don’t evoke a lot of sympathy. Didier’s hypocrisy is born of stubborn ignorance, and Elise’s desperation feels predetermined. Moreover, George Bush is used as a lazy plot device. In Flemish and English. (photo: Menuet/Topkapi Films)

siegeThe Day of the Siege
Subtitled “September 11, 1683,” this historical epic, which purports to reenact the siege enacted by a 300,000-strong Ottoman force under the command of Grand Vizhir Kara Mustafa on Vienna, the “golden apple” of Europe, can’t help but conjure up images of that more recent Sept. 11, when armed men representing Islam attacked a powerful Western capital. Unfortunately, this Italian-Polish co-production doesn’t even attempt to go deep, and barely explains the background of the battle or the inter-faith situation at the time. F. Murray Abraham as the monk Marco D’Aviano scurries around wringing his hands at the lack of faith in God’s goodness, while Mustafa (Enrico Lo Verso), who supposedly saved the monk’s life as a boy, obsesses over fate using language (“…before many moons pass…”) borrowed from bad Westerns. Even the battle, where the strategic genius of the Polish king Jan Sobieski (Jerzy Skolimowski) outwits Mustafa’s superior forces, is dull and droopy, characterized by over-use of slow motion and tight shots that fail to convey the vast numbers involved. And don’t get me started on the CGI. (photo: Martinelli Film Co. International srl/Agresywna Banda)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt displays an appealingly light touch in his directorial debut about a working class New Jersey guy named Jon (Gordon-Levitt) who prides himself on knowing exactly what he’s about (the voiceover is priceless), but has one weakness: online porn, which he consumes endlessly despite an enviable talent for bedding gorgeous women. If Jon’s Lothario inclinations are more tolerable than others, it’s because he’s perfectly honest about his sexual intentions, for what that’s worth. Then he meets the earthy Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who plays harder to get, which only piques his fascination to the point where he thinks he may be in love with her, but once she finds out his secret she lays down the law: no more porn or she walks. Gordon-Levitt might have had a nice, simple, risque comedy if he didn’t ask the viewer to accept more: redemption in the form of an older widow (Julianne Moore) who takes Jon as he is and then learns him some life’s lessons. The fact that the director thinks these lessons are revelatory shows he’s even more naive than Jon. (photo: Don Jon Nevada LLC)

getactionGet Action!
Teengenerate was the best Japanese band on the early 90s punk scene, at least according to the several dozen talking heads who testify on this tribute doc. Judging from live footage included in the film, I would find it difficult to disagree, though I’m not an expert on that scene. More beholden to the short-sharp-melodic style of 70s punk epitomized by the Ramones and the Dead Boys, Teengenerate were a must-see on the underground punk circuit in the US and Europe, and the fact that they called it quits on Dec. 31, 1995, after two years of intense touring and record-making attests to their integrity. If only the filmmakers had honored that spirit with a concert film. Instead, director Junya Kondo follows the two core members, Fink and Fifi, on trips to records stores and their home town, and hears redundant compliments from everyone from Guitar Wolf’s Seiji to the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow. Is it really necessary to spend ten minuntes arguing whether Teengenerate’s music qualifies as punk or garage? Let the viewer decide. (photo: Nippan, King Records)

lonesurvivorLone Survivor
Some critics have called this bloody, nerve-wracking feature an anti-war movie. But if the viewer gains that insight by the end of Lone Survivor he has arrived there on his own, because the movie has nothing to say about the war in Afghanistan. Given the circumstances on the screen you would more readily conclude that the whole endeavor was a massive cock-up. Investigating a 2005 operation that resulted in the deaths of 19 Navy SEALS, director Peter Berg is careful about clarifying what went wrong, but in the end what’s really wrong is that these guys are there in the first place. The Taliban commander who is the target of the mission is first shown decapitating a civilian. In contrast, Berg makes sure you understand that the SEALS are the elite of the elite, juxtaposing montages of grueling training with scenes of fraternal comeraderie that imply these men’s relationships with one another is more important than any other. As with all recent war movies, the technical elements of the operation are closely covered. We understand where and how the four SEALS who have been tasked with the assignment, played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster, are supposed to engage the enemy. After being deposited in a mountain forest, they make their way to the edge of a village where the commander is reconnoitering and stumble upon a group of goatherds, including a small boy. If they let the goatherds go, there is a good possibility they will alert the Taliban before reinforcements can arrive, but keeping them hostage is impossible and killing them is illegal, so naturally they let them go. As predicted, they are found out and chased up the mountain. The main problem is communications: their satellite connection to the SEALS base is fitful at best, and once the battle starts in earnest the four are on their own. Whatever else you can say about Berg’s choices as director, his staging of the firefight is viscerally impressive. There is no relief for the soldiers or the audience as bullets hit their mark, forcing the men to retreat to the other side of the mountain, from which they tumble with bone-crunching realism. The title of the movie preempts spoilers, but even knowing the fate of these men doesn’t prepare you for the relentless violence that ensues, and that’s not the half of it, since when the cavalry does finally show up they die, too, in an accident that probably could have been prevented. The only good thing to come out of this debacle is that the titular lone survivor made friends with an Afghani villager who risked his life to save him. Fair enough for the kind of emotional payback a movie like this is required to deliver, but it doesn’t change the fact that the incident was a horrible tactical disaster.(photo: Georgia Film Fund Seventeen Holdings LLC)

Though it provides a nice opportunity for Colm Meaney to portray a character that’s deeper and softer than his usual cantankerous Irishman, this debut feature by Darragh Byrne isn’t itself very deep. As a study of the everyday indignities of homelessness, it’s sufficiently empathetic, but the core relationship between middle aged Fred (Meaney) and 21-year-old druggie Cathal (Colin Morgan) doesn’t go very far. Both are living in their cars in a parking lot along the sea near Dublin. Fred’s is clean and filled with everyday amenities—he prides himself on his routine; while Cathal’s is a pigsty. Nevertheless, the two strike up a close friendship based mainly on Fred’s need for stimulation in a life that’s always been closed off. Byrne wisely keeps the back story to a minimum, concentrating on the here-and-now, and while the sideshow romance between Fred and a blonde Finnish piano teacher (Milka Ahlroth) is tastefully done, it feels obligatory, a function of the co-production, which is Irish and Finnish. As far as pacing goes, it splits the difference between carefree and stultifying. (photo: Ripple World Pictures Ltd.-Helsinki Filmi Oy)

pastThe Past
In his last two films, Asghar Farhadi has explored the peculiar emotional terrain of connubial life in Iran, which might have been unnavigable for Western audiences. The social details that made About Elie and the Oscar-winning A Separation believable are such that most of us not raised in a similar environment wouldn’t normally find anything to identify with, but Farhadi is such a compelling and thoughtful storyteller that the viewer pays closer attention than he might with a more conventional film. The rewards of such scrutiny with his latest are even richer, though the plot isn’t as nearly as inscrutable, and not just because it takes place in France. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has come from Tehran to Paris to finalize his divorce from Marie (Berenice Bejo) after several years of separation. Though the divorce is nothing more than a formality, Marie’s circumstances make it complicated. She has two children by men other than Ahmad, including teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet), whose poisonous resentment of her mother makes Ahmad suspect that there’s something more at stake than adolescent hormones. His suspicions are borne out when Marie admits that the reason she needs the divorce is because she wants to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), another Iranian immigrant, but one who, it turns out, is still married himself. Though Lucie also resents Ahmad (“You left her just like all the others…”), he resents Samir even more and finally tells him that Samir’s wife is in a coma after having attempted suicide. Ahmad’s queries reveal a serious divide in the household with regard to the reasons behind the attempt. Lucie believes she did so when she found out about the affair between Samir and Marie, but Marie says that Samir’s wife—who, like Marie, is French—has been on anti-depression medication for years. The missing link in this chain of recrimination is Samir, who isn’t sure why his wife did what she did. Farhadi’s painstaking exposition sometimes veers toward the clinically procedural, as when he attempts to make the mystery deeper through the testimony of an employee of Samir’s dry cleaning establishment who happens to be an illegal immigrant—and thus has “motives” for saying what she says—but he never shortchanges the emotional truths that attend these unfortunate developments. Some have called Farhadi’s cross-cultural plot devices contrived, since Ahmad, as the central mediating force, stands in contrast to the kind of libertine sensibilities associated with French society and which seem to be at the heart of this family’s problems. But Ahmad doesn’t avoid his own complicity in the tragedy, even if he has no direct involvement in Samir’s situation. The main point is that Farhadi does not judge. If anything, he commiserates with all the principals, even as he stuffs them through the emotional wringer. In French & Farsi. (photo: Memento Films Production – France 3 Cinema – Bim Distribuzione – Alvy Distribution – CN3 Productions)

SAVING MR. BANKSSaving Mr. Banks
It sounds unwise to entrust Disney Enterprises with a story that features its founder as a main character, and while this scrubbed and polished story of how Mary Poppins became a movie attempts more psychological complexity than might normally expect from the Mouse Factory, it still sticks to established Disney dramatic principles. Walt (Tom Hanks) once promised his daughters he’d bring P.L. Travers’ flying nanny to the screen, but the author (Emma Thompson) has refused to sell him the rights, being rightly suspicious of the Disney imprimatur and generally turned off by “silly cartoons,” especially ones that feature cheery musical numbers, which is what Disney traded in. But royalties have been stagnant for years, and her agent talks her into flying from England to California to meet with Disney. This adventure in the Magic Kingdom is then set against memories of her girlhood in the Australian outback, when her name was Helen Goff and her beloved alcoholic father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), worked at a bank, just as Mr. Banks, the man who hires the efficient nanny in her book, does. It would be too simplistic to say that Travers’ stubbornness about her creation was a function of her desire to preserve her father’s memory, but that seems to be exactly what director John Lee Hancock wants us to believe. While in Hollywood, Travers maintains her stolid front against the rush of American familiarity—Walt insists on calling her by her first name though she repeatedly asks him not to—and her demeanor stands in stark contrast with the bright dispositions of her working class driver (Paul Giamatti), the team who are writing the songs for the movie (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzmann), and all the other factotums at Walt’s disposal. In fact, if Hancock has a slightly wickeder sense of humor he could have done something interesting with the way Disney is addressed by his underlings as a kind of benevolent Uncle Joe (Stalin), especially when he strolls around the recently opened Disneyland and fans bow obsequiously before him. Consequently, it’s Thompson who saves the movie from being as insufferably sunny as the southern California weather on display. Though she eventually gives in—there wouldn’t have been a movie if she hadn’t—Travers’ stubborn propriety is not only a bracing tonic but seems inherently sensible given her background and how much care she put into her creation. Of course, the movie made her richer and inspired her to write sequels, outcomes too vulgar for the purposes of the film, but Thompson is so convincing, not to mention moving, in the role that you just wish Hanks would disappear. (photo: Disney Enterprises)

worldsendThe World’s End
Though Edgar Wright’s metier is the genre sendup (Shaun of the Dead, Fuzz), his theme is always the same: How can a guy (always a guy) who finds ultimate comfort in the habits of adolescence ever grow up? Wright muse and co-scenarist Simon Pegg is Gary King, a legendary barfly who has lost touch with the drinking pals of his youth. He assembles them for an attempt at accomplishing the Golden Mile, a gauntlet of 12 pubs that he failed to complete back in 1990, when he presumably was made of stronger stuff. His mates (Eddie Marsdan, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Nick Frost) have gotten on with their fitful lives but can’t stifle their curiosity with regard to King’s challenge. But what starts off as a typically wry Wright adventure turns into something more bizarre, though, given his work as a whole, not surprising. As it turns out, Wright is sending up another genre, the one typified by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a switcheroo that both explains the sinking feeling these lads have as they encounter old faces who don’t remember them, and shock-reverses the script’s misleading slide toward morbid middle-age melodrama, which, in any case, is more pointed than any similar theme you’d find in an American comedy these days. What you get is sci-fi splatter with better-than-average CGI and a moral reckoning that, while not exactly worthy of O’Neill, does make our unlikely heroes seem more…heroic, if not downright adult. This last observation may be where different fans of Wright will disagree. By making King such a roistering anti-maturity advocate, Wright risks pursuing the obvious, where in the past he didn’t have to force anytyhing. His greatest annoyance is the badgering he inflicts on Andrew (Frost), who in the meantime has given up drinking and for good reason, though King accepts it as a betrayal. He and Wright can’t quite make this joke funny enough, even when Andrew quickly falls off the wagon. Allusions to past sins quickly become the stuff of flashbacks, further belaboring the point. But as this quintet goes further into their quest and in the process uncovers more interpersonal gripes there’s something weird going on in the margins: all the pubs look the same as do all their clientele, a point our protagonists notice but since they’re so caught up in their own revived traumas it takes a while for them to catch on to the truth. My guess is that the initial impulse was for Wright and Pegg to trash the notion of nostalgia—that if you actually could relive the past the way you idealized it, you’d realize what a screwed-up way of thinking that is. Here, that notion is rendered deadly and disastrous, and if the mayhem confuses the issue it also makes adulthood more immediate. These guys really do have to grow up fast. (photo: Universal Studios)

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