May 2014 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

906429 - The Amazing Spider-Man 2The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The only justification for making an entirely new franchise of the Spider-Man saga so soon after the first one ended, besides printing money, is that the Tobey Maguire series wasn’t true to the comic’s plot, which meant a lot to the coterie of kids who grew up with it. Peter Parker was the first angst-ridden superhero because he was a teenager with typical adolescent problems exacerbated by the responsibilities that come with special abilities. The biggest change the first series made was eliding Peter’s first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, and going right to his eternal soulmate Mary Jane Watson. So the second installment is the real test, because it tests Peter’s convictions as a superhero against his love for Gwen. However, the screenplay, written by at least four guys, crams so much incident into its two-and-a-half hours that nothing feels consequential, not Peter’s employment as a news photographer (J. Jonah Jameson only figures as a by-line in an email), not his investigation into the reason for his parents’ disappearance, not the ghost of Gwen’s police chief father, not even the feeling of betrayal that causes Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), to turn into the Green Goblin. Even the central standoff between Spidey and Electro (Jamie Foxx) feels as if it’s been shoehorned into the plot as a means of demonstrating how perilous Spider-Man’s public persona is, since Foxx’s character, a nebbish named Max Dillon, is enamored of the web-spinner as only a lonely nerd could be, and when he’s jolted with a huge surge of electricity, thus turning him into a human super conductor, the accompanying sense of power works on his eternally bruised ego, and he imagines Spider-Man as one of his tormentors, even though he once saved his life. But besides the blue glow that Electro gives off, there’s little that’s memorable about him as a super-villain. He’s basically a poor putz who’s going down for all the wrong reasons, whereas Harry, who’s enormously wealthy and powerful to begin with but dying of a genetic disease, is a more monumental bad guy, though Peter still thinks there’s something redeemable beneath the malice. The real subtext of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t teenage angst, but the nature of celebrity, which isn’t a bad theme but it’s been done to death in our age and neither the army of screenwriters nor director Marc Webb has the patience or the time to treat it with any nuance. Webb has his hands full anyway with all the special effects, which are so overbearing you wonder if any of the actors actually had to work in front of a green screen this time. No one and no thing looks natural here. Maybe it’s time for Marvel to get back to actual comic books, which are unnatural by definition. (photo: CTMG)

anydayAny Day Now
Refusing to pull emotional punches in its pursuit of justice, Travis Fine’s melodrama overbears shamelessly. Alan Cumming plays Rudy, a transplanted New York gay man in 1979 Los Angeles, where he makes a meager living lip-syncing to disco hits in a drag show. He lives in an apartment building next to a junkie prostitute with a 14-year-old son with Down syndrome. When the woman is arrested, Rudy takes the boy in and grows attached to him at the same time he is falling in love with Paul (Garret Dillahunt), a closeted lawyer. The authorities find out about the boy and attempt to put him in an institution, so the two men sue for custody. When the court learns they’re homosexuals, their quest becomes difficult, if not impossible. The movie’s dramatic stakes are rigged owing to its time frame, but Fine doesn’t take any chances. As even the judge admits, no one wants this developmentally disabled boy, so why shouldn’t he live with two people who clearly love him and whom he loves in return? The movie isn’t bad, but there’s no reason to see it. (photo: Famleefilm LLC)

bluejasmineBlue Jasmine
Except when he’s fashioning them for his own limited acting style, Woody Allen’s characters rarely display much depth. For the most part they are collections of tics and attitudes custom made for the story at hand, and at first Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), the deluded New York socialite at the center of his latest film, seems typical in that way. She’s introduced on a coast-to-coast flight bending the ear of the unfortunate woman sitting next to her. When they get off, the woman practically runs to get out of her orbit. Jasmine’s self-absorbtion is such that she doesn’t realize her patronizing attitude when she critiques the functional decor of her sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) San Francisco apartment, which can’t compare to what she was used to in Manhattan when she was married to a wealthy hedge fund broker (Alec Baldwin), but that’s all in the past. The guy turned out to be a crook, and the feds have taken everything, so here she is in the city by the bay sharing her sister’s small Victorian flat, which is already taken up by Ginger’s blowhard boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Canavale), who can’t make heads or tails of Jasmine. So far so Woody, but Cate Blanchett us reakkt invested in the character, more so than any Woody Allen lead since Sean Penn’s underrated guitarist in Sweet and Lowdown. Jasmine is not merely clueless about her interlocutors’ reactions. She seems willfully defiant of anything that gets in the way of her satisfaction, and it’s a credit not only to Blanchett but to Allen that this undercurrent of stubborn defiance is a function of the plot and actually means something in the scheme of things. It isn’t just a character trait. In that regard, Blue Jasmine finally makes good on the late-Allen promise of comedy serving the bitterest of human experiences—and vice versa. As Jasmine fitfully goes from surprisingly able receptionist to a besotted dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) to an affair sealed in deceit with a well-connected diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard), we see her desperation in full, and whereas at first it was comically off-putting, it turns before our eyes into real tragedy. Likewise, the parallel indignities that Ginger goes through in trying to accommodate her high-strung, and likely bipolar sister drive her from an imperfect man who loves her to a seemingly perfect one (Louis C.K.) who lies to her. And while Jasmine is obviously Allen’s chance to create his own Blanche Dubois character (with Chili her Stanley Kowalski), he doesn’t merely trade in pastiche, as he did with his European films. He makes the character new for a new era. It’s hard to believe at his age that Woody Allen could grow into something this interesting. He should go West more often. (photo: Gravier Prod. Inc.)

captamerica2Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Since the first movie in this franchise was Captain America: The First Avenger, the title of the new one is misleading. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is not the Winter Soldier. That moniker belongs to a shadowy super-villain who seems to be creating havoc for the benefit of HYDRA, the secret Nazi-sponsored organization of evil that’s still got tendrils in the halls of world power and was the nemesis du jour in the first installment, which took place during World War II. When an assassination attempt is carried out against the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Cap and his Russian sidekick Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), are brought in to figure out who’s behind it, and the trail leads to S.H.I.E.L.D. co-honcho Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and a plan called Operation Insight, which involves the launching of huge, air-borne battleships, whose real purpose is to place the entire planet under close surveillance. Cap’s greatest generation sensibility is offended by this early 21st century neocon scheme, and when he eventually learns that HYDRA is behind it and plans to use the ships to get rid of “undesirables,” he quickly starts bashing heads and wrecking real estate, the upshot being that New York for once is spared total destruction and Washington D.C. gets trashed instead, which, if you interpret it a certain way, could be seen as a victory for the fascists. It’s exhausting to watch, and while I imagine a lot of people dig the extreme mayhem, it requires more suspension of disbelief than Marvel movies usually ask for, and I’m including the ones with Thor. A running joke has Rogers boning up on the sixty years of pop culture he missed in the deep freeze, which provides a soldier named Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who eventually becomes the Falcon, a chance to make his mark: “Marvin Gaye’s ‘Trouble Man’ is the only music you need to know about,” he advises. Actually, the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, might have benefited from watching that movie to get an idea of how sometimes less is more. Though the fight scenes are well staged and Cap’s use of his shield has been refined to a kind of art, there is way too much metal-on-metal vilolence. And while Black Widow’s seductive banter gives her a reason to exist in this particular universe, she isn’t allowed enough ass to kick. In the end, Redford is the most interesting thing here, not so much because of his acting, which is just under-cooked enough, but purely for subtextual reasons, given his career imperviousness to villain roles and, more significantly, his participation is some of the most iconic conspiracy thrillers of the 70s. Remember when he and Dustin Hoffman brought down Washington with nothing more than typewriters? Now those were superheroes. (photo: MVLFFLLC & Marvel)

Though it isn’t as high as Everest, the Himalayan mountain called K2 is considered much more dangerous to climb, and there were numerous attempts that took the lives of dozens of men prior to the first successful shot at the summit in 1954 by an Italian team. This film, edited down from an Italian TV miniseries, purports to chronicle that effort, which was undertaken as a means of lifting the country out of its postwar torpor. The filmmakers readily admit that a lot of the dramatic portions are fiction, and they look it. The romantic subplots feel grafted on and the characterizations—playboy alpinist, rugged skier, pipe-smoking academic, iconoclastic rock climber—hew toward the hackneyed: You can practically set your watch to the eruptions of macho rivalry. And while it’s difficult to deny the courage and fortitude involved in such an undertaking, the chauvinistic zeal is hard to take. “This mountain is now Italian,” the professor who leads the expedition declares, almost obvliious to the Pakistani guides who made sure they didn’t die before he could say that. In Italian. (photo: Redfilm, Rai Fiction & Terra Internationale Filmprouktionen GmbH)

とらわれて夏Labor Day
Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel displays none of the director’s usual cold regard for his characters’ foibles. His heart bleeds right on to the screen for the three principals. Kate Winslet plays Adele, a divorced woman who suffers from depression and Gattlin Griffith her 13-year-old son Henry, who does all he can to keep his mother’s composure from turning to mush. As Henry’s patronizing father, who has remarried and started a new family, tells his son during a weekend visit, he needs a “man around the house.” Little does he know there is one, a fugitive from the law named Frank (Josh Brolin), who is nominally holding the pair hostage while acting as chief cook and bottle washer, teaching Adele how to make the perfect pie crust and even giving her dancing lessons. We understand that Frank’s sentence for the crime he committed is inappropriate thanks to Reitman’s unjudicious use of flashbacks and even less judicious use of Tobey Maguire’s voiceover as adult Henry speaking in hindsight. The nuances of Maynard’s tale are covered up by maudlin prerogatives. (photo: Paramount Pictures Corp. and Frank’s Pie Co.)

nextgoalNext Goal Wins
In 2001, American Samoa lost to Australia by a score of 31-0 in a World Cup qualifying game, the most lopsided loss in the history of FIFA. Over the next ten years the team would only score two goals and in 2011 hired a Dutch coach, Thomas Rongen, to turn them around. As a documentary, Next Goal Wins skirts issues you want to know more about, such as the island’s impoverishment, its relationship to the U.S.—and to Samoa. But it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to convey the cultural niceties that made the team world soccer’s goat but also helped it overcome that image. In the process, some interesting points come out, such as the acceptance of a third sex in Samoan life. Too much time is spent on spiritual matters and not enough on what it takes to win from a physical-strategic standpoint. You may be sick of the uplift by the end of the movie, but you may also want to hop the next flight to Pago Pago. (photo: Next Goal Wins Ltd.)

Hugh Jackman is miscast as Keller Dover, a blue collar American family man with socioeconomic values to match, a rugged individualist who built his own carpentry business from scratch and hunts his own game. Nobody in the audience will be surprised when he turns into a monster after his daughter goes missing. He believes the kidnapper is a mentally challenged adolescent (Paul Dano, with too-big glasses and terrible lank hair) who was said to be parked in a mobile home near where the girl was last seen in the company of a friend the same age. Director Denis Villeneuve, working for the first time in English, takes full advantage of the suburban Pennsylvania setting and its overcast, early winter climate. It’s a chilly movie about a place where the trappings of civilized behavior are subject to sabotage by whatever personal demons its inhabitants entertain, and here there seem to be a surfeit of them. In Dover’s case, the demons have something to do with an alcoholic father who was a cop and may or may not have committed suicide. For the dogged detective in charge of the case, a loner named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), it’s the ghosts of cases he couldn’t solve in the past. For the boy suspect it appears to be everyone he encounters, and when he reveals nothing about the kidnapping the police are forced to release him, but Dover picks him up and holds him prisoner in an abandoned apartment building he inherited from his father, torturing him to find out the whereabouts of his daughter, though the kid can barely put together a sentence. More significantly for the purposes of Villeneuve’s thematic mission, Dover intimidates the father (Terrence Howard) of the other missing girl into taking part in the torture, a craven act that also infects the moral integrity of his wife (Viola Davis), as if Dover’s sickness of spirit were contagious. As potent as these themes are, they are undermined by Jackman’s Wolverine performance. It’s all so precise and mannered. But what’s really perplexing is the story, which turns around and around so many times you eventually can’t tell which way is down. No plot development holds together long enough for the viewer to get a purchase on it, and what starts out as a sharp interrogation of a righteous vigilante impulse that runs off the rails and a compelling police procedural turns into a muddled Fincher-esque thriller about religious fanaticism and the kind of pure evil that seems to only exist in serial killer fiction. The point seems to be to show how extreme situations turn weak personalities into truly wretched human beings, but there’s nothing to balance it out. You start close to the edge and you feel as if you just keep falling for the rest of the film. (photo: Alcon Entertainment LLC)

simpleSimple Simon
Bordering on the insufferably precious, this Swedish comedy’s balanced presentation of what’s it like to live with Asperger’s Syndrome simplifies too much for the sake of dramatic convenience, but its sentiments have more to do with stimulating the funny bone than opening tear ducts, and that’s a rare ambition for this sort of comedy these days. Simon (Bill Skarsgard) decamps from his parents’ home when his mother can’t take any more of his compulsive actions and moves in with older brother Sam (Martin Wallstrom), the only person who really understands him. When Simon gets upset or otherwise can’t process information he retreats into a metal barrel, and the only person who can get him to come out is Sam, who goes along with Simon’s fantasy of being in outer space, away from humanity. Sam’s girlfriend, Frida (Sofie Hamilton), tolerates Simon’s rituals and obsessive behavioral patterns for a while, but eventually she, too, can’t stand it any more and breaks up with Sam. The movie-literate will immediately sense that Frida was never deserving of the basically decent and humanly flawed Sam in the first place. But this isn’t an American romantic comedy, even if it parodies the genre in many ways. Feeling guilty about Frida’s split but needy just the same (Frida washed the dishes, which he has concluded is a specialized skill), Simon looks for a new girlfriend for Sam and starts surveying random women on the street with a meticulously detailed questionnaire. After literally bumping into her twice on a street corner he decides on Jennifer (Cecilia Foras), a young woman whose own foibles also seem to be exceptional, but in a different way from Simon’s. Director Andreas Ohman utilizes animation and graphics to convey Simon’s worldview so as to give the impression he’s more than just the sum of his tics. But what actually makes Simon a well-rounded person is the way his weirdness contrasts with so-called normal people. Everyone, as it were, has his or her quirks, and Ohman gets a lot of comic mileage out of Simon’s work colleagues, who clean parks and public facilities. Though it isn’t expressly revealed if these people also have Asperger’s (it’s implied that they can’t function in “regular” jobs), they are definitely an odd lot, and Simon’s rigor in following his impulses seems almost like an act of responsibility in contrast. Ohman’s use of bright primary colors and his own anally retentive blocking style will remind a lot of people of Wes Anderson, and right now there are a lot worse filmmakers to borrow from, especially when you’re making a movie less about interesting people than about their interrelationships. You just have to look at it objectively, which is exactly what Simon does. (photo: Naive AB, Sonet Film AB, Scenkonst Vastermorrland AB, Dagsjus AB, Ljud & Bildmedia AB)

withnailWithnail & I
Time and its attendant intensification of cynical impulses hasn’t neutralized the caustic black humor of this solipsistic 1987 British comedy, which is being revived in Japan to say goodbye to the estimable Baus Theater in Kichijoji, slated to close by the start of the summer. Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann play the title characters, two out-of-work young actors who spend their days getting drunk and raging at the world from the safety of their filthy flat in Camden. Actually, Withnail rages and “I” (McGann’s character is never named) mostly ducks. The viewer gives them the benefit of the doubt due to their youth, but even the most dissapated among us probably don’t remember our salad days as being so gregarious. Which is to say that Withnail and I doesn’t attempt to mimic reality or, for that matter, wallow in nostalgia. It takes place in 1969, and while there are a few visual (the boys’ drug dealer and his silent Afro’d companion) and even more aural (lots of Hendrix) indicators of the setting, for the most part you aren’t going to get much of a period feel. That’s all for the better since writer-director Bruce Robinson is more concerned with what passes for boldness at that stage in one’s life, when adulthood grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shouts in your face, “It’s now or never, punk.” Withnail shouts back, while “I” is mostly intimidated. Still, they try to keep responsibility at bay. During a misbegotten weekend jaunt to Withnail’s rich uncle’s Lake Country cottage, the pair’s self-serving misanthropy almost gets the better of them, and “I” is forced to bob and weave to avoid the uncle’s (Richard Griffiths) amorous advances after he shows up unexpectedly. Robinson’s flinty dialogue is eternally quotable and aficionados have memorized the whole thing in order to drop nuggets at cocktail parties, but it easily betrays its origins as the stuff of an unpublished novel, and Robinson isn’t much of a director. But thanks to Grant’s total fearlessness some scenes are balls-out offensive. Who on earth would ever dare attempt to make drunk driving funny? Withnail’s refusal to play the game may seem like a generational cliche, but this is the kind of character and performance that set the ball rolling so that cliches get developed. You can understand why a whole drinking game arose around this movie. Not only does it make benders look fun without ever trying to convince you that you will likely die (or, at least, get arrested) if you copy these fools, but gives you something fun to watch and listen to while you do get plastered. Keep your Hangovers. This is the most irresponsible movie ever made, which is why it’s also one of the funniest. George Harrison produced, bless his soul. (photo: Handmade Films Partnership)

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