June 2014 movies

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

GHB_6852 20130121.CR2The Grand Budapest Hotel
It’s telling of Wes Anderson’s curious ouevre that his best films are set in an idealized past that feels like a physical place, as if the present were too changeable to get a fix on. Of course, the past is changeable, too, open to shifting interpretations, but Anderson likes the idea that what really happened can’t be changed, and though his films are fictions he treats them with such unerring sureness of purpose that they feel less like memories and more like fossils. Judging by the way he circles around his main plot in The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s obvious he misses the idea of the “old Europe,” which idealized civilized behavior. In a gambit that feels like a brilliant joke, he moves backwards from the present through not one, not two, but three layers of flashback to the titular institution, a fine hotel in the mountains of the made-up country of Zubrowka lorded over by the proud, effeminate concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who beds his elderly female customers (and probably a few of the male ones) as a show of hospitality that keeps them coming back for more, so to speak. Gustave’s management style is meticulous but fair, and he treats his new “lobby boy,” Zero (Tony Revolori), with respect rather than condescension because Zero must pass on the values of service that the hotel stands for. We already know from the second layer of flashback that Zero will grow up to be Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the hotel in its shabbier 1960s incarnation, and it is Mr. Moustafa’s warm narration that sets the tone of this remarkable tale, loosely based on the writings of Stefan Zweig but nevertheless wholly Andersonian in execution and feeling. On the eve of World War II, Zubrowka is under pressure from authoritarian forces that contradict the old European sensibility M. Gustave represents. The concierge is forced to act on his impulses after a crime occurs in his little empire that affects the fortunes of his most illustrious customer (Tilda Swinton). He becomes embroiled not only in the customer’s noble, in-fighting family, but in the intrigues that will soon plunge the region into war, and he dives into these adventures with all the facility and determination of a fop James Bond. The machinations get complicated, and if Anderson seems to make them that way just to utilize as many of his friends as possible (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum) he doesn’t shortchange the viewer. You follow as breathlessly as M. Gustave as he skis down the side of an Austrian Alp in pursuit of an art thief. The Grand Budapest Hotel has everything you want from a movie. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

HummingbirdHummingbird
On the one hand, this is a thoughtful movie about the trauma of violent deeds. On the other, it’s a Jason Statham vehicle. First-time director Steven Knight doesn’t succeed in squaring these two sides, and the result is muddled where it should be poignant. Joey Smith deserts his post as a British Special Forces soldier after commiting an atrocity in Afghanistan. Homeless in London, he’s victimized by small-time mobsters, and breaks into the apartment of a rich photographer who is gone for six months, partially assuming his identity (including his homosexuality). He cleans up his act, gets a job as an enforcer with a Chinese gang, and gives his ill-gotten gains to the Polish nun (Agata Buzek) who fed him when he was homeless. Haunted by his crime in Kabul, Joey seeks redemption, but as the nun points out he’s hypocritically working both ends of the victimization racket. Knight subverts the usual revenge story by making his hero regretful of the man he is, but not the actions he takes, and in the end revenge gets the upper hand. (photo: Hummingbird Film Investments LLC)

llewynInside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers work best with shaggy dog stories, and this relatively warm ode to the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene gains from the myths it produced, so as you find your bearings with regard to the music, which isn’t as distinctive as you will likely remember it, you readily absorb the integrity of the setting. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a talented musician but an ineffectual person, not ambitious or original enough to make a decent living. He drifts from living room couch to living room couch, mourning the suicide of his partner, scowling at singers who treat folk music as anodyne entertainment, and getting mistreated by resentful old girlfriends (Carey Mulligan, genuinely scary), drug-addled jazzbos (John Goodman), opportunistic careerists (Justin Timberlake), and an impresario (F. Murray Abraham) who sees no bottom line in what he does. The names of characters and Llewyn’s vector of forward motion during the film’s development mirror those in The Odyssey, a text the Coens have raided before, also in the company of music director T Bone Burnett, but this feels better planned than O Brother, Where Art Thou, which was so shaggy it gave off fleas. The brothers have complete control of the milieu this time, so even though Llewyn is a loser in all that he endeavors to be—including as a lover, a brother, a son—he belongs in this place and in this time in a way that you envy. Because while Llewyn’s particular sins don’t really warrant the indignities he endures at the hands of strangers and acquaintances alike, and even at the paws of nominally uncaring animals (the movie has the best cat cameo of recent memory), his almost stoical acceptance seems peculiar to the era, a time when fashion wasn’t yet something you always thought about and politics could be personal without being self-defining. Llewyn is faithful to his craft not due to his principles, but because it’s the thing he does well, a credo that Dylan, if you recall, took to the bank due to his canniness. In the end, when we discover that Llewyn’s father, a Welsh immigrant confined to an old age home for merchant seamen, was a left-wing union hero you feel even more pity for the character. Everyone he meets on a professional basis is looking toward the future or the past, and Llewyn is just stuck in the here-and-now because he lives from day-to-day. It’s why he refuses to take a box of his old recordings when he visits his resentful sister. Why would he want to relive all that, especially since his partner proved how easily it could all slip away? Nevertheless, all he has is old songs, and just because he sings them well it doesn’t mean they will save him from tomorrow. (photo: Alison Rosa 2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)

jodorowsky-duneJodorowsky’s Dune
In the early 70s Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films were the go-to experiences for heads, midnight movies par excellence. The self-taught Jodorowsky had no use for conventional narrative and admits that his aim was to blow people’s minds, and he wanted to tackle Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune, but it didn’t get past the planning stage. Still, the planning stage was pretty cool, and this documentary by Frank Pavich endeavors to show how cool it was. Predictably, the project’s doom was guaranteed by the philistine vision of whatever backers Jodorowsky scared up, a point that doesn’t bear elaboration. What deserves explication is the casting—Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Salvador Dali (as the emperor of the universe, no less)—and some of the production details. The art department for the film boasted the late H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Jean Giraud. Of course, even David Lynch, who’s a better filmmaker than Jodorowsky, couldn’t make Dune interesting, so you can only speculate on what the latter would have produced. But wh owouldn’t want to at least hear Pink Floyd tackling the soundtrack? The better part of Pavich’s movie is simply Jodorowsky, now in his 80s but still full of piss and vinegar, extrapolating on his failed project, and in retrospect it doesn’t sound as farfetched as it probably did back in the day, but that may simply be due to the passage of time and what passes for entertainment nowadays. To paraphrase another sci-fi visionary, ahead of his time he was. As one critic points out, Jodorowsky’s vision predated Star Wars and the whole resurgence of speculative moviemaking, and the rumors themselves of what Jodorowsky was attempting influenced all sci-fi that came after. That doesn’t alter the widely held belief that the picture as the director envisioned it could never be made, but it does enrich the history of cinema during its more formative decade. Perhaps the most interesting anecdote has to do with O’Bannon, who was the second special effects wizard Jodorowsky considered. The first was Douglas Trumbull, the man who would go on to design Star Wars, but the director rejected him halfway through the first meeting because his vision wasn’t ambitious enough. Trumbull’s designs, along with Giraud’s storyboards and Giger’s paintings, are enough proof in and of themselves that the movie would really have been mind-blowing. But, you Dune fans ask, what about the story, which is as dense and detailed as the Bible? For sure, a filmmaker with as little use for narrative as Jodorowsky might have made something even less comprehensible than the Lynch fiasco, but it would probably have been twice as fun. And in a sense, we did get that film, at least in concept, and it was called Alien, which all of the tech principals here worked on. In English, French, German and Spanish.

lastvegas_mainLast Vegas
Basically a series of hit-or-miss comic cliches, this feature feels like a monumental “project” given the talent. Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline play childhood chums from Brooklyn who meet in Vegas to celebrate the marriage of Douglas’s rich West Coast hustler character, Billy, to a woman half his age. Prostate and viagra jokes drop by the dozen and each character has a distinctive issue aggravated by encroaching mortality. The difference between this and the similarly themed Hangover movies is that Vegas’s image as America’s last wanton playground is made safe for the whole family. Kline’s wife even gives him a condom and a note saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Mary Steenburgen plays a former tax attorney pursuing her dream as a nightclub singer and offers the randy quartet an appealing, rational alternative to all the adolescent T&A on display. It’s not as bad as it sounds—Freeman, for once, gets to work outside his hackneyed old sage persona—but it’s got enough embarrassing moments to make it dispensable. (photo: CBS Films Inc.)

2CAJ01802.CR2Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Though this dutiful biopic of Nelson Mandela doesn’t avoid uncomfortable truths about the South African leader—his youthful infidelities and occasional condescensions to colleagues—they come across as requisite dramatic cues rather than integrated personality traits. And while Idris Elba’s performance as the great man demonstrates more range and nuance than the script offers, Mandela is still portrayed as something of a superman—which isn’t to downplay his accomplishments or his courage, only that the viewer is hard put to glean anything from this very long movie about the meaning of his life except for those hard facts everyone already knows at this point: that Mandela, a crusading lawyer, eventually put his life on the line for the anti-Apartheid struggle and, most importantly, did not denounce violence to advance his aims. As a result he went to prison for life, and while his later release and subsequent election as the first black president of South Africa were the outcomes of changing world views, it was his refusal to compromise his principles that lent moral force to his reputation as a leader, but by subordinating the political struggle of the African National Congress to Mandela’s personal story, director Justin Chadwick and writer William Nicholson reduce the real meaning of Mandela’s accomplishment to footnotes. For sure, it might be too much to expect such a movie, which at bottom was bankrolled by Disney, to tackle the problems that Mandela’s post-Apartheid regime didn’t solve by essentially keeping much of country’s economic structure in place, but the ANC’s own problems are exclusively represented by the militant activities of Mandela’s wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), while he was in jail, and which are presented as being more or less an ego trip. Similarly, Mandela’s storied pride is tagged to his status as a Xhosa noble, a man of high station that Chadwick treats as some kind of Brahman-like mark of inexplicable wisdom. These traits are eclipsed when Mandela becomes a firebrand attorney, defending blacks against the cruelties of Apartheid rule in the 1940s. His dogged demeanor, however, is a side effect of his pride, which is why he thinks he can womanize to his heart’s content, despite being married. However, it is his gradual drift into the ANC that really destroys his marriage, but the movie never plumbs those politics sufficiently to give us an idea of how the organization developed and where it was going before Mandela highjacked it with his dominant personality. Just knowing what’s at stake isn’t enough, and for the rest of the film it’s basically one thing after another, a filmed time line set against Mandela’s own martyrdom. It isn’t until the white establishment solicits Mandela’s help in quelling black unrest, which has become uncontrollable, that the movie actually gives you something to think about, because the great leader must make those compromises that a great leader has to at least contemplate. It’s a revelatory moment in a movie that mostly feels like a missed opportunity. (photo: Long Walk to Freedom (Pty) Ltd.)

needforspeed-mainNeed For Speed
Even if you grant this movie’s existence as being justified by the series of computer racing games that spawned it, it takes at least as much suspension of disbelief to appreciate the automotive mayhem that ensues as it does to imagine all those X-Men mutants actually being discriminated against in a world they could easily take over with the right attitude. The worship of internal combustion engines never seemed so pointless, which is why the producers had to create a background for the “story” that looks as if it were taken from storyboards for American Graffiti. Mount Kisco, New York is the kind of leafy town where young men still tool around aimlessly in souped-up cars and, when it gets really dark, actually race through the streets at warp speed. Setting aside the question of local law enforcement, where do these kids get their money in this economy? Our hero, Tobey (Aaron Paul), runs an auto repair shop he inherited from his father, so there’s the matter of tradition, and he employs something like four guys full-time. Reality bites when the note comes due on the second mortgage he took out on the shop, thus making him susceptible to the entreaties of his old townie nemesis, Dino (Dominic Cooper), who parlayed his street skills into a career as a professional car racer out in the evil world. Despite the bad blood between them (something to do with a girl), Tobey the whiz mechanic agrees to work on Dino’s car, which is being sponsored by some big company, but actually Dino wants more, because he knows Tobey is a better driver than he is and eventually challenges him to a race in which Tobey’s best friend is killed and for which Tobey is blamed, even though it was Dino’s fault. Years later, Tobey is released from prison, his life in ruins, his shop closed up, and along comes Julia (Imogen Poots), who represents a company that wants to back him in a race in San Francisco where Dino is favored. The bulk of the story takes place on the cross-country trip that Tobey and Julia take to get to the race in time, all the while being pursued by cops and rivals who want to make sure he doesn’t make it. Whatever director Scott Waugh’s facility with chase scenes he can’t make the melodrama or the comedy work in any meaningful way. The point is for Tobey to get his revenge and show how the honest, working-class dude always triumphs in the end, but there’s so much money thrown around and vehicles destroyed you wonder what sort of values are supposed to be celebrated here. Everything is so intense and determined, and to what end? The only purpose is to get to the next fiery crash. (photo: Dream Works II Distribution Co.)

posttenebrasPost Tenebras Lux
It’s just our luck that the first film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas to receive distribution in Japan happens to be his most confused work; which isn’t to say his earlier films were easy, only that they had narrative integrity. Though Reygadas’s views on cross-class relationships are worth pondering, he seems more interested in the visual possibilities of his setting, a remote farm to which a well-to-do couple move with their children. The opening scene of one of those children running with a group of large animals is fraught with peril and beauty, but it doesn’t lead to anything. Neither does the CG red devil that wanders the house at night, nor the non sequitur jaunts to a European sex spa, unless you connect it to the couple’s lack of romantic chemistry. Things become intriguing when the master of the house catches some help stealing his stuff and is shot in a scuffle, but the outcome of that line of thought runs off the rails. Reygadas seems mainly concerned with interesting compositions and lenses. It’s literally an experimental film. In Spanish. (photo: No Dream Cinema, Mantarraya Prod., Fondo para la prod., Cinematografica de Calidad, le Pacte, Arte France Cinema)

3daystokill3 Days to Kill
It seems as if Luc Besson just sits in his office thinking up treatments for middle aged male stars. Here he does for Kevin Costner what he’s already done for Liam Neeson, and with the same plot. Costner plays Ethan Renner, a CIA hit man with a brain disease who is given one of those “last assignments” by a mysterious, gorgeous operative (Amber Heard) in exchange for a possible miracle cure. Besson, who wrote the script and produced, isn’t known for credibility, which is fine, especially since he hired McG, whose facility with action scenes is fully exploited, though he can’t do much with the sub-plot about Ethan reconciling with his ex-wife (Connie Nielsen) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfield). Despite Costner’s eclipse as a leading man he still exudes native charm and since Frenchman Besson insists on setting the story in Paris he gets more mileage out of Costner’s stubborn American act than he did from Neeson—an Irishman—doing the same thing. But this movie won’t spur sequels the way Neeson’s did. Costner is too much of a goofball. (photo: 3DTK Inc.)

madnessTil Madness Do Us Part
Though not as definitive as West of Tracks or as moving as Three Sisters, Wang Bing’s latest documentary may be his most discomfiting, and not because it’s four hours long. Filmed inside a mental institution in southwest China, Til Madness Do Us Part lays bare an aspect of the Chinese penal system that has been known but not depicted. Most of the patients in this filthy, crowded, dimly lit facility would not be deemed disturbed under normal circumstances, but because they crossed the law in some undefined way or became nuisances to neighbors and even family, they were committed, and just because some of the individuals act crazy doesn’t mean they arrived here that way. Wang honors repetition, and in any other director’s hands it would be tedious, but as we watch these people fall into dangerous patterns of behavior you feel their pain and loneliness acutely and directly. The inordinate run time forces sympathies where repulsion should be the reaction, and when a rare instance of tenderness comes through, you may not be able to stand it. (photo: Wang Bing and Y. Production)

touchofsinA Touch of Sin
For years Jia Zhangke has been contemplating his big commercial move. Initially it was going to be a martial arts epic, then a yakuza flick, and those projects might still be in the works, but instead for the time being he’s given us this study of China’s breakdown, a sort of self-reflexive comment given the crowd-pleasing intentions of all the violence on display. However, in spirit it’s simply a continuation of Jia’s themes since Pickpocket, only in a more accessible package. In the first scene a character on a motor scooter is waylaid by a bunch of punk highwaymen who are promptly blown away by their prey. This highly stylized scene initially scans as a random act, the kind of shocker that sets the mood for the rest of the movie without necessarily being a part of it, but it turns out to be a thread in the overall narrative fabric, which incorporates four separate stories, or five if you consider one sub-plot to be distinctive. All have to do with the corrupting influence of China’s rush to capitalist completeness, and while Jia has handled this concept with greater subtlety in the past, and nowhere more powerfully than in his 2002 masterpiece Unknown Pleasures, his more sensational approach here is appropriate given the director’s eventual acceptance by the authorities. Why shouldn’t he test that dispensation? A former miner who stands up to the venality of the man who won the private concession to the lode in his town tries to expose that venality through a system that fails him, and so he attempts to solve his problems with a shotgun. A receptionist (Jia muse Zhao Tao) in a resort town spa is mistaken for one of the spa’s prostitutes and responds by slashing her insistent attackers to ribbons. A professional thief who has no compunction about killing his targets in broad daylight right on the street turns out to be a migrant worker who is just supplementing his meager income. When he returns to his home for vacation, he is the most loving, attentive father you’ll ever meet. There’s a certain obviousness to Jia’s ideas that make this his most conventional as well as one of his least affecting works, but only when you compare it to his past films. Taken on its own, it’s not only watchable, but thought-provoking. (photo: Bandai Visual, Bitters End, Office Kitano)

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