July 2014 movies

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

beyondedgeBeyond the Edge
Given his status as New Zealand’s greatest 20th century hero, it seems unfortunate that the late Sir Edmund Hillary’s achievement is being memorialized with this pokey docudrama. Following several unsuccessful attempts to reach the summit of Mt. Everest by the Swiss and others, a British team lead by John Hunt decided to try in May of 1953 before the monsoons moved in. Hillary, a beekeeper by vocation, was a passionate mountaineer who made it onto the team but due to his nationality ended up low on the pecking order. The film does a good job of delineating events to show why it was Hillary and not one of the Brits who made it to the top, and sufficiently describes those qualities that distinguished him during the adventure. But the movie has no dramatic traction. Whether showing climbers gasping for oxygen and losing their bearings or depicting near fatal plunges down crevasses, all the scenes are pitched in the same flat tone, so even when Hilary and his guide, Tenzing Norgay, reach their goal, you feel little in the way of exhiliration. (photo: GFC (Everest) Ltd.)

childrenrevolutionChildren of the Revolution
Shane O’Sullivan’s documentary considers two anti-capitalist radical leaders from the 60s: Ulrike Meinhof of Germany’s Baader Meinhof Group and Fusako Shigenobu of the Japanese Red Army. Both women were involved in violence for their causes and went to jail. They also gave birth to daughters, and it is these two offspring that O’Sullivan focuses on. Bettina Rohl, a journalist, expresses resentment for her mother’s actions because of the compromises she made—Meinhof and her associates cooperated with East Berlin. Since her mother’s suicide in 1976 while in jail, Rohl has attempted to interrogate her legacy in the most unflinching way. May Shigenobu, whose father was Palestinian, is also a journalist, but her approach is different in that her mother has only been in prison since 2000. She grew up with her in the Middle East, where she lived underground, and her sympathies are clearly on her mother’s side as she sidesteps the question of how responsible Fusako was for the deaths of people caught up in the Red Army’s activities. The contrast is fascinating, and a bit frustrating. In English, German and Japanese. (photo: Transmission Films)

realityThe Dance of Reality
After four decades, Alejandro Jodorowsky isn’t necessarily expected to be the same person who directed the psychedelic freakouts El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and this reminiscence of his childhood in a Chilean coastal town, though bizarre in spots, substitutes nostalgic yearning for the willfully provocative. Though young Alejandro (Jermias Herskovits) gets lots of screen time, it’s his father, Jaime, who is the center of attention. As played by the director’s own son, Brontis, the character contains so many subtexts it’s distracting, but as a dramatic persona he’s a rare creature. A dyed-in-the wool communist who displays a large photo of Stalin on the wall of his millinery shop, Jaime insists his son become a man the old-fashioned way, through pain and humiliation; and he expects nothing less of himself. The bulk of the film involves Jaime’s failed attempt to assassinate Chile’s president and the odyssey of self-discovery the act entails, but Jodorowsky stuffs the frame with grotesque and scatalogical non sequiturs that are less shocking than they were in 1970 due to the emotional involvement of his storytelling. In Spanish. (photo: Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, Le Soleil Films Chile, Camera One France)

ALL YOU NEED IS KILLEdge of Tomorrow
For once the awkward-English title for the Japan release of a big Hollywood movie trumps the foreign-release title. All You Need Is Kill sounds dumb, but it’s the name of the Japanese novel on which the story is based and encapsulates the winking slyness of the plot premise. Tom Cruise plays Cage, a U.S. military PR flack and officer who has no firsthand experience with combat but whose job is to sell service. The movie’s first, rather brilliant joke occurs when the commander (Brendan Gleeson) of allied earth forces repelling an alien invasion on the European continent tries to “embed” Cage with soldiers who are going to carry out a D-Day-like invasion on the beaches of Normandy. Cage isn’t too keen on fighting and actually threatens the commander, a stupid move because the latter reacts by busting him down to private and shipping him out the next morning with the grunts. The idea of Tom Cruise trying to weasel his way out of action is quite entertaining in practice, and the movie takes the joke almost too far when Cage is immediately killed by the whirling, tentacled ETs, called Mimics, after he hits the beach. He then “wakes up” in the same place he woke up that morning and is forced to go through the whole harrowing process again…and again. The reason for this repeating reincarnation isn’t explained in a manner that is satisfying, but suffice it to say it has something to do with the Mimics’ ability to predict exactly what the humans are going to do on the battlefield. For Cage, it means trying to avoid getting killed in the same way he was killed in the “past,” so what you have is an active learning curve. Eventually, he hooks up with Rita (Emily Blunt), a super soldier with a worldwide following who, it turns out, has also been stuck in reset mode—it’s why she’s a super soldier—but who somehow loses this ability. It’s thus up to Cage to keep dying and thus get closer to the secret of the Mimics’ strategy. Whatever philosophical or social themes director Doug Liman and his scenarist, Christopher McQuarrie, are pushing for, they wilt in the shadow of the visceral component, which has Tom Cruise literally experiencing a million ways to die, each one of them a terror and a hoot. In a sense, Cage has to become Cruise, meaning a hero with a sense of purpose and responsibility, and for movie fans who have always suspected the actor of being a little too full of himself as a star, the subtext here is irresistible, even if the outcome isn’t half as interesting as it could be, probably because the story and the direction lose much of their wit along the way. There’s something about a soldier you just have to take seriously. (photo: Village Roadshow Films (BMI) Ltd.)

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s second English-language feature is an adaptation of a novel by Jose Saramago and set in Toronto. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a bored history professor whose metier is totalitarianism and dictatorships. A colleague, intrigued by his ennui, suggests a movie, as if it were some kind of new sport, and Adam meets the suggestion halfway by renting a DVD of a low-budget indie and watching it on his computer. The film makes less of an impression than one of the bit actors, who looks exactly like Adam. Stimulated seemingly for the first time in his life, he tracks down the actor, who conveniently lives in Toronto, too. He’s a man named Anthony (also Gyllenhaal), who not only looks and sounds like Adam, but has a similar scar on his abdomen and produces the same handwriting. He starts stalking him, though Villeneuve never convincingly establishes a motive for Adam’s obsession beyond a philosophical fascination with coincidence. In any case, the two finally meet in what has to be one of the most uncomfortable getting-to-know-you sequences ever: both men act as if the other were a threat, which, in a way, is understandable even if you can’t precisely explain why. Anthony, it turns out, is quite different from Adam: aggressive, frank, demonstrably concerned with the well-being of his pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon), whereas Adam seems to take his girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) for granted. And in the end, it is these two men’s partners who provide the means for them to prove their respective worth as men, meaning humans with penises. Inevitably, the friction between them facilitates a switching of places, and the movie’s chilliness starts penetrating to the bone. The horror movie touches and recurring visual motifs (spiders, oppressively gloomy weather) clue the viewer in on the fact that the movie is essentially allegorical, and you can’t help but think that it probably won’t mean anything if you don’t read Saramago’s book, as well. Whatever unsolved mysteries the plot contains are nevertheless thought-provoking in addition to being maddening. Gyllenhaal doesn’t have quite as tricky a chore as Nicolas Cage was tasked with in Adaptation, but sometimes the demands of horror are dearer than those of comedy, and not since Zodiac has Gyllenhaal lost himself so completely in a role…er, roles. You really do believe these are two very different personalities, which only makes the subterfuge of their scheme all the more shocking. (photo: Rhombus Media (Enemy) Inc./Roxbury Pictures SL/9232-2437 Quebec Inc./Mecanismo Films SL/Roxbury Enemy SL)

It’s difficult to understand what John Turturro was trying to achieve with this silly Brooklyn-set comedy, but for some reason he attracted an amazingly diverse and accomplished cast to help him try. Woody Allen is the main catch as Murray, a used bookseller looking at forced retirement and wondering what he’s going to do with his days. For reasons never sufficiently explained he lives with a middle aged black woman and her three children, none of whom are obviously his and who treat him as more of an uncle than a father or grandfather. The fearlessness of this mixed ethnicity device is refreshing, but as with many of the movie’s plot points it tends to call up questions rather than advance a story. Murray’s best friend is the younger, grounded, seemingly touched by tragedy Fioravante (Turturro), who nominally owns a flower shop but seems adept at anything he puts his hand to, including casual sex. For other reasons never explained sufficiently, Murray’s female dermatologist (Sharon Stone) asks him, of all people, if he knows of an available man of good sexual standing who can help her and her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) fill out a menage a trois, and Murray thinks of Fioravante, who first tries to beg off, but when it becomes clear that Murray needs the money, he indulges his friend, which isn’t difficult to do if you’ve ever seen Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara. The scheme is so successful that Murray starts pimping Fioravante out to other women in the neighborhood and beyond, though where he gets his connections isn’t explained, either. Meanwhile, Murray’s apartment is found to be teeming with lice, so he has to take the three kids to a specialist, a woman named Avigail (Vanessa Paradis) who is the widow of an orthodox Jewish rabbi. Murray repays her by setting her up with Fioravante, not for sex but for a massage (another in his bottomless skills set), but intimacies are revealed and affections sparked, which bothers the orthodox Jewish cop (Liev Schreiber) who has nursed a crush on Avigail since he was a kid. As far as comedy goes, Turturro gets his money’s worth from Allen, whose ad libs remind you that he’s still capable of pretty good zingers when he doesn’t have to put his mind to it. He’s especially effective during a scene where he has to defend himself to a Jewish kangaroo court. But the movie’s various elements never come together and Turturro’s character is a conceit without a form, a good man who does good things but doesn’t seem very real. It’s as if, having assembled a good cast, Turturro was given financing on the condition he make the movie right away, before he had a clear idea of what he wanted. All you get is a warm, fuzzy portrait of Brooklyn.(photo: Zuzu Licensing LLC)

Spike Jonze’s new movie proves how love really is eternal, in the sense that it never goes out of style even if the trappings of romance change. His protagonist, a moony man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), lives in Los Angeles and works at a company that writes love letters by proxy. Theodore puts into very nice words what perfect strangers feel about other perfect strangers. It’s the near future, and while the technology that rules everyone’s lives isn’t that much different from the technology that rules our lives now, it’s more pervasive. If this were science fiction, the social aspect would be considered dangerous or sad, but here it’s taken for granted, and when Theodore falls in love with his phone’s OS, it isn’t treated as weird or bizarre. It’s treated as if it were any other love story, except for the inevitable heartbreak moment, which turns on a function of Internet technology that can’t be avoided and gives the movie its aching poignance. Theodore, though not the most demonstrative person in the world, isn’t a solitary geek. He is in the middle of a divorce but still on relatively good terms with his ex (Rooney Mara), who suggests that he didn’t love her enough. It’s basically the Cyrano model turned on its head: a man who understands the mechanics of romance but who can’t manipulate them to his advantage, or perhaps doesn’t want to. When he gets an OS update for his phone, he opts to make the voice interface that of a woman named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and one of the OS’s features is an ability to empathize so as to make better choices, and that means Samantha also adapts to Theodore in such a way as to make him appreciate her. Her is a comedy, but one without overt jokes. As Theodore’s love for Samantha becomes apparent, she suggests they have sex through a surrogate, an idea ripe for slapstick humor, but Jonze doesn’t push the point, because he wants to show that what these people are going through is not really that different from what we’re going through now. Machines evolve faster than humans, and if there is one joke at the heart of Her it’s that the normal life cycle of a love affair is sped up. In accordance with the rules of romantic comedy, Theodore has to experience jealousy, and that happens when Samantha expresses admiration for another OS modeled after philosopher Alan Watts. The biggest disconnect in the relationship, as pointed out by Theodore’s best friend, a documentary filmmaker (Amy Adams), is that computer systems are not mortal. But just because everyone knows this it doesn’t mean they can control their human urges. In the funniest scene, one of Theodore’s co-workers asks him what he loves about Samantha, and he can’t say. The movie is like that, too. It’s profoundly likable, though you can’t decide exactly why. (photo: Untitled Rick Howard Company LLC)

greatsilenceInto Great Silence
Context is important to this unusual, and unusually long, documentary about a remote monastery in the French Alps. The German director, Philip Groning, waited 16 years for permission to film at the facility, which was founded in 1084. There isn’t much dialogue because the monks are busy communing with God and not one another. Nevertheless, the routines Groning discreetly captures have to do with work—the cultivating of food, the shoveling of snow, the preparing and delivery of meals (the place resembles a prison in the way its inhabitants rarely leave their cells), even the bookkeeping (on a computer, no less, not a hide-bound ledger)—and the business of faith remains opaque, all gestures and an overwhelming silence. Groning understands he can’t convey the religious experience in any meaningful way, but he can give the viewer some idea of this place in real time. You won’t learn anything about the history of the Carthusian order, but you will experience what it’s like to live a life of “joyful penitence,” free from the burden of material concerns. In French. (photo: A Philip Groning FilmProduction)

Purists curse Disney for having prettified the original Brothers Grimm fairy tale, which is slightly unfair for two reasons. First of all, the Grimms themselves adapted the story of Sleeping Beauty from folk tales, and second the Disney version is beholden more to the Tchaikovsky ballet, which, like most ballets, didn’t have much of a through-plot in the first place. This so-called prequel is actually a complete retelling of the story based on the Disney version, and in a sense reverts to the Grimm model in that its tone is more psychologically nuanced. That would seem to be a function of our times, and of Disney’s collaboration with Pixar, but in any event it was made with Angelina Jolie in mind. Patterned after the evil fairy in the Disney tale, right down to the bluish pallor, black couture, and goat horns, Jolie’s Maleficent is given an excuse for her evil ways, an excuse that engenders a less satisfying fairy tale even if it’s grittier in the telling. Maleficent is a kind of guardian for the land of fairies, which sits uneasily next to the land of humans, and as a girl she talks a sly human boy, Stefan, out of stealing a gem from a fairy cave. They became friends and eventually something like lovers, but when the king of the human land tries to invade the fairy realm his army is repulsed by Maleficent and the king left mortally wounded. Hearing the decree that anyone who kills the fairy will inherit the crown, Stefan (Sharlton Copley) lures Maleficent into a trap and mutilates her, bringing proof back to the king and thus gaining the throne and setting the stage for Maleficent’s evil designs against his kingdom and his eventual progeny, a princess named Aurora. It’s here where the story loses its transgressive mojo. In the original, Aurora is cursed by Maleficent and the three good fairies spirit the baby away to the woods to protect her until her 16th birthday, at which time the curse will become invalid, but in the new movie Maleficent knows this and watches from afar as the three fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville) botch their child-rearing gig. As Aurora enters adolescence and becomes Elle Fanning, she makes the acquaintance of Maleficent, believing her to be her fairy godmother, and a connection is made. It doesn’t take much to figure where things go from there, though the money shot is sufficiently weird to make you wonder if some of the old Disney hands disapproved. But that means Jolie’s valiant attempt to do well by her character’s evil designs is thwarted by what appears to be corporate fiat, and the movie never lives up to its initial promise. Disney will not be denied. (photo: Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The filmmaker Rithy Panh was 13 when his family was taken from Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge. His memory of those terrible years, when the Pol Pot regime tried to wipe out an entire culture, is surprisingly in tact considering the horrors he witnessed, and while the regime couldn’t prevent him from remembering they did eliminate any means of backing up those recollections: little film or other artifacts attesting to what happened. So Panh tells his story with dolls hand-sculpted by Sarith Mang, who provides everything Panh needs, from individual figurines representing people Panh knew, to “faceless crowds.” Though the movie lacks a coherent structure, it does have recurring motifs that drive home the single-mindedness of the reeducation camps, which endeavored to make everyone classless by taking away their individuality. Even the notion of “family” was considered bourgeois. So while we get a clear idea of the cold-blooded indifference of the place, the even-handed presentation removes us from the despair that these unfortunates must have felt so acutely. The movie is more sad than horrifying. In French. (photo: CDP/ARTE France/Bophana Production)

muscleMuscle Shoals
Fame Studios would seem the most unlikely successful place to make records if all you did was read its particulars: located in a sleepy Alabama backwater called Muscle Shoals and staffed mainly by white dorky teenage boys. But Rick Hall, the man who turned it into the mecca for Southern soul, a place sought-after for its unique “sound,” was so single-minded about what he wanted to accomplish that the venue transcended not only its place, but its time: the civil rights struggle in the South. Though the interviews with Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Etta James, Clarence Carter, and dozens of others testify to the unique dedication these music lovers lent to their craft, Greg Camalier’s documentary is distinguished by a visual style that brings you into this swampy region, making you feel the heat, the humidity, the laid-back beauty of a location that many couldn’t believe would create the greatest African-American music of its time. And then there’s those teenagers, who deserve every accolade these witnesses heap on them. American history at its most inspirational. (photo: Ear Goggles Productions LLC)

ノア 約束の舟Noah
The very special brand of confusion that distinguishes this Hollywood blockbuster is the most fitting testament to Darren Aronofsky’s power as a force in American film and his talent as an artist. He’s basically taken a story that everyone knows the gist of and expanded it in ways that are so ambitious as to be incoherent. Biblical scholars may have some idea of what he was going for, but the rest of us will think he’s simply OD’d on some sort of movie drug, stuck in an acid trip during a Ray Harryhausen loop. Thematically, it couldn’t be simpler, or more characteristically “Old Testament.” Aronofsky’s Noah (Russell Crowe) is a man whose relationship with the Creator (the word “God” is never uttered) is so personal he believes that only he can divine His meaning, which is that the world must be cleansed of man’s evil and Noah is the only person who can do it. Thus Noah is not only a man possessed of a fateful mission, but also something of a deluded crank. Aronofsky’s Earth is a blasted moon of a world, already denuded by the rapaciousness of Cain’s carnivorous progeny led by the ur-materialist Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone). Noah and his family, long-suffering wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons Ham (Logan Lerman) and Shem (Douglas Booth) live such a vegan life that Noah even forbids the picking of flowers. On a visit to his millennium-old father, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, the only person who derives any humor from the script), he is drugged and sees the Creator’s ultimate vision of the flood, and then sets out to build an ark, which looks less like the seafaring vessel you remember from Sunday school and more like a wooden container ship. When the tribes under Tubal-Cain get wind of what Noah is building, they rush to board but, of course, Noah won’t let them and thanks to a race of six-armed stone giants, which may or may not have been part of the Bible version, he manages to keep them at bay while giving Aronofsky an excuse to use his CG budget for the usual violent spectacle, something that Noah himself would seem to have sworn against, him being a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist and all. But just because he’s a dove doesn’t mean he’s not a misanthrope. He allows an orphaned girl (Emily Watson) to accompany his son Shem because he’s convinced she’s barren, but prevents Ham from bringing his own female companion because he believes it is the Creator’s intention to let humans die out and is sworn to see that His will is carried out. While this isn’t necessarily an incorrect interpretation of the story, its thematic centrality makes it Aronofsky’s dramatic linchpin and something of a deal breaker. The third act intrigue that takes place on the ark is a development that grounds the movie in the Hollywood tradition of historical melodrama and upends whatever claims to originality it has as a production. Yes, it’s not dull. Ridiculous things rarely are. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Of the movies that made up Park Chan-wook’s farfetched “vengeance trilogy” Oldboy was the most farfetched. It was also the most famous owing to nothing but serendipity, so the only reason Spike Lee remade it is because some producer thought it would translate well into American and Lee was available. That makes the new Oldboy a bad gamble on several levels, and the movie is so unnecessary as to be insulting. Josh Brolin plays the hard-drinking adman asshole who is kidnapped and then imprisoned in a hotel room for 20 years, during which he watches his family via TV fall apart. When he’s released with no explanation he wants answers and revenge, and isn’t particular as to how he accomplishes it. Park’s story was patently absurd and the twisty denouement wasn’t any less ridiculous for its shock value, but Lee doesn’t seem even halfway interested in the story, only in proving that he can play the ultraviolence game as well as the next director. For what it’s worth, he makes his point only too well. (photo: OB Productions Inc.)

The title refers to the Dallas hospital where JFK was treated after he was shot on Nov. 22. 1963, and where his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was treated after he was shot several days later. Peter Landesman’s movie is paced and pitched as a documentary but it is acted out by performers at their most quotidian. Even though Landesman includes lots of information we didn’t know before, the film’s sense of momentousness is centered on the characters’ view of themselves as historical figures, which is presumptuous. Landesman captures the panicky reality of the situation, and that should have been enough, but he wants more. Any of these thumbnail portraits—an FBI man (Ron Livingston) who missed the Oswald red flag, a veteran Secret Service agent (Billy Bob Thornton) who can’t believe this happened on his watch, the businessman (Paul Giamatti) who inadvertently captures the assassination on film and wishes he hadn’t—could have made compelling films, but the problem isn’t so much that Landesman spreads himself thin. It’s that he makes us too aware of his conceit. (photo: Exclusive Media Entertainment LLC)

High concept gets the better of a good cast, who don’t know what to do with themselves. Johnny Depp is a genius A.I. developer who believes mankind can eventually transcend death with the help of technology, and a radical anti-tech group tries to assassinate him with radiation-laced bullets. Conveniently lingering for months on the edge of extinction, he speeds up his research and becomes one with the world-wide web before expiring. The main problem with Jack Paglen’s script is that it pretends to be a thriller but can’t come up with an action cognate that provides any thrills. The dread is implied and passive: a world where Depp’s self-serving consciousness cuts off connectivity, but all we’re left with is irony, evolution that ignores the human element entirely. Depp, of course, is reduced to a voice, while Rebecca Hall, playing his lover, has nothing to do but act as the inadvertent conduit for his inadvertent malevolence, since she will do anything to “keep him alive.” As for the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman, I can’t remember what his purpose was. (photo: Alcon Entertainment LLC)

uzumasaUzumasa Limelight
The hero is a professional movie extra named Kamiyama, who has made his living for half a century as a kirare-yaku in sword-fighting movies produced at Kyoto’s Uzumasa Studios. Kirare-yaku live “to be cut,” as one veteran action star puts it. Their job is to die on screen. Kamiyama, who is played by real-life kirare-yaku Seizo Fujimoto, is one of the greatest practitioners of the art, with a signature style of expiration. When struck, he bends over backwards with eyes open to the heavens, and then falls on his back with a thud. His peers speak of him in awe, but the studio has stopped making chambara movies, and Kamiyama is relegated to entertaining tourists at the studio’s theme park. The title refers to the Chaplin film about a great actor in his twilight. The director, Ken Ochiai, was trained in Hollywood and has fashioned a film that is markedly different from the usual Japanese fare, at least visually, but the plot lines adhere to a handful of hackneyed ideas that all end up in the usual place. In Japanese. (photo: UzumasaLimelight)

Tournage les reines du RingWrestling Queens
Jean-Marc Rudnicki’s paean to lower middle class suburban French women uses professional wrestling as a hook for its intended audience and a comment on the way women of a certain station assert themselves regardless of background or marital status. Marilou Berry is Rose, a supermarket checkout drudge whose bad decisions as a girl resulted in her having a child out of wedlock. Years later she endeavors to form a relationship with her 9-year old son, who has been raised in a stable household and wants nothing to do with her. She notices, however, that he’s enamored of pro wrestling and signs up to take lessons at a nearby gym, whose manager (Andre Dussollier), talks her into going pro if she can recruit a team. She brings in three other women from work. Each is a type—the hussy (Audrey Fleurot), the proper housewife (Nathalie Baye), and the weirdo showoff (Corinne Masiero)—all of whom find a measure of self-esteem in the craft of piledrivers. It’s funny in spots and might even be uplifting if the story arc weren’t so predictable. In French. (photo: Kare Productions-La petite reine-M6 Films-Orange Studio-CN2 Production)

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