August 2014 movies

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

Austerity is often a comfort to the psychologically oppressed, a means of focusing on something simple so as to push away whatever sadness and frustration the greater complexities of life give rise to. For Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novice in a rural Polish convent who is about to take her vows, austerity is all she knows, since, as an orphan, she has lived her whole life under the stern but understanding gaze of the Catholic church. Dedicating her life to God is not a choice, it’s the next step in a natural progression based on where she’s from. But then the mother superior tells her that before she commits, she should meet her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda whom Anna knows nothing about. For the first time in her life, the girl leaves the convent and travels to the city. When she arrives at her relative’s apartment, her aunt is entertaining a gentleman guest—or she was entertaining him. He puts on his clothes and leaves. Director Pawel Pawlikowski, working in his native Poland for the first time after several features made in England, is cagey with the time period, and it isn’t until Wanda (Agata Kulesza) explains the circumstances of Anna’s birth and that her real name is Ida, that we understand it has been about fifteen years since the end of the war, that Poland is deeply into its socialist phase. Wanda, it turns out, is a judge, a highly influential one. Her drinking and profligate behavior bespeak not privilege, but a profound bitterness. What she tells Anna/Ida is a shock: she was born to Jewish parents, her mother was Wanda’s sister, and they were killed near the end of the war after being hidden by people who worked on their farm. The particulars of the parents’ death aren’t revealed right away and Wanda suggests Ida revisit their hometown together to try and find their graves. Ida is a road trip during which Wanda drinks too much, is arrested, and then released when the police find out who she is; during which Ida meets and is charmed by an itinerant jazz saxophonist (Dawid Ogrodnik), and learns the horrible truth of her parents’ death. The fact that this truth has more of an effect on Wanda than on Ida is one of the story’s most excruciating elements, and as with the curiously non-natural visual style—black-and-white stock, an old-fashioned frame ratio, characters exiled to the margins—the narrative is more suggestive than expository. But eventually you get the idea because when Pawlikowski wants you to know something, he tells you in no uncertain terms. Austerity can also be deceptive. In the case of this extraordinary film, it contains multitudes of meaning. In Polish. (photo: Phoenix Film Investments and Opus Film)

intothestormInto the Storm
Mockumentaries and fake found footage features have become so common as to be pedestrian. The novelty appeal of The Blair Witch Project already seemed exhausted by the the time the big budget Cloverfield came out. What’s good about this latest example of the genre is how the idea of amateur video is downplayed so that it isn’t a distraction. Set on graduation day in a small Colorado town, Into the Storm is presented partly as a video project by teenage Trey (Nathan Kress), whose widowed father, Gary (Richeard Armitage), is the high school principal. Trey, a budding filmmaker, wants to tape his older brother (Jeremy Sumpter) graduating, and the production becomes a big deal even before the killer tornadoes show up. We know they’re going to show up because the action occasionally cuts away from Trey to the interior of “Titus,” a tank-like vehicle occupied by members of an academic research team looking into extreme weather phenomena—storm-chasers, as they’re called. This particular group, headed by the monomaniacal Pete (Matt Walsh), is desperate to find a twister since they’re almost out of funding. His technical assistant, single mother Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), is more practical minded and risk averting, but she has her orders, too. A third digital camera toting group is a bunch of “Jackass”-obsessed YouTube uploaders who are constantly in search of outlandishly dangerous stunts to record. Director Steven Quale, unburdened by the prerequisites of stars, can concentrate fully on the task at hand, which is to show what a monster tornado looks like and, more importantly, feels like from the ground, and while the subplots are boiler plate and the characters cardboard stock, he does a masterful job of creating tension through the limited purview of amateur technique. So even while you understand that most of what you’re watching was created in a computer, you marvel at the fine distinctions between the macro and the micro, how the total devastation wreaked on a parking lot could be depicted in such realistic detail from afar with pixels, and then the resulting believably rendered carnage recreated on what looks like a genuine location set. The story gains its dramatic mojo from the conflict between three human impulses: the desire for thrills, the instinct for self-preservation, and the dangerous belief of youth that one will live forever. As the various tornadoes merge to become a monstrous super-cell, the movie also gathers all its faculties and sucks the air out of the cinema. The last half hour is as relentless a stretch of moviemaking as you’re likely to see this year and, in terms of pure visceral excitement, beats all the star-driven blockbusters that garner so much attention in the summer. (photo: Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Ltd.)

Though Leviathan is very much a documentary, it may not be wise to describe it as such to people who are interested in seeing it. The subject is commercial fishing, but the viewer will not take away any information about catch volumes, economic viability, or ecological effects. The two filmmakers insist this is an experimental movie, though there is nothing undeliberate about it. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel affixed dozens of small, durable GoPro camcorders to various locations on a groundfish trawler out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, as it went about its trade one day: hauling up nets full of fish, the fishermen slaughtering and processing the catch for commercial sale. As simple as that sounds, the visuals demand attention, and perhaps more work than some viewers are willing to offer. Since the cameras are on autopilot and their purview fixed it often takes a few minutes to adjust to the images, which are chaotic and precise. And while there is a time-dependent flow to the movie, starting in the darkness of early morning and finishing in the soft light of dusk, there are no indicators to provide bearings. The boat is a world unto its own, but it is at the mercy of the limitless sea, which takes on the massive personality of the title. Consequently, life has less meaning here. The fish are literally in your face as they gasp for water and struggle to move off the deck, and then they are scooped up by burly men who hack them and throw the parts in hampers. Meanwhile, hungry seagulls swoop down and grab what they can. The intimacy is uncomfortable. At one point we sit in a rocking sluice as a young bird in painful closeup struggles to escape, obviously in shock. The fishermen with the hooks and knives talk to one another, but the sound is garbled and otherwise drowned out by the hellish creak of the boat, the tearing gears of the machinery. This is immersive cinema at its most elemental, the offal becomes overwhelming, the sense of disorientation visceral. When the cameras attached to the hull plunge into the deep you may experience vertigo and gasp for breath (the only way to appreciate the film is in a theater). Leviathan depicts the randomness of the biosphere, but nevertheless feels like something ordered. Light and matter become separate, mutually complementary entities. Though strictly realistic, Leviathan feels more like a dream than movies that are devised to feel like a dream. The literal-minded will say that the movie has little practical use, even as a document of fishing practices, but, in fact, it gives you the fundamentals of commercial fishing from a viewpoint at the bottom of the food chain. Maybe that’s not the intention, but it’s how it feels. (photo: Arrete Ton Cinema)

haewonNobody’s Daughter Haewon
Though women have always been central to Hong Sang-soo’s male-gaze-fixated romantic comedies, this may be his first movie that actually takes a female POV. The title character, played by Jung Eun-chae, is a struggling actress who is effectively “orphaned” in the first scene when her mother leaves Seoul for Canada and a life that will have nothing to do with Haewon. Without family, Haewon seems to think of herself in limbo, or simply on the path to an early demise. “Death resolves everything,” one character says in relation to something else, but it’s a leitmotif that Hong’s script emphasizes. The plot is not that much different from a lot of other Hong films: Haewon drifts between love affairs with two professors (Lee Sun-kyun, Yoo Joon-sang), both of whom characterize her duplicity as being “devilish,” thus maintaining Hong’s fondness for mirrored images and ideas. The unusually melancholy mood is compromised by several dream-like passages that break up the narrative for no discernible reason, but discernment has never been a prime concern of Hong’s. Not as funny as it should be, but definitely interesting. In Korean. (photo: Jeonwonsa Film Co.)

oursunhiOur Sunhi
More professors. In fact, Hong Sang-soo, who should have exhausted the theme of male college instructors having less-than-proper romantic relationships with their female students a long time ago, makes his latest movie the last word on the subject. A more conventional-minded comedy than the concurrent Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Our Sunhi nonetheless takes its title character’s side, even as she refers to herself repeatedly as a “bad person.” When Sunhi (Jeong Yu-mi) returns to her filmmaking alma mater for a recommendation, the teacher she has in mind (Kim Su-ro) expresses how much he was attracted to her back in the day, and Sunhi takes advantage by eliciting a glowing report after a flirtatious night of drinking and making out. Unfortunately for the prof, Sunhi has her hooks in two other men, a former classmate (Lee Seon-gun) and a more established director (Jung Jae-young). All these people have had a kind of incestuous professional relationship for years, and for once Hong dials down the symbolism in favor of straightforward social farce. The requisite coming-together of all these suitors is hilarious in ways that Hong has never demonstrated in the past. In Korean. (photo: Jeonwonsa Film Co.)

Jackie SiegelThe Queen of Versailles
One of the amazing truths of the widening income gap, especially in America, is that many members of the so-called 1% have the same tastes as those of the other 99, and that because of their limitless ability to indulge those tastes, come across as more vulgar than your average minimum wage drone. It’s not clear what Lauren Greenfield’s purpose was when she started documenting the lives of David and Jackie Siegel, an incredibly wealthy Florida couple who were building the biggest and most expensive house in the history of the U.S. Likely, it was simply that, but coverage started before the Lehman Brothers-triggered recession, and the story turns into something different, something altogether more instructive and vastly more startling than any fictional feature could provide. Siegel, in his mid-70s, is the “timeshare king” of the world, the owner of dozens of vacation complexes that cater to the middle class as a way of giving them a chance to “feel rich, if only for one week out of the year,” as he says. His wife Jackie is thirty years younger, a former computer engineer-turned-model who became, in her own words, his trophy wife and then blessed him with half a dozen kids. Though they already live in an obscenely palatial mansion in Orlando, they are building an even more enormous monstrosity based on Louis IV’s Versailles gardens. Because the Siegels believe that everyone wants to live as they do, they have no compunction about allowing Greenfield to film everything about them, and are disarmingly candid about their appetites. At one point Siegel even admits to having gamed George W. Bush’s presidential win in 2000. Jackie, having grown up in relative poverty, has a certain dispensation to overspend, but it’s mostly for tacky knick-knacks and things nobody needs, even her. Moreover she eats at McDonald’s and shops for groceries and sundries at Wal-Mart. She even admits at one point that she wouldn’t have had as many kids as she did if there weren’t nannies around to take care of them, and the few poignant moments in the film are provided by the domestic help, who talk about their love for the Siegel kids on the one hand while despairing over the fact that they can’t spend time with their own children, who live overseas in the Philippines. But once the crash comes and Siegel’s leveraged properties become huge liabilities, the facade of happy consumption falls and each principal is revealed for the intemperate egomaniac that he or she is. Siegel, who constantly jokes about trading his 40-year-old wife for two 20-year-olds, quickly tires of his botoxed, busty bride and her habits, and the kids pick this up. You go to The Queen of Versailles for schadenfreude but instead leave depressed. (photo: Queen of Versailles LLC)

SONY DSCStray Dogs
Tsai Ming-liang has implied that this may be his last film, and in a sense it both concentrates and conflates the themes and peculiar stylistic touches that make him an international festival fave. Tsai muse Lee Kang-sheng plays a fitfully employed, alcoholic family man in what looks like a post-economic Taipei. In Tsai’s movies, Lee’s characters, who are essentially one character, rarely speak, and this reticence over the years has looked less like a personality tic than a stylistic choice on the part of the director, and nowhere more obvious than in Stray Dogs. If Tsai’s enduring theme is the search for human connection, then Lee’s inability or refusal to verbalize makes us notice more acutely his efforts to get through. In this world, Lee moves his two young children from one deserted and often crumbling residence to another, which is ironic in a sense because he is employed as a street sign holder advertising luxury condominiums. Because Tsai never explains anything, there’s a sense of Lee exploiting a system that has already exploited him to the point of destitution, but there is no drama or pathos in his domestic order. His children are well-behaved if a bit sullen. They do their washing and bathing in public restrooms on the sly, and don’t seem to attend school. In one scene we get the feeling that they either shoplift their sustenance or just hang around supermarkets cadging free samples. The children’s mother (Chen Shiang-chyi) doesn’t show up until the movie is almost over, and in an excruciatingly long and devastatingly moving single take in which husband and wife try to re-establish some sort of bond, the source of whose rupture we can only imagine. Some tableaux, despite their inordinate length, make little sense in juxtaposition to each other, and as is often the case in Tsai’s films, the viewer tends to think more about the difficulties he puts his actors through than the purport of the scenes themselves. In one Lee drunkenly, elaborately destroys a head of cabbage, and in another we see the children sitting in a rowboat during a torrential rainstorm waiting for their father, who is struggling with a tarp. You are less worried about the characters’ paucity of dry shelter than you are of the players’ possibly catching pneumonia, though considering what Lee has gone through in past films, it’s a bit lightweight. Still, the cumulative effect is powerful. Alienation has never been so tactile; despair never so touching and witty. Some scenes take on a bizarre naturalism that gets under your skin and return to haunt you later. If this really is a swan song, what a way to go. (photo: Homegreen Films & JBA Production)

sunshineleithSunshine on Leith
There’s no better proof of the comeback of the movie musical than this jaunty jukebox jamboree, based on a popular stage production, built around the catalogue of Scottish pub rock twins Charlie and Craig Reid, better known as The Proclaimers. What at first blush sounds achingly site-specific has been picked up by distributors all over the world and sold like a brogue-accented version of Mamma Mia. The plot, about two soldiers, Davy and Ally (George MacKay, Kevin Guthrie), returning home to Edinburgh after finishing a traumatic stint in Afghanistan, is thin but serviceable, nothing more than an all-purpose scaffold on which to hang the already well-known songs. Davy hopes to resume his romance with nurse Yvonne (Antonia Thomas) and Craig with Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor). Peter Mullan croaks his way gamely through his numbers as Davy and Liz’s father. He’s a pillar of the community whose wife (Jane Horrocks) threatens to leave him when she finds out about a daughter he sired more than two decades ago during a pre-marriage youthful fling. The conflicts among the young people do touch on some of Scotland’s well-known social problems, though when one character decides to move to America it isn’t due to underemployment but personal fulfillment, which is not only a romantic dodge but a missed opportunity. In any case, the dramatic development is beyond predictable, but given that the plot points had to be manipulated to accommodate the songs, which are bold and obvious in their meaning and allow the choreographers to stage as many mass dance scenes as they can think of, the viewer will likely allow director Dexter Fletcher a certain measure of dispensation. But the earnestness and energy required of the film to live up to the rousing nature of the songs is only tolerable up to a point, after which it feels over-determined, an exercise in emotional overkill. But in actuality the main aim of the movie is to sell Edinburgh as the next international destination. The city is really the star, and while Fletcher’s main thematic problem is getting the songs to compute, his more daunting logistical challenge is to squeeze as many urban landmarks into the film as he can. Suffice to say, there isn’t one shot of a dirty alleyway or squat residence. It’s as if the whole point of the production were to make the audience forget that Trainspotting ever existed. (photo: DNA Films)

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