September 2014 movies

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

Korean crime movies appropriate a cartoonish male brutality that can be tiring, but this thriller by Lee Jung-ho takes advantage of that ugliness to make a truly disturbing point. Factory foreman Sang-hyun (Jeong Jae-yeong) has lost his wife to cancer and now lives alone with his typically contrary teenage daughter. Constantly browbeaten at work by supervisors who are probably browbeaten themselves, he is usually too frazzled to address his daughter’s emotional needs at the end of the day, and one rainy evening, when a work emergency necessitates his staying late, he neglects to pick her up after school. As she walks home she is abducted, raped and killed. Sang-hyun is, of course, devastated, and can’t properly process the questions thrown at him by the gruff, equally put-upon detective, Eok-gwan (Lee Sung-min), who is in charge of the case. So when a teenage boy who had something to do with the crime anonymously texts Sang-hyun the names of the two acquaintances who carried it out, he reacts viscerally. The youth is acting not so much out of conscience but rather payback: He feels slighted by his two so-called friends. Without telling the detective, Sang-hyun goes to confront one of the boys and ends up killing him. It’s one of those scenes that are necessary to push the movie along its predestined path, and Lee is extremely careful not to make it seem gratuitous. Sang-hyun’s violence is desperate, and there’s no escaping the feeling that he means to kill. But the job isn’t complete because the boy’s accomplice is still at large. The title refers to a father’s inability to remain whole through such a tragedy, and Sang-hyun, now a fugitive, acts not out of rage but through a fog of incomprehension at the evil behind his victimhood—and his own irreconcilable emotions. “I can’t live in the same world as someone like you,” he tells the other boy when he finally finds him. It’s less an accusation than a realization of his own uselessness. What gives this theme resonance is Lee’s admirable skills as a thriller director. There is actually very little violence in the film, but what there is flows straight from an emotional core. Sang-hyun’s search takes him to a popular ski resort that has nevertheless been hollowed out by economic troubles. The abandoned restaurants and pensions that he uses as hideouts while the police look for him and he searches for the other boy mirror the emptiness of his soul, but they also offer prime settings for some very suspenseful encounters. Broken isn’t profound, but it has more resonance than most crime thrillers. In Korean. (photo: CJ E&M Corp.)

coldeyesCold Eyes
Based on the 2007 Hong Kong thriller Eye In the Sky, this Korean version makes Seoul look like a sleek modern metropolis. The heavy, a genius heist planner named James (Jung Woo-sung), monitors his minions from atop a high-rise, thus allowing director Jo Eui-seok to survey the city in wide angle. The city’s police surveillance team demonstrates its own special intelligence. In the opening scene, a new recruit, Yoon-jo (Han Hyu-ju), is tested by the veteran detective, Hwang (Sol Kyung-gu), for her powers of observation and recall. The point of the team is to stay out of sight and simply identify criminals. The beat cops do the arresting. The entire movie follows the team’s pursuit of a group of robbers under James’ command, though the team knows nothing about him, so until the last half hour there are two parallel stories, the team’s and James’s, which involves him getting out from under his fence’s brutal power. The direction is crisp and the action taut, but you can’t help but wonder about the cost-effectiveness of such a team. In Korean. (photo: Opus Pictures & Zip Cinema)

apes-dawnDawn of the Planet of the Apes
While this is certainly one of the most intelligent and carefully developed big-budget franchise installments to come of out Hollywood in years, it wouldn’t be anything without motion-capture and Andy Serkis, who by now has mastered a particular technology like no one since Caruso and the phonograph. Almost immediately the CG apes that are the stars of the film enter the viewer’s consciousness as whole beings. They even seem to act within the parameters of flesh-and-blood creations, and the interactions between them and the humans take on a chillingly real dimension, which is important since it is a movie about two species with what could be called instinctive distrust for each other trying to reach a mutual accommodation for their own respective survival. It is years since the action described in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the virus inadvertently unleashed by the Alzheimer’s research in that movie has decimated human civilization. Caesar (Serkis), the ape experimented upon in the earlier film who sparked an uprising of intelligent simians, now leads a colony of apes who live in the woods north of San Francisco, while a desperate group of human survivors led by the thoughtful Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and “practical” Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are hard put to keep their charges from exploding into internecine rage at their lot. They endeavor to reactivate a hydroelectric station to bring power back to the city, but it’s located in ape territory, and after an unfortunate skirmish involving the wounding of an ape by a trigger-happy human, Caesar chooses the allow the humans access to the dam in exchange for their giving up their guns while they do so. The implication is startlingly plain. Caesar’s pragmatism is morally based: the humans will come whether they allow them or not, so might as well give them the benefit of the doubt. Dreyfus’s pragmatism, as well as that of the other, more “speciesist” members of the human community, is self-preservational: You can’t trust a beast. This conflict works itself out in predictable ways that flatten the movie’s message and makes the drama seem automatic, but director Matt Reeves, who has already proved his talent for conveying story points completely through visuals, keeps his pacing deliberate and his action sequences perfectly calibrated. Naturally, there is a balance of venality, with Caesar’s right-hand ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), channelling his own distrust of humans into megalomania. On the virtuous side, Malcolm seems a pale character, literally and figuratively, compared to Caesar, but that may have more to do with the difference in acting chops. Clarke is no match for Serkis, even if the latter has to do his thing through a scrim of pixels. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

NY?????Deliver Us From Evil
It’s easy to draw the impression that director Scott Derrickson is being stereotyped by producers. Either that or he’s deliberately trying to carve out a niche for himself in commercial filmmaking that he can take to the bank for years to come, even if the horror sub-genre of exorcist movies is terribly limited in terms of appeal, despite the occasional box office smash it produces. One of those smashes was Derrickson’s own The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which was mainly a courtroom drama occasionally interrupted with scenes of demonic possession. Almost nine years later he gets to repeat the feat, or try to, with a more ambitious script, and it begins with the movie’s most compelling scene: a group of US soldiers in Iraq coming upon an underground cave festooned with glyphs and skulls before the men are overcome by something unseen. The action moves ahead some years to New York City, where nerve-wracked cop Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) tries to stop a woman from feeding her young child to a lion at the Bronx Zoo. We’re led to understand, through a well-timed flashback in which Sarchie yells at his six-year-old daughter, that the detective is suffering from some kind of PTSD, and unfortunately Derrickson simply leaves it at that. When Sarchie encounters several former grunts who really seem to be suffering from PTSD—all were dishonorably discharged—the contrast is exploited effectively if a bit confusingly. The pattern of violence exhibited by these men and their m.o.s point to something less quantifiable than normal criminal signifiers like greed or clinical psychopathy. Eventually, he calls on the services of a somewhat unusual priest (Edgar Ramirez) who has been treating such cases as demonic possession, though his manner is so laid back you wonder if he believes his own bullshit. But what matters is that Sarchie, a genuine lapsed Catholic, is forced to confront his own spiritual malaise, a topic that Derrickson doesn’t seem to have the skills to address adequately, if, in fact, they’re worth addressing. Though the showdown with the central demon (Sean Harris) is scary and action-packed, there’s no resonance, except maybe in the threat he poses to Sarchie’s child and wife (Olivia Munn). Again, this is supposedly based on something that happened to a real NYC cop, but the credibility gap has less to do with gullible moviegoers than with a filmmaker who doesn’t know how to integrate the nominally creepy with the subliminal. Everything is on the surface, and when priest and cop get to the money shot—the exorcism—there hasn’t been enough spiritual buildup to make the scene feel like there’s something at stake. You only have one soul, but Deliver Us From Evil makes it sound like something not worth losing.

finishersThe Finishers
Nils Tavernier understands the pitfalls involved in a movie about a disabled boy endeavoring something “impossible.” At one point he inserts a scene from Rocky, thus letting some of the air out of the surrounding pumped-up sports montages. Julien (Fabien Heraud) is 17 and restricted to a wheelchair by congenital palsy. Though he is cared for unstintingly in his beautiful French Alps community, he wants more, and after reading about a similarly disabled boy who ran a marathon with the help of his father, he asks his own, Paul (Jacques Gamblin), to do the same for him in the daunting Ironman triathlon, in which Paul once participated as a younger man. The drama is inherent in Paul’s understandable reluctance, which is complicated by his recent unemployment. When he comes around, it is then Julien’s mother (Alexandra Lamy) who has to be convinced, but once these obstacles are surmounted it’s just one heart-breaking failure and life-affirming triumph after another. Thanks to actors who know they don’t need to push the sentimentality, the movie is watchable and moving, but hardly memorable. In French. (photo: Nord-Ouest Films Pathe Rhone-Alpes Cinema)

franceshaFrances Ha
Noah Baumbach’s black-and-white character study of a young woman in relationship limbo uses a clever framing device that eliminates the need for extraneous explication of setting: We basically follow fledgling dancer-choreographer Frances (Greta Gerwig) from one residential address to another, even if she isn’t formally living in the place where she’s staying. Since New York City is all about real estate, the attendant location trauma is softened by Baumbach’s wry style, not to mention Gerwig’s (who cowrote the script) uncomfortably funny performance. Frances is the type of social misfit who thinks dinner conversation is dumb but tries her best anyway, and as she sheds acquaintances along the way to what looks like the bottom she becomes even more perverse in social situations. “We’re like a sitcom,” is how she describes her relationship with BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner) before the latter shocks her by moving out of their Brooklyn share into much pricier Tribeca. She then completely flummoxes Frances by getting married. Though Frances’s occasional disconnect from what looks like reality pegs her as an eccentric at best and bipolar at worst, there’s never a sense of her spinning out of control. If anything, she rolls with the punches better than most people would thanks to her ingrained appreciation for the absurdity of life, and while, like most people her age, she talks and jokes about sex with a candor that would likely make older people uncomfortable, she doesn’t seem particularly obsessed by it. She can reject a pass better than Dorothy Parker. The seeming aimlessness of the script and Baumbach’s unsentimental view of urban life have already reminded people of the French New Wave, a notion that is hilariously confounded by a segment in which Frances impulsively flies to Paris after cadging a free apartment from a man she just meant in New York and then spends her entire weekend sleeping inn it before flying back. But there’s also something preternaturally American about Frances, especially when contrasted with her cohort, most of whom are portrayed as being stereotypically astringent New York jerks. Her honesty and refusal to be ground down in the Greatest City on the Planet endear her to the audience without making her an object of pity. So when she does approach bottom and compromises her plans in order to survive she doesn’t invite derision, and Baumbach rewards her (and us) by giving her (and us) hope. Some will see Frances Ha as the perfect embodiment of drifting millennials, but that would short change Frances’s appeal as a unique protagonist. It’s just a really good movie about an interesting person. (photo: Pine District LLC)

friend2Friend 2: The Great Legacy
The original Chingu (“Friend”), released in 2001, is often cited as the Rosetta Stone for the violent, gang-related crime films that became a staple of Korean cinema in the last decade. For years, director Kwak Kyung-taek resisted doing a sequel, but apparently he needs a career boost. It’s been 18 years since Busan gang leader Lee Joon-seok (Yoo Oh-sung) went to prison for murdering his best friend, which he actually didn’t do, having taken the fall for a colleague. During his final days in stir he mentors a punk named Sung-hoon (Kim Woo-bin) at the request of the kid’s mother, an old acquaintance who thinks he won’t last long in prison without help. When both are released, Lee takes up where he left off and recruits Sung-hoon and his mates as muscle, which he needs because an old nemesis has taken over the gang in his absence. The violence is ripe, but at this stage it offers little you haven’t seen before, and the story gets bogged down in pointless flashbacks meant to remind you how good the first film was. In Korean. (photo: Lotte Entertainment)

HowILiveHow I Live Now
The dramatic arc that informs modern-day teen film romance is meant to add substance to this doomsday thriller, but in the end loses out. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is tiresome, a sullen American who resents being sent for the summer to the English countryside where she lives in a cottage with several cousins-by-marriage. Her aunt is some sort of diplomatic scourge trying to prevent a European war, and for a time we think it has something to do with Daisy’s seasonal banishment—why would any parent send a child to a potential battle zone? Just before a nuke is set off in London and martial law declared, Daisy falls conveniently in love with the oldest of her housemates, Edmond (George McKay), an earnest DIY sensitivo who is quickly scooped up by the army. Daisy spends the rest of the film trying to get back to him, learning about self-reliance, and taking care of the younger members of her “family” unselfishly. Questions as to the origin of the civic strife pile up, oblivious to the adventure, thus making it difficult to believe, much less take seriously. (photo: The British Film Institute/Channel Four Television Corp./HILN Ltd.)

i-frankensteinI, Frankenstein
Basically, the Underworld franchise as appropriated by a Euro-horror house who figures the Frankenstein story still has legs and the copyright is free. It even starts out where the Shelley novel ended, with the monster (Aaron Eckhart) burying his creator. At that moment a pack of “demons,” meaning actual spawn from hell, attempt to kidnap the creature but are foiled by a pair of “gargoyles,” those stone boogiemen who sit atop cathedral towers and turn out to be archangels patroling the earth and protecting humans. The demons’ prince (Bill Nighy—hasn’t he done this before?) wants the secret to Victor Frankenstein’s reanimation technique and thinks the biologist (Yvonne Strahovski) he hired can study the monster’s workings. Unfortunately for him, as well as the gargoyles, the monster isn’t the old lurching, stuttering, pathetic misfit, but a buff and handsome cynic who has enough humanity to distrust anyone he comes into contact with, not to mention kickass fighting skills. It’s the dialogue that’s sub-human. It also seems to take place nowhere: an old European city with cops who sound like they’re from Brooklyn. (photo: Lakeshore Entertainment Group LLC and Lionsgate Films Inc.)

To say that Lucy may be the best Luc Besson script ever is not to say that it’s actually good, only that within the stylistic action universe that Besson has developed over the last two decades it maintains its integrity despite ample consignments of nonsense. Though all of his touch points are here—the young female protagonist forced to violent ends, the Euro-trash villains (augmented by a large complement of Koreans), the sense of sacrifice—they all actually work toward something unified rather than the scattershot crime drama plots he seems to toss off so cavalierly. Scarlett Johansson is the title character, who may or may not be named after the director, an exchange student in Taipei whose lack of guile has hooked her up with a disposable, wannabe low-level French chinpira who uses her to deliver something to a Korean drug kingpin (Choi Min-sik) he’d rather not deliver himself. She wants nothing to do with it, but he forces her hand and upon receipt of the drug-filled attache case, the kingpin, Mr. Jang, forcibly recruits Lucy as a mule to smuggle the “new drug” into Europe by sewing it into her abdomen. When she resists the advances of her slimy Asian jailer he kicks her in the stomach, breaking the packaging and releasing the drug into her system. Since its a new product and no one understands its strength, the full load does something no one expects, but which we’ve already been cued to understand thanks to occasional voiceover from the Voice himself, Morgan Freeman, a Sorbonne professor giving a lecture on the brain’s untapped potential, which the drug seems to be unleashing in Lucy. In any case, by the time she gets to Europe she’s a bona fide killing machine, which makes you wonder: Which part of the brain helps you walk on the ceiling? In any case, Lucy’s cerebral powers are more telekinetic than intellectual, but she does seem to need to know what she’s capable of, so while she dispatches Jang’s men with cold efficiency, she’s making her way to the professor. Besson complicates Lucy’s super powers by adding an element of amorality to her actions—innocents who happen to get in the way of her vector suffer equally with the bad guys—and that makes the movie that much more interesting if also a bit queasy. And the violence is grand in the French (though not necessarily the Besson) manner, bloody and painful to watch, especially when the person doling it out seems so utterly devoid of conscience. The superwoman premise, however, is made even more ludicrous by the kind of metaphysical transformation that confused so many adolescents after seeing 2001. This is an adolescent fantasy, too, so maybe it just goes with the territory. (photo: Universal Studios)

Liam Neeson teams up once again with action director Jaume Collet-Serra, playing another middle aged family man-security employee with anger issues. This time, the imperiled daughter is already dead and air marshall Bill Marks (Neeson) an alcoholic as a result. Though the film borrows heavily from Flightplan and Flight, Neeson makes it his own with his by now patented gruff Irish-Yankee fatalism. After boarding a New York-to-London flight he’s confronted with a passenger’s death and a text message from a terrorist who threatens to kill more if money isn’t wired to the usual special account. Collet-Serra presents Marks with a planeload of suspects whose culpability ebbs and flows with his sobriety, and it doesn’t take long before everyone thinks Marks is behind the mischief, including his employers and the media. The people who count—the cabin attendants and a level-headed passenger (Julianne Moore) who also knows tragedy—stick by Marks and help him solve the mystery, which is beside the point when all you really want to see is Neeson kick ass. So, yes, it delivers on the title. (photo: TF1 Films Prod. SAS Studio Canal SA)

storiesStories We Tell
Most documentaries are observational, though Michael Moore’s confrontational style has been increasingly utilized by others. This unique experiment in filmmaking by Canadian actress/director Sarah Polley is observational and confrontational at the same time, though neither adjective feels accurate in terms of the effect it has. First of all, the purposes are less explicatory than thay are exploratory. This is a personal film about a very personal matter, one that some people will think they have no business watching, but the fact that Polley evinces such frank, revelatory comments from loved ones surely makes her one of the most disarming interrogators in the history of film, and that quality carries over into the shaping of the material. At first, it seems to be about Polley’s mother, Diane, who died when she was only 11, in 1990. The director specifically looks at her relationship with her father, actor Michael Polley, who not only narrates the film, but does so from his own script. The visuals—home movies and personal snapshots—are remarkable in that they seem to capture the woman so completely: a vivacious free spirit who herself wanted to be an actress and delighted everyone she met. That spirit hid a crippling disappointment, not only with her limitations as a woman during a time when women had yet to find free outlet for expression, but also with Michael, an intelligent but intensely introverted man who couldn’t satisfy her intellectually or sexually. These painful truths are arrived at through intersecting interviews with Michael, assorted friends, and Polley’s brothers and sisters, many of whom were the product of a previous debilitating marriage. Whatever Michael’s drawbacks as an intimate, he was easy to love, and Diane stayed with him. It was during one happy interval when Diane was cast in a Toronto play that the couple rekindled their romance and Sarah was the result, a late child in their life, but soon the routine of separateness returned and then Diane died of cancer. Growing up without a mother, Sarah occasionally heard rumor-jokes about how she didn’t resemble Michael, and when she probed these jokes as a young adult she found that her brothers and sisters, as well as some of her mother’s friends, thought she wasn’t Michael’s child, because they knew she had had an affair with a man during the run of the Toronto play. This man Sarah knows, and a DNA test proves the rumors to be true. Michael’s shocked reaction is incorporated into the film, which is now about the real meaning of family, but there are more surprises, mainly having to do with Polley’s filmmaking methods, which further intensify the personal quality of the investigation and the way it’s presented. Stories We Tell is not just a fascinating tale told well. It’s a constantly shifting document that continues to surprise even after it’s over. (photo: National Film Board of Canada)

suspectThe Suspect
It appears even North Korea has Bourne-like secret agents. Ji Dong-cheol (Yoo Gong) is abandoned mid-mission and forced to defect to the south, where, after learning his wife and daughter have been executed, he takes a job as a driver to a rich executive with ties to the north. When the executive is killed, Ji is framed for the murder and again forced to flee, with not only sleeper agents from the north on his tail but the entire South Korean intelligence community, as well. Won Shin-yun’s over-determined plot mixes official venality with sticky sentimentality in the heavy-handed Korean fashion, and it wears thin over two-and-a-quarter hours. But it’s also the most action-packed two-and-a-quarter hours you will spend in a theater since, well, the last Bourne movie. Ten minutes in Ji is already on the run and he never stops. The fight scenes are edited for maximum confusion but the two car chases, which take place in the narrow spaghetti-like warrens of Seoul, are master classes in the control of movement within a physical space. In Korean. (photo: Showbox/Mediaplex and Green Fish)

illmaticTime Is Illmatic
As a movie about Nas’s ground-breaking 1994 album Illmatic, this documentary can’t help but come across as one long promotional video for the special 20th anniversary double disk set it accompanies, and what made the album special in its day—the jazzy, sinister sound—is downplayed in favor of Nas’s streetwise lyricism, which was a big deal but, despite what all the talking heads say, not the only game in town. But Nas’s story of growing up in an intellectually stimulating, lower middle class household while embedded in a Queens housing project rife with crime makes this a better primer on hip-hop than that thing Ice-T made last year. The evocation of pre-Public Enemy, borough-identified rap battles is priceless, and Nas himself does a better job of explicating it than he does of explaining his approach to art, which sounds as if he’s been re-reading his reviews for two decades. Since we don’t get a sense of his evolution as an MC after Illmatic, the movie is frozen in time, even if he does get to go home again…and again. (photo: Illa Films LLC)

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