Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
High concept gets out-of-hand in this romantic comedy, which tries to make time travel work for its own purposes but ends up in thrall to the mechanics. The ability to move backward in time (but not forward) is hereditary, and when dad (Bill Nighy) explains how it works to his lawyer son, Tim (Domnhall Gleeson), you want to back up yourself to make sure you’ve got things straight. Tim gets the hang of it and understands he can change unfortunate outcomes. Director Richard Curtis incorporates this device into a conventional soulmate romance: Tim meets, marries, and raises a family with American Mary (Rachel McAdams), while utilizing his special ability to savor moments he took for granted the first time. However, some events are beyond meddling, and the tragedies seem less momentous for it, even though they are meant to show Tim that pain is an ineluctable part of living. As in many British movies of this type, the secondary characters are more interesting than the principals, so you wonder if it would have been better without the hocus pocus. (photo: Universal Pictures)
The Amazing Catfish
Fitting snugly into that sub-genre of indie cinema called “alternative family dramedy,” this Mexican curiosity withholds information to draw the viewer into its little world. Sullen Claudia (Ximena Ayala) works in a supermarket and leads no social life, until she has an attack of appendicitis and meets the more outgoing Martha (Lisa Owen) in the hospital. Martha is stricken with AIDS and struggling to raise four children on her own. Her invitation for Claudia to visit her home is more charitable than mercenary—she recognizes that the younger woman is lonely, and it isn’t until much later that the audience learns why. Martha finds common ground with the children, despite their narratively convenient diversity. All are having problems with their mother’s health crisis, and Martha understands enough about their situation from experience to serve as more than just a maid or nanny. She has always wanted to be a member of this exact kind of family, and while director Claudia Sainte-Luce grants her wish in the most contrived sort of way, there’s a satisfying rightness to this bittersweet, and often funny, tale.
The reuniting of Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua, who together made Training Day, the movie that won Washington a best actor Oscar, feels like something that fell into place quickly. The Equalizer is a dual vehicle that takes advantage of the roll that Fuqua started with the world-wide smash Olympus Has Fallen. But more than either big name, the real media appeal of The Equalizer is its provenance as a popular late 80s TV series, though the variances are more notable than the similarities. The series’ gimmick was that the “self-retired” CIA agent hero advertised his special services for free to anyone he thought was in life-threatening trouble. The movie doesn’t need such a week-to-week premise and makes do with the simplest of back stories. Robert McCall (Washington) faked his own death to get out of the killing grind and now lives quietly in a small Boston neighborhood, working as a warehouse foreman at the local home improvement center, where he is constantly offering sage advice to his working class (read: uneducated) colleagues. In accordance with the stereotype of the accomplished professional killer, McCall is a man of meticulous routine and spends his sleepless evenings at a diner, where he is completing the 100 great books (he’s now on The Old Man and the Sea) that his late wife recommended before she died. There, he becomes acquainted with a young Russian prostitute, Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), who invariably leaves with a rich client every night. Longing to pursue her musical ambitions, she apparently rubs one customer the wrong way and ends up in the hospital, beaten to within an inch of her life, an outcome that prods McCall to action against her handlers, the Russian Mafia. Needless to say his Bourne-like skills are too much for the gangsters, thus prompting the arrival of the Big Borscht from Moscow (Marton Csokas), a man so evil he deserves nothing less than disembowelment, but McCall isn’t that kind of avenger. He’s even-handed and careful, and if the results are brutal it’s only because there’s no other way. Washington can convey McCall’s basic decency without the help of Richard Wenk’s overly helpful script, and Fuqua’s device of showing us how McCall sizes up a situation in the blink of an eye feels so dated. The movie is good, solid entertainment as far as that goes but disappointing in the long run since it hints at a continuing life that doesn’t hold much promise in an age when TV serials are pushing more envelopes than movie franchises are. Even Chloe Grace Moretz, whose brief scenes are the most satisfying things in the movie dramatically, feels like a gratuitous presence, a familiar face in an unfamiliar role with no purchase on the production or the viewer’s attention.
Based partly on something co-scenarist Jon Ronson once experienced, this study of commerce-vs-art doesn’t necessarily strive for believability, and yet it has more interesting things to say about its topic than a hundred SXSW mini-documentaries. The title character leads an underground British cult band with an unpronouncable name and further alienates potential fans by always wearing a cartoon head in public. When the group’s keyboard player falls ill, Frank (Michael Fassbender, always masked) impulsively hires a hanger-on named Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) with songwriting aspirations of his own. Jon takes it upon himself to try and make the group commercially viable, and while Frank is sheepishly game, the rest of the group, especially Frank’s dour ex-GF, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is adamantly against it. The ridiculous premise is tempered by Frank’s obvious mental illness, which Fassbender and director Lenny Abrahamson treat with uncommon sensitivity. Though there is plenty here that is ripe for parody, Frank is disarmingly affecting in the way it approaches its protagonist’s shortcomings as both an artist and a functioning human being. (photo: EP Frank Ltd./Channel Four Television Corp./The British Film Insitute)
Greetings from Tim Buckley
This dramatized slice of time from the early 90s addresses an anecdote that people other than fans of 60s singer-songwriter Tim Buckley and his son, 90s singer-songwriter Jeff, couldn’t care less about. As portrayed by Penn Badgley, Jeff is slightly put-off by an invitation from a promoter to join a tribute concert to his father at a church in Brooklyn. “I didn’t really know my father,” he says in all seriousness, and the subsequent flashbacks showing Tim sneaking into the California house where his wife and infant son live attest to this statement. But once Jeff shows up for the event it’s obvious he knows his father’s material, even if he’s loath to admit it. His bitterness over his father’s absence—Tim was constantly on the road until his death in 1975—is revealed cleverly through flirtatious conversations with a woman (Imogen Poots) administratively involved with the concert. The implication is that this woman, and the concert itself, were instrumental in helping Jeff develop into the artist he became a few years later with his best-selling debut, Grace. Nice theory. (photo: Buckley Greetings Inc.)
Guardians of the Galaxy
The story of Hollywood in the 21st century (so far) is the appropriation of boomer childhood memories for the entertainment of millennials. I will leave it to others to explain the psycho-sociological import of that theory and put it down to the rather boring conclusion that technology has gotten the best of us in the end. While there’s nothing wrong with reimagining the past in a new, more realistic form, the dominance of comic book style has probably ruined at least one generation of filmmakers who might be doing something else. This adaptation of a Marvel serial from the early 70s prides itself on its faithful tone, but while the mood of the original was also tongue-in-cheek, the new movie version doesn’t have an honest frame in its film can. The titular justice league is really a ragtag, inter-species collection of interstellar riffraff who come together out of greed and then self-preservation, and only discover their sense of righteousness when the chips are down and the script calls for it. The identifiable hero, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is an unscrupulous space cowboy who we understand was kidnapped as a child from earth right after his mother succumbed to cancer. His connection to the past is two cassettes of hits from the 70s-80s that his mother loved and which he listens to in order to get his mojo working. During one of his semi-legal freelance assignments he comes into possession of a blue orb that it seems everyone in the known universe also wants. An adventure is born, and for what it’s worth Guardians of the Galaxy is wittier and cannier than Star Wars, which it resembles more than, say, Alien or the other Marvel spinoffs. The plot is simple but filled with such pointless exegesis that you don’t care what it is you don’t understand. Purists have complained that James Gunn’s movie takes too many liberties with the source material, which is like complaining about the songs in The Wizard of Oz because there were none in the books. What Gunn gets right is what he was paid to do, which is recreate those pulpy memories of sci-fi paperbacks from the 50s and 60s, at least visually. An alumnus of the trash-is-great Troma Entertainment studio, he understands the appeal of a wise-cracking raccoon (Bradley Cooper’s voice) and a green-skinned female ninja assassin, who, as played by Zoe Saldana, at least gets to do something here other than turn the hero’s head (though she does that, too). The Guardians are filled out by a big, talking tree (Vin Diesel) who only says one line, and the most soulful member, Drax (Dave Bautista), who is like the Fantastic Four’s Thing with a careful understanding of why he needs to destroy things. Like the movie, he’s easy to like and even easier to forget. (photo: Marvel)
Himself He Cooks
Valerie Berteau’s hour-long documentary looks at the Golden Temple in Armritsar, India, which prepares 100,000 free meals every day. Anyone can partake, from the poor to the rich, from locals to tourists, but there is one condition: those who eat must also lend a hand, whether it be cooking, setting tables, or washing the utensils, which are impressive in their size and functionality. This Sikh custom has been in place for 600 years and is based on the ideal that sees charity as the “nexus of culture, nature, and human necessity,” according to the explanatory titles. (There is no narration) Though the viewer may want more revealing explanations—maybe an interview or two with people closely involved with this massive, daily endeavor—Berteau effectively conveys its scale with sweeping shots of people standing in line, washing, and sitting down to eat. The process of preparation is almost overwhelming in its simplicity, a theme that doesn’t need explanation and which seems second nature to the people who both participate and run the operation. It’s a huge organism that thrums with vigor.
If I Stay
Lately there has been much discussion in the media regarding the loss of adulthood, which on the one hand can be interpreted simplistically as a disinclination toward martinis and tailored suits and on the other as a preference for stuff that only makes us comfortable. One of the cited hallmarks is the ascendance of young adult literature among old adults. If I Stay is based on a popular YA novel and itself has done very well at the American box office; and as far as the movie is concerned, its appeal seems sharper for parents than for teens. The protagonist’s father (Joshua Leonard) gave up drumming in a Portland indie rock band in order to raise a family, and the selflessness of his actions, though somewhat tangential to the main plot, is characterized as the noblest thing a parent could do, since, while he wasn’t making much money at it, it was “something he loved.” This is such a tired credo of the rock generation (which includes boomers) that it’s become a personality trait which supersedes all others in terms of virtue. In the purview of the movie it also provides contrast and comparison, since his teenage daughter, Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz), is a classical cellist who doesn’t know Nirvana from Nugent. The author, Gayle Forman, presents this paradox, if you want to call it that, to set up the requisite opposites-attract romance, which is what YA stories are all about anyway. The most successful rocker at Mia’s high school, Adam (Jamie Blackley), catches sight of Mia sawing away at Bach and falls immediately in love. Pursuit leads to tentative surrender on her part and they become an item, which is subsequently tested not so much by their opposite musical sensibilities, but rather their respective ambitions with regard to where those sensibilities will lead them. For Adam, the future is already here since he’s a year older and has a recording contract and numerous offers. Mia, however, is predictably more contemplative and must jump through hoops (i.e., auditions) in order to reach the more staid heights of the serious music world, namely Juilliard, and when that pinnacle seems in sight Adam’s selfishness is revealed: How could she move all the way across the country without talking to him about it first? Of course, it’s a pointless argument since Adam is always on the road and, in any case, doesn’t he listen to himself? But even this hackneyed romantic plot development isn’t enough, because then there’s an accident that sends Mia into a coma from which her spirit emerges and wonders whether she should return to a world where everything she values is gone or just “let go,” as they like to say in these fuzzy-headed fantasies. The problem with If I Stay has to do less with its youth-oriented proclivities than its infantile dramatic standards. (photo: Warner Bros. Ent. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)
Philippe Garrel’s latest feature is shorter and more episodic than his usual post-New Wave films. Filmed in black-and-white and starring, as always, his patently moody son Louis, it resists the viewer’s need to place it in a time frame, which may be the point. Based loosely on the director’s memories of his own father’s infidelities, Jealousy focuses on the relationship between Louis, a working actor, and his unemployed lover, Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), with whom he shares a tiny Paris apartment. At the beginning of the film, Louis leaves the mother of his precocious 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Olga Milshtein), who acts as a sort of leveling influence on Louis’s worst tendencies since he thinks of himself as a responsible father. Though his indiscretions aren’t graphically represented, it’s obvious Louis is not the constant companion he should be, but the title is misleading in that it isn’t jealousy that informs the relationship but resignation. The romance doesn’t have much of a future, and so the movie never gains much emotional weight, but it’s enlightening in brief stretches. (photo: Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions)
Million Dollar Arm
Disney’s tone-deaf reimagining of the process that lead to MLB’s first signing of players from India is all about the money, less about the players. Sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is the focus, a hotshot playboy salesman whose new venture needs a rainmaker right away. His more grounded partner, Ash (Aasif Mandvi), an Indian-American, has always tried to sell him on the appeal of cricket, and JB comes up with the novel idea of staging an audition in India among cricket bowlers to find potential baseball pitchers. Most of the film consists of scenes depicting culture shock—first JB’s in India, and then the two prospects’ when they move to L.A. to polish their skills with a famous coach (Bill Paxton). It’s difficult to decide which is more offensive, the cute Indians living in squalor and genuflecting to Western power, or the self-centered Americans and their own fixation on lucre. In the end, you know which culture gains the upper hand, and the only interesting thing is Hamm’s adjustment of his Don Draper persona for the Mouse Factory. (photo: Disney Enterprises)
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Since Mel Brooks made the last word on Horse Opera parodies back in the 70s, Seth MacFarlane, who knows his pop culture, had to think of something more substantial to poke fun at than gunslinger and pardner tropes. What he hit on—the bulit-in anachronisms of the Western film genre—is as good an idea as any but because MacFarlane is a fan first and a naughty boy second, he can’t help but undercut his humor with sentiment and the gratitude of being allowed into the club. The whole premise of his movie, incumbent in the title, is what an awful place the old West was to live in; not just lawless and dirty, but boring and unhealthy. The result is a movie that is overbearing in its determination to make you laugh at Western conventions because it assumes you have seen them all, but who watches old Westerns any more? MacFarlane plays sheepherder Albert, whose personal crisis comes to the fore when his sweetheart, Louise (Amanda Seyfreid), dumps him for the town’s suave entrepreneuer (Neil Patrick Harris), a purveyor of mustache waxes. Helped by his virginal best friend, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), and Edward’s hooker girlfriend, Ruth (Sarah Silverman), he attempts to woo Louise back, but to no avail, until a mysterious woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) shows up in town and, feeling sorry for Albert, gives him some pointers on how take on his romantic rival with gunplay. Eventually, Anna’s bloodthirsty husband, Clinch (Liam Neeson), who is on the lam, gets word of this friendship and demands satisfaction, so to speak, whereupon Albert is forced into the requisite quick draw showdown. Since Albert was created to be mocked, his defense mechanism is knowing sarcasm, which is wielded as observational humor about how weird it is that his best friend is saving himself for marriage when he girlfriend “has anal 20 times a day,” and the inherent racism of a sideshow attraction that invites players to shoot at cartoon runaway slaves. As things flag, which they’re bound to do in a two-hour comedy, he resorts to fart and diarrhea jokes. When MacFarlane played that teddy bear with the Boston accent, he had more of a comic presence. As himself he seems even more vulnerable and pathetic than his character is. Mel Brooks in the flesh would eat him alive, and he didn’t even have to star in Blazing Saddles to make it funny. What’s worse, MacFarlane occasionally feels the need to revert to character and bring some depth to a movie that shuns it outright, so his so-called romantic scenes with Theron are almost impossible to watch. People who say MacFarlane is edgy because he targets taboos forget that you have to be not only funny but also consistently cynical. (photo: Universal Pictures)
A Most Wanted Man
Already topical for being the last film made by Philip Seymour Hoffman, this adaptation of the 2006 John le Carre novel comes with even more melancholy baggage than the esteemed writer usually brings to his spy novels. Set in a grey-brown post-911 Hamburg, the story opens with the waterlogged arrival of the titular character, a Chechen named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who is so haunted by his experiences he can hardly talk, though it seems every spy in town wants to have a word with him, including Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman), the head of a freelance group of German intelligence operatives (Daniel Bruhl and the great Nina Hoss) who work extralegally, meaning with the sanction of a government that doesn’t acknowledge their existence, though everybody else in the international intelligence community, not to mention the Hamburg police, knows them well. The bastard son of a dead Russian general who was also a ranking member of the Russian mafia, Issa has rebelled against his patronage by embracing Islam and paid the price with torture in two national penal systems. He comes to Hamburg with a key and a letter of introduction to the local banker (Willem Dafoe), whose own father helped the Russian mafia launder their money. The police think Issa is in town to cause mischief, while the local CIA factotum (Robin Wright) thinks he might have information about radical Muslim groups. Bachmann sees him as a tool, a means of reaching his main prey, a Muslim scholar whom he believes is funneling charitable contributions to terrorists. As the movie progresses, Issa fades from the main stage, which is soon commanded by Bachmann, an overweight, hard drinking, chain-smoking drudge who nevertheless seems destructively dedicated to his work. His treatment of Issa’s “bleeding heart” immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) reveals his intentions as that of a man who will do anything necessary to get what he wants but whose purposes are geared toward a long view of history that his American counterpart doesn’t share. Consistent with le Carre’s cynicism, the War on Terror comes across as a self-perpetuating shell game, one that the shrewd Bachmann manipulates to his advantage, but only up to a point and for much more complex reasons. If the movie seems overly schematic in its rendering of this situation, maybe it can’t be helped, but in terms of distinguishing the moral and practical stakes of the matter, it’s something of a masterpiece. (photo: A Most Wanted Man Ltd./Amusement Park Film GmbH/Kerry Brown)
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1
Lars Von Trier’s latest provocation isn’t as willfully provocative as his last one, Antichrist. Though there are more graphic sex scenes, the overall tone is sardonic. An insufferably cerebral bookworm (Stellan Sarsgaard) finds a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten and bloodied in an alleyway and takes her to his dingy, dim apartment, where she tells him her life story of sexual libertinism, with the scholar interrupting every so often to footnote her narrative with historical anecdotes and illustrative commentary. The purpose is to show how sexual promiscuity is a social construct, that sex itself exists outside the purview of civilized discourse and doesn’t know from disapproval. If this is supposed to make us accept the woman’s behavior as being natural or rebellious, Von Trier nevertheless drags the various characters, including the scholar, his obvious stand-in, through a lot of humiliating muck, but for once it’s actually funny, at least in spots. This “volume 1” concerns itself with the woman’s unbelievable back story, and an impressive parade of big name actors join in the foolishness. Silly, but not boring in the least. (photo: Zentropa EntertainmentS31APS, Zentropa International Koln, Slot Machine, Zentropa International France, Caviar, Zenbelgie, Arte France Cinema; Christian Geisnaes)
Out of the Furnace
We’re back in Deer Hunter country, and if Scott Cooper’s sophomore feature feels overly reliant on 70s hard-bitten American movie cliches, he does those cliches justice. Russell and Rodney Baze (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck) are brothers steeped in the steel-producing culture of central Pennsylvania, and Rodney opts out of the “furnace” the only way he can, by joining the army. Russell stays put because of a sweetheart (Zoe Saldana) and a sense of rootedness, both of which are lost when he’s sent to prison for manslaughter. After getting out, he’s confronted with an even more emotionally damaged Rodney, who can’t adjust to regular life and makes money through bare-knuckle fights for a raging backwoods fixer (Woody Harrelson). The film’s casual violence is almost anachronistic and the plot feels derivative, but Cooper draws affectingly nuanced performances from his cast, and though the outcome of the story is predictable it’s no less emotionally fraught. Even Sam Shepard, typecast as the brothers’ weather-beaten uncle and the movie’s voice of common sense, seems more relevant than he usually does in this sort of role. (photo: Furnace Films LLC)
Director Kim Ki-duk’s more playful side often comes through in the scripts he writes for other directors, though there’s no mistaking his patented perversity in this black comedy. Yet another entry in the NK infiltration genre, the titular household is totally a sham—four unrelated Communist spies posing as a nuclear family in a South Korean suburb. The joke is that they’re a better model for middle class propriety than their typically dysfunctional neighbors, who are constantly bickering amongst themselves, though at night the NK family terminates defectors. As in Secretly Greatly (see elsewhere in this issue) each of the spies silently suffers homesickness and longs to reunite with real loved ones, a seemingly requisite leitmotif whose sentimentality Kim uncharacteristically falls victim to. So while there are some choice Kim segments, such as a heated discussion between the two heads-of-household about “free speech,” the film never rises above its trite concept. It’s difficult to blame director Lee Ju-hyoung for this, however, since all the other main credits belong to Kim. Too many cooks, or not enough? (photo: Kim Ki-duk Film)
Yet another South Korean cinematic permutation of the country’s schizophrenic emotional relationship with its northern neighbor. Three hugely popular young male TV actors are cast as highly trained NK spies who live undercover in a working class suburb of Seoul. Ryu-hwan (Kim Soo-hyun) has been awaiting orders for two years, during which he disguises his purposes by playing the neighborhood idiot and punching bag, all the while nurturing an affection for the “simple life” of the community. He’s soon joined by two compatriots, one impersonating a rocker (Park Ki-woong), the other a high school exchange student (Lee Hyun-woo), who also grow accustomed to their roles. Finally, the orders arrive and it isn’t what they expected: due to regime change and a resulting down-sizing of their division, they are told to commit suicide. The first half of this hybrid action film is comedic and almost self-deprecating, while the second half is sentimental and quite violent, and seems to go on forever, as if director Jang Chul-soo realized that what he was doing didn’t made much sense. (photo: Michigan Venture Capital)
The satistfactions of a settled, long-term relationship are always spoiled by disappointments that are all the more confounding for their repetitiveness. This is the queasy subtext that makes Hanif Kureishi’s script for Le Week-End so discomfiting. Nick and Meg (Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan) have been married for more than 30 years, and impulsively embark on a weekend in Paris. Natives of Manchester, where Nick teaches at a university and their grown son seems semi-permanently lodged in the room he grew up in, the pair are ill-prepared, temperamentally and financially, for this sudden fling and bickering even before they get off the train. Things quickly worsen when they get a gander at the Montmartre room they booked and find it to be even worse than they once remembered it, so Meg, much to Nick’s chagrin, over-leverages her credit card to get a suite in a swanky hotel they obviously can’t afford. The ensuing roguish sense of impropriety bolsters Nick’s libido but not Meg’s. “I’ve become a phobic object to you,” he laments, and whatever connubial satisfactions seemed imminent have now been irrevocably dashed. If that seems to make Meg out to be a frigid old scold, it should be pointed out that her disappointments are conveyed by Duncan with appealing wit and freshness. Meg has had enough of Nick’s neediness, which she correctly interprets as a reaction to his disappontment with his own choices. (It’s implied he has strayed in the past and even now is withholding the information that he will soon lose his job) The upshot is that Meg still thinks there is a future that can be changed while Nick frets about the present in relation to the past. France to him is a nostalgic jaunt while to her it’s a chance at revitalization. The key to Kureishi’s push-pull of comedy and desperation is whether or not Meg wants Nick to join her on this journey, and the movie never quite gets out from under its cloud of uncertainty. Sexual desire, professional discouragement, and lack of fulfillment are all illuminated in the City of Light as the couple seems headed for a split the excursion only seems to accelerate. And then Jeff Goldblum shows up as a stupidly successful intellectual who was one of Nick’s old college chums and continues to admire him for his depth of understanding. In contrast, he possesses a soul he knows is hollow and the movie actually lightens up in proximity to this cerebral lightweight with a new young bride and more luck than you could shake a doctoral thesis at. (His new book is a bestseller, a feat even he can’t countenance) Lots more surprises. (photo: Free Range Films Ltd./The British Film Institute/Curzon Film Rights 2 and Channel 4 Television Corp.)