November 2014 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the November issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on October 25.

By now everyone knows how this film was made. In 2003, Richard Linklater started shooting a core cast of four individuals playing a nuclear family and over the next twelve years built on their story as all grew older in real time. This premise is impressive enough—how could Linklater have known all four actors would stick with the project?—but the logistics are even more astounding when you learn that when he did shoot it was only for a week at a time, because there is something wholly integrated about the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), nuanced and deeply inhabited, even though we only see him in an incidental fashion. And even those incidents tend to be small—getting a haircut, going bowling, hanging out and talking shit. Except for high school graduation and a few deliberately melodramatic scenes, it is an accrual of modest anecdotes, but which convey his personality and development more satisfyingly than so-called major events. At six, Mason’s parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), are already separated, and it’s implied his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), was unintended. Mason Sr. is a free spirited, irresponsible soul who has the luxury of popping into his children’s lives when he wants to, thus placing pressure on Olivia, who is burdened with the bulk of the disciplinary chores. This tension is always present in the various interactions, even when all the principals aren’t around, but it also dissipates over the years in a naturalistic way that indicates how carefully Linklater controlled the storyline. Neither parent is let off the hook. While Mason Sr. is seen as a charming knave and eventually forced to give up his slacker ways when he starts a new family, Olivia makes bad partner choices, two men who are more ostensibly responsible but who also turn out to be alcoholics. If this is mostly background to Mason’s central story, it’s invaluable background, because Mason, as played by the sinuously charismatic Coltrane, internalizes these issues in the way he makes decisions. He turns into an intelligent young man who has the affability of his father without the egocentricities, while also acquiring his mother’s sense of justice (she returns to school and eventually becomes a literature professor) but with a more realistic viewpoint. Drugs, sex, all the usual adolescent trapdoors that kids have to navigate are presented without much editorial input, and despite the title Samantha is afforded a full measure of attention for her own foibles. As she and Mason grow into handsome adults with their own problems, both Olivia and Mason Sr. fill out unflatteringly and become more attuned to the hand life has dealt them. In movies, that sort of quotidian honesty is rarely addressed so movingly—or entertainingly. (photo: boyhood inc./ifc productions i, LLC)

calmCalm at Sea
Beyond the troubling premise there seems little in this WWII melodrama that stirs the imagination of German director Volker Schlondorf, whose 1979 adaptation of Gunther Grass’s classic The Tin Drum remains one of the most unusual additions to the genre. Similar in theme to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, the story is set up from the get-go. When a German officer is killed by a resistance fighter in France 12 months into the occupation, Hitler orders that 150 Frenchmen be shot in penance. Citizens of Brittany already under guard for questionable philosophical ideas are thus chosen as the “tributes,” which gives Schlondorff an hour to spend on individuals’ reactions to their impending doom. Based on a true story, the script seems intent on getting as many personalities into the mix as possible, and loses most of them. Granted, this has been hacked down from a TV treatment, but it isn’t until the end when the unfortunates are marched to the firing squad that you feel anything like unease. The staginess is that apparent. In French & German.

「グレイトフルデッド」メイン2Greatful Dead                                                                                                                                     This cheap slasher film tries to cover several topical social issues involving the atomization of Japanese society. Nami (Kumi Takiuchi) grows up in a home so ridiculously dysfunctional that she ends up all alone but also rich, thus allowing her to feed her pathology. She cultivates an obsession with people she dubs “solitarians,” individuals living alone who themselves have become a bit pathological. One old man (Takashi Sasano) in particular catches her eye, a former low-level TV personality who resents his life and shuts himself off from family and the world in general. When two Christian volunteers bring him out of his shell, Kumi loses it and kills them off, then imprisons the old man. Director Eiji Uchida wants to get at the rot in the Japanese soul, but his screenplay is so incoherent and his actors so inept that all you can react to is the splatter, which is gratuitious the way sex is gratuitous in pink eiga, except that pink eiga directors usually have something interesting to say about something other than sex. In Japanese. (photo: Greatful Dead film partners)

If Brett Ratner’s blockbuster adaptation of the ancient Greek legend has anything over Renny Harlin’s very recent The Legend of Hercules (just released here in September) it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has the unenviable (or enviable, depending on your opinion of Hollywood these days) task of making tent-pole action flicks a little more palatable by dint of his natural charm. Though the battle scenes can get pretty hairy they’re mostly gore-less, and the closer attention the movie pays to moral outcomes and their attendant plot arcs scan closer to Mouse Factory productions, for which screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos has often toiled. As it stands, this Hercules is not a god, or even a demi-god, though that’s what his personal PR flack and nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), insists he is in the opening scene as he spins Hercules’ back story and famous “labors” to a credulous audience. Soon enough we learn that the big guy is basically a mercenary who is using the legend foisted upon him to sell his services. If that sounds like a cop-out, there are already a dozen or so movies in the vault that deal with the myth directly, so it’s not like we need another one. This is the sensitive brawler, based loosely on a character developed by comic artist Steve Moore. Nevertheless, Herc is too decent a “human being” to feel totally comfortable in this position, and leaves most of the bounty negotiations to his right-hand man, Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), while his left-hand man, Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), takes up the mystical slack by constantly spouting prophecies, the most important being the time of his own death, which he never quite nails. These shakey principles are put to their own labor when Hercules and his small army, which also includes the token Amazon (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and traumatized mute (Aksel Hennie), are recruited by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) of Thrace to train his own men to attack a warlord named Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann) who has supposedly been terrorizing his bailiwick. The action scenes are as straightforward as the story, and, just as Johnson is a natural fit for the role physically, Ratner proves to be a good director for a movie that self-consciously goes light on the CGI in favor of location shooting with hundreds of extras. There’s an actual measurable scale to the mayhem that’s missing from most blockbusters right now. Which isn’t to say the movie holds together. Tonally, it shifts fitfully between semi-serious morality tale and a parody of same, a shift that undermines its one good idea of making Hercules mortal, and which Johnson does a decent job of conveying. Hercules isn’t any less cynical than your average studio green-lighted job, but at least Johnson maintains a level of sincerity—or is it naivete? (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Catering to two moviegoing demographics—Indiaphiles and foodies—this liberally adapted true story falls victim to all the cliches inherent in cross-cultural cock-up tales without saying anything compelling about any of the cultures it depicts. The Kadam family leaves India when their restaurant is destroyed in a riot, though the filmmakers conveniently neglect to mention what caused these riots, even though the matriarch is killed in them. Likewise, when the whole brood moves to the UK they find their new country not to their liking, though it seems purely for aesthetic reasons that are meant to reinforce the brood as being totally dedicated to their culinary calling. Of course, it has nothing to do with any latent post-colonial racism still evident in Britain. In any case, they impulsively head out for France, where they end up in a countryside they know nothing about. The patriarch (Om Puri), who is mainly responsible for all this pointless wandering, spies a derelict manse that he thinks will be perfect for Indian cuisine, but it happens to exist only a hundred feet away from an established eatery run by the imperious Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who won’t countenance competition, much less competition from brown-skinned outsiders. And while you may think her intransigence has a socially relevant angle to it, she’s more concerned with upholding certain Gallic traditions: the Kadams are themselves not offensive, it’s their food. So whatever cultural insights this plot promises, all it delivers is a food fight, as Madame Mallory eventually succumbs to the spicy entreaties of curries and nan and, moreover, the gustatory genius of her unwanted neighbors’ chef-in-the-hole, eldest son Hassan (Manish Dayal), who quickly masters sauces and such and marries them to his own. Obligatory romantic intrigue is provided by Madame Mallory’s sous-chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who struts her ecumenicalism by lending Hassan her cookbooks and eventually falls in love with him. Things turn thorny when Hassan’s acculturation goes beyond what anyone could have expected and he’s accepted at the top chef’s school in Paris, where he not only excels but sets the restaurant world on fire with his incredible fusion concoctions. Meanwhile, Madame still hasn’t gotten that coveted third Michelin star, and she relies on Hassan to help her win it. If these seem like trivial pursuits in a world on fire, you can at least enjoy the interplay between Mirren and Puri, who trade barbs with the panache of Hepburn and Tracy, but in the end it can’t possibly make up for Lasse Hallstrom’s typically schematic direction and softness for any sentimental device at his disposal. (photo: DreamWorks II Dist. Co., LLC)

minusculeMinuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants
Consisting of cutely rendered, non-verbal animated insects set against real natural settings, the Minuscule series of TV shorts has been a hit in France (as well as Japan, where it was shown on NHK) for years. This first feature-length attempt to sell the idea gets bogged down in exposition and misses what makes the shorter versions so enjoyable, which is their focus on one, single activity in a humorous way. The plot here involves a young ladybug separated from its parents and forced to hide out in the leftovers of an abandoned picnic during a rainstorm. When it awakes, it joins a merry band of ants who are attempting to transport a tin of sugar cubes the long distance to their hive, and along the way are attacked by a gang of red ants. The seige of the black ant hive seems lifted from so many blockbusters and spoils the simple pleasures of the cartoon’s form, which is mostly how insect behavior can be transformed into very funny slapstick. Entertaining, but a bit long even at 90 minutes. (photo: Futurikon Films-Entre Chien et Loup-Nozon Paris-Nozon SPRL-2d3D Animations)

nympho2Nymphomanic Vol. 2
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. In Volume 1, which was released in Japan last month, an insufferably cerebral bookworm (Stellan Sarsgaard) finds a woman named Joe (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, as the scholar interrupts 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. Volume 2 takes our heroine into full adulthood and middle age. Her marriage to the man (Shia LaBeouf) who first took her viginity years ago could be seen as some sort of reckoning, except after the honeymoon she loses all sexual sensation and freaks out. The implication, as voiced by the scholar, is that “true love” didn’t jibe with her sexual proclivities. As a result, this part 2 is less funny—except for the scene where Joe hooks up for a menage a trois with two Africans whose language she doesn’t understand—and more tedious in the typical von Trier scolding style. Also, by this point the episodic structure has started to become repetitious, no episode series more so than Joe’s trysts with a kind of clinical S&M therapist (Jamie Bell), whose dominating methods extend to his administrative duties. If you show up without an appointment you are humiliated twofold. Though von Trier gets some meaty sexual visuals out of these encounters, the point that Joe has to return to some kind of debased state before she can regain her mojo was made during the first session and thus all subsequent ones only reinforce the opinion that von Trier simply wants to punish her for feeling the way she does. Those 40 lashes she receives while tied to a couch are practically Calvinian in their condemnation. And then from there Joe becomes an actual criminal, which relates in some way to her beating, but it’s not as if she’s come full circle. She’s simply gone off the deep end, as does the movie in its last scene, which is supposed to be a punch line but only reveals von Trier to be as sexually confused and frustrated as Joe. The difference is that Joe at least has sex. (photo: Zentropa Entertainments31 ABS, Zentropa International Koln, Slot Machine, Zentropa International France, Caviar, Zenbelgie, Arte France Cinema)

ofhorsesOf Horses and Men
In order to appreciate this strikingly original film it obviously helps if you’re Icelandic. Director Benedikt Erlingsson doesn’t explain the unique human-equine relationships that hold in this part of the Nordic country, and so it may seem strange when a man cold-bloodedly kills his beloved mare after she’s been “raped” by a stallion, especially since we just saw him fitting her lovingly with a bridle and then riding her with such pride as his neighbors looked on in awe. (”What a beautiful gait!”) But the peculiarities don’t end there. Using an episodic structure, Erlingsson shows how man and beast interact under certain strange circumstances: a man rides his horse out to a Russian ship at low tide to buy vodka that turns out not to be vodka; a man stupidly blinds himself trying to build a corral; a Spanish immigrant is stranded in a blizzard with a horse he doesn’t know how to control. Humans, it turns out, have appetites as big as horses’, but aren’t as attuned to nature, and therein lies the difference. Eerie, beautiful, and funny. In Icelandic. (photo: Hrossabrestur)

sonofagunSon of a Gun
Buff and bearded, Ewan McGregor is surprisingly effective as the heavy in this formulaic Australian caper flick. He’s Brendan, an ace burglar doing a long stint in prison, where he sets his sights on 19-year-old JR (Brenton Thwaites), a scared kid who nonetheless tries to stand up to the hooligans who would like to take his virginity, and who also has an unexplained facility for chess. Brendan protects him, and when JR is let out early the older man directs him to a Russian mafia compound where he is put up in style and ordered to engineer Brendan’s prison break. As long as the story trajectory remains simple director Julius Avery holds the viewer’s interest, but once Brendan, JR, and their associates start planning the theft of gold from a mining consortium the various character arcs tangle and stall. JR’s motivation, a crush on a Russian hostess (Alicia Vinkander), is a lazy plot device that highjacks the movie and takes it nowhere. McGregor’s mix of menace and practicality is the movie’s only saving grace, and Avery squanders it. (photo: SOAG Holdings Pty. Ltd. Screen Australia, ScreenWest Inc. and Screen NSW)

It’s taken a while for Eric Khoo’s 2011 animated study of the work of manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi to open in Tatsumi’s native country, which may have something to do with its unconventional structure. The 76-year-old subject narrates the portion about his own postwar childhood, and intersperses the narrative with four of Tatsumi’s own heartbreaking, often very disturbing stories of the hoi polloi. In his own life, the author had to put up with a lazy father and a brother who wasn’t always productive or cooperative, but there’s nothing particularly sinister about these behaviors. The stories, on the other hand, are filled with such abject suffering and cruelty that you look for their sources in the biographical portions. Tatsumi borrowed from classic manga, but, calling his own style “gekiga,” he forged a fully dramatic style that lends itself almost too well to film or, for that matter, the stage. The fictional segments are much more powerful than the non-fiction ones, and maybe that’s the purpose. They’re all the more unsettling for the contrast. In Japanese. (photo: Zhao Wei Films)

tom_main01Tom at the Farm
Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan adapts Michel Marc Bouchard’s play as a kind of Hitchcockian comedy. Dolan himself, looking even younger than his 24 years, plays Tom, a Toronto PR specialist who travels to the deep Canadian countryside in the middle of winter to attend the funeral of his male lover. Naively or not, Tom finds himself the victim of the resentments of his lover’s older brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who can’t stand the idea that his mother (Lise Roy) will find out her son was homosexual and thus browbeats Tom into acting out a fantasy he has already concocted. Tom understands that he late boyfriend was estranged from his family, but he’s not prepared for the intensity of Francis’s homophobia, which we come to learn hides something even more sinister. Despite Tom’s seeming station as a hostage to Francis’s fantasy he takes to country life and in doing so undermines the older man’s patronizing power, though not necessarily in a way that makes up understand Dolan’s point. Could the mother really be that clueless, especially given that Tom is staying at their house (the better for Francis to monitor his actions and statements), but even more baffling is how much Tom likes doing chores. It’s as if Dolan decided the best way to parody Hitchcock is to juxtapose ideas stolen from pre-60s Hollywood cracker comedies by people like Preston Sturges, though in this case it isn’t so much the people as it is the environment that makes for cognitive dissonance. As with all such small, rural communities, this one keeps secrets that Francis himself would prefer remain buried, and Tom’s discovery of them feels momentous, even if they come too late in the story to make the intended impression. He also does an amazing job of conjuring up the spirits of the dead: the deceased lover might as well be a third wheel in this drama, considering how vividly his presence intrudes on the messy proceedings. Nevertheless, for someone as young as Dolan these observations are bracingly trenchant, informed less by Hitchcock’s withering cynicism than by a worldly understanding of what everyone is capable of given the proper circumstances. Less flamboyant than his more potent and entertaining Laurence Anyways, Tom at the Farm will strike some as a bit too chilly (in everys definition of the word), but maybe that’s what happens when a director as ambitious as Dolan tries something new. Though the movie’s sense doesn’t always connect with the viewer, it has a palpable atmosphere of comic dread that lingers well after the lights go up, and delivers a potent dose of claustrophobia despite the wide open spaces. In French. (photo: 8290849 Canada Inc., une filiale de MIFILIFIMS Inc., MK2 Films/Arte Franc Cinema/Clara Palardy)

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