December 2014 movies

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

Brad Pitt;Shia LaBeouf;Logan Lerman;Michael Pena;Jon BernthalFury
With his cop-buddy movie, End of Watch, David Ayer tried to subvert the genre he lovingly embraced, and he seems to be doing the same with this WWII action epic. Though the particulars are very familiar—multi-ethnic company, devil-may-care attitude toward carnage, and a sentimental nod to the death of a comrade—Ayer imbues them with the realistic horror of combat, providing depth to experiences that movie audiences were never expected to appreciate fully, because doing so might turn them off movies forever. The title is the heroic nickname that the principals have applied to their tank, a machine they’ve been married to for almost a year through a continent’s worth of killing. The leader is Don “War Daddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), a hardened soldier who, in the best American tradition, has internalized his job so profoundly he doesn’t need to think twice to make a decision, especially when it comes to taking another person’s life. The weight of the film, outlined in stark terms right at the beginning, is that the European war is over, effectively won by the allies, and Fury’s job is to mop up the resistance, which is fierce in the worst way: SS officers forcing young women and children to fight, hanging those who refuse from streetlamps to let other Germans know that they mean business. Consequently, Fury’s task is more difficult than ever, since it means killing adversaries who probably have no ill will toward them. As in the old TV show Combat, the storyline alternates rough-house comeraderie with intense scenes of battle, but since this is 2014 and not 1965, each is more candid, as if Ayer wanted to penetrate the euphemistic brio and heroics, cliches that even Saving Private Ryan couldn’t resist in the end. The tank crew runs the spiritual gamut from the sacred—Shia LaBeouf’s pious man of God—to the profane—Jon Bernthal’s redneck firecracker—but you’ll never look at these stereotypes the same way again. In the middle is Norman (Logan Lerman), a pencil pusher suddenly thrust into the thick of it when the tank’s gunner is killed (Norman’s first task is to wipe the man’s face off the wall). His role in the movie is to embody the audience’s terror. It’s here, in the interstices between furious firefights and cold-blooded murder, that the movie’s value is weighed. In the most problematic scene, the tank rolls into a conquered town and Collier brings Norman into a house occupied by two women. The shadow of rape hangs heavy over the conversation—Collier speaks German—and it’s difficult to understand what Ayer’s purpose is. But in the end, conventional heroics hold sway, and while the hackneyed ending doesn’t make the whole movie a wash, it points out how difficult it is to buck a tradition that defines a country’s image of itself. (photo: Norman Licensing LLC)

_DSC7355.NEFGone Girl
It is quickly becoming apparent that David Fincher’s apex as a filmmaker will probably be Zodiac, a movie of such bristling imagination and complexity that, regardless of your feelings about its inordinate length and open-ended structure, stands as one of the most original police procedurals in the history of film. Fincher has demonstrated the same willingness to experiment in his subsequent works, but they’ve been adaptations that didn’t necessarily need his peculiar style, though they were happy to have him. This potboiler by Gillian Flynn, who did her own adaptation, is readymade box office gold, and while Fincher adds some things here and subtracts some things there, he can’t quite overcome the novel’s stagey dramaturgy, which works to pass the time on the beach but feels truncated and fake on the screen. Ben Affleck and Rosamunde Pike play Nick and Amy Dunne, two New York journalists who meet at a Brooklyn party, marry, and then suffer downsizing with the advent of the 2008 recession. They retreat to Nick’s Missouri hometown where they purchase a big house and Nick opens a bar with his sister. And then one day Amy disappears, leaving behind a few splotches of blood and a lot of questions. The police suspect that Nick may have had something to do with it, and since our POV is the same as his for much of the first half, we assume he didn’t, but the whole point of Flynn’s thriller is that we are led to question this assumption, just like the media, which quickly descends on the small town because the mystery is just too delectable to pass up. (Amy, it should be noted, is a minor celebrity, having been the subject of a bestseller written by her parents when she was a girl) Flynn spices the stew with riddles and clues that feel over-determined when set against Nick’s outward panic, and Fincher’s control over the leaking of information that Nick understandably doesn’t want revealed shows he earned that sizable paycheck. The cast is filled out with a rogues gallery of opportunists and realists, including Neil Patrick Harris’s rich stalker and Tyler Perry’s highly motivated defense lawyer, but the movie falls squarely on Affleck’s shoulders, even more so than Pike’s, since the British actress is mainly seen as a flashback presence, the product of someone else’s imagination. Many have complained that the man-eating premise of the denouement gives women a bad image and sucks up to the male sense of sexual grievance, but there isn’t a whole lot here that stands up to scrutiny except as melodrama, which means a different sort of director might have pulled off something more entertaining and even transgressive. As it is, it’s only outlandish. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

hilloffreedomHill of Freedom
Successful movie directors are expected to plow the same field over and over again, but Korean maverick Hong Sang-soo isn’t “successful” in that way. The fact that he mines the same comic characters and plot ideas year after year has more to do with stubbornness than creative license. But his newest movie, while still very clearly a Hong production, betrays a kind of midnight brainstorm quality that turns a rote romantic comedy into something quite acerbic. A woman (Seo Young-hwa) returns from a convalescent sojourn in the mountains to her workplace in Seoul and picks up a letter from a former Japanese associate who, in a sudden urge to see her, quit his job and flew to Korea. Unable to locate her, he sat down and wrote her a long letter explicating his spiritual crisis and the adventure that unfolded in her absence. Hong’s brilliant idea is that while the woman is reading this monumental epistle, she drops it, scattering the pages, and when she starts reading it again she does so with the story out of order, and that’s how Hong presents it to us, a splintered tale that becomes funnier as we piece together the several days that Mori (Ryo Kase) spent at an inn and wandering around the city trying to locate his old colleague. During this time he hangs out at a coffee shop called Jiyugaoka, named after the upscale Tokyo neighborhood simply because the proprietor, Youngsan (Moon Sori), liked the image of a “Hill of Freedom.” Yes, Mori and Youngsan communicate in English. In fact, Mori communicates with everyone in English, and the use of an intermediary language between this Japanese visitor and his Korean hosts is revealing in many ways, since both sides handle matters differently than they normally would in their native tongues. When the woman (Yoon Yeo-jeong) who owns the inn makes a casual remark about how “nice” the Japanese are, Mori comes back with a blunter remark that puts the lie to her pleasantry and shatters a stereotype at the same time. When Mori meets Youngsan’s boyfriend at the cafe, the viewer can immediately tell by their choice of English words that neither likes the other, though they don’t seem to want to say so directly. Since the plot is unmoored by the structure, there’s little need to pay attention to development, and when Mori is seen in bed with Youngsan the viewer takes it with a grain of salt, not only because Mori has proven to be a singularly unreliable narrator, but, as in all Hong’s movies, alcohol is as much of a storytelling fuel as anything. Suffice it to say that some outcomes have no matching precedent, a rather fitting metaphor for the way we carry memories we’d like to lose or reconfigure to our peculiar needs. In English & Korean. (photo: Jeonwonsa Film Co.)

iloilo_mainIlo Ilo
The currency crisis of the late 90s was a signal turning point in the lives of the Asian middle class. Anthony Chen’s slyly subversive debut, which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, explains this effect better than any other film as it profiles a working Singaporean couple who hire a Filipino maid to care for their bratty son. Mrs. Lim (Yeo Yann Yann), who is pregnant, works as an administrative assistant at a shipping company and Mr. Lim (Chen Tianwen) is a glass salesman. Their spoiled son, Jiale (Koh Ja Ler), torments his new companion, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), endlessly and the parents, overburdened with work responsibilities, hardly notice, and when they do notice they hardly care. Nevertheless, Teresa is no pushover, and Jiale inevitably comes to admire her fortitude in the absence of any concerted parental concern over how badly he’s doing at school. In the film’s first great scene, it is the boy who acknowledges Teresa’s second-class status in the household (she’s made to eat in another room) with a small but potent gesture of solidarity. But Chen isn’t out to stick it to the bourgeois values on display, because, in a very real sense, the Lims are as much victims of the system as Teresa is. What makes their situation more deplorable is that it takes them a long time to admit as much. As the financial crisis deepens, Mr. Lim loses his job but keeps it a secret, all the while slowly breaking down into half the man he once was; and Mrs. Lim, scared for her own uncertain future, starts shelling out money to a shady motivational speaker with disastrous results. Meanwhile, Teresa and Jiale bond over a traumatic incident at school. Her common sense approach to the problem contrasts almost tragically with Mrs. Lim’s harried attempts to keep her family together through pure will, which at first makes her an unsympathetic character until you realize that it’s the only way she can get by. And give her credit for giving Teresa credit for being more resourceful than she is. Her jealousy is neither scary nor off-putting, but rather touching. Though the viewer’s impulse is to side with Teresa, who is forced to take a second, illegal job in order to support her own family back in the Philippines (with, ironically enough, a Filipino boss who is even more exploitive than Mrs. Lim), in the end she seems the most free, which is probably the point. The Lims are forever prisoners of their own dashed expectations, and if the ending doesn’t satisfy the more sentimental viewer, it’s all the more realistic for the way it puts off a future no one can know. That doesn’t mean it won’t choke you up. Sometimes sentiments come from the strangest places. In Mandarin, Tagalog & English. (photo: Singapore Film Commission, NP Enterprise (S) PTE Ltd., Fisheye Pictures PTE Ltd.)

Bailey's Quest-833.cr2Maps to the Stars
Though David Cronenberg can be very funny, he’s never actually put together a straightforward comedy, and while some people will quibble that this acid satire of Hollywood exceptionalism is not, strictly speaking, a comedy, it comes damn close on several fronts. More significantly, however, after several movies that played fast-and-loose with genres Cronenberg wasn’t previously known for, he returns to the kind of altered reality mode that characterized his occult and sci-fi movies, with their ripe body horror and twisted psychologizing. Since Tinseltown is itself a kind of alternate universe, the wildly irrational attitudes of the main characters are accepted as coming with the environment, or even the furniture. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a pretty, quiet young girl with some obvious but not off-putting facial scars, is first seen riding a bus into L.A., where she meets up with a hired car driven by, of course, a wannabe screenwriter-actor (Robert Pattinson, reversing the role he played as the limo-riding billionaire in Cosmopolis). Through a tweeted recommendation from Carrie Fisher (ha!), Agatha lands a job as the personal assistant to ditzy, former A-list actor Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is gunning for the lead in a biopic of her own mother, a star who supposedly abused Havana before dying by her own hand. The incest gets really literal when Havana’s therapist, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a superstar TV self-help guru, turns out to be Agatha’s father, who disowned his daughter when she was sent away to an institution after attempting to burn down their home and everyone in it. The happy little family is rounded off by mother-queen bitch-agent Cristina (Olivia Williams) and Agatha’s little brother, Benjie (Evan Bird), a bratty child star just getting out of rehab and also desperate for a comeback role. The only through storyline in the movie is Agatha’s attempts to contact Benjie, something their parents dread because…well, no need to mention incest again. Nevertheless, Bruce Wagner’s screenplay is mostly a series of black humor sketches that read like non sequiturs, closer in spirit to the Firesign Theater than Saturday Night Live. As the situations become more bizarre, not to mention more violent, the movie loses its sense of humor but not for want of trying. Havana’s ranting-farting scene is certainly the most robust piece of cinematic imagination we’re bound to see this year, and Moore is a trooper for pulling it off with such aplomb, but it’s difficult to see what purpose it, and most of the other scenes at the end, serves except to meet whatever decadent expectations the first half promised in subtler, creepier, and funnier ways. It’s not as if we didn’t think people in Hollywood weren’t like this. (photo: Starmaps Productions Inc./Integral Film GmbH)

After resetting his mojo with a documentary about himself and following it with one of his better meditations on the theme of salvation, Kim Ki-duk returns to full freak mode with this bluntly effective black comedy about sexual agency and familial bonds. A drunk housewife (Lee Eun-woo) catches her husband (Cho Jae-hyun) taking a call from his mistress and in a rage tries to castrate him but ends up emasculating their teenage son (Seo Young-ju) instead. After gobbling the orphaned member, the wife disappears, leaving the two males to contemplate the sins of the father. Since almost nothing in Kim’s movies is meant to mimic reality, the violence and passion on display have little visceral traction, but nevertheless make their points in other ways. The blood is tempered by a sense of absurdity that Kim has no problem intensifying when he’s in the mood, and since he dispenses with dialogue altogether he manages to focus the viewer’s attention on what’s going down on screen. Without the distraction of words the force of his images is all the more powerful. And for once, Kim proves himself a spirited director of actors, since we quickly get past the non-verbal gimmick and absorb these weird characters in all their cartoony splendor. Seeking penance as well as solidarity with his son, the father also loses his penis (albeit surgically), but that doesn’t stop either of them from gaining sexual fulfillment, mainly through sadomasochistic encounters with dad’s mistress (also played by Lee). Though very painful to watch and ridiculous in the extreme, the sex scenes have a charge that’s all the more jolting for the fact that penetration isn’t an option. Frustration was never so tactile, release never so potently plain. When the son starts hanging out with a group of thugs who have a claim on the mistress, the possibilities of exploring the pain-pleasure nexus become almost endless, and it’s a credit to Kim’s superhuman economy that he can sample as many as he does in less than 90 minutes. By the time one character finds an outlet to orgasm by having a knife stuck in his shoulder and moved around, you become not only tolerant of the gore, but appreciative of the humorous connotations. At once sending up masculine pride in potency and the stereotype of the jealousy-driven banshee (contrasted with the yielding nympho), Kim may go to extremes but he never loses sight of the prize, which is bald provocation. You can even call it entertainment. (photo: Kim Ki-duk Film)

Director Kim Dae-woo achieves a nice balance of intense eroticism and social satire in this claustrophobic drama set during the Vietnam war. Col. Kim (Song Seeung-heun) returns to Korea a hero but suffering from PTSD. It matters little since his father-in-law, a general, has secured him a cushy training job at a camp, where his ambitious wife (Jo Yeo-jeong) lords it over the gossipy women. Kim’s anxieties are exacerbated by the macho prerogatives of his subordinates, and then he meets Ga-heun (Lim Ji-yeon), the Chinese-Korean wife of a new transfer. Her demure reticence distinguishes her from the other wives and draws Kim in, though it also makes her difficult to approach. Kim’s titular malady is played for all its worth, and Song loses himself in the role. If the explicit sex scenes are too elegant and the supporting cast too close to caricature, the director keeps the tension high through restraint and patience, and the fall is more of a drop than you expect. But he can’t resist tacking on a Harlequin-grade coda, counteracting everything that went before. In Korean. (photo: Next Entertainment World Inc. & Iron Package)

Billed as a crime thriller, Brad Furman’s feature is better described as a monument to bad casting. Justin Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a finance wiz working his way through Princeton graduate school by signing up fellow students for an online gambling outfit. Threatened with expulsion, he bets his wad on a poker game run by a similar outfit and loses it. Convinced he was hustled, he flies to Costa Rica where the HQ of the outfit is and makes his case to its honcho, Ivan Black (Ben Affleck), a suave entrepreneuer who pretends he’s impressed by Richie’s cahungas and hires him as a casino manager. Needless to say, Richie gets in over his head and when he isn’t being beaten up by local officials not satisfied with their bribes he’s being blackmailed by an earnest FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) trying to collar Black for racketeering. Everyone except the requisite token romantic interest (Gemma Arterton) is expected to indulge in macho posing, and the principals, at least, look nauseated by the effort. Who can blame them? Thrilling ain’t in it. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

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