Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.
Though “Tomorrow” is ubiquitous on the cocktail circuit and “It’s the Hard Knock Life” almost equally widespread thanks to Jay-Z’s appropriation, most young people probably don’t know about the long-running comic strip Little Orphan Annie, which came into its own during the Depression. The story of a poor little orphan girl and her dog adopted by a rich industrialist, it was a readymade hit for those trying times, but the creator, Harold Gray, was a staunch conservative and often used the strip to criticize unions and big government. He was even against child labor laws. This legacy was lost when the strip was turned into a hit Broadway musical in 1977, which became the default version of the idea, but the theme has always been irresistible, especially to show biz trooper Will Smith, who came up with the concept for this second theatrical film version as a vehicle for him and his daughter, Willow. Somehow, he opted out but remains the producer (along with Jay-Z), and the finished product has his populist fingerprints all over it. Whatever notions one had of a “black Annie” suggested by the original casting were not realized in the final edit, despite the casting of Quvenzhane Wallis, who played a very poor little girl in Beasts of the Southern Wild and received an Oscar nomination for it, in the title role, and Jamie Foxx as the Daddy Warbucks stand-in, mobile phone mogul Will Stacks. In fact, it says nothing about the widening income gap that characterizes our present economy, even though it’s set in Manhattan and unironically features some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The movie is simply about the charms of an artless eleven-year-old who wants a family no matter what and ends up being adopted by the richest man in New York. Concessions to the times include the replacement of an orphanage with a lower middle class apartment run by the shrewish Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), who supplements a stalled singing career with public welfare payments for all the foster kids she puts up in her cell-like second bedroom. Also, Stacks, a confirmed bachelor, is running for mayor of New York, though he clearly has no charisma, even if his assistant, Grace (Rose Byrne), sees something in him that others don’t besides his ability to generate cash. However, the biggest change is in the songs. Since so many from the original production referenced the situation in 1933, when the story was set, they wouldn’t make sense in 2014, but the material commissioned to replace them, mostly by Sia and Greg Kurstin, are so generically contempo-pop and insistently positive that they make the adopted Jay-Z arrangement of “Hard Knock” sound positively Mahlerian. The whole concept has been reduced to: it’s a drag being poor, so find someone with money. Harold Gray would have approved.
Big Hero 6
Disney animation head John Lasseter has always been open about his debt to Japanese anime, and proved his loyalty by showing up at the most recent TIFF to personally introduce his latest film as the festival’s opening feature. The movie itself cannibalizes a number of Japanese anime themes and is set in a future city that is a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo. The two main characters are adolescent Japanese brothers who are also tech geniuses, and the robot one of them invents is designed to be a comforting caregiver, which is a real goal among Japanese robot manufacturers. If Lasseter were still with Pixar, this compelling idea might have been enough, but Lasseter is with Disney now, and Disney has a deal with Marvel, so for all intents and purposes this is basically an adaptation of one of the comic behemoth’s lesser series—thus the title—and such series comes with their own latent priorities. As a result, the plot feels over-determined and busier than it should be. On the one hand it’s about a boy who, crushed by the loss of a loved one, invests his faith in a technology that means to replicate that love. On the other hand, it’s about how commerce invariably crushes creativity, a theme that it doesn’t approach with nearly as much…well, creativity. Teenage Hiro (Ryan Potter) is an underground bot battler/designer who has yet to channel his talents into something sustainable, like good grades and a vision of his own future, two things his college-age brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), has carried out successfully. When Tadashi is killed in a mysterious explosion at a tech showcase, Hiro inherits his last invention, an inflatable robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), whose purpose is to diagnose and treat Hiro’s dis-ease, whether physiological or psychological. But Hiro is obsessed with finding his brother’s killer and exacting revenge, so he teams up with some of Tadashi’s friends to form a kind of geek Justice League. Baymax becomes part of this team as the most powerful member, though one whose gentle programming makes him less than effective in meting out vengeance. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams wisely borrow the attention to tech detail from The Incredibles, and the action sequences are both hilarious and astoundingly sophisticated. However, whenever the movie has to explain itself plot-wise it gets bogged down in labored exposition, probably because, as a Disney production, it has to prove something in the way of moral uplift (friends are important). Pixar would have made a much deeper point about the dangers of advanced technology versus its benefits—of which the amazing Baymax is a perfect example—and they wouldn’t have been as assertive about it. (photo: Disney)
Black Coal, Thin Ice
In Diao Yinan’s detective thriller, the economic realities of China’s spurt toward development are incorporated into an old-fashioned murder mystery that could use a bit more thought but nevertheless delivers thrills and genuine creepiness in a satisfying way. A gruff police investigator, Zhang (Liao Fan), thinks he has a suspect in a grisly murder case but when he goes to make the collar things go terribly, comically wrong, and two other cops die. He quits and becomes a security guard, but five years later hears of two more murders with the same m.o. and reopens his own investigation, which leads to the widow (Gwei Lun Mei) of the original murdered man. Zhang now thinks she may have killed her husband; or perhaps she has other secrets she’s rather not have revealed. Though the solution isn’t half as interesting as Diao thinks it is, his gritty street scenes convey genuine presence—you can feel the cold and smell the dirty air—and when violence happens it’s all the more unsettling for how clumsy it comes across. In Mandarin. (photo: Jiangsu Omnijoi Moive Co. Ltd./Boneyard Entertainment China (BEC) Ltd. (Hong Kong))
Ken Loach and his trusty screenwriter Paul Laverty return to Ireland, where their last great movie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, was set, and addresses many of the same historical issues, namely, the social and economic divisions created by Irish independence. Their subject is, in fact, even more potentially divisive: the avowed communist agitator Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), who left his native land in the 1920s when the heat became too much for him and moved to New York, where he became cozy with modernity in the guise of African-American jazz and more politically savvy with the advent of the Great Depression. When he learns his brother has died, he returns to County Leitrim to help his elderly mother (Aileen Henry) run her farm, but the young people in the community, bored with rural life and intrigued by the prodigal son’s sexy sojourn, encourage him to reopen a public hall he built years ago and which is named after two executed leaders of the 1916 Easter uprising. Though he initially begs off, saying that he is only back to farm, he is persuaded to follow through by an old sweetheart (Simone Kirby) and the hall turns into everything the local establishment hates: a raucous dance hall by night and an ad hoc education center by day that spreads political and cultural heresies. Jimmy’s main nemesis is Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), the parish priest, who is adamant that only the Church can supervise education. Jimmy left Ireland when he realized that the accommodations made after the country won independence created a hierarchy that mimicked the colonial circumstances of life under the British, with the Church as the primary instrument of control. But the real danger to Jimmy’s hall is from the former IRA, who now control the political establishment in league with landowners who lord it over poor tenants with as much disregard for human rights as the British. So while Jimmy and Sheridan can sit in the latter’s genteel parlor and trade high-falutin’ words on the meaning of freedom and the moral high ground, it’s just intellectual sparring. The real test of Jimmy’s righteousness comes when a family is summarily evicted from their shack because the landlord simply deems it necessary. A movement is sparked resulting in violence and Jimmy’s exile, this time enforced by a law underhandedly interpreted by the local police. As always with Loach, the politics are passionately argued and presented with all warts exposed, but unlike Barley, the drama is undermined by its pedantic presentation. For every heart-pounding scene of young people discovering the joys of sexual abandon or learning the real meaning of poetry, there’s one where Stalin is evoked in the most pedestrian manner, as if it were required by a syllabus. (photo: Sixteen Jimmy Ltd., Why Not Prods., Wild Bunch, Element Pictures, France 2 cinema, Channel Four Television Corp., The British Film Institute and Bord Scannan na Heireann/The Irish Film Board)
Frederick Wiseman’s late career fascination with the arts comes to full artistic realization with this three-hour documentary about England’s National Gallery. Narrationless behind-the-scenes explications of how the museum is run, complete with contentious board meetings and anxious, often nit-picking installation sessions, are interspersed with experts directly discussing, usually to patrons, the meaning of specific paintings. As always, Wiseman has no comment except to edit these exchanges in such a way as to reveal how the organization sees its public responsibility, which is considerable but still open to debate, as the meetings so plainly convey. But towards the end of the film he does something totally out of character by bringing musicians, dancers, and other artists into the space as a means of deepening both our understanding of that space’s purpose and making us see its beauty removed from its status as a repository of two-dimenstional artifacts. Purists may scoff at the short shrift the Impressionists receive in the end, but Wiseman isn’t here to celebrate the march of Western civilization. He’s here to revel in the creative spirit. (photo: Gallery Film LLC and Ideale Audience LLC)
The November Man
Promoted as a return of a former James Bond to the espionage racket, The November Man puts way too much stock in Pierce Brosnan’s ability to age with a certain measure of class, but the spy he plays here, a former CIA operative named Peter Devereaux, is too dour and bitter to retain the kind of deadly elan diehard fans of 007 would expect. Following a botched assignment wherein an innocent bystander was taken out during an assassination attempt, Devereaux retires to Switzerland and some years later is recruited by a former associate to help him extract a double agent from Moscow whom Devereaux had trained. Strangely, he accepts the assignment, and eventually the reason is revealed: the woman agent, who works undercover as the aide to a ruthless politician running for the presidency of Russia, was once Devereaux’s lover. During the extraction, however, the woman is liquidated, not by Russians but by the other CIA team taking part in the operation, but Devereaux escapes with the evidence his old beau wanted to leak to the West, so the CIA is now on the hunt for one of its own, and the chase is headed by Devereaux’s old acolyte, a hot shot sniper named David (Luke Bracey). The key to the Russian pol’s downfall is the identity of a woman who escaped the carnage in Chechnya and seems to have something on him, and while tracking her down in Belgrade Devereaux makes the acquaintance of a social worker played by, of all people, Olga Kurylenko, a former Bond girl whose relationship with Brosnan is strictly professional here, which is actually the point of the movie. Having taught his protege years ago that intimate human relationships are the first thing a spy must avoid, Devereaux breaks his own rule with the double agent and then puts David to the test when he holds David’s new girlfriend hostage and makes him choose between her and a successful outcome to his assignment. It’s one of the few exceptional scenes in the movie, and Roger Donaldson knows exactly where to draw your eye and how to turn your stomach at the same time, a talent that some will find dubious at best. But as much of a pro as he is, Donaldson can’t do anything with the script, which forces Devereaux into Bourne-like situations that a man of Brosnan’s age clearly could never pull off under even the most extraordinary of circumstances. Moreover, the geopolitical and strategic excuse for all this killing and running and driving recklessly beggars belief and seems totally unnecessary given the horror show quality of the headlines coming out of Russia and Eastern Europe right now. Who needs fiction any more? (photo: No Spies LLC)
Eddie Marsan plays John May, a British council worker whose job is to expedite the processing of people who die alone, which means disposing of their possessions and locating their next of kin. This latter task usually ends disappointingly in that no kin can be found or those who are found betray little interest in the deceased, which means May is almost always the only person at the funeral. However, he’s the kind of meticulous, efficient civil servant who makes sure the service is something the deceased would have likely appreciated based on whatever it is he found out about the person. He even tries to select the most appropriate music. When May is downsized in a most abrupt way, he is forced to intensify his efforts to wrap up his final case so that it is completed before he leaves, and in doing so he ends up spending his own money to track down the family and friends of the dead man, a Falklands War veteran who seems to have a family in a distant town. Marsan does something subtle and wonderful that counteracts the hackneyed portrait which director Uberto Pasolini has outlined on paper, what with all the fussy, OCD-identified behaviors that show May to be one severely repressed individual. Marsan anticipates May’s emergence from his shell by showing how liberated he is by his dismissal rather than be defeated by it, and the search for the dead man’s family becomes a real detective tale rather than a desperate race against time. Marsan conveys this inner fire in the way he alters his speech patterns and the way he becomes more assertive without sacrificing his polite demeanor. Even when he has to negotiate with two homeless men who mean to take advantage of him, he neither condescends nor suffers their enmity. They, in fact, come to respect him for his patience. As a result, the mousy little man comes out of this ordeal with something for himself, for a change, a greater appreciation for the effect his work has on others, in particular a young woman (Joanne Froggatt) whose relationship to the deceased she hardly cares about, but who in the end is so taken by May’s dedication to his task that she warms to him as a person. Pasolini has a sympathetic eye for the fine details of English everyday life, and the supporting cast is colorfully everyday, but eventually the mechanics of the plot reveal themselves as being self-perpetuating, as if the story’s denouement had been decided first and the whole thing written backwards. As a result, development that is meant to leave a bittersweet taste in the mouth leaves no taste at all because it comes across as contrived, a bid to seem clever rather than insightful. May is even more poorly used by his creator than he is by his employer. (photo: Exponential (Still Life) Ltd.)
Venus in Fur
It’s inevitably understandable but nevertheless unsettling that Roman Polanski chose an actor for his latest film that looks a lot like him. Mathieu Amalric plays a theater director putting together a stage adaptation of the titular novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, and just as he’s finishing auditions for the day a late prospect comes in played by Polanski’s own wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, thus making the role-playing all the more pointed, especially since the wannabe actress she plays, Vanda, is dressed for the part, meaning in furs with seductive pseudo-S&M gear (the 19th century novel is where we get the word “masochism”). What follows is an overly clever two-hander of shifting psychological dominations that ends with the director in heels and makeup, a development that could be seen as Polanski’s comeuppance for a lifetime of walking all over people, in both his professional life and out of it. Since Amalric’s director starts off as a pompous fool, the transformation is predictable, and the analogy with Polanski’s life too easy. It’s entertaining, but also obvious. (photo: R.P. Productions-Monolith Films)