February 2015 movies

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

Director John Carney tries to recreate the magic that made Once such an unexpected hit. If it eludes him, it’s mainly because the power of Once was inherent in its unassuming premise. The music was just gravy, though Carney was fortunate that the songs were perfectly calibrated to that premise. Begin Again is more ambitious, a bit flashier, and this sort of broader ambition works against its naturalistic tendencies. It seems phony from the get-go. Again, Carney, who knows the record biz through his work with the Irish rock band The Frames, focuses on a struggling singer-songwriter, Greta (Keira Knightley), a Brit who finds herself stranded in New York City after her boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), a singer himself, hits it big and effectively leaves her. Right away, the script betrays the audience by making Dave’s skyrocketing success the plum plot point, since it’s difficult to believe, a mere convenience. Circumstances further conspire to get Greta into a bar to watch another expat singer (James Corden, currently a hotter property than anyone else in the movie) perform, and he inveigles her into singing one of her own songs, which Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down-at-his-heels record producer who needs a drink and drops into this particular bar for one, observes by dint of coincidence. He is impressed, and in one of the film’s few instances of originality, Carney reveals the way Dan’s mind works as he listens to the song and imagines at the same time how he would arrange and record it. It’s a fleeting moment, and once the movie snaps out of it, it’s back to the turgid exposition: Dan immediately offers Greta his services, which at that moment don’t amount to much. Though Carney gets a certain measure of push-and-pull from this relationship—Greta is a non-commercial realist, Dan an alcoholic bullshit artist—the movie only occasionally feels as if it is set in a world we think could exist. Brainstorming, the pair decide to record Greta’s songs au natural, outdoors with a mike, a laptop, and a mixer in various locations and with accompanying live musicians and, more importantly, ambience. Since Once was all about ambience, this purposeful inclusion of realness is just a gimmick, and though the movie does a pretty good job of treating music-making as an organic process, it has to somehow bring these two characters’ lives to bear on that music, and the romantic and familial subplots don’t register strongly. More signficantly, while the songs by Gregg Alexander are impressively modest, Knightley can’t put across the kind of interior discipline a musician of this sort requires. Conversely, Ruffalo is a little too slimey and arrogant, the ultimate bizzer heel with a hardened heart of gold. (photo: Killifish Productions Inc.)

bigeyesBig Eyes
Like Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s newest film attempts to rehabilitate an artist famous for producing kitsch to a station appropriate to his or her effect on the culture. And since we’re talking about American culture in the years after the war—a period that influenced Burton’s own art considerably—kitsch is more or less a genre unto itself rather than the pejorative description it’s become. Big Eyes is about Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams), a Nashville housewife who leaves her stifling, failed marriage with her daughter in tow sometime in the 1950s. A former art student, she eventually makes her way to San Francisco, where she tries to peddle her paintings of doe-eyed children in street bazaars. A fellow street artist, realtor Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), is impressed with the work and courts her in a way that she falls for. They marry and for a time Margaret feels comfortable and fulfilled, but Walter sees the appeal of Margaret’s sentimental work and urges her to paint more. Asserting that “lady art doesn’t sell,” he takes credit for the paintings and hustles them to anyone who might be interested. They eventually take off with a public tired of and confused by the trend in non-representational art that came into vogue at the time, and Walter pushes Margaret, whom he has practically imprisoned in their home studio, to produce more. Because Margaret’s art actually reflects her damaged inner world, at first she’s jiggy with the subterfuge, but as Walter’s game forces her deeper into an underground of his making (she can’t even tell her daughter and best friend that she’s the real artist) a familiar feeling of being trapped overwhelms her. For the most part, Burton sticks to the facts here, even recreating in exacting detail the trial at which Margaret attempted to take back her work; but in doing so he fails to illuminate anything beyond his own advocacy for kitsch as being just as worthy as so-called high art. As a result, those who do advocate for high art, like Jason Schwartzman’s gallery owner and Terence Stamp’s withering New York Times critic, are rendered as cruel, witless snobs, with everyone else being normal by contrast. Meanwhile, Burton’s own considerable wit seems to have abandoned him in his pursuit of satisfaction. Even Waltz, who slimes through the movie with his usual oily ease, seems diminished by the rote script. Is it because Margaret Keane was a woman that Burton neglects to lend her the humanity that made the title character in Ed Wood so compelling? Except for a scene in a supermarket where Burton gives everyone disturbingly big eyes, there’s little here that makes an impression. The trouble with Big Eyes is that it isn’t kitschy enough. (Photo: Big Eyes SPV, LLC)

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Jon Favreau appear, much less star, in a feature film. He’s been so productive directing big budget Hollywood movies that one might think he’d lost the acting bug, and in a sense his over-determined turn as celebrity chef Carl Casper in this vanity project has less to do with performance than with making a point about creativity itself. Casper is a neurotic perfectionist whose reputation as a professional means a lot to him, probably more than his reputation as a father and husband, evidenced by the fact that he’s divorced from an understanding (and mysteriously rich) woman (Sofia Vergara), and cluelessly estranged from his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). Though he makes a noise about how important it is to spend time with Percy, when they’re together he’s distracted by work, which doesn’t necessarily bother the boy, but he would like his father more if he could be incorporated into his life. At the moment, Casper is hyperventilating over an upcoming visit by a powerful food blogger (Oliver Platt) who previously gave Casper’s restaurant a failing grade because the chef had simply rerun his greatest hits, and when Casper decides to show his creative side, the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) refuses to allow him to change the menu, resulting in a public meltdown that goes viral on YouTube. To make the cyber connection even more laughable, Percy teaches his dad how to use Twitter as a promotional tool. Casper misunderstands the nature of the medium, and a caustic tweet meant only for the eyes of the critic is broadcast to everyone. Though Favreau conveys Casper’s frustration with brio, it’s difficult to feel sorry for the chef, a sense that’s compounded when he finds fulfillment in opening a food truck that serves Cuban sandwiches. Once Casper reaches the nadir of his egocentric despair, there’s nowhere to go but up, and the movie’s second half lacks tension and conflict. Everything Casper did wrong he now corrects, as if ticking off a checklist. His most crucial success is bonding with Percy, who takes to his chores on the truck with zeal and by doing so instantly becomes a less interesting personality, all his adolescent foibles smoothed out. Some critics have compared Casper’s comeuppance with Favreau’s unexpected career as a big-budget director in that, for the most part, his movies have received lukewarm reviews while raking in lots of money. Chef is the cinematic equivalent of Casper’s food truck, a labor of love but also something to prove. What it mostly proves is that Favreau is obviously well-liked in the business—he gets support from A-listers like Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr., and fills central parts with the likes of Hoffman and Bobby Cannavale, playing an uncharacteristically chipper sous chef. It also proves Favreau has a hard time thinking small.

EF_00786.cr2Elsa and Fred
Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer play with elderly stereotypes in this American remake of a Spanish-language movie that had the same title. Elsa is still full of life well into her 70s and hits on grumpy widower Fred, who has just moved into her New Orleans apartment building at the urging of his daughter (Marcia Gaye Harden), who wants him closer in his dotage. At first the old curmudgeon resists the bubbly Elsa’s entreaties and catches on to her penchant for extreme subterfuge—she claims to have known Picasso and insists she was once a dead ringer for Anita Ekberg—but eventually wears him down as he admits to himself, and others, that his late wife drained him of his spirit. The movie has a busy, overstuffed quality (the talent on display, even in small roles, is impressive) that fails to lift the mediocre script above TV movie fare, and when the inevitable touching moments develop they feel forced, almost beside the point. In fact, the movie keeps death at arm’s distance, which seems a desperate move considering the ending. (photo: Cuatro Plus Films LLC)

exodusExodus: Gods and Kings
The best that can be said about Ridley Scott’s 3D reenactment of the trials of Moses is that in a year that saw an inordinate number of serious, mass appeal movies taking Christian dogma at face value it reminds us that nowadays a lot of people’s acceptance of the Old Testment was shaped by popular culture, in this case The Ten Commandments. While Christian Bale looks and acts nothing like Charlton Heston, they both approached their tasks with a proper appreciation of the hugeness of the story. And though it’s easy to take issue with the employment of white people in these roles, the movie was never posited as some kind of historical or even faithful religious document. It’s simply spectacle, which is all Ridley Scott is good for anymore. If anything, Scott shows his hand by succumbing to the worst kind of Hollywood stereotypes. The king of the Egyptians, Ramses (Joel Edgerton), is a cartoon pharaoh, complete with white robes and eyeliner. Bale’s Moses, however, has been reimagined as a great general, which makes his transformation into a prophet that much more startling, though it should be said that this Moses is more skeptical about God’s plans for him than Heston’s was. The dramaturgy of the first half revolves around the conflict between Ramses and his foster brother Moses, when it is revealed that the latter was likely born of a Hebrew mother, thus compromising Moses’s loyalties since Hebrews are slaves. Moses leaves in search of his true identity, but what he eventually walks into is a calling, proposed to him by a god in the form of a boy (Isaac Andrews) who speaks with unnerving authority, though, to be fair, I think I preferred the silent telepathy of the deity in Heston’s version. The boy, who encounters Moses in the craggy mountains, comes across as a psychoanalyst, talking around the topic at hand until Moses draws his own conclusions, but in any event once Moses makes up his mind to lead, he does it with the conviction of a Patton; and for what it’s worth, the big production set pieces in the second half, including a series of plagues that for once justify the 3D budget, are stirringly mounted. If these scenes don’t make up for the laziness of the character development and the pointlessness of the casting—Aaron Paul gets approximately two lines as Moses’s right-hand man Joshua, and both Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver are superfluous—well, if you want depth, then you should read the Bible. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

Chemical heir John Du Pont entered the public imagination briefly in 1996 when he was involved in a crime, but the nature of that crime, which sent him to jail until he died, was never effectively explained by the media, an oversight that adds an extra layer of curiosity to this strange thriller, which is based (rather loosely, it appears) on the events that lead up to the crime. As played by Steve Carrell with the help of creepy facial prosthetics, Du Pont is a hypersensitive shut-in whose vast wealth has exacerbated his false sense of self-worth. He fancies himself a man’s man and a patriot, an obvious reaction to his mother’s (Vanessa Redgrave) negative attitude toward his preference for wrestling over more refined sports like equestrianism. He decides to bankroll the 1988 Olympic wrestling team without actually consulting the relevant authorities, instead recruiting gold medal winner Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) as the star of his team, which will be headquarted at a new training facility that Du Pont has specially built on his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher. Schultz has been spiritually and economically in limbo since the last Olympics, unlike his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a wrestler with a better grasp of his abilities who has parlayed his experience into a successful gig as a coach. Du Pont catches Mark at exactly the right moment, when his self-doubt is most caustic, and Mark takes the older man’s attention to heart and believes in his quest. More significantly, he takes his money and installs himself at Foxcatcher, an uneducated poor boy who doesn’t fit in with his surroundings. Du Pont’s inability to separate his fantasy life from the real world is magnified by a cocaine habit and a short fuse, both of which affect Mark in damaging ways, infusing him with paranoia while sapping his capacity to train effectively. When Dave joins to take advantage of the money, he finds his brother reduced to a bleached blonde bundle of nerves and endeavors to bring him back to the mat with his old skills in tact, efforts that work against Du Pont’s mission to take credit for the team’s success, which don’t materialize as planned. Though Bennett Miller has been castigated for making stuff up and rearranging time periods, his movie is a powerful character study of three quite different individuals whose chemistry is toxic, but it’s also a trenchant analysis of the American capacity for self-deception. Du Pont is by any stretch of the imagination a dangerous man, but money and “good intentions” allow most of the people he deals with directly to give him a pass, or at least put up with his demented bullshit. (photo: Fair Hill LLC)

goodbyeGoodbye to Language 3D
As formally provocative as anything in his huge, varied oeuvre, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest is made even more outrageous by the flippant use of 3D. The technology is as jarring as Godard’s habitual use of overlapping sound and random editing, but it manages to bring the viewer deeper into the film, and not because it tries to create a hyper-reality—quite the opposite, actually. Godard shows you a situation from two standpoints simultaneously, which means you have to physically respond by covering one eye and then the other in order to get his point. If you don’t get it, then maybe that’s the point as well. In a similar vein of provocation, the title turns out to be less imposing that it seems at first glance. Though language is wielded in both dialogue and text forms, with many of the latter appropriated from published novels and treatises, the images are designed to overpower the words. Linear narrative, as far as that sort of old-fashioned nonsense goes, is represented by two lovers (Heloise Godet, Kamel Abdeli) arguing about matters both sacred and profane—during some of the conversation the man sits on the toilet doing his business while the woman, naked straight from the shower, discusses Rodin with an uncommon degree of passion. Godard’s dog, Roxy, also provides a bit of through-context by taking a walk in a rural setting, romping through woods and wading in lakes, thus illustrating a simplistic truism that, in the scope of the movie, isn’t so simple after all: “Animals see different things.” Godard doesn’t have to apologize or even explain his politics, which are as sharply presented as always, but the scene wherein a “hit man” emerges from a limousine and whacks an innocent person feels too offhanded to be anything more than a joke, and a joke not only on the kind of movies that make Godard’s blood boil, but the state of Europe itself, where paranoia prevails over passivity and both are exploited by people who aspire to power: Like Godard, who doesn’t presume to think you’re going to understand, must less appreciate what he’s doing, but since he’s brought you here to this theater watching him do his thing, he’s the one with the power, at least for the 70 minutes he’s got your money. So he pushes his images in your face with such force that they can’t help but be irresistible. Language is what limits us. Images set us free, and if you allow yourself to go with the flow, as the hippies used to say, you’ll find yourself carried away. In French and English. (photo: Alain Sarde – Wild Bunch)

lifeofrileyLife of Riley
Alain Resnais’ swan song is, like his previous film, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, steeped in the life of the theater, with a proscenium-like set that highlights the artificiality of the situations. Based on a play by Alan Ayckborn, Life of Riley centers on three couples whose respective relationships to the title character, a patron of the arts slowly dying off-stage, is different from one another’s but strong nonetheless. The women (Caroline Sihol, Sabine Azema, Sandrine Kiberlain) have a thing for the invisible Riley that their significant others (Michel Vuillermoz, Andre Dussolier, Hippolyte Girardot) can’t hope to quench on their own without a change in outlook and demeanor. Most of these people are appearing in a local amateur play, and Resnais has fun weaving the two plot strands together, both of which involve comic sexual tension. Though the banter and intrigues are lighter than merengue, Resnais makes them poignant by reminding us that the dying Riley is the most effervescent presence in the story, despite his physical absence. Whatever extra poignance you derive from Resnais’ own departure is just added value. In French. (photo: Comme Film-France 2 Cinema-Solivagus)

REC4[REC]4: Apocalypse
The supposedly final chapter in the successful Spanish zombie-horror franchise continues the original storyline after a detour to explain where the virus that causes the mayhem came from. Angela (Manuela Velasco), the TV reporter in the first two films, wakes up to find herself captive on a ship at sea where a group of scientists are trying to isolate the virus to come up with a vaccine. If you saw [REC]2, you know that Angela is carrying not the virus but the organism that produces it. Typically for this sort of movie, the scientists are smug and defiant in the face of deadly evidence that they aren’t doing a very good job of containing the primate subjects being used for their experiments. The original conceit of having all the visuals produced by surveillance cameras or camcorders is only used in passing, and the lack of a novelty renders the gory goings-on less than inspiring, or even scary for that matter, despite the ship’s close quarters and its potential for clanging, ear-splitting noise. The final joke falls flat. In Spanish. (photo: REC Apocalypse, AIE-Castelao Pictures SL)

sincity15Sin City: A Dame To Kill For
It’s not unusual for a sequel to take almost ten years to be completed, but in the case of Frank Miller’s neo-noir live-action comic, the lag time seriously undermines the appeal of the original concept. Back in 2005, Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez produced a jolt in the perception of the viewer with their digitally realized, high-contrast fantasy underworld, which stood up to the thinness of the plot and the canned quality of the hardboiled dialogue. Now, it feels like last decade’s gimmick. As with the original feature, this one presents several stories that glancingly relate to one another—a tough gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tries to take down the arrogant politician (Powers Boothe) who runs Sin City, a bruiser (Josh Brolin) helps a private eye (Mickey Rourke) rescue an old flame (Eva Green) from a wealthy asshole and, of course, everyone gets their comeuppance in the end. The cruelty is dialed up a few notches, the sex is plainer and no less incredible, but the movie never transcends its production values, which aren’t as interesting as they once were. (photo: Maddartico Ltd.)

????????????Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Given that the TMNT brand has been appropriated dramatically numerous times since the 1980s, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that producer Michael Bay only thought it his prerogative to tackle it himself, though he did have the presence of mind to hand the directing chores to acolyte Jonathan Liebesman, but don’t worry. It’s as dumb and mind-numbingly loud as if Bay had helmed it himself. The origin story is fittingly streamlined with the help of Megan Fox, who plays an earnest TV reporter banished to fluff pieces. When a plot to poison New York City comes to light, she pursues the story on her own and comes into contact with the four Renaissance artist-monikered amphibians, who, besides spouting moldy hip-hop jargon and still rocking skateboards, she recognizes as the little pet turtles she fawned over as a girl in her late geneticist father’s laboratory. The turtles have way too much fun destroying the city in order to save it from the samurai-styled Shredder, and thus honor Bay’s attention, which most metropolises would do well to avoid. (photo: Paramount Pictures Corp.)

tomyum2Tom Yum Goong 2
After several years in a Buddhist monastery, Tony Jaa returns to the world of Muay Thai and the movies with this relatively big budget sequel to his 2005 hit, and just as Tom Yum Goong 1 was considered a step down from his Ong-Bak franchise, 2 feels even less consequential than 1. Reprising his role as the elephant-loving Kham, Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew offer plenty of manic fight scenes, including an epic romp involving multiple motorcyclists on the roof of a Bangkok apartment block that ends up in the streets with hundreds of motorists, but everything looks rushed and repetitive. As usual with Jaa’s films, the plot here—something about an American crime lord (RZA) selling his services to Australian military types to confound a peace treaty between neighboring SE Asian states—is held together with staples and tape, which normally wouldn’t be a problem but the set pieces look as if they were filmed separately and then shoehorned into the story. Even the addition of pint-size kung fu star Yanin Vismistananda does little to break the monotony. In Thai and English. (photo: Sahamongkolfilm International Co., Ltd.)

wildcardWild Card
Stretching only a little bit beyond his limited but potent bruiser image, Jason Statham plays Nick Wild, an inveterate gambler “stuck” in Vegas where he makes a borderline living as a self-styled “security expert.” At one point Wild explains to a prostitute pal that he’s managed to survive in this precarious situation by not having anything to do with the city’s infamous underworld, though because he’s an honorable guy in the Statham mold, when the prostitute is beaten up by a junior mafioso she demands retribution, which Wild reluctantly helps her exact. This sort of labored setup gives the kids what they want: Statham kicking butt in the most painful way imaginable, but maybe because the script is based on a novel and director Simon West does as he’s told, most of the drama centers on Wild’s difficulty in breaking his blackjack jones and getting out while the getting is good. It’s a curiously frustrating movie, filled with nominally interesting but inevitably wasted characters. The only point is the next flying fist to the collapsing jaw. (photo: SJ Heat Holdings LLC)

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