March 2015 movies

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

Few American films of recent memory have set off such a flurry of passionate, crossfire opinions as Clint Eastwood’s account of the life of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. As with many of Eastwood’s myth-generating movies, this one presents a hero who is uncomfortable with his myth. As played by Bradley Cooper, Kyle is beefy and withdrawn, a man who knows what he’s good for and doesn’t derive much satisfaction from compliments. The problem many people have with the movie is the problem they have with the man, who in real life was said to be much more calculating, a dissembler who puffed up his own worth by deflating others’. We see none of that here, and it’s an important distinction since Kyle’s theater of operations is Iraq, where he spent four tours. Eastwood has us believe that Kyle could not function fully unless he was in the thick of battle, his senses fully engaged. Back in Texas, with his beautiful, very understanding wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), he’s an electrical cord waiting to be plugged in. Eastwood chooses which aspects of Kyle’s personality suits his purposes, and the street battle scenes in Iraq are not only some of the best work he’s ever done, they’re some of the best battle scenes ever shot in Hollywood: tense, observant, emotionally connected. But the capability of the direction is a function of the capability of the soldiers, as well as their dedication. The reasons these men are in Iraq killing civilians, who might otherwise kill them, are never interrogated, and if you thrill at the professionalism you have to buy into the myth that Americans were helping, when everything we’ve learned since 2003 proves that was not the case. It’s a lot to put on a film, especially one that is as dramatically rigorous as this one is. Eastwood doesn’t revel in the violence, though he does honor the skills that made Kyle a “legend,” as his colleagues call him. These decisions not only elevate Kyle to broken hero status, but diminish all those who pass through his gun-site. These Iraqis have no purchase on our sympathies, even as they’re being shot up with bullets, anybody’s bullets. It matters nothing to Eastwood that Kyle was a racist (he said as much in his memoir) and thus had no compunction about killing the other, even when they’re women and children. In the movie’s most famous scene, Kyle coolly shoots a mother and her young son who seem to be carrying a bomb. That Eastwood charges it with as much latent tension as he does attests to his filmmaking instincts; that it comes as a relief Kyle is “right” as far as the kill call goes attests to the viewer’s complicity in the lie of the hero. (photo: Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Ltd., Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC)

cominghomeComing Home
Despite some pretty awful makeup, Gong Li gives an arresting performance as a woman whose teacher husband is accused during the Cultural Revolution of being an enemy of the people. After the husband, Lu (Chen Daoming), escapes from his work camp, the authorities keep an eye on the couple’s home, and when he is recaptured the wife blames herself and promptly loses her emotional bearings. Zhang Yimou neglects to question the validity of the charges against Lu, and when he’s finally released for real it’s as if he’s accepted his guilt, but by that time his wife, Feng, doesn’t even recognize him. As melodrama, Coming Home is overcooked even by Chinese standards, with the dramatic stakes upped by the resentment the couple’s daughter (Zhang Huiwen) directs at her parents for spoiling her chances at a career as a dancer. If Zhang the director had more to say about the politics surrounding Lu’s incarceration, the romance would have more depth, but as it is it’s simply a means for Li to show her stuff in a vacuum. In Mandarin. (photo: Le vision pictures Co. Ltd.)

A Fault In Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars
It’s difficult to dislike a film about people with cancer that questions the existence of an afterlife, but what’s really winning about Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s bestselling Young Adult novel is also what pulls it down. Hazel (Shailene Woodley) has been sick most of her life, and seems resigned to the real possibility that she won’t survive high school. She’s nobody’s martyr, and her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) understand this, so when she falls for Augustus (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who has lost a leg, everyone is a little happy and a little uncomfortable. Green’s accomplishment is in making this couple not only appealing in a realistic sort of way, but compelling in that there is something very much at stake in their relationship. Woodley is more than up to the task, downplaying Hazel’s hard-won intelligence, which would come across as arrogance with a lesser actor, and allowing the character’s fears and frustrations free reign. Elgort, while very likable, is less successful, probably because Augustus is too good to be true, good-looking and funny, natch, but also sunnier than he should be, a result of his being a survivor, which he deems had something to do with holding on to his optimism. The staid plotting is refreshed by the faux fatalistic dialogue and an odd detour to Amsterdam so that Hazel can meet the author of her favorite speculative novel. This curmudgeon, played by Willem Dafoe, is too cynical for even Hazel, and seems to represent that corner of the adult world where disappointment is something you drink like water. Though the YA genre is famous for its stock figures, this author is almost two-dimensional in his ability to flatten out the movie’s contours, throwing mortality at these two poor kids as if playing dodge ball. And when the character shows up later in the movie to explain himself you wonder why Green, and the filmmakers, bothered except that they probably think it’s a waste to allow his sour misanthropy to remain unresolved. In a perverse way, when the inevitable tragedy does materialize, the viewer is relieved, since, like a dentist’s appointment, it’s something the movie has been preparing you for, and so you just as soon want to get it out of the way. And then the movie’s over. Boone and Woodley’s excellent instincts are contradicted by the story itself, so there’s probably nothing that could have been done, but during the scenes where the two adolescents just discuss their world and what they love about it, you see where the impulse to write such a book sprang from, and just wish the writer would have stayed with it. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

goodpeopleGood People
Schematic to a fault, this British crime thriller has no shame in casting James Franco and Kate Hudson as an American couple who come to London to remodel an old house left to them by a relative. The strangers in a strange land theme is never justified, as the only thing that matters to director Henrik Ruben Granz is the climactic confrontation between the couple and a set of murderous drug dealers who come gunning for them in that very same old house. The title is something of a dodge. The couple, who are up to their necks in debt, discover 220,000 pounds in a bag in the apartment they let to a man who dies of an overdose. They decide to keep the money, even though a police detective (Tom Wilkinson) keeps snooping around, oblivious to the notion that someone who OD’s with all that money is bound to have friends in low places. Let the torture and implied raping begin! The whole exercise in ludicrousness is simply a means of getting to the protracted, bloody ending. (photo: Good Productions Inc.)

There’s a certain odd symmetry to this year’s Best Male Actor Oscar picks in that Eddie Redmayne was nominated for playing a man who another nominee, Benedict Cumberbatch, previously received acclaim for playing. Though Redmayne won, Cumberbatch can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that he was there first and has moved on to other, more challenging impersonations, but Alan Turing is less of a complete construct than Stephen Hawking, who’s practically a modern media icon. In fact, that’s part of the appeal of The Imitation Game, which addresses Turing’s part in breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code and thus ending World War II earlier. The fact that Turing, an eccentrically brilliant mathematician as only the British can produce them, has been long dead means that his image remains malleable. Consequently, the character is presented in all his misanthropic glory as a variation on the theme of Dr. Gregory House, a character who, while thoroughly American, was also the invention of a Englishman. Morten Tyldum’s film has to compress a lot of biography, and unlike wiser biopic directors like Spielberg or Bennett Miller, he doesn’t limit the narrative to one defining incident, which in this case was the breaking of the code at Bletchley Park. He also works backwards and forwards to sketch in Turing’s tic-laden neuroses, which are seen to have developed from homoerotic impulses that eventually led to his arrest and, most likely, his suicide. By trying to give some idea of the man in full, Tyldum actually diminishes him, defining his importance as being more of a martyr than the nervous genius who won the war. Dramatically, this means that all the development hinges on Turing’s odd duck demeanor, the way he rubs his superiors the wrong way and how his obsessive-compulsive tendencies keep him from becoming a team player—but those tendencies are also what made his work so effective, so Tyldum spends an inordinate amount of time convincing us of the obvious. Like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Turing bristles at “supervision,” because true inspiration is impossible to summon at will. The only other character allowed the same measure of peculiarity is Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke, who is recruited for the code-breaking team by acing a test that even Turing found daunting, and doing it without mussing her impeccable suit. Overall, the movie is great fun. Cumberbatch is consistently interesting, and Tyldum orchestrates the race for a solution and its attendant moral conundrums (they can’t be too quick to use the code-breaking “computer” for fear that the Nazis will realize it and change the code) with a fine ear for the material’s potential for suspense. That said, it’s difficult to think anyone would accept this story as what really went down. It’s just so hyperbolically British. (photo: BBP Imitation LLC)

ITTW.EW_Rap_Witch_wip6Into the Woods
Disney and Sondheim doesn’t sound like a match made in heaven, and with the game but usually heavy-handed Rob Marshall behind the camera, the prospects that one of the most inventive Broadway musicals of the past three decades could be rendered inert seemed likely. But those fears dissipate right away and you wonder why they developed in the first place. Sondheim’s and book author James Lapine’s Freudian take on a number of very famous fairy tales does not automatically make those tales adult-only appropriate. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack of beanstalk fame and other figures both well-loved and newly made up are all sent into the woods at some point since that’s where our darkest fears reside. Lapine and Sondheim not only leap past “happily ever after,” they follow the horror inherent in these stories to their natural ends. Disney deserves some credit for allowing these tales, many of which the studio has had a hand in sweetening irrevocably, to have their dark centers exposed. The enabler is a witch (Meryl Streep), whom Lapine uses to bring the various protagonists together, mostly for nefarious purposes. A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have been cursed with childlessness for an affront the couple’s ancestors perpetrated, and they are thus charged by the sorceress to acquire certain fairy tale-associated knickknacks to regain fertility. The interactions are all based on deceit since to gain these trinkets the couple has to lie, steal, and basically act against their wills. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), it turns out, isn’t really that crazy about the Prince (Chris Pine) she’s supposed to be crazy about, but her doubts have less to do with a budding sense of feminist awareness than a budding sense of selfishness. In any case, she’s learned cynicism from the best, her stepmother (Christine Baranski), whose cruelty for the sake of social advancement is played for black humor. As are Sondheim’s songs, which have a whirling, unsettling power that conveys the characters’ desperation. It says something elemental that Johnny Depp’s lecherous wolf (“what big…you have”) is the least disturbing character here, but that’s mainly because Depp sees the creature as a cad, not a threat. The woods are dark for a reason. When the prince has an offscreen dalliance with the baker’s wife (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”) the shock of recognizing that these characters could actually go that far is as disorienting as Dion Beebe’s motile camera work, and Sondheim is not so post-modern that he doesn’t feel he can’t punish them for it. Which isn’t to say Into the Woods in an integrated work. It doesn’t pretend to be one story, so it plays perfectly as a kind of musical revue. Sometimes the songs are really all you need. (photo: Disney Enterprises Inc.)

littlevoicesLittle Voices From Fukushima
Hitomi Kamanaka’s simple documentary attempts something that seems perfectly obvious, and the fact that no one so far has really compared the situation of families living in the contaminated area surrounding the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor crippled in the March 11 quake and families who live near the shell of the destroyed Chernobyl nuclear power plant smacks of politics. Kamanaka takes her time by allowing the residents, including children, to tell their stories openly, and then talks to experts about their fears, which are real regardless of the controversy surrounding the levels of radiation in evidence. The people in Belarus have had a lot more time to study their own situation, and it won’t be lost on the viewer that whatever the actual physical effects the Fukushima disaster will eventually manifest, unease is a constant, which is why we still see lots of scenes of Chernobyl kids—all of whom were born well after the meltdown—getting tested on a regular basis. Kamanaka has become an in-demand speaker overseas, which says something about her common sense approach. In Japanese & Russian. (photo: Bunbun Films)

Time travel stories are ambitious by design, and this one by the Spierig brothers, based on a short story by Robert A. Heinlein, is especially compelling since a lot of work obviously went into presenting the logical permutations of the tale in an understandable way. And while the brothers deserve credit for attempting to fit it all into an economical 90 minutes (whereas Chris Nolan required almost three hours to explain his equally convoluted time travel theory in Interstellar), the film doesn’t provide the proper visual complement to make the premise memorable. Ethan Hawke plays a nameless law enforcement agent who is sent back to the 1970s to stop a bombing in New York City. He eventually figures that one time leap is not enough for his task, and despite the obvious dangers, endeavors to jump backward and forward in pursuit of a young woman named Jane (Sarah Snook), who shows up at the seedy bar where the agent works after tells him her story, which involves a sex change. This latter plot point is central to Heinlein’s premise, not to mention his reputation as one of the more daring sci-fi writers of the 1950s and 60s, and the Spierigs honor the author’s ambitions by turning it into a parallel metaphor for the idea that time travel is basically a means of rectifying what fate or nature provided in the first place. However, the Spierigs’ purposes are confused by, of all things, the hunt for the bomber, which apparently wasn’t in the original story and was invented to give the movie a more conventional thriller shape, but in the end the overlapping time periods and the effort to keep them distinct so as to follow the agent’s plan provide a challenge for the viewer, who in the end may just give up on the rich thematic material in order to dedicate brain cells to the suspense component. Moreover, it’s a cerebral procedural, and thus more reliant on dialogue than special effects, which are usually distracting in these kinds of movies, but a clearer visual representation of the odd time-skipping journey that the two main characters undertake in order to accomplish their respective tasks would have made the psychology more resonant. As it stands, Predestination will mainly appeal to viewers who are already well-versed in time-travel tropes, since the movie counts on a certain type of trained intellect, and anyone else will probably laugh when one of the characters literally has sex with himself. It’s not enough to chalk it up to a kink in the space-time continuum. You need the right brain to make it more than a clever gimmick. The Spierigs obviously expect a deeper reaction. (photo: Predestination Holdings Pty. Ltd. Screen Australia Screen Queensland Pty. Ltd. and Cutting Edge Post Pty. Ltd.)

songoneSong One
The setup of this indie romantic drama threatens to alienate the viewer from the get-go. A young man is walking through the streets of New York and is hit by a car he can’t hear coming because he’s listening to music on headphones. He ends up in the hospital, comatose, and his mother (Mary Steenburgen) summons his sister, Franny (Anne Hathaway), from her anthropology project in north Africa. The main reason for this melodramatic development is to get Franny into contact with her brother’s muse, a scruffy Brit singer-songwriter named James (Johnny Flynn) with a shy demeanor that’s like catnip to over-sensitive types like Franny. Having parted on bad terms, Franny despairs over the possibility that she’ll never be able to make amends with her brother, so she does so with his idol. It’s fortunate that neither Hathaway nor Flynn take their characters too seriously, but the laid back Brooklyn vibe of the film sometimes makes it seem beside the point. Yeah, this is closer to real life than the equally earnest Begin Again, but it’s also less consequential. (photo: Song One Funding LLC)

THEORY OF EVERYTHINGThe Theory of Everything
Oscar bait to the max, this biopic of physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) conveniently streamlines the good professor’s prickly theories so as to concentrate on the connubial situation that likely made it not only possible for him to devise his monumental findings in the face of a deadly disability, but keep his humanity in tact, and while far be it from me to discount Wilde’s part in this miracle the movie shortchanges the achievements by reducing them to “gee whiz” moments. It’s all about overcoming hardship, so who cares if the two principals eventually have eyes for others as long as their main gaze in on the prize—making a difference in the universe. Though Redmayne and Jones delineate their roles with genuine regard for their idiosyncrasies, it’s difficult to get a sense of either person outside the contours of the movie. It’s as if the film were the universe, and one where all the cliches of the illness genre are followed to the letter. Perhaps it’s inevitable given the richness of the material and how commercial filmmaking operates these days. The trick is to compartmentalize Hawking as quickly as possible to give the drama more bite. As Redmayne plays him, the young Hawking, sporting black-framed glasses that seem way too big for his face, is a nerdy egghead with a difference: He’s extremely confident in his intellectual pronouncements, almost to the point of arrogance, which is encouraged by his professorial mentor (David Thewlis), but in the social realm he’s as awkward as that eyewear. At first, Wilde seems his natural foil, though since her own scholarly pursuits are in the humanities, they don’t have as much to talk about on that account, and invariably, once Hawking starts formulating a unified theory of the universe her concerns about literature feel insignificant, which is convenient since it allows the character to fall easily into the stereotype of the “woman behind the great man,” and while Jones is clearly the better actor in her scenes with Redmayne, Wilde is not a role that stands out from the crowd, so to speak. (And explains, partly at least, why Redmayne won the Oscar and Jones didn’t) The hackneyed dynamic also smooths out the drama, so when the marriage is stretched to its natural limits by the seriousness of Hawking’s illness combined with the hugeness of his worldwide fame, the natural tension that should evolve from the characters’ respective romantic strayings feels slack and almost beside the point. At least Charlie Cox, who plays Wilde’s supremely decent new love interest, brings a bit of dubious moral turpitude to the part, but the nurse (Maxine Peake) who Hawking eventually takes up with comes across as a spiritless golddigger, which couldn’t have been the intention. Marsh, better known for his documentaries, seems confounded by the dramatic permutations. Like Hawking, he should have stuck to the facts. (photo: Universal Pictures)

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