Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
The karmic nature of Birdman‘s Best Picture Oscar win is inescapable. Ever since his breakout Mexican epic, Amores Perros, brought him to America, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu has been making earnest movies with large casts of Hollywood A-listers in bummer roles that have invariably garnered lots of nominations along the way without actually winning anything. His latest curiosity jettisons the existential suffering that made movies like Babel and Biutiful so trying to sit through, and those who have championed Inarritu’s ambitions finally have something to get behind, but in fact Birdman is just as wonky as the earlier films, which were problematic not so much because of their depressive themes, but due to their formalist cliches. Michael Keaton gets what used to be called “the role of a lifetime” as Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood actor best known for playing the titular superhero in a series of blockbusters, and now, years later, is trying to redeem himself as a serious artist by staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” on Broadway, starring himself. The movie’s time frame takes in the hours prior to the opening, and Inarritu devises a production design that incorporates long, moblie takes that all blend into one. As far as cliches go, the backstage comedy has been done to death, and all of the tropes are here: the technical gaffes, the snooty actor who refuses to take direction (Edward Norton), the last minute changes in strategy, the insufferable critic (Lindsay Duncan) overstepping her boundary. In the midst of all this calculated chaos, Riggan has to deal with a flighty, resentful daughter (Emma Stone), a calm, sensible lover (Andrea Riseborough), and a surprisingly sympathetic ex-wife (Amy Ryan). The mood is constant confusion, but the dialogue is so pointed and precise that no one really comes across as harried as they’re trying to let on. The only character who breaks through in that regard is Naomi Watts, playing an inexperienced actor who sees the play as her big break and is afraid of blowing it. Otherwise, the performances are all showcases in the Inarritu style, especially Stone’s and Norton’s, which isn’t to say they aren’t entertaining, but every dramatic element in the film sticks out like a rusty nail, every gesture designed to deliver more meaning that it has the capacity to contain. Inarritu is incapable of getting through a scene without finding something to make it monumental, and the result is exhaustion without the payback of meaning. Had Birdman simply been a comedy about a washed up Hollywood star trying to put on a serious play that was beyond his capabilities, it might have been funny and poignant, but that’s not enough for Inarritu. He wants epiphanies. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)
Cafe de Flore
Written and directed in 2011 by Jean-Marc Vallee, who went on to make Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, this bifurcated feature casts a strange spell. One story takes place in Montreal in 2001 and centers on Antoine (Keven Parent), a club DJ who has left his wife, Carole (Helene Florent), for a younger woman (Evelyne Brochu). A parallel story takes place in 1969 Paris about a single woman, Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), raising her Down’s Syndrome son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier). The Paris story is more interesting owing to Paradis’ fierce performance as a mother who is too painfully devoted to her child. Antoine’s and Carole’s tale is over-analyzed through cryptic voiceovers from both and which are meant to clue the viewer in on the nature of the nexus of the two tales. The fact that Vallee can generate genuine tension with this mostly ridiculous synthesis is a credit to his editing skills. The accummulation of queasy detail makes for a potent feeling of dread even as you glean what a load of crap the premise is. (photo: Productions Cafe de Flore Inc./Monkey Pack Films)
The Good Lie
A calculated but ennobling film project bringing together a respected B-level director (Philippe Falardeau), a reliable screenwriter-for-hire (Margaret Nagle), and a star who can afford to be overshadowed (Reese Witherspoon), The Good Lie benefits from its lack of earnestness. Focusing on three Sudanese refugees (Okwar Jale, Peterdeng Mongok, Keji Jale) who survive a 735-mile trek trough the desert to escape death at the hands of rebels and then 13 years in a Kenyan camp, the movie doesn’t have the wherewithal to be sentimental or cloying, and when the trio is lucky enough to move to the U.S. right before 911 made such moves difficult, the culture schock is treated with a light touch and the gaining of new freedoms leavened with a respect for their cultural preferences. If the drama seems tame, the characters at least are given room to be distinct and natural. Witherspoon’s social worker has her foibles, but they aren’t at the center of the movie and aren’t exploited for any purpose other than to show that Americans’ worries are nothing compared to those of Sudanese refugees. (photo: Black Label Media LLC)
Written by Bong Joon-ho, this South Korean nautical thriller is based on an issue—human trafficking—that Bong extrapolates to its most wrenching possibilities. Set in 1998, the story centers on Kang (Kim Yoon-seok), the captain of a fishing boat in arrears. Reluctant to sell it and lay off his loyal crew, he accepts a job smuggling ethnic Koreans from China. On the night the boat picks up its cargo in the middle of the ocean, the seas are rough, and director Shim Sung-bo ramps up the suspense to convey the illegals’ desperation. When the youngest deckhand, Dong-sik (Park Yu-chun), saves a young woman who falls into the sea, they are united in life and maybe even death. As the job becomes more perilous owing to the dodgy weather and a nosey coast guard patrol, Kang’s purchase on his humanity slips away, and the cargo becomes dispensable. Though the last act is almost hilarious in its cynical view of karmic retribution the movie has an epic range of emotional payoff. It’s a fitting portrait of the unforgiving sea. (photo: Next Entertainment World Inc. & Haemoo Co., Ltd.)
Hard To Be a God
Russian director Aleksei German reportedly spent 12 years on this film, his last. Most of the effort went into the set design, a fanciful recreation of medieval squalor, though the story is set on a planet called Arkanar under the observation of earthling scientists trying to nudge the inhabitants out of their stultified status by provoking the equivalent of a Renaissance. One of these undercover anthropolgists is called by the natives Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), whose frustrations in trying to nudge his charges toward “civilization” becomes maddening. He has to confront a society that regularly tortures and kills its intellectuals in an offhanded manner. The hoi polloi don’t care, since there’s nothing in it for them. They revel in filth and debauchery every chance they get. German has no aesthetic scruples, and the movie is one long shit-covered scream at existence. Much of the story is incomprehensible because that is how Don Rumata regards this planet. German mixes neo-realism with a Felliniesque approach to chaotic social interaction. It’s a mess that will leave you with nightmares for days.
Raymond Chandler is the poet laureate of Southern California, not just because of his romantic style, but because his detective stories took advantage of a seductive landscape where no one belonged. Two of the greatest films made about Los Angeles borrow directly from Chandler, Polanski’s Chinatown and Altman’s idiosyncratic version of Chandler’s own The Long Goodbye. P.T. Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s mystery pastiche, Inherent Vice, belongs in that company, which may explain why it looks as if it were made in the year it’s set, 1970, when Hollywood was deep into its drug-fueled experimental phase. Drugs are central to the movie’s gestalt, not because the mystery at hand is about drugs (though it is), but because marijuana affects the sensibilities of its principals so acutely, even when they don’t smoke it. Joaquin Phoenix’s counter-culture private eye, Doc Sportello, goes about his gumshooery in a constant cloud of THC-infused vapor, a joke Anderson exploits to excellent effect by tossing in visual non sequiturs that keep the viewer off balance: Is this happening or is it a figment of Doc’s stoned imagination? This is the first-ever adaptation of a Pynchon novel, and you can see why. Inherent Vice is not just the author’s most accessible story. It’s also one of the most meticulous detective stories ever concocted, worthy of Chandler in that it not only contains the requisite twists and turns, but explicates the qualities that make LA a unique state of mind. Pynchon, in fact, goes wider, since the story suggests an America that has run off the rails in its pursuit of evil others, which include not only ethnicities both foreign and domestic, but “hippie scum” like Doc and the people he values. Ostensibly, the procedural revolves around Doc’s old girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who is having an affair with a rich real estate developer (Eric Roberts) and thinks his wife is trying to commit him to a mental institution. While investigating, Doc learns that the developer’s latest housing project has something to do with the Aryan Brotherhood and the FBI, and though he can’t do anything about these larger, implacable forces, he can, in classic Philip Marlowe mode, try to save the innocents caught in the whirlpool of self-justified venality, like Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a former junkie forced to infiltrate left-wing organizations for right-wing causes. At first, his nemesis is the crew-cutted cop Bigfoot (Josh Brolin, in the performance of a lifetime), who stands for everything that hates someone like Doc, but in the end they have more in common than you could imagine. Rich, funny, and filled to the brim with enough original ideas to launch a hundred good movies, Inherent Vice is as much of a high as a good joint of sensimilla. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC)
Jimi: All Is By My Side
Given the amount of Hendrix recordings in the world, it’s difficult to believe his short life is considered unknowable, but John Ridley’s biopic manages to make that life seem obscure and misunderstood. Andre Benjamin plays the guitarist as a socially retiring but creatively aggressive starchild. Recruited to the big time by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), a Stones hanger-on who sees Jimi backing an R&B singer in NYC, he has no sense of the world he’s entering since it was a world in flux. Transplanted to the rock hothouse of London, he’s bold enough to open his debut showcase with a song from Sgt. Pepper the day it’s released and is flummoxed by the celebrity culture that claims him. Too much of the film involves his relationship with a waitress (Hayley Atwell) who underestimates his star power. Since the movie doesn’t progress past 1968, Ridley is leisurely with the stunning period detail, which makes up for the absence of Hendrix originals. (The filmmakers couldn’t get the rights) The music is circumscribed, but the movie isn’t really about music. (photo: AIBMS LLC)
Jupiter Ascending has been heralded as Lana and Andy Wachowski’s first original screenplay they’ve directed since the Matrix trilogy, and given how successful that franchise was and how dodgy, both commercially and creatively, their output has been in the meantime, this is seen as good news. Moreover, the story and theme of the new film is almost self-effacingly “pop,” unlike their last film, an ambitious adaptation of the complex best-seller Cloud Atlas, which isn’t to say Jupiter Ascending is simplistic. It’s actually quite dense with incident and characters, not to mention plot points that will keep you on your toes. As to whether it’s worth the effort to be on your toes, you won’t know until the movie is finished. Mila Kunis plays the titular heroine, born to an English astronomer living in Russia who names her after the solar system’s biggest planet before being killed by local police. As an infant she moves to America with her Russian mother and grows up in a large extended immigrant family, making a living as a cleaner of rich people’s houses in Chicago. None of this quickly presented back story has a whole lot of bearing on the gist of the movie, which is about a race of extraterrestrial overlords who use Earth as a kind of human farm to produce an elixir that guarantees eternal youth, and the connection between Jupiter’s proletarian background and the high-fantasy exigencies of the diabolical Abrasax siblings (Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton), who are competing with one another for title to Earth as a “property,” is addressed so shoddily that you wonder why the Wachowskis even bothered with a back story. This lack of rigor with regard to plot development happens again and again. For instance, Channing Tatum plays Caine Wise, a kind of wolf-man from the planet where the Abrasax overlords live and who is somehow charged with protecting Jupiter because, as it turns out, she is the reincarnation of the Abrasaxes’ mother, but then Wise is also working against his lords for reasons that will make intiutive sense to anyone who has seen more than a few rage-against-the-tyrant sci-fi flicks but which aren’t sufficiently outlined to explain his particular breed of anger and resentment. These points would be made moot if the numerous CG-enhanced action sequences themselves had some sort of narrative integrity, but they seem dropped in out of the void and involve myriad other intergalactic species, all of whom have their own stories, which may or may not be vital to the whole of the plot. I still haven’t grasped what Sean Bean’s rogue mercenary had to do with any of this except as a rather obvious deus ex machina device. Though there are pleasures to be had in Wise’s ability to walk on air and Redmayne’s campy, croaky performance, they are mere tidbits in a flavorless concoction. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Village Roadshow Films Ltd.)
Because of Breaking Bad, people all over the world understand the sort of devastation that the war on drugs has wreaked on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, but this documentary by Shaul Schwartz lays it out in distressingly simple terms thanks to its focus on narco corridos, or ballads that glorify the lives of Mexican drug dealers, and which are especially popular on the American side among Hispanic immigrants. Schwartz interviews artists, fans, and record people about the moral imperative of this music, while at the same time following policemen in the border town of Juarez, where the number of murders associated with the drug trade has skyrocketed. Though official corruption has something to do with the lack of prosecutorial effectiveness, the cartels are just too overwhelmingly successful in terms of economics. Consequently, they are viewed as Robin Hood-style heroes by the musicians, who take money from individual drug dealers in order to lionize them in song. Schwartz’s main subject in this world is Edgar Quintero, a young balladeer with a burgeoning fanbase, a stable family life, and an attitude that is difficult to square with both. We see Quintero sitting in a tricked-out van negotiating with the factotum of a known kingpin to write a song about him, and it comes across as business as usual. At one of Quintero’s concerts, girls hang around outside, fantasizing out loud about hooking up with a narco. “It’s something that’s a culture for us,” one of them says, thus interpolating a murderous criminal business into a “lifestyle.” In Juarez, Schwartz hangs out with Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator whose job is to gather evidence for cases that will never make it to court. On a daily basis he visits scenes of unimaginable carnage and then writes reports that end up in a box in a warehouse, unread. He works hard and believes that if his supervisors sufficiently supported him, he could easily win convictions, because he knows who the murderers are (everyone does). Instead, he attracts the attention of the narcos, who have already threateaned him and his family, and who have killed many of his colleagues. The disconnect between these two storylines is maddening, especially after Quintero takes a trip south of the border—subsidized by a narco—to do “research” for future songs and refuses to call the “culture” what it really is. If anything, he becomes more romantic about narco life during a visit to the ludicrously ornate mausoleums (one is big enough to contain a pickup truck) of departed drug dealers. Popular culture, even Breaking Bad, can take some blame for this perversion of celebrity worship, but in the end capitalism is the real culprit. As Soto implies, drug money is just too much of an incentive to ignore, and if you think you’re above it, it only means you can afford to be. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. (photo: Narco Cultura LLC)
A ripping cast tears into this true story about the gay political organization that supported striking miners in 1984 during Thatcher’s successful anti-union push and manages to make it seem less true. Concentrating less on demands and more on the difficulties of changing intolerant sensibilities, the script grinds away at its feel-good premise by showing the hard hearts of working class folk soften as they gain insight into the lives of gay men and lesbians. The solidarity is understandable, since both sides feel put upon by the establishment, though the homosexuals have more of an uphill battle. Epiphanies abound in union halls and gay bars, as closeted youngsters come out and tough blokes learn how to dance with their wives. Imelda Staunton manages to make something moving out of her activist housewife, but Ben Schnetzer, as real life gay firebrand Mark Ashton, seems diluted to a watery consistency. It’s the kind of movie where every indignity to the minority is immediately countered by an act of courage by a member of the majority; in other words, wholly predictable. (photo: Pathe Prod. Ltd., British Broadcasting Corp., The British Film Institute)
Whatever the commercial drawbacks of offering a movie in a foreign language without subtitles, Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s harrowing feature gains enormously from its lack of talk. Such an assessment is certainly subjective, since regardless of how closely you follow the action, details of the “story”—and there very definitely is one—will invariably be lost along the way. It’s an important distinction to make because The Tribe is set in a boarding school for the deaf. There is no dialogue at all, and the soundtrack is all extraneous noises that take on greater relevance when separated from human speech. When characters argue violently, their limbs whip about in a frenzy of signing, their faces contorted into masks of rage or disappointment. Slaboshpytskiy’s purposes may seem arrogant and perhaps even exploitive, but there’s no doubt that the visual payoff of eschewing subtitles is more intense melodrama. As it stands, the narrative isn’t that original, only its presentation is, but that presentation, by supplanting words with action stripped to its essence, brings new meaning to the hackneyed material. Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), the new kid at school, is immediately set upon by the titular gang, which runs various criminal activities with the help of a Godfather-like shop instructor, but, more significantly, enforces a strict and strictly cruel heirarchy that the students, who are already cut off from the larger society, feel compelled to join, or at least put up with. After surviving his hazing, Sergey is put to work supervising two female classmates who turn tricks at a local truck stop, but he has the misfortune of developing a crush on one of them, the volatile Anna (Yana Novikova). Slaboshpytskiy doesn’t skimp on the graphic sex or the even more graphic violence, and prefers long medium shots that ratchet up the discomfort, especially in one interminable scene depicting a back alley abortion. In a real sense, the director’s stultifyingly long, often mobile takes are just as much of a gimmick as the lack of subtitles, especially since they only exacerbate the situation of not being able to fully engage with the characters. As a result, there’s no depth to the venality, no explication of the moral dimension that holds sway in this hell hole, and thus the methodology can be interpreted as masking the director’s lack of empathy with his characters, or, more to the point, as exemplifying his laziness as a storyteller. This isn’t to deny the movie’s power as an artifact. It’s a fully engaging experience, and one’s whose horrors are easy to believe, but it’s hard not to leave it with the feeling that it’s all a deaf-mute thing. Or maybe a Ukrainian thing. (photo: Garmata Film Prod. LLC 2014/Ukrainian State Film Agency)
The best thing about this indie hit is Miles Teller’s drumming, which is even better than J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning performance as a sadistic music teacher—or at least it is within the parameters of writer-director Damien Chazelle’s thematic purpose. It would be impossible to accept Chazelle’s premise if his lead actor didn’t have the technical chops to undergird his protagonist’s self-regard, which is tested by his mentor’s overcooked concept of musical greatness. As shown by his only other feature, Chazelle knows how to weave music into the fabric of a film, and he thus understands that if he doesn’t buy the conceit, the audience won’t either. Teller’s Andrew Niemann, who is attending a prestigious New York music school, thinks he’s hot shit, and to us lay listeners he might as well be Buddy Rich, Andrew’s hero, but Fletcher (Simmons), the imposing leader of the jazz orchestra that Andrew gets into after much competitive huffing-and-puffing, doesn’t accept “hot shit” as a passing form. He wants Andrew to bend to his will, which means humiliating him in public and verbally torturing him in private. The reason for all this is predictable and a bit banal: Fletcher recognizes real talent in Andrew but understands the youth’s own recognition of his gifts will prevent him from reaching his fullest, purest potential. Consequently, Fletcher’s drill sergeant methodology is a form of love, and it doesn’t help Chazelle’s case that almost every member of this elite club is male, since it just reinforces the boot camp-cum-sports movie cliches. He does gain a certain amount of traction with the psychic damage Fletcher’s attentions cause. Andrew abandons a fledgling romance with a movie theater concessionaire (Melissa Benoist), and he mostly disowns his family, who can’t understand how and why he would put up with such a sadistic taskmaster. There’s obviously some perversity at play in Andrew’s personality, but every time Chazelle seems to be drawing out something new and refreshing about the student-teacher dynamic, he falls into the clutches of a trite dramatic device, the most insufferable one being the big dramatic finish, which is thrilling in a purely visceral but largely unsatisfying way, since it not only bears out Fletcher’s questionable philosophy but shows that Andrew had absorbed it so fully as to take it to the next level. If it weren’t so thrillingly shot and edited, the sequence, which alone deserved the editing Oscar the film won as a whole, would be laughably hyperbolic. It’s perfectly calibrated to release the enormous amount of tension built up over the previous 90 minutes, but that doesn’t make it any less manipulative. (photo: Whiplash LLC)
A quasi-fictional celebration of hip-hop culture circa 1982, Charlie Ahearn’s lo-res classic is now more interesting for its cameos than its actual historical content. Graffiti god Lee Quinones, playing a tagger named Zoro, is glorified in the gutter by a reporter (Patti Astor) who watches him get invited to galleries. Fab Five Freddy, the ambassador of all that hip-hop represented at the time (more break dancing than rapping), plays an uptown mover who is distracted by visions of the big time (which, as everybody now knows, would come like a tidal wave). And if the music, by now-vanished street kids like Double Trouble, seems almost anthropologically quaint, it’s also damn exciting in a purely uncomplicated way. The final concert in a Lower East Side bandshell is priceless. Since there isn’t much here that connects directly to what we know of the form today, some viewers might find it too pokey, but Wild Style makes a convincing case for hip-hop as the New York music style par excellence. Just don’t expect Godard.