May 2015 movies

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

akahamaAkahama Rock’n Roll
Haruko Konishi’s documentary about the town of Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture has already attracted some controversy even before its release, mainly because it evinced the sympathies of Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife. Otsuchi was devastated in the tsunami of 2011, in particular the district of Akahama. One-tenth of the residents are dead or missing. Moreover the area’s vital fishing industry has yet to recover. The central government has promised to rebuild the area, but part of the package is a 14.5-meter high seawall that the residents say they can do without. Apparently, it’s too late, since once the relevant ministry gets it into its head to build something, it takes a directive from God to reverse it. The film spends less time on the mechanics of the resistance than on the way the residents of Akahama are getting their lives back together, and Konishi wisely focuses on two fishermen brothers who went back to work days after the quake, an example that did more to encourage their neighbors than any act of charity or commisseration. In Japanese. (photo: So-Net Entertainment Co. Ltd.)

Michael Mann makes the best action movies in Hollywood, usually without a lot of computer graphics and special visual effects. His latest seems late to the cyber-crime genre, and like many of his colleagues he has trouble making the idea of people sitting in front of screens clacking away at keyboards suspenseful. The trick is to somehow relate all that typing to the usual spinning, screeching car wheels and bullet play, and Mann is conscientious enough to make sure the connections are at least viable within the parameters of the story. When a Hong Kong nuclear power plant almost melts down due to a hacked cooling system, the Chinese authorities bring in its best computer expert, Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom), who lobbies the American government to release his old MIT roommate, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), from federal prison, where he is serving time for various e-crimes. Hathaway is not your typical tech nerd. He’s a buff tower of meat who reads Baudrillard and Foucault while in stir. Though these trenchant personality traits could be exploited to greater advantage, Mann is content to let them accumulate over the course of the film, so while Hathaway’s talents are rendered almost superhuman, at least they don’t exist in a narrative vacuum. With the help of Chen’s sister, Lien (Tang Wei), Hathaway connects the “black hat” hacker to other seemingly unrelated terrorist activities and finally to a tin mine in Southeast Asia. Of course, the hacking turns out to have much larger ramifications than mere terrorism, and Mann makes sure the particulars aren’t buried beneath techspeak. He also handles the requisite rush of exotic locations and iBabble without drawing undue attention to the ridiculousness of it all, and while the overstuffed plot occasionally gets out of his reach and the surfeit of secondary characters becomes increasingly difficult to justify (Hemsworth not marqee enough? Get Viola Davis as a perfunctory FBI agent for box office insurance), in Hemsworth he has a hero who faithfully upholds the principles that Mann demands of his thrillers. He’s less successful with the romantic aspects. Hemsworth and Wei make a cute couple, but their bond seems preordained and less organic than Hathaway’s unsentimental education as a brainy hardbody. But what Mann does best, the isolated action set pieces, is in no way diminished by the emphasis on code and the director’s curious habit of showing the viewer how electrical signals pass through a computer circuit. Most importantly, nobody shoots night scenes with more visceral power than Mann does. In the end Blackhat is a sleek, efficient, adult entertainment that doesn’t insult your intelligence. (photo: Universal Pictures)

1251623 - ChappieChappie
It’s tempting to imagine that Neill Blomkamp’s third attempt at dystopian action cinema, after the imaginative District 9 and the ambitious Elysium, is a tone-resetting parody of everything he’s done so far, but his resume is too short to warrant self-referencing, so most likely Chappie is a failed stab at yet another reconfiguration of a genre he seems incapable of letting go of. Blomkamp is back in his native South Africa, where public unrest seems the national pastime. The authorities address the roiling masses with Scouts, new robocops who replace the flesh-and-blood paramilitaries after the latter are accused of corruption and brutality. These mechanical SWAT teams are manufactured by a private company, Tetra Vaal, whose bottom line depends on continued instability, though it isn’t an issue Blomkamp cares about. His aim is a kind of Disneyfied Frankenstein tale, but one with a lot of gun violence and nasty intentions. Dev Patel is Deon, an engineer for Tetra Vaal who has an idea for making the robots sentient, but his boss (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t interested. Deon then steals one of the robots slated for disposal and installs his AI program, but before he’s able to test it, his car is hijacked by a trio of thugs and the robot, dubbed Chappie, is stolen. Voiced by Blomkamp avatar Sharlto Copley, Chappie ends up being “educated” by these lowlifes, who are played with zero dramatic filtering by the hip-hop duo Die Antwoord—hard-body hardass Ninja and pixie sass-monger Yo-Landi Visser—and American actor Jose Pablo Cantillo. Ninja wants Chappie to help him rob and kill, and schools him in “gangsta,” while Yo-Landi, tapping her maternal instinct, teaches him how to read and write and express himself in gentler ways. Chappie thus ends up a conflicted sort of alien entity, half-Stitch, half-C3PO, whose chirpy, rhythmic effusions oversell his “innocence.” Meanwhile, Deon’s super macho colleague, Victor (Hugh Jackman with a mullet), is devising his own variation on the Scout, a more purposefully destructive device called the Moose. Deon and Victor represent the two sides of the technology coin that Blomkamp might have explored to more entertaining effect had he actually focused on these two characters rather than on the annoyingly “retarded” (Ninja’s adjective, not mine) Chappie and his two equally off-putting parents (yes, Chappie calls them “mommy” and “daddy”). Half the problem is that Die Antwoord can’t act worth shit, even within the cartoon parameters provided by the script, and Blomkamp gives them more screen time than he does to anyone else. When the inevitable blood-soaked denouement arrives, the viewer has little emotional investment in any of these characters, which may be on purpose because we only care whether or not Chappie “finds” a new “body” to inhabit, an idea that becomes distressing in the long run since it seems to point to a sequel. (photo: Stephanie Blomkamp/CTMG Inc.)

The 21st century has been all about Disney fortifying its legacy as the only Hollywood studio with a direct stylistic link to the golden age of American movies. To some extent, it has Pixar to thank for that, but this wholly irrelevant but highly derivative live-action recreation of one of the Mouse Factory’s greatest hits is Disney at its essence, and the studio has director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz to thank for that. One might think the noted Shakespearean and the creator of American Pie might feel an obligation to leave their individual marks on the sacred text, but for the most part they’ve carried out their orders to the T; which isn’t to say they didn’t make some changes. The most significant is Cinderella’s background. Rather than a man of high birth, her father is a merchant, albeit a successful one, and she and her parents live a beautiful bourgeois existence until Cinderella’s mother dies of some unnamed disease. “Have courage and be kind,” are her last words to 10-year-old Ella, a mantra with all the pizzazz of a fortune cookie, but one that it easy to grok by the target audience, which is not limited to adolescent girls. The father (Ben Chaplin) remarries a widow (Cate Blanchett) who brings her two self-centered daughters, Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) to the union, and quickly sets about redecorating Ella’s home, erasing what’s left of her mother in the process. At this point, Weitz posits something interesting: he kills off the father during a business trip abroad, and because the family is dependent on his toil for their existence, they have to reduce expenditures to survive, which means dismissing all the hired help. The stepmother charges Ella with the entire upkeep of the household. This could have been a brilliant comment on the comeuppance of the middle class, but the agenda is stacked against Weitz, as is Branagh’s vision, which has the young girl, dubbed Cinderella by her mean stepsisters because of her grimy complexion, putting up with the denigration because of her mother’s advice. A second opportunity to make the story more relevant is missed with the prince (Richard Madden), who is being pressured to marry before his father, the king (Derek Jacobi), dies from yet another unnamed malady. Though everyone knows he will eventually marry the commoner and thus make the term “Cinderella story” a meme unto itself, there are more than a few chances for this romantic trope to be reconfigured, but despite Branagh’s facility with the story’s humor and pathos, Cinderella remains plucky without actually challenging the status quo. After all, the prince eventually bends to her situation. Given the economic exigencies at stake, she could have easily made a few demands before she joined the 1%. (photo: Disney Enterprises Inc.)

furious7Furious 7
If the Fast and the Furious series made a superstar out of the capable but unexceptional actor Paul Walker, Walker’s death last year during the making of the 7th installment gave the series a reason to reinvent itself; or, at least, reset its commitment to those cinematic values it treasures so unconditionally, namely the subordination of everything, including plot and characterization, to the destruction of property for the sake of heroic expression. Despite the huzzahs the movie has earned from critics, Furious 7 is no different in terms of intent and effect than the previous six movies, it’s just more single-minded in carrying them out if for no other reason than to honor Walker’s contribution. Director James Wan, a horror alumni, understands the visceral requirements, and does a good job of keeping Walker’s character, ex-FBI agent Brian O’Connor, central to the plot even if he has to supplement Walker’s scenes with body doubles and CG. It’s all of a piece with the Furious aesthetic, which is so seamlessly kinetic that you notice nothing but the action, and that’s just as well because any time you’re left to contemplate the story you may wonder if there actually is one. The nut of the plot is Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the brother of one of the bad guys left for near dead at the end of Part 6. Shaw, a former British special ops, vows revenge on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his “family,” meaning all the grease monkeys who orbit around the carjacker with the heart of gold and their significant others. Once the threats become real, Dom must act and is given the opportunity to do it big time by the cleverly named Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), a wiseass government agent who wants Dom and his crew to track down a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) who has his hands on a valuable surveillance device, which Dom can then use to track Shaw—if Shaw doesn’t track down Dom first. Then there’s Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), a DSS agent whose own encounter with Shaw lands him in the hospital, though that doesn’t explain why he’s still hanging out with Dom and Brian and the rest of the team. None of these lost connections matter because everything comes together in L.A. (after detours to Abu Dhabi and Azerbaijan), which gets really messed up in the most convoluted car chase in the annals of cinema. Are the set pieces worth it? Certainly I feel like I can die in peace, now that I’ve seen Diesel drive a million dollar sports car from the top of one high-rise building to another and still another without the aid of bridges, but I’m sure Walker himself would have liked to still be here to see what his hard work wrought. I guess he could be proud. (photo: Universal Pictures)

girlatmydoorA Girl At My Door
Korean master Lee Chang-dong produced this debut film by his one-time student Jung July. As with Lee’s best films, A Girl at My Door incorporates a disciplined, hard-edged observation of social dynamics into a movie of considerable melodramatic power. Bae Doona plays a police officer who is banished to the countryside after being involved in an office scandal in Seoul. Her new charges fully accept her as their superior, but when she becomes the ad hoc guardian of an abused teenager (Kim Sae-ron), she invites the enmity of the girl’s drunken widowed father (Song Sae-byeok), whose influence in the town seems at odds with his coarse demeanor. The girl uses the officer’s sympathy to her own advantage as the town slowly rallies against the older woman, but the wonder of the script is the way Jung calibrates the emotional changes that keep the story just out of the viewer’s reach. More than anything, she presents us with a protagonist, a figure of conventional authority, who bucks those conventions in believable ways. Is it because she’s a woman? About time, I say. (photo: MovieCollage and Pinehouse Film)

The controversy over genetically modified organisms has been brewing for years, and while filmmaker Jeremy Seifert feels strongly about the issue and covers all the right bases, his documentary doesn’t have much to add. He talks to scientists and farmers who say the same things scientists and farmers have been saying for years, that the proprietary nature of GMO seeds places the future of agriculture in the hands of a few multinationals, and their effects on the human body are still not known. Naturally, Monsanto won’t talk to him and the primary rationale of advocates—that pest-resistant GMOs are the only solution to world huger—is easily shot down. Seifert sentimentalizes his argument by couching it as a lesson for his two young boys, who enjoy the fruits of GMOs (unavoidable since 90% of the corn syrup in America is derived from it) while learning of their dangers. The best thing is the film’s depiction of Haitians who rejected Monsanto’s aid after the 2010 earthquake destroyed their capacity to grow food. That would have made a movie all by itself.

Polish director Andrzej Jakimowski sets his small film in an institute for the blind in Lisbon, his protagonist an Englishman named Ian (Edward Hogg), who comes to teach his method of nagivating the world without a cane, using sound cues as well as an intuitive confidence. Ian’s methods soon become a source of concern for the attendants at the school, since they by necessity entail a certain degree of risk, which Ian does not deny and, in fact, insists is part of the regimen. His main confederate in this endeavor is Eva (Alexandra Maria Lara), who is taken with Ian’s belief in his ability but can’t acquire the skills necessary to reach his level of independence. The story is intriguing, and it presents sightlessness in a manner that makes it understandable to a viewer raised on cinema. Nevertheless, Jakimowski puts too much stock in Ian’s iconoclasm and the way it butts up against the school’s lack of imagination. Were it a simple love story it might have had more power. It certainly would have taken advantage of Lisbon’s beauty more readily. (photo: Zair)

The mother-son dynamic at the heart of Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature is almost a parody of the kind of family dysfunction that filmmakers like John Cassavetes standardized back in the 60s and 70s, with its heavy breathing and dialogue often delivered at elevated volumes. Mommy is like a storm that’s been trapped in a glass box: We can observe its destructive power up close without getting hurt. Widowed Diane (Anne Dorval) still sees herself as too free-spirited to be saddled with a son, much less an ADHD-addled teenager who terrorizes the insitutions he is often sent to. Anne can’t control Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), and that inability to cope lets her off the hook, at least in her mind. In fact, Anne can be just as willfully demonstrative as Steve, making you wonder if the boy’s problems are less chemical than hereditary. Though “love” is a word that’s often thrown around in the movie, these two seem to be bound by a mutual need to blame the other for whatever obstacles life throws in their way. So while Steve pivots wildly between petulant violence and introverted self-destruction, Anne tries to get on with her existence, which incorporates a lover who doesn’t know what he’s in for. But the lover, who makes a quick exit once the stakes are revealed, isn’t Dolan’s ringer in the film. That role belongs to Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a neighbor who walks out of her drab housewife routine to ostensibly act as Steve’s tutor, though what she really wants is Anne’s friendship. Dolan amps up Kyla’s neediness by giving her a noticeable stammer that invites Steve’s unmediated derision, playing up her vulnerability. There’s a palpable feeling of risk whenever Kyla is on screen, as if she were there as the token victim, though for the most part she’s a tempering influence, the eye in the storm, so to speak. In any event, Dolan isn’t interested in explaining the pathologies involved or which traumas led to what behavioral abnormality. We know nothing about Steve’s late father except that Anne misses him desperately. That’s because Dolan, himself betraying attention deficit symptoms, is only interested in melodrama for the sake of melodrama, and he films it all as if through a cell phone lens, though the overall production is anything but amateurish. As a matter of fact, some will find it a little too ambitious in its desire to make more of this triangular relationship that it has the capacity to contain. In a few scenes Dolan mechanically widens the screen to the conventional ratio, but you struggle to understand what he’s getting at. Like Steve and Anne, he just wants to push your buttons. In French. (photo: Shayne Laverdiere/2014 une filiale de Metafilms Ltd.)

revengeRevenge of the Green Dragons
Martin Scorsese pays back Hong Kong director Andrew Lau for The Departed, which was based on a Lau movie, by executive producing this immigrant drama, supposedly based on a true story. The BFF pair at the center of the plot, Chinese boys who came to NYC as slave labor kids and were quickly scooped up by local gangs, recalls Mean Streets in tone and execution. The Green Dragons protect their turf through torture, execution, and a steady supply of desperate arrivals from the mainland. Because this is Queens in the 80s, and the victims are all Asian, the local cops pay no mind unless a stray bullet happens to hit a white person. Ray Liotta is the exception as an FBI agent trying to convince his superiors to pay attention to what is obviously human trafficking. Lau and co-director Andrew Loo pull off the grit and violence, but the characters are all stock and there isn’t much sociological depth to the criminal underworld as it’s depicted. Basically, it’s one bummer after another leading to an endless cycle of depravity and venality. In English and Cantonese. ((photo: ROTGD Productions LLC)

italyThe Trip to Italy
This is the second film sequel to a successful TV series about two comedian-actors who drive around on a magazine expense account eating at 3-star restaurants while challenging each other with competing celebrity impressions and making jokes off the tops of their heads. Nice work if you can get it, and that’s part of the concept’s appeal, since Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, not to mention director Michael Winterbottom, take that winking concept at face value and play it for laughs. In The Trip, the pair explored England’s Lake District. This time we’re tooling through Italy with a similar purpose in mind but a completely different mood. In the first film, Coogan was the cynical, spoiled star who slept around and couldn’t be bothered with keeping promises, either to loved ones or professional colleagues. Here, he’s suddenly the responsible, guilt-ridden dad trying to reconnect with his estranged teenage son, while Brydon, the dedicated family man in the first film, is the one cheating. It’s to Winterbottom’s credit that not much is made of this reversal, since it undermines the lackadaisical mood with a more realistically subtle tension, but then viewers, especially British ones who are more familiar with the work of these two men, may find themselves wondering how close the real persons are to their on-screen incarnations. By reversing the first film’s dynamic, that question loses much of its compulsion. Similarly, there wasn’t much “story” in The Trip, only isolated incidents that refused to coagulate into a narrative. That may have been the point, since the idea is to approach the pair’s adventure as if it were being filmed for a documentary. Here, we have several through stories in addition to Coogan’s paternal gambit. Brydon meets and beds a young woman, wooing her with his Hugh Grant impersonation, and whereas Coogan left his one night stand behind in the first film (a photographer who shows up here with no follow-up hanky panky) Brydon clearly has fallen for his extramarital fling, though Winterbottom doesn’t make dramatic hay out of it. Another difference is the odd de-emphasis on the meals. In The Trip, Winterbottom drooled over the dishes and brought his camera into the kitchen to observe them being made. Thus, foodies should be forewarned that jokes take precedent over cuisine this time, but that also may be a relief to some people. After all, there’s only so much envy a person can stand. (photo: Trip Films Ltd.)

walkingWalking With My Mother
Katsumi Sakaguchi trains his video camera on his 80-year-old mother, Suchie, as she goes through a terrible part of her life. Depressed after the death of her daughter, she must cope with a bedridden husband and multiplying health issues. Her son is there to record every indignity, from incontinence to hysteria—even his own uselessness in the face of his mother’s infirmity. And then something almost miraculous happens. After her husband dies and she seems at rock bottom, Suchie moves from Tokyo to her hometown of Tanegashima, where she grew up the oldest of eight siblings. She ditches the pills (or, at least, the antidepressants), and actually starts to get better. Sakaguchi’s film is more than just a profile of one special person. It’s an attempt to comprehend the way this generation of Japanese, and those to come, will live out their last days in a socioeconomic environment that isn’t prepared for them. By necessity, he edits for speed and economy, and the result is a discomfiting experience that is nonetheless fascinating. You can’t turn away. In Japanese with English subtitles. (photo: Supersaurus)

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