June 2015 movies

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

congress_mainThe Congress
Ari Folman was obviously hard put to follow up his stunning 2008 tour de force, Waltz With Bashir, and this adaptation of a Stanislav Lem story reeks of ambition, but while Folman takes his live-action-to-animation style further, he can’t deliver his concept. Robin Wright plays herself, an actress in middle age whose most indelible role, The Princess Bride, is way behind her. A “studio” wants to preserve that image and offers her a huge payday to “sell” them the exclusive rights to it. This means that Wright becomes a virtual star who has nothing to do with the movies that use this image. The first half of The Congress involves much ethical gnashing of teeth, and Wright wrestles with the concept as she frets over her emotionally troubled son. The second half takes place at the titular congress, a meeting of individuals who have taken the next step and become virtual beings. The Matrix-like conceit is so politically charged that it loses its power as an emotional device, even if the animation is often stunning. (photo: Bridgit Folman Film Gang, Pandora Film, Entre Chien et Loup, Paul Thiltges Distributions, Opus Film, ARP)

Michael Almereyda returns to Shakespeare with less fluid results than he achieved with Hamlet, which was set in the world of big business. The play is less salutory—Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s more muddled stories—and the venue more venal, an American motorcycle gang. Cymbeline (Ed Harris) is the leader, an aging, sour patriarch who makes his money dealing drugs. His daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson), has fallen in love with a minor member of the gang, Posthumus (Penn Badgley), though she has been promised to the son of Cymbeline’s scheming second wife (Milla Jovovich). Another schemer, Iachimo (Ethan Hawke), upsets matters further by betting Posthumus he can seduce Imogen, thus proving her lack of steadfastness. Story aside, what’s memorable is the contrast between the highfalutin’ poetry and the settings, which range from a dusty, crumbling playground to a strip mall Chinese restaurant. Consequently, a lot of the plotting doesn’t make sense, though perhaps that was Almereyda’s point. When you recognize a tale out of time, you pay closer attention to the details. (photo: CYM Film Holdings LLC)

farfrommenFar From Men
Based on a story by Albert Camus, David Oelhoffen’s film is set in a remote area of Algeria during the war of independence. Viggo Mortensen plays Daru, a school teacher of Spanish extract whose pupils are children of local farmers normally denied a proper education. His reasons for living in this isolated area, away from compatriots, soon becomes clear when the larger world comes rushing in. A soldier arrives with a prisoner named Mohammed (Reda Kateb), whom he is bringing to town for summary trial and execution, and orders Daru to finish the delivery. Daru obviously doesn’t want to do it, and his reasons for accepting the order are gradually revealed as the movie progresses. These two men bond in inexplicable ways as they are set upon by forces on both sides of the struggle. It means less that Daru was once a soldier than the fact that he felt more kinship with his Arab associates. Still, tribal ties are difficult to cut, and in the end Daru’s conflicted pacifism is no match for reality. In French, Arabic & Spanish. (photo: One World Films/Michael Crotto)

getonupGet On Up
This life of James Brown falls victim to many of the cliches associated with big-budget musical biopics. It sacrifices emotional depth for psychological consistency and glosses over specific personality traits rather than explore them for their meaning. The drugs and episodes of domestic violence are presented as small facets in a larger portrait that nevertheless gets it right dramatically. Brown’s development as an egomaniacal taskmaster is the main mission of the script, and in that regard the movie does something its peers tend to overlook: it shows how the music came directly from the man. Consequently, Get On Up contains some of the best musical sequences ever made for a feature film. Brown’s own live recordings are used and spruced up, and director Tate Taylor is wise to let the songs play out to their full length. Chadwick Boseman overcomes his lack of resemblance to the Godfather of Soul with a canny performance that stresses posture and inflection. He nails the way the psychology informed body movement. He instinctively understands both his subject and the purpose of the movie. (photo: Universal Pictures/D Stevens)

SS_D148-44088.dngThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
This gambit of splitting the last third of a successful movie trilogy into two parts in order to milk as much revenue as possible succeeds despite itself with the penultimate chapter of The Hunger Games, which nevertheless feels like marking time. Our hero, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), was plucked from the clutches of her overlords by the rebels at the end of Part 2, and most of the movie is spent fretting over whether or not the lover she left behind, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), has taken up with the overlords or is simply doing their PR bidding to save his own skin. So while there isn’t as much action as there was in the first two installments, there is more time to explore the series’ obsession with the kind of issues you get from an over-extended media apparatus. Once the pawn of the establishment, Katniss is now being used by the opposition in much the same way, this time as a means of rallying the undecided to its cause to rise up against the Capitol. The finale should be a blast. (photo: Lions Gate Film Inc.)

Hunttheworld“Hunt the World”
The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is, according to its home page, “an experimental laboratory that promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography.” For the purposes of this fascinating series, which Theater Image Forum has titled “Hunt the World,” it brings together video artists and vanishing lifestyles to showcase a nexus between the human and natural worlds, though the most interesting of the four films in the series is Verena Paravel’s and J.P. Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts, a live-in portrait of a junkyard in Queens, New York, that is about to be paved over for upscale housing. Here the environment that’s vanishing is man-made, and mostly inculcated by those at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap—people junk their cars for quick, easy cash, and also come here to find cheap parts for their automobiles. The dynamic is sharp and confrontational, and a few sad souls not only make their living in this heap of metal, but their homes as well. It’s an insular world with its own codes and sensibilities, and though you never learn anybody’s name, their stories are shaped by their circumstances in vibrant and telling ways. More to the point, it reduces America’s car fetish to its essence. Ilisa Barbash’s and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass is even more immersive as it chronicles the last sheep drive in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains, a journey that covers 300 kilometers and takes all spring and winter. The sheep and their grizzled, aging, often frustrated minders live precariously at each other’s throats and treat the elements as something that’s just there. Besides offering some breathtaking panoramas, it goes deep into a culture that we think we understand from Westerns but really know nothing about, not to mention the literal herd mentality of these often comical four-legged characters. Stephanie Spray’s and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana has dual overlaps—nature and civilization, the first and third worlds. Set in Nepal at the titular temple, the video mostly focuses on eleven cable-car trips comprising nine sets of people (and one herd of goats) who are going to and from the sacred structure. There is very little dialogue and the work’s appeal is mostly formal: the environment shapes behavior in ways that aren’t always clear when you’re in the environment itself. Human behavior is best observed through a lens. Though smaller in scope and less mobile than the other SEL docs, Manakamana is decidedly the most unusual, a visual treat that will really make you view the world differently. The quartet is rounded out by the sublime Leviathan, which opened in Japan last year and wordlessly captures the visceral sensation of being on a seafood factory ship in the middle of the Atlantic through the careful placement of several dozen GoPro cameras. Make sure you bring your sea legs. (photo: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor)

lostriverLost River
Ryan Gosling’s debut as a writer-director owes a great deal to David Lynch stylistically, but since his theme seems to be the natural entropy of capitalistic urban societies, his use of surreal, often ridiculous tableaux feels gratuitous when the stakes are so literal. A single mother (Christina Hendricks) is behind on the mortgage for her delapidated family home, and her teenage son (Iain De Caestecker) wanders the equally delapidated city (Detroit serves ably as location), scrounging scrap metal to make ends meet. The community’s predatory bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) offers the mother a job at a bizarre night club he owns as a way of helping her pay her debt. Here, the entertainers engage in artsy Grand Guignol spectacle. Male privilege and the way the poor feed on one another get their due in Gosling’s feverish script, and while he obviously has a knack for haunting nighttime imagery he can’t generate the dread the story is meant to convey. And if you’re hoping for a trenchant comment on the subprime fiasco, you’ll get more insight from Breaking Bad. (photo: Bold Films Productions LLC)

???????Miss HOKUSAI??Miss Hokusai
Keiichi Hara’s animated version of Hinako Sugiura’s manga, Sarusuberi, isn’t compulsive about period detail. Set during the Edo Era, it juxtaposes carefully researched visuals with behavior and speech that feel casually modern, and even includes hard rock on the soundtrack, apparently because Sugiura likes hard rock. The hero, O-ei, is the eldest daughter of the great ukiyoe painter Hokusai, who possesses the usual art-genius pecadilloes except the one that’s usually exploited the most by film biographers: he doesn’t drink. Nevertheless, his cool regard for departed and existing (though estranged) wives and the progeny they produced lends a bit of familial tension. O-ei is presented as an artist who is the equal of her father, at least in terms of draftsmanship, and more responsible to boot. There isn’t any plot to speak of, only random episodes meant to illustrate O-ei’s frustrations with her father’s unreliable tendencies and her modernistic attitudes toward social mores. Requisite sentimentality is provided by O-nao, O-ei’s blind little sister. The animation is impeccable but it feels more like a leisurely stroll than an immersion. In Japanese. (photo: Hinako Sugiura-MSHS/Sarusuberi Film Partners)

turnerMr. Turner
In his expansive yet detailed biopic of the great 19th century British landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner, Mike Leigh isn’t interested in plumbing the depths of the man’s psyche, though he is fascinated with how his particular historical milieu shaped the way he saw. As played by Timothy Spall in a peculiarly mannered performance that’s all grunts and glowers, Turner never renounces his humble origins as the son of a barber (Paul Jesson) who, as his son gained fame, became his devoted assistant. In fact, until the old man’s death, Leigh seems as interested in this curious reversal of paternal attendance as he is in any aspect of the painter’s special genius, but since we catch up with the pair after Turner has become famous we never see how the relationship developed. At the same time, Turner is as capable of being an ass as the next “man of spirit and fine feeling.” Assailed by well-meaning but pompous critics, hangers-on who resent his talent and try to exploit connections, and people of higher station who look for weaknesses (a young Queen Victoria throws up her hands at Turner’s blurry depictions), Turner takes a perverse joy in either ignoring them or putting them in their place, however that place exists in his universe. The beauty of Leigh’s recreation is in the way he conveys this universe as being inseparable from the age and its attributes while also being wholly unique. Much of the credit should go to cinematographer Dick Pope, who summons the smoggy glow of industrial revolution-era England, which gave Turner a reason to paint the way he did. Turner’s honest approach to his art and relationships allows him to take sexual advantage of his loyal and long-suffering maid (Dorothy Atkinson) while wooing with touching gentility a widow (Marion Bailey) who occasionally lets out a room to him but doesn’t know who he is. As portraits of celebrities go, Mr. Turner trades in a time where people knew the reputation only through the work, and thus Turner, as blunt as he wants to be, never has to worry about appearances, as it were. And beyond the period touches, it’s the behavioral tics and diction that marks this as one of Leigh’s best, an excellent companion piece to his equally fussy Topsy Turvy, which was about Gilbert and Sullivan during another very important juncture with history. It’s not the world we live in and may not be as accurate as it goes, but it sure is of a piece. (photo: Channel Four Television Corp., The British Film Institute, Diaphana, France 3 cinema, Untitled 13 Commissioning Ltd. 2014)

Pitch-mainPitch Perfect
It’s taken almost 3 years for this semi-musical box office hit to make it to Japan, and not necessarily on the star power of Anna Kendrick, but rather on the idea that a cappella singing has its own cult core of fans here. Glee probably helped, but as far as I know the affection for that show has waned to the point where NHK stopped showing it after its third season. In the meantime, Pitch Perfect 2 just opened in the U.S., so obviously Japan has some catching up to do. Kendrick plays Beca, a young woman with one career path in sight—music producer—who is only attending (fictional) Barden University because her father teaches philosophy there and has extracted from her a promise that she will give college at least a year before she heads of to L.A. to pursue her dreams. The opening scenes set Beca’s priorities. Though she doesn’t seem particularly unusual, two members of an all-female a cappella club, the Bellas, desperate for new recruits after a humiliating appearance at a big contest in New York decimated their ranks, tries to get Beca to join despite her insistence that she doesn’t sing and what they describe as her “alt-girl” appearance. Of course, Beca does sing, as one of these women, Chloe (Brittany Snow), finds out when she hears her in the next stall in the dorm’s communal shower room. Since one of her dad’s conditions for agreeing to let set her free at the end of the year is to join an extracurricular activity, Beca gives in and becomes a Bella, which, as it turns out, is run like the Hitler Youth by its leader, Aubrey (Anna Camp). The other new members are a mish-mash of offbeat stereotypes, including a plus-sized Australian (Rebel Wilson) who preempts snarky comments by calling herself Fat Amy, a black lesbian hip-hopper, and an Asian woman who talks and sings so quietly no one can hear her. Complicating matters for Bela is Jesse (Skylar Astin), a smitten member of a rival male a cappella group that has continually gotten Aubrey’s goat, so she makes a rule: anyone caught having sex with a member of this boy band is out of the Bellas. Naturally, Beca tries to bring fresh ideas to a party that is so conservative audiences often fall asleep during their performances, and Aubrey resists them as if Beca were the Devil herself. Both the journey and the destination are wholly predictable, though the theme of female solidarity is treated with more intelligence than it usually is in youth-oriented movies. The patented raunchiness that has become commonplace in these kinds of films is also fully exploited, and not too many of the jokes hit their marks cleanly, but maybe that’s the point. It’s messy being a girl, especially around other girls. (photo: Universal Studios)

Like Lincoln, Ava DuVernay’s film about Martin Luther King, Jr., uses the tropes of the Great Man Biopic to illuminate a specific historical episode, in this case the 1965 attempt by civil rights activists, led by Dr. King, to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery in order to protest the state’s denial of black residents’ basic voting rights. In hindsight, everyone knows this episode led directly to passage of the Voting Rights Act, though most people probably don’t know how much of a struggle that development was, and not just in Washington where the overwhelming mood was that African-Americans were “moving too fast,” but even within the movement, since it was King’s purpose to provoke the police so that the media would record and disseminate their knee-jerk brutality. As such, King was derided by some of his associates as being an opportunist who sacrificed the lives and well-being of his followers for his—and their—cause. DuVernay doesn’t skirt the particulars of the King legacy, both positive and negative, and she also doesn’t avoid this fact that there was a great deal of disagreement within the movement over tactics and aims—the students, for instance, resented what they saw as King hijacking their mission—but Selma is such a carefully calibrated work of cinematic exegesis that its best moments are powerful because they are both emotional and enlightening. It’s pointless to argue that the movie may have shortchanged President Lyndon Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) contribution to the movement by making him seem less than enthusiastic about the Voting Rights Act until he was pushed to the wall by national outrage over the violence perpetrated on non-violent protestors in Selma, because it’s only one part of the spectrum of black-white dynamic that defines the movie’s dramatic arc. At the same time, King’s relationship with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) is conveyed with an almost brutally effective shorthand that sketches in their mutual reliance as well as the forces that try to tear them apart, the most odious being J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), who tried to get King to kill himself in shame by sending him a recording of the civil rights leader having sex with another woman. DuVernay can’t quite avoid the feeling that these are distractions, a way of pulling our eyes away from the prize, as it were, but thanks to an ensemble whose inter-performative synergy is every bit as impressive as the coordination of protests they recreate, nothing feels extraneous, and everything has weight. In fact, it’s almost chilling how contemporary these matters seem. Given the tenor of the news right now, it’s very difficult to think of a major motion picture that is this relevant, not to mention this thrilling. (photo: Pathe Productions Ltd.)

Disney's TOMORROWLAND Frank (George Clooney) Ph: Film Frame ©Disney 2015Tomorrowland
Though obviously a movie for the whole family, this lastest Walt Disney production-offshoot of a celebrated Mouse Factory amusement park attraction seems aimed at a specific demographic: boomer males with a nostalgia jones for the New Frontier as embodied in the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65 and Disney’s own Epcot theme park. In fact, the ’64 fair is the movie’s most important plot device, since it is posited as a kind of portal to an alternate universe where functionaries from that universe audition inventors for ideas that will make the future a better place. Hugh Laurie plays David Nix, a seemingly immortal and ageless bureaucrat who recruits a ten-year-old named Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) who arrives at the fair with his home-made jetpack, one of those marvels that the fair promised (along with picture phones) would be in every home by the 1980s. Young Frank eventually grows up to become middle aged George Clooney, whose “pessimism” gets him banned from Tomorrowland, the place where all these brains hang out and determine our future. But don’t despair, because “optimism” still has a place in our world as demonstrated by teenage Casey (Britt Robertson), who, as the saying goes is “bursting with scientific curiosity.” These two meet through the agency of a lapel pin, which, when touched, gives the subject a glimpse of Tomorrowland. The idea that one is “chosen” to go there gives the film its own dystopian spin, but director Brad Bird, who flourished with all sorts of alternative universes in his Pixar films, can’t quite work out the metaphysics, and if anyone under the age of 50 finds the conception of the “future” here quaint, anyone under the age of 30 will most likely give up trying to work out the particulars of Bird’s space-time continuum. More to the point, Bird’s theme is that our hopeful vision of the future has been highjacked by despair, and it’s implied that this despair is not so much a function of the economic and social forces at work in the world but rather a media/pop culture construct. We’ve become enamored with dysfunction because, dramatically at least, it’s more interesting than the bright future we used to think was our (read: Americans’) birthright. Call me a cynic, but couching this theme in an action sci-fi thriller is Disney having its cake and eating it, too. As the film progresses and becomes even more layered in its time frames, it also become less compelling as a story. We’re meant to see Tomorrowland as a metaphor, which is fine if this were Chris Marker, but Disney has a mission to delight, and Tomorrowland doesn’t have enough narrative rigor to entertain on the level it’s been designed to. It’s always just out of reach. (photo: Disney Enterprises Inc.)

2DaysTwo Days, One Night
The Dardennes’ ethical dramas incorporate a tension that springs from familiar social interactions, and their latest ramps up the discomfort to almost unbearable levels. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to her job in a solar panel factory in suburban Belgium from a leave of absence taken for clinical depression. Still popping pills, she learns that she’s been laid off, and the only way she can get her job back is if she convinces her co-workers to give up their bonuses. Already diminished by the challenges of her condition, Sandra desperately needs the job to help support her family, and convinces management to hold a ballot so that she can lobby her colleagues to give her back her position, such as it is. As always with a Dardenne film, the title is plainly descriptive, though in this case it carries with it the promise of suspense. Sandra has only a weekend to make her case, and she has to do it over and over since she figures she can only be persuasive on a one-on-one basis by appealing to each individual’s specific circumstances. It’s an incredibly effective plot device, though it’s also exhausting. The other workers are mostly in the same boat. They need that 1,000-euro bonus to get by, and some are clearly more desperate than Sandra is, at least economically. As the Dardennes have explained in interviews, this dynamic—a worker at odds with other workers rather than with management—is what capitalism has become, a competition among people of the same class that basically benefits those of the higher class. The audience is wrenched away from the comfortable dynamic of heroes versus villains, or, more appropriately, victims versus oppressors. As Sandra is driven around by her supportive husband (Fabrizio Rongione), a cook, she has to deal with each colleague’s circustances anew, and the strain undermines her already fragile self-worth. One man, attending his kid’s soccer game, immediately feels Sandra’s pain and breaks down into tears; another just as abruptly threatens her with violence. The viewer is as shaken as Sandra is. More to the point, she knows she is asking for too much, and at one point the realization that her mission is probably doomed pushes her to an extreme reaction that, on paper, may sound trite, but in Cotillard’s moving interpretation feels almost inevitable. The Dardennes are not making socioeconomic judgments. They are delivering a sober and devastating portrait of personal despair, but one that we can sense all around us. In French. (photo: Les Films du Fleuve-Archipel 35-Bim Distibuzione-Eyeworks-RTBF (Televisions, belge)-France 2 Cinema)

tombstonesA Walk Among the Tombstones
Set in 1999 and referencing the serial killer thrillers that ruled during that decade, the latest from Scott Frank is also another chance for Liam Neeson to get his rogue lawman on and thus feels conflicted. Neeson is Matt Scudder, a NYC cop whose drinking caused an on-job tragedy. He’s now an unlicensed P.I. who, following an AA meeting, is approached by a young man whose brother, a high-profile drug dealer (Dan Stevens), wants to find the men who kidnapped his wife and hacked her to pieces after he paid their ransom. At first, Frank and Neeson make the most of the idea of an under-the-radar enforcer working for a criminal, but once the mystery catches gear the ironies are subsumed in plot mechanics with their own priorities. The various sub-plots die from attrition and you’re left with the usual bloody gun play and empty, venal behavior. Even the savant teenager from a broken home adds little to the story except an excuse for Scudder to bond with someone who’s not white or middle aged. (photo: Tombstones Movie Holdings LLC)

WISH I WAS HERE_mainWish I Was Here
Zach Braff is a likable comic actor and his first feature, Garden State, proved his mettle as a director, but his follow-up feels unformed, as if he got tired of writing and decided to wing it. Braff plays Aidan, a struggling actor who relies on his wife’s (Kate Hudson) dead-end office job to support him and his two kids, who attend a private yeshiva paid for by Aidan’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin). Early on Gabe announces that his “cancer is back” and needs that money to pay for alternative treatments. Though financial want and Aidan’s arrested development—he insists he needs to “follow his dream,” even though he obviously can’t make a go of acting—are at the core of the family’s troubles, the script never goes deep into either issue, settling for sentimental platitudes about familial bonds and being true to oneself, which in the case of Aidan’s layabout savant brother, Noah (Josh Gadd), feels particularly strained. The script is suffused with clever one-liners that work to highlight the thinness of the story and the muddled conception of the characters. (photo: WIWH Productions LLC and Worldview Entertainment Capital LLC)

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