July 2015 movies

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

Avengers2Avengers: Age of Ultron
Just as the huge box office success of this second installment in the Marvel superhero collective franchise seems the result of the multiplier effect of having so much star power on the screen at one time, the movie’s over-stuffed plot and almost incomprehensible dialogue structure feels like an attempt to give each iconic character his or her due, as if the producers were contractually mandated to treat everyone equally. In the end, Avengers: Age of Ultron proves to be a sufficiently entertaining film while you are watching it and totally forgettable once you aren’t. Should theaters be obligated to hand out plot precis to make sure people get it all? Or is that something only critics care about? As a director, Joss Whedon has earned a reputation for making action set pieces coherent and exciting at the same time, and since he alone is responsible for the script, he has obviously gone to great pains to make the story compelling on its own merits. But some things are just unachievable. At the center is Ultron, a robot overloard voiced by James Spader that is the result of an AI program designed by Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Ultron is supposed to one day replace the Avengers as the planet’s last defense against extra-terrestrial evil, and of course the program becomes full of itself and decides it would rather destroy the Avengers just to see if it can. That’s as good a premise as you’re going to get in a superhero movie, but each character has to have a personal dramatic arc, and if those arcs intersect, so much the better. So Banner and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are given a romantic subplot that never reaches its natural conclusion, while Stark, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor aka Thor (Chris Hemsworth) engage in macho pissing contests presumably underwritten by Ultron and his familiars. On the margins is Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), whose superhero particulars have never been sufficiently explained, and the only principal character with a family to speak of. In fact, the movie takes a rather leisurely detour to visit that family in all its model American normalness, as if Whedon were afraid we’d forget these people are really human (well, except Thor). But with all the self-deprecating jokes, wielded mainly by Downey (he calls one particularly trying day “Eugene O’Neill long”), and furrowed brows, the heroes’ humanity is never at issue, only their relevance as characters. The set pieces are thus a relief, since they provide the viewer with a break from making sense of the plot, which becomes even more convoluted with the late entrance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the constant reappearance of twin beings (Elizabeth Olson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson) whose super powers are practically X-Men level in their arbitrariness. When your budget is limitless, you can hire anyone for any reason. (photo: Marvel)

CH44_D45-13005.CR2Child 44
Though based on a best-seller, this thriller by Daniel Espinosa comes across as a failed attempt to inject new life in the over-burdened serial killer genre. Tom Rob Smith’s novel, adapted by another novelist, Richard Price, is set in the Soviet Union near the end of Stalin’s reign, when everyone was extra paranoid. Tom Hardy plays Demidov, an orphan whose status as a war hero propels him up the ranks of the MGB, which tests his mettle by compelling him to arrest his own wife (Noomi Rapace). Until this point, Demidov has gone along with the lies he has to safeguard on his job, so when he refuses to bust his spouse his conscience is set free and he starts looking into a series of child murders that have been identified as accidents, since murder only happens in capitalist societies. Except for Hardy’s earnest performance, which transforms Demidov into a real hero, the movie strains to make its various cultural points credible. It’s not so much the funny Russian accents that fail to convince, but rather the checklist of reflexive intolerances. (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)

boveryGemma Bovery
Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, on which Anne Fontaine’s movie is based, is itself a piss take on Flaubert’s masterpiece, which makes the movie a double piss take. The premise is rather flaky. A bored baker (Fabrice Luchini), who moved from Paris to this provincial burg in Normandy, becomes obsessed with his new neighbors, a younger couple (Jason Flemyng, Gemma Arterton) named Bovery. The baker conflates the wife’s situation with that of her literary namesake, and when she embarks on a secret love affair with a rich student (Niels Schneider) he believes she will follow the same path to doom and tries to prevent it—with unexpected results. Though Simmonds’ tale is certainly inventive, it relies on the viewer’s appreciation of the source novel, which it can’t hope to approach. Luchini is drily funny and Arterton a game sensualist, albeit a rather empty one, but the movie’s gimmicky premise defeats its dramatic purposes, and by the time we get to the twisty ending you may wonder if the whole setup was not a joke to begin with. In French & English. (photo: Albertine Productions-Cine @-Gaumont)

Cartoons are high concept by definition, Pixar’s even more so, and one of the salient reasons for their success both commercially and critically is the rigor with which they’ve explored their respective concepts. Ratatouille wasn’t just a comedy about a rodent who wanted to be a French chef and Wall-E didn’t leave its premise at the door of a machine pining for another machine. Inside Out may be the studio’s most audacious movie in terms of concept. It takes a good half hour to adjust one’s purview to the movie’s highly metaphorical mise en scene. Essentially, we’re in the “headquarters” of an 11-year-old girl’s psyche, where five personified emotions, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader), work together to help the girl, named Riley, to get through the mine field of childhood unscathed. At first, the concept is simply presented and simple to follow: each emotion has the task of guiding Riley depending on the need at the moment. But since happiness is the desirable default feeling for humans, Joy is in charge. She believes she has to provide as many comforting memories—depicted as golden-hued ball bearings—as possible. However, she’s constantly thwarted by the depressive Sadness, who inadvertently keeps touching these memories and coloring them blue—and then apologizing for it. Matters come to a head when Riley is uprooted from her happy rural home in Minnesota and taken to San Francisco so her father can pursue a venture business. By trying to boost Riley’s happiness quotient at any cost, Joy sets in motion a technical breakdown that requires her being absent from HQ, thus letting Anger, Disgust, and Fear rule the nest. What’s brilliant about Inside Out is the way arcane psychological terms are depicted, as Joy, assisted by Sadness, tries to get Riley back on the happiness track, which involves recruiting the help of Riley’s now discarded imaginary friend (Richard Kind), a pink elephant with a cat’s tale, and protecting the “core memories” that Joy thinks will help Riley regain her mental equilibrium. Along the way, they get lost in Riley’s candy-colored mind, with its locomotioned “train of thought” and towering banks of shiny round marginal memories. And since the high concept has to serve a greater purpose, Joy eventually learns that the road to maturity is impossible to navigate without Sadness. As always with Pixar, the incidentals, like cognates of the five emotions in other individuals’ brains and a jaunt through a realm where the emotions are “deconstructed” with hilarious results, are often better than the central story, which in this case requires more work than usual to appreciate. As entertaining as Inside Out is, it’s the first Pixar movie that demands more patience than wonder, but that only means the rewards are that much more special. (photo: Disney/Pixar)

映画『COBAIN モンタージュ・オブ・ヘック』Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Brett Morgen’s well-regarded documentary about Kurt Cobain can’t help but feel redundant after all the biographies and films that have come out since his death in 1994. If Morgen has anything new to add it’s the authority of the rock star’s own voice, since much of the narration, not to mention the visual touches, were taken directly from Cobain’s stash of drawings and recordings. But when you think of it, how authoritative is someone’s voice when he’s talking about himself? Morgen isn’t enough of a storyteller to be able to assemble this collage into something coherent, and he splices in gratuitous interviews with bassist Krist Novoselic, Cobain’s mother, and Courtney Love, whose agenda is so obvious it’s difficult to believe Morgen fell for it. Consequently, we get the usual story about his sad childhood and easy transition to heroin, but this time it feels forced, as if the director just assumed everything Cobain asserted was true. Real biographers, of course, take the subject’s word with a grain of salt, and already a few of Cobain’s old acquaintances have called bullshit on the movie after having called bullshit on stories that have made the rounds for more than two decades, such as the one where Cobain loses his cherry to a developmentally disabled girl, an incident that Morgen presents in animated form. Morgen obviously feels entitled by the access he was given to these materials, and he gets carried away with the voyeuristic elements, of which the animated sequence is only one example. There are also lots of home movies of Cobain and Love that show them stoned out of their minds and generally acting like irresponsible fuckups. Did Morgen, not to mention Francis Bean Cobain, the subject’s daughter, who supposedly had to approve all this, actually find this footage compelling and insightful? On a purely formal level, the movie doesn’t completely qualify as a documentary, and maybe it shouldn’t be considered one. Some of the experimental touches hold their own in terms of visual appeal, and the use of stray sounds and Cobain’s own surreal effusions (many made pre-fame) seem more revelatory than the speculations by third parties. Which leaves the concert segments and other music-based material, all of which ably showcase his talent and dedication to a vocation he couldn’t sustain, mainly because of drugs but also because he never was the kind of person who thought of music as a tool for communication to the general public. It’s hard not to think that Morgen missed an opportunity. Where is the Cobain doc that concentrates solely on his music? Don’t we already know too much about his pain. Should he be defined by his addiction and suicide? It’s not why people still listen to him. (photo: End of Movie LLC)

lookofsilenceThe Look of Silence
Some people will say this sequel to Joshua Oppenheimer’s award-winning documentary, The Act of Killing, simply goes over the same ground in its coverage of the mass murder of so-called communists by military-sanctioned thugs following the Indonesian coup of 1965. In that film, the thugs, now local leaders, gleefully and stylistically reenacted their butchery for Oppenheimer’s camera. In The Look of Silence, relatives of their victims confront them directly. This distinction goes beyond the dramatic satisfaction of seeing unprosecuted criminals own up to their crimes. Optometrist Adi Rukun, whose brother suffered a horrible death at the hands of these men, is calm but steadfast in his accusations, which are predictably met with threats (“you shouldn’t continue with this communist activity”) and obfuscation (“the past is the past”). The movie is depressing and infuriating, but invaluable in the way it points up the hazards of historical denial. A million Indonesians died in the purge, and these men not only believed they got away with it, but that fate had rewarded them for it. They lie to themselves as much as to anyone. As a filmmaker, Oppenheimer violates the usual boundaries that documentarians set for themselves, but he’s not an advocacy junkie like Michael Moore. His presence behind the camera is always felt, and not just because he occasionally acts as an interlocutor. In interviews, Oppenheimer has talked at length about how reluctant he was to grant Adi Rukun’s request to confront these men face-to-face, and before he agreed he made a situation so that Adi and his family, including his long-suffering mother, Rohani, who spends most of the film taking care of her incapacitated husband, could be spirited out of Indonesia at the earliest sign of danger. It never came to that, maybe because the accused are so taken aback by the fact that someone related to the people they murdered would still be angry about it. Oppenheimer has said he approached this difficult topic originally the way an anthropologist would, and The Act of Killing, for all its surreal touches, had the earmarks of a study into an alien culture, but here he is clearly inspired by Adi Rukun’s courage and quiet sense of justic, and perhaps moved by the feeling that the previous film may have shortchanged the victims. When one of the killers talks about drinking their victims’ blood to “make sure we didn’t go insane,” the reaction is, rightly, disgust, and not sympathy for people who got carried away, which might have been the response in the previous film. Reportedly, Killing circulated, samizdat-style, throughout the country and was seen by thousands of Indonesians on the Internet. Let’s hope this one gets even more exposure. In Indonesian. (photo: Final Cut for Real Aps, Anonymous, Piraya Film AS, and Making Movies Oy 2014)

lutang Lung Ta
Kaoru Ikeya’s documentary follows Kazuhiro Nakahara, who runs a kind of research center in Dharamsala, a town in northern India, dedicated to the Tibetan resistance movement. Nakahara is both fluent in Tibetan and conversant in the Buddhist culture that rules the lives of the refugees he helps and documents, not to mention the nomads who remain in Tibet and whose livelihood the Chinese authorities are trying to suppress. He’s also unusually articulate about his own sensibilities, which he admits are somewhat obsessive, especially in relation to the many people, a good portion of them lay persons, who have killed themselves through self-immolation in protest. It’s easy to understand why the Dalai Lama counts Nakahara as a friend and confidante, since he brings a refreshing secular skepticism to an extremely spiritual issue, while at the same time expressing profound respect for those who sacrifice their lives for their beliefs. In short, he’s an odd duck, and while Ikeya obviously feels obligated to focus on the plight of the Tibetans under Chinese rule, you can tell he’d rather just let Nakahara spin his tales and release his frustrations, something that the researcher can’t quite accomplish writing on a blog, which appears to be his only PR conduit to the larger world. Ikeya also follows Nakahara as he gathers information from refugees, including one former nun who goes into breathtaking detail about the torture she endured at the hands of Chinese security forces in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, when many Tibetans participated in peaceful protests. The oppression includes the elimination of the Tibetan language in the education system and secondary affronts such as the spoiling of Tibet’s natural environment from mining and other exploitive economic practices. The people’s movement is also strictly controlled, especially that of nomads, whose entire lives depend on moving from one place to another in accordance with the seasons. Nakahara somehow is allowed to enter the region, where he continues his research, and along the way Ikeya gets some breath-taking travelogue footage. It’s obviously inadvertent, though it does make for one striking scene where Nakahara goes off the beaten track into a kind of green canyon where he screams at the top of his lungs “Free Tibet!” over and over. It’s the movie’s only genuinely cathartic moment, and the viewer can sense a career of thwarted goals in Nakahara’s act of defiance, even if there’s no one there to react to it. In the end, Lung Ta is a movie more about Nahakara than it is about Tibet, and a much better one for it. In Japanese & Tibetan. (photo: Ren Universe 2015)

okinawa_mainOkinawa: The Afterburn
John Junkerman’s long documentary means to be the last word on the US military exploitation of Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Starting with the attempted appropriation by the black ships of Commodore Perry, moving to a detailed account of the Battle of Okinawa, and settling in on the island’s postwar occupation, both formal (1945-1972) and not (reversion to Japanese rule after ’72), the film’s fitful chronology is occasionally interrupted by detailed explanations of pertinent conditions, such as the islanders’ economic dependence on American soldiers, the racial divide between Okinawans and “mainland Japanese” mirroring that between white and black marines, and an atmosphere of youthful licentiousness on the part of the Americans that made the frequent incidents of rape possible. Though there isn’t enough time within the movie’s parameters to address the political attitudes that have made Okinawans second class citizens in the eyes of both the Japanese and the American governments, the point is made through some very illuminating interviews with residents and ex-soldiers. Junkerman may have bitten off more than he can chew, but he knows his subject. In Japanese and English, (photo: Siglo)

rhinoseasonRhino Season
Fortified by a budget guaranteed by the participation of Martin Scorsese, Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi gets to flex the aesthetic muscles he could only exercise to a limited extent on his previous films. Rhino Season is visually audacious and sumptuous, and Ghobadi has tried to provide a tale of worthy import. A famous Iranian poet (Behrouz Vossoughi) is imprisoned by the revolutionary government and disappears into the system. Thirty years later he is released and learns his wife (Monica Belucci), believing him dead, has remarried and raised two children with her new husband. The poet’s search for her, from the deserts of Iran to Istanbul, is interspersed with flashbacks that show he was not so much the victim of politics and religion as of personal resentment and covetousness. Though Ghobadi’s story short-changes the political ramifications of the history he exploits, his characters manage to transcend their novelistic conceits. If the resolution isn’t as moving as he obviously intended it to be, it may be that those aesthetics, both visual and verbal, are just too overwhelming. In Persian, Turkish & English.

??????????????Still Alice
Like suicide and traffic accidents, Alzheimers disease has become a convenient device for storytellers who otherwise have trouble coming up with compelling conflicts for their characters. The problem is making cognitive impairment credible to audiences who may be wise to the subterfuge, which is why Julianne Moore won the Oscar for her portrayal of Dr. Alice Howard, a psychologist who suffers early onset dementia. Moore is one of the most reliably resourceful actors in Hollywood, and she doesn’t second guess Richard Glatzer’s and Wash Westmoreland’s script, based on a novel by Lisa Genova. She lets the actions of the story dictate her responses, and so we see the deterioration gradually, in small indications that seem benign at first, such as forgetting a bit of jargon during the presentation of an academic paper. Moore’s interpretation is vital because of the implication in the title: Alice may be moving farther away cognitively, but she’s still indelibly herself. Nevertheless, the movie might have been more effective if a relative unknown had played the part. We know Moore too much, and Alice is as much the actress as she is the character. More significantly, the milieu softens the blow. Though it might seem doubly tragic that a person who makes her living studying psychological responses would suffer from such a disease, it can’t help but come across as narratively convenient. She lives on the upper west side of Manhattan with her equally brainy husband (Alec Baldwin), whose field is medicine, and their three healthy, gifted children. Points of contention are her relationship with her youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart), who is in California trying to launch an acting career without much success, and the husband, whose sympathy only lasts until he sees her illness as interfering with his professional advancement. But even these domestic snags seem relatively slight and only point up how difficult it is for someone slowly losing her mind to argue her side of things. More dramatically convincing are Alice’s attempts to hide her condition from colleagues by writing herself messages and her concern when she learns that she could pass Alzheimers on to her children and even grandchildren. But when she contemplates self-annihilation and even prepares for it, the gesture feels empty, a motion the writers feel they have to go through because people expect it. And after it’s addressed, it’s on to the next way station on the journey to oblivion, a journey that’s scored for maximum sadness rather than terror. Still Alice is never dishonest, only overly cautious in its attempt to make its protagonist’s predicament as anodyne as possible, as if early onset Alzheimers were a common affliction. It’s actually extremely rare, and even rarer still among rich white people. (photo: BSM Studio)

Since this movie about a young woman’s solo foot journey across the Western Australia desert is based on a true story, director John Curran doesn’t have to explain his protagonist’s motives for making such a perilous trek. Consequently, it’s up to Mia Wasikowska, playing Robyn Davidson, to convey something about this person that would make us not wonder about her reasons. She does that by portraying Davidson as someone who has little use for humanity. Davidson leaves home without saying good-bye and spends nine months trying to secure camels to tote her supplies. When National Geographic hears of her plan and offers to sponsor her, she bristles at the admiring attitude of the American photographer (Adam Driver) covering her, and I was disappointed when he finally broke down her defenses. Though Tracks doesn’t offer much beyond beautiful vistas and the usual dangers that such a trip involves (snakes, lack of water, cultural misunderstandings with the natives), Davidson as a presence keeps you watching. You root for her because she’s not the kind of person who wants to be rooted for. (photo: See-saw (Tracks) Holdings Ltd., A.P. Facilities PTY Ltd., Screen Australia , South Australia Film Corp., Screen NSW and Adelaide Film Festival)

There’s a kind of horror movie that’s more depressing than scary, epitomized by 50s classics like The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Fly. Kevin Smith tries his hand at a straightforward shocker but, being Kevin Smith, can’t avoid piling on the sour social commentary and a first-class scumbag protagonist. Wallace (Justin Long) hosts a popular podcast in which he humiliates clueless dorks, and when one of those dorks has the temerity to kill himself before he has a chance to interview him, Wallace makes a side trip to the Canadian north to interview another eccentric named Howard (Michael Parks), who has an interesting history involving walruses. Wallace shows up expecting a babbling weirdo and finds a genteel, articulate older man. He falls under his spell…and into his trap. What befalls Wallace is creepy, but it’s also supposed to be funny, and touching, and…whatever. Smith can’t maintain a tone, horror-bent or otherwise. Except for a contrived, extended cameo by one of our biggest stars, the movie has little to hold your interest. (photo: Big Oosik LLC and SmodCo Inc.)

winterWinter Sleep
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes-winner is a difficult movie to describe, much less categorize. A character study of a taciturn landlord, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), whose empire is partially carved out of the cliffs of Turkish Cappadocia, Winter Sleep, likes the condition its title implies, sits on the screen inertly. Aydin, a former actor who now writes polemical essays for a local newspaper that no one seems to read, is frustrated by the modern world as represented by his family and some of his tenants. In one of the few scenes involving action, Aydin’s chauffered car is attacked by a stone-throwing little boy, who is acting out the anger he senses from his father, a petty criminal whose resentment against his landlord is based only partly on envy and his lower station. The incident relates how Aydin has no interest in reality, and prefers to leave such unappetizing matters to the help. During the rest of the film, this narrow view is challenged by his young wife (Melisa Sozen) and his sister (Demet Akbag) in long conversations that sound as if they were taken wholesale from a novel. But the script is original, and the few breathtaking scenes shot outdoors can’t alleviate the tedium. (photo: Zeyno Film Memento Films Prod. Bredok Film Prod. Arte France Cinema NBC Film)

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