August 2015 movies

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

confessionConfession
Lee Do-yun’s feature debut is like a primer in mass-appeal Korean cinema of the moment. It’s got a bit of criminal mischief, some class-conscious social observation, and a lot of betrayal-induced guilt among characters who think of themselves as friends. This latter theme is central to the story, since it involves three men who have been close since a near-fatal adolescent jaunt bonded them for life. Of the three, Hyun-tae (Ji Seong) has ended up the most grounded, married and working as a paramedic. In-cheol (Joo Ji-hoon) is an insurance agent living beyond his means who sometimes resorts to scams to make extra money. And Min-soo (Lee Gwang-soo) is the requisite full-time loser, a lonely drunk living on the margins. After In-cheol talks Min-soo into helping him torch a building for insurance money at the bequest of Hyun-tae’s estranged, debt-ridden mother and the scheme goes south, the friendships unravel, though probably not as fast as they would if such an unlikely incident actually happened. Lee knows how to stage all the cliches but he can’t make them anything other than cliches. In Korean. (photo: Opus Pictures)

finalmemberThe Final Member
High concept docs like The Final Member are good fun but tend to be shallow. The subject of the film, an Icelandic museum that houses the largest collection of mammalian penises in the world, is ripe for ridicule and accumulates laughs without much effort. Siggi Hjartarson, the museum’s founder and director, is desperate to complete his collection with a human specimen, and a local man, Pall Arason, has offered to contribute his when he dies, which is both convenient, since he’s 95, and appropriate, since in his heyday he was a “swordsman” of some repute. However, an American, Tom Mitchell, is desperate to see his member be preserved for eternity as the symbol of his species, so much so that he’d be willing to part with it even before he dies. The impressive thing about Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s movie is that Mitchell doesn’t come across as the typical arrogant Yankee, but rather as a sad, lonely individual who sees his potential donation as a form of redemption, though for what isn’t entirely clear. In English and Icelandic. (photo: Otis Jones Ltd.)

Ikusaba_MainIkusabanu Todomi
Chie Mikami’s documentary, whose title translates loosely as “Bring the War to an End,” is an almost up-to-the-minute report on the local movement to halt construction of a new U.S. Marine base on the coast of Henoko, Okinawa. Mikami’s stated purpose is to bypass Japan’s mass media (she was a reporter at a local TV station for two decades) and present her film directly to the Japanese public. Though her sympathies are obviously with the protesters, she allows the other side to have its say but keeps things at ground level. There are no interviews with representatives of the Japanese government or the American military. And while she spends a little too much time with a select group of interlocutors, she succeeds in showing how the American presence is a form of political occupation that prevents Okinawans from moving past the trauma of World War II. Sadly, it also shows how the conflict is a neverending one: the protests and demonstrations have become so ingrained in these people’s lives that they have adapted accordingly. In Japanese and Okinawan. (photo: Ikusabanu Todomi Seisaku Iinkai)

jurassicJurassic World
Proving once again that while it’s easy to copy the trappings of a Steven Spielberg production, it’s more difficult to put them across, even when Spielberg himself is on board. Director Colin Trevorrow receives the master’s blessing for the latest dinosaur diversion and four writers have incorporated the family values and suspense that Spielberg updated inimitably from Hollywood of yore, but there’s something missing. Credibility, for one thing. And while that may sound like an odd criticism for a movie about dinosaurs living alongside humans, the entities that built the titular theme park seem to have learned nothing from the disasters described in the previous films and have arrogantly forged ahead with their commercial prerogatives, including the creation of a new, deadlier creature that, naturally, outsmarts its keepers and runs amok on an island filled with sightseers. In essence, the thematic underpinnings of the story reinforce the overall theme of the series, which is that mankind can’t cope with its desire to play God, especially when there’s money involved, but as the old Looney Tunes punchline went, you can only do this sort of thing once. Moreover, the dramatic stuff is merely a copy of the first movie’s plot and so generically familiar as to make you wonder if the filmmakers might have forgotten the original. We have two brothers (Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins) shuttled off to Jurassic World by their at-odds parents. The boys’ Aunt Claire (Dallas Bryce Howard) works as a harried administrator at the park and doesn’t really have time to chaperone them, so they are mostly on their own. Meanwhile, a dinosaur wrangler named Grady (Chris Pratt) is actively protesting the genetic experiments being carried out by the company that runs the operation. The setup is so lazy and automatic that you could script it yourself, but unlike similar situations in other monster movies it’s not much fun choosing which characters are going to get chomped first. Then there’s the romantic subplot between the two principals, a direct throwback to 1958 and that old macho dynamic. These should be minor misdemeanors for a CG-heavy action fantasy, but the CG is actually pretty lame and the action routine to the point of distracting. As it turns out, dinosaurs can be boring, too. (photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)

LM_02573.CR2Love & Mercy
Given the amount of verisimilitude the producers tried for with regard to set design, costumes, and general ambience, it seems a shame they couldn’t find two actors to play Beach Boy brainiac Brian Wilson who didn’t look more like each other. As it stands, Paul Dano, who does Wilson during his initial heyday in the 1960s, when he was revolutionizing recorded American pop, looks more the part, though that may have something to do with the fact that he’s surrounded by actors playing the other members of the group who do a pretty good job of conveying what it must have been like to work with him. But when Cusack picks up the thread in the late 80s as the middle aged Wilson, the viewer has to readjust for more than just the time difference. There’s also a disconnect between Dano’s artless performance style and Cusack’s studied method style. Both put across Wilson’s famous vulnerability, exacerbated by the ministrations of psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti in a fright wig), who basically ran Wilson’s life and business for two decades following the latter’s psychological meltdown in the late 60s. The pressure to plumb Wilson’s depths is perhaps a little too strong, and you’re relieved in the first part when the movie gets down to the music. There’s an appealing documentary-like forthrightness to the scenes of Wilson working with studio musicians and his bandmates on songs that he can’t explain verbally. He’s the perfect exemplar of a musical savant, someone who is free of the strictures of theory and can thus tap directly into his innate sense of melody and harmony. In what for me is the most useful and emotionally powerful scene in the film, Wilson confronts Mike Love (Jake Abel)—who until Landy shows up is the film’s heavy—over Love’s resistance to Wilson’s more creative approach to music-making, which resulted in Pet Sounds, an album Love didn’t particularly care for since it didn’t contain enough surefire hits. His combative attitude melts, however, as soon as Wilson asks him for help with the song that would become “Good Vibrations,” which, after “Strawberry Fields Forever” is the most bizarre composition ever to top the pop charts. You can see how Wilson thrived on collaboration, which is why his later incarnation as a recluse is so painful to watch. The dramatic point of the movie, however, is the love he found with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who extracted him from Landy’s influence, and while this portion of the story adds a satisfyingly redemptive aspect to the drama it’s less interesting than Wilson’s musical struggles. The two plotlines, which are interspersed alternatingly, don’t really complement each other. It’s like watching two different movies about two different people. (photo: Malibu Road LLC)

minionsMinions
Those goggle-wearing yellow pills from the Despicable Me franchise get their own movie, and since the point of the species is their fawning regard for evil, three are isolated and given cute visual distinctions and proper Anglo names: Bob, Kevin, and Stuart. Geoffrey Rush narrates an origin story that explains how the Minions evolved and screwed up the best laid plans of every well-known despot in history. Given the easy episodic structure and lampoonable history lesson this sequence provides, the producers probably could have made an entire movie along these lines, but they felt obligated to come up with a story that flattens the anarchic comic mood. When the minion colony finds itself without a despicable leader sometime in the mid-60s, our three heroes go out in search of one at, of all things, a Villains Convention—which takes place in Orlando, certainly the best joke in the movie if the series is to be seen as a mild antidote to Disney animation (but not necessarily Pixar). There they end up in thrall to Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm), who enlist them for a trip to England, where Scarlett plots to usurp the throne. The movie is bolder than it is inventive or funny—Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, is a central character ripe for ridicule. But the jokes are predicated on the Minions’ salient traits, which are shoehorned into a story that’s already incoherent. And the directors, not to mention the production design people and the person responsible for licensing the songs, put more effort into recreating the Swinging London of that particular era. It’s not clear if the target audience is supposed to derive some sort of nostalgic frisson from this aspect, but it does provide a late act opportunity for Steve Carrell’s Gru to show up as an adolescent on the road to nefariousness. In the end, what’s disappointing is that the appeal of the Minions—their calculated gibberish, their quick absorption of pop culture, their disarming malleability—is shortchanged for the usual action movie set pieces. That’s, of course, the trouble with Minions: their whole point is to be led astray, but it would have been nice to see them in charge for once. (photo: Universal Studios)

pigeonA Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence
The final part of Roy Andersson’s trilogy about “being a human being” lets you know right away that that’s what it is. Andersson’s gift, if you can call it that, is his willingness to call them as he sees them, a trait that’s interpolated cinematically as meticulously blocked scenes, uniformly stark lighting, and little if no camera movement. The mood is minimalist black comedy but it’s often difficult to laugh at actors who seem to have been chosen for their homeliness (including those who are developmentally disabled), and situations in which cruelty is presented so matter-of-factly. There’s little difference between this movie and the first two in the series, thematically and formally, except a greater tendency to mix in the surreal, including an incredibly complex segment that has the army of Charles XII (1682-1718) invading a contemporary Gothenburg pub. The only storyline concerns two salesmen of novelties trying desperately to maintain their dignity while failing at their jobs and, by extension, life. This is what death is, Andersson seems to say, and he says it well. Bleakness with a snicker. (photo: Roy Andersson Filmproduktion AB)

roverThe Rover
We’re in Mad Max territory again, but while the post-apocalyptic Australian landscape is still filled with vehicles, they’re the usual mass produced kind, and if the murderous inhabitants are no less clownish, they’re also more conventionally desperate. People kill each other more easily than they would in a more civilized society, but at least wait a few more beats before doing so. Nevertheless, director David Michod doesn’t give you much to work with here, just a handful of hints that point to an economic “collapse” that has left everyone on their own and at the mercy of those with more ammo. He seems to want to purposely keep the viewer off-balance, and provides more non sequiturs than you can shake a Glock at. Guy Pearce is the requisite man of few words and even less patience. When his car is stolen by some bandits he lights out after them in the company of one bandit’s brother, Rey, (Robert Pattinson), who was left for dead after a robbery went bad. For reasons never sufficiently explained, Rey talks like a hillbilly out of time and place. In fact, the mashup of accents and ethnicities suggests a borderless frontier, and there are lots of signs and other indications that the Chinese are somehow in charge, though it appears that American currency is valued above all others. The need to make sense of the setting is eventually defeated by the requirements of a tense but unexceptional chase movie, and by holding enough back Michod actually makes it more compelling than it has any right to be. Unlike in Mad Max the violence has an emotional component that makes the various relationships affecting, but it’s not as if you have someone to cheer for. Pearce’s character has obviously given up on the idea that you can live like a social being in this world, and his moral emptiness is a cipher that doesn’t bear scrutiny. A little more information about this unlikable hero would have been welcome. (Photo: Rover Film Holdings Pty Ltd, Screen Australia, Screen NSW and the South Australian Film Corp.)

saltThe Salt of the Earth
The title of Wim Wenders’ ode to Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado refers to the series that made him famous: startling shots of thousands of bare-backed laborers toiling in a huge mine pit. Salgado’s work is anthropological in intent and artistic in impulse, and it’s this combination that Wenders, a self-conscious artist who addresses the hopes and dreams of average people, is drawn to. Salgado, who left Brazil early on for Europe in order to escape the dictatorship, has chronicled the indignities suffered by the undeveloped world at the hands of the first world. As such, Salgado has also invited a certain amount of criticism for aestheticizing death and despair, a charge he manages to allay with a clear-eyed explanation of his methods and the example of his simple life, but while Wenders spends a great deal of time talking with him on camera, he rarely addresses this matter in anything but oblique terms. There’s a hagiographic air about the movie that makes it seem less serious than it should be. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography only heightens the effect. In English, French and Portuguese. (photo: Sebastial Salgado, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Donata Wenders Salgado, Sara Rangel)

71’71
Kids fighting kids is a theme as old as warfare, but this thriller by first-time director Yann Demange, which takes place during the bloodiest interval of the Troubles in Belfast, 1971, does a better job of getting into the mindset of young soldiers than any film of recent memory. More significantly, it uses history proactively, by playing off the viewer’s expectations, which are based on his or her particular take on a war that to this day is mired in confusing controversy. Jack O’Connell plays Gary Hook, a new British recruit whose first assignment is the streets of that divided city. In a deft preface, we learn that Hook is himself a troubled youth, orphaned with his younger brother and living off the state. His decision to enter the service is both practical and naive, and he thus becomes a fitting locus of attention. During Hook’s first day of action, his unit is caught up in a street riot that ends with a fellow soldier assassinated point blank by a bunch of young loose republican cannons. Hook barely escapes, but he mindlessly flees into the enemy zone. Wounded and scared, he doesn’t know who to trust and eventually is taken under the wing of an 11-year-old loyalist punk who escorts him back to safety, though, as it turns out, the loyalist side isn’t as safe as he thought. Gregory Burke’s script is one of those long journeys into night where the protagonist has his entire world view altered. Hook witnesses shifting loyalties and betrayals on both sides of the struggle, and what he sees makes him a danger to everyone. He escapes again, and the hunt intensifies, since it now involves two opposing forces, drawing in perpetrators and innocents alike. Burke’s plot is taut and fat-free, a perfectly paced study of the stupidity of civil strife, where the enemy is everywhere. The ending is perhaps too tidy, but until that point ’71 is a relentlessly suspenseful action experience. And O’Connell holds the center of the movie with a performance that gets at Hook’s fear with no sentimental overkill. Between this and the prison drama Starred Up (which opens here in October), O’Connell is the actor of the year. (photo: Channel Four Television Corp., British Film Institute, Screen Yorkshire Ltd. and Run 71 Ltd.)

『ターミネーター:新起動/ジェニシス』Terminator Genisys
At this point in the Terminator series, the world as we know it has ended so many times and in so many different ways that you wonder why the producers don’t just pull a Spider-Man on the franchise and reboot the whole thing with a straight remake of the original film. Of course, the answer is obvious. Now that Arnold Schwarzenegger is out of office and back in action, his desires have to be addressed, and despite the advances in digital technology, which are fully exploited in the new film, they can’t change the fact that Schwarzenegger is pushing 70, so they have to work around it. More than once in the film, his character, the T-100 model of the Terminator android, says that he is “old, not obsolete,” which is a strange thing for a machine to say, even one as sentient at the T-100. The writers dismiss any misgivings the viewer may have about this kink in the narrative fabric by having someone explain that Terminators incorporate some human flesh so as to seem more realistic, and flesh ages. Nevertheless, the effort to make Schwarzenegger’s character viable thirty years after its debut is apparent in the plot, which is even more convoluted than it is in usual time travel movies. As per the the mythos, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back in time to save Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), the mother of the anti-machine human underground leader John Connor (Jason Clarke, no relation, but the possibilities are intriguing), from the Terminator, who was sent back to kill her so as to wipe out the son’s existence. This is 1984, and director Alan Taylor has more fun recreating the era than he does with the violent set pieces. Confusion immediately presents itself when the kinder, gentler T-100 shows up to destroy the meaner, naked T-100, meaning Schwarzenegger’s younger self digitally recreated. The superannuated version has apparently been with Sarah since she was a kid and “raised” her (she calls him “Pops”), thus throwing all the previous versions of the story into your hard drive’s garbage can. And then the movie jumps ahead to 1997, but I won’t go there, not because I’m adverse to spoilers, but because I don’t have the patience to explain it, even if I thought I understood it. Naturally, this all means nothing without the sci-fi violence, and San Francisco gets destroyed twice during the course of the movie, in two different time frames. The only interesting twist that Genisys adds to the mix is the replacement of “machines” with an operating system that becomes self-aware and then declares war on mankind in order to perpetuate itself. This is a much more compelling origin story than the one posed in the original Terminator, so if you have to go back in time and rejigger the whole thing, at least work with technical changes that have developed in the meantime. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

wildtalesWild Tales
In Damian Szifron’s collection of unrelated shorts, all taking place in Argentina, the dramatic through-theme of people acting horribly under stress has a potent black comic appeal. If the opening disaster is premised on the idea that people in a panic will work against their best interests, the remaining tales illustrate the commonly held belief that honor is the sworn enemy of common sense. Some will derive a social component from these stories, but it’s easy to confuse class conflict with the common man butting his head against the system, so on the one hand you have a road rage incident between a prole and a snooty BMW driver that descends into Looney Tunes mayhem, while on the other you get a guy driven to insane extremes after a tow company removes his car for illegal parking. Capitalism can be blamed for everything that goes wrong here, but such a consideration shortchanges Szifron’s macabre inventiveness, his ability to intensify a slight, like a spark of jealousy at a wedding, into something apocalyptic. It’s everyday war, fought every day. (photo: Kramer & Sigma Films/El Deseo)

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