September 2015 movies

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

assassinThe Assassin
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first attempt at an “action” movie retains the narrative distinctions peculiar to all his features, which means fans of the genre will likely be baffled and disappointed. Though the plot, which is based on an old novel, has conventional storylines and develops its characters accordingly, Hou’s spare use of dialogue and tendency to elide anything that doesn’t serve his aesthetic aims means it doesn’t make as much of an impression as it would in others’ hands. Nevertheless, the film has a rigorous visual integrity that evokes its own story. Shu Qi is Nie Yinniang, raised in ninth century China as an assassin by a nun who uses her to dispatch corrupt officials on behalf of the emperor. When Yinniang fails to complete one particular assignment after seeing the target spend time with his family, the nun realizes she isn’t emotionally mature enough to be a real assassin and sends her to her hometown to kill an official (Chen Chang) to whom she was once betrothed, the purpose being to toughen her resolve and rid her of material sentimentality. Though presented as a kind of test, the mission is complicated by unforeseen developments taking place within the official’s court and which involve his concubine and his wife. Hou doesn’t clarify these developments since they are mostly conveyed through third person, offstage exposition, but the upshot is that Yinniang is compelled to use her skills to both protect her ex-lover from the machinations of his underlings and somehow see her mission through, ends that would seem to be contradictory by definition. What’s striking about the fight scenes isn’t their bloodless grace, but rather how their economy of movement actually adds to the naturalism of the movie as a whole. Death has real meaning, and while Hou spares us gore he drives home the idea that killing is not an easy act, even for the highly skilled. The contrast between the austerity of the action and the sumptuousness of the production design makes it one of Hou’s most beautiful films. If it takes more than one viewing to absorb its dramatic dimension, then all the better, I say. In Mandarin (photo: Spot Films Metropole Organisation Ltd. Central Motion Picture International Corp.)

ImaginedDanny Collins
Al Pacino’s superannuated, jaded pop superstar seems to be modeled on Neil Diamond, had Diamond gone the sex-drugs-rock’n roll route rather than that of the old-fashioned “entertainer.” There’s not much in this story of how Danny regains his mojo as an artist and a human being that’s compelling. The tale is based on an incident in the life of a little known singer who, late in life, discovered an encouraging but undelivered letter from John Lennon. Danny takes this missive as proof he still has potential after four failed marriages and enough coke and booze to sink a fleet of Van Halens. He tries to make it up with the son (Bobby Cannavale) he never knew and who hates his guts and in the process falls for a hotel concierge (Annette Bening) whose matter-of-fact attitude toward his celebrity he finds refreshing, but isn’t that always the case? The emotionally freighted passages might have meant more if Danny’s engagement with his craft had resonance, but the music is as puerile as he thinks it is. (photo: Danny Collins Productions LLC)

angel15The Face of an Angel
Michael Winterbottom’s latest curiosity is obviously based on the Amanda Knox murder trial that took place in Italy. Daniel Bruhl plays Thomas, a filmmaker who wants to turn the case into a movie with the backing of some powerful producers, though his approach meets with opposition. A journalist (Kate Beckinsale) who has already written a book about the case, tells him the only way anyone could present such an unknowable story is “as a fiction,” which makes you wonder what Winterbottom himself is trying to accomplish. The case withdraws into the background and we’re left with Thomas’s personal and professional problems, which are too arcane for the viewer to care about. Thomas plays at being a father to his estranged daughter over Skype while plunging more perilously into the darkness surrounding the murder. Since Winterbottom doesn’t seem interested in the problems of youth, he can’t be accused of avoiding the subject if he spends so much time on middle age Thomas, but there’s only so much angst you can stand without a proper explication of its cause. (photo: Angel Face Films Ltd./British Broadcasting Corp.)

girlwalkshomeA Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
The ultimate indie indulgence, Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature is a black-and-white vampire movie set in a fantasized version of an Iranian demimonde. Amirpour grew up in the U.S. and filmed the movie in the desert towns of Southern California, so why she needed to make it in Farsi with a chador-wearing bloodsucker is a question many viewers will want to ask, but after you see it you won’t care. Ostensibly a romance between the titular undead (Sheila Vand) and a hunky, strong-but-silent type (Arach Manandi, the “Iranian James Dead”), the movie doesn’t dwell on plot but oozes with atmosphere and attitude, whether its the mercenary self-regard of a pimp (Dominic Rains), the sassy fronting of a streetwalker (Mozhan Marno), the primal fear of a street urchin (Wilad Eghbali), or the pitiful desperation of a middle aged junkie (Marshall Manesh). There’s an integrity to this silvery night world that could only be achieved by someone with a clear but fanatical cinematic vision. It’s creepy without being gross, romantic without being mawkish. In Farsi. (photo: Shahre Bad Pictures LLC)

kingsmanKingsman: The Secret Service
Matthew Vaughn, who was responsible for the intentionally risible and unnecessarily ultra-violent superhero parody, Kick-Ass, adapts the comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons about a very white, very proper, very British impossible missions team epitomized by bespectacled Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who wears his tailored suits with aplomb and wields the deadliest umbrella this side of Shinjuku Station. The cartoony aspects are superficially irresistible. By taking the 007 model and extending its English pedigree to the limits of pulp fantasy, you get cognitive dissonance of the most pleasurable kind: Men who look like chartered accountants or members of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks beating up baddies with ruthless efficiency. Except that the baddies in this case are either black (Samuel L. Jackson) or ex-colonials (Sofia Boutella, equipped with blades for legs). Vaughn believes there’s an edge to this material and saves his biggest set piece for the slaughter of an entire church full of neo-Nazis. It’s not as zany as it needs to be because the sentimental elements undermine whatever irreverence it’s supposed to promote. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

???????????????????????????????Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Like its appropriately named star, the new Mission: Impossible installment gets by on sheer inertia, and not just the kinetic kind. Tom Cruise’s dedication to the series is as faithful as his devotion to that religion he’s associated with, and given that he’s really the last old school movie star on the planet, the movie is not going to be anything less than what his vision of it entails. Consequently, there’s no budget too high, no stunt too dangerous, no action cliche too outlandish or trite. The problem, as often happened in previous installments, is that the execution doesn’t always satisfy this devotion. Christopher McQuarrie, a canny writer of effective potboilers, knows his mission and decided to accept it, and thus makes sure that whatever Tom wants, he gets…and more. The premise here is that the secretive, mobile Impossible Missions Force has been absorbed by the CIA, whose director (Alec Baldwin) would just as soon abolish it, but IMF honcho Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is busy tracking the blonde psychopath (Sean Harris) who heads the equally secretive Syndicate, an organization of rogue terrorists who work completely under the radar, where they are more dangerous because law enforcement entities cannot discern the kind of patterns essential to their discovery and apprehension. Ethan and his colleagues, including returning tech geek Benji (Simon Pegg), hulking deus ex machina Luther (Ving Rhames), and agency mole Brandt (Jeremy Renner), have thus gone rogue, which means Hunt has two nemeses, the Syndicate and the American government. The Bourne movies perfected this kind of double cat-and-mouse storyline, but McQuarrie and company have an advantage, which is the totally absurd capabilities of Ethan Hunt, who never met a death-defying challenge he wouldn’t take and, unlike Jason Bourne, never suffers personal doubt over those capabilities and how they’re applied. Complicating matters in ways that are unusually sophisticated for an MI movie is new femme fatale Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a Swedish agent trained by the Brits who has managed to gain the trust of the Syndicate while undermining its operations. McQuarrie takes full advantage of Ilsa’s fluid loyalties to goose the suspense of some of the neater action scenes, like the one in the Vienna Opera where the Syndicate is trying to assassinate a visiting dignitary. All the set pieces are masterfully done if a bit redundant–not that we’ve seen them before. It’s just that they’re all Hunt now. Even his team is reduced to standing by and shaking their heads in awe. Tom Cruise has the best job in the world and he knows it. He gets to defy death all the time and come out smiling. By that token, he should live forever, as will the series. The question isn’t whether or not he can handle it. It’s whether or not you can. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

K72A3043.CR2Nightcrawler
There’s always been something slightly incestuous about the movies’ critical take on a news media culture that exacerbates public anxiety with its focus on misery and cruelty, since much of the foundation for that anxiety was constructed by Hollywood in the first place. Dan Gilroy’s debut feature doesn’t add anything fresh to this idea but it has a distinct advantage in Jake Gyllenhaal, whose Louis Bloom is such a scary creation that he redefines the idea of the bloodsucking news reporter. Unlike most people who enter the news profession, Bloom isn’t initially motivated by ego or public spiritedness. He’s purely out to secure gainful employment, and in the first scene we see him dismantling a chain link fence in an industrial section of Los Angeles in order to sell it for scrap, and after escaping from the police tries to finagle his way into a job with the junk salesman who buys his plunder. When he rubbernecks a traffic accident on his way home, he notices a guy (Bill Paxton) with a video camera filming the carnage and learns that he is going to sell the footage to a local station. Knowing what this sort of work entails and understanding what he’s capable of, Bloom invests in his own camera and a police band radio and starts patrolling the streets at night waiting for tragedy to strike, and as he learns the ropes, figures out how to manipulate such tragedies to his advantage. Gilroy doesn’t seem to have much patience with subtlety: the producer (Rene Russo) to whom Bloom sells his stuff is as much a mercenary as Bloom is, and is all the more contemptible since, for all intents and purposes, while this woman is a seasoned professional, Bloom appears from the get go to be mentally disturbed. He hires a young homeless man (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant and, following the principles of capitalism as he understands them, pays him peanuts for work that is increasingly dangerous. As the movie becomes more outlandishly cynical, Bloom turns into a monster of imposing ferocity, and it if weren’t for Gyllenhaal’s relentlessly focused performance, the movie would be unbearable. Gilroy often seems as complicit in the exploitation of death and venality as the people he’s studying, but Bloom is a real piece of work, the utter embodiment of the vampiric media in that he is incapable of empathy or even objective regard. Cinematically, the character is problematic, because while he is unique and compelling, he is all there is, and with each crime scene he violates and atrocity he implements the viewer’s discomfort multiplies. Nightcrawler is one of those movies whose quality in execution directly adds to the unpleasantness, and without any edifying side effects. (photo: Bold Films Productions LLC)

1271033 - THE WALKPixels
To people of a certain age, Ghostbusters is the gold standard of the high-concept blockbuster, though they may not be able to articulate the idea. It’s why the long-awaited reboot of the movie has met with such overblown concern: When you mess with a classic, you get your fingers burned. It would actually be comforting to imagine that the people behind Pixels were thinking of Ghostbusters as their model, but likely any connection is subliminal and/or coincidental. Again, we have a bunch of nerdy types taking up specialized arms and their own untapped capacity for bravery to fight a kind of supernatural force that no one else is equipped to fight. The main difference here is the subtext. In the 80s, GB was beholden to a lifetime of ghost movies and comic books. Pixels relies completely on our memory of the 80s itself. Adam Sandler, once again talking producers into shelling out money so that he can relive his childhood as a middle aged man, plays Sam, once an adolescent arcade wizard who lost in a big Donkey Kong showdown against the mulletted, boastful Eddie (Peter Dinklage). As an adult, Sam is unmarried and unbowed in his nerdy predilections. He even works for an AV service company called NERD. He also happens to be best friends with Cooper (Kevin James), the president of the United States, and when the earth is suddenly attacked by extraterrestrials in the form of video game avatars from the 80s, Sam is the first person he calls. We’ve come to accept preposterousness as a given with summer blockbusters, but the idea that an alien race would attack us with weapons that look like Space Invaders or Pacman (supposedly because a galactic probe with a tape of a video game contest is misinterpreted by the aliens as a declaration of war) proves that either certain forces in Hollywood have way too much power, or Hollywood itself has just given up on trying to even look halfway intelligent. Moreover, the most family-friendly “adult” filmmaker in America, Chris Columbus, was hired as director, thus flattening out the usual Sandler barbs. Michelle Monaghan gets the thankless part of Sam’s object of desire, a single mom who herself takes up a controller to fight the 8-bit invaders, though mostly what she fends off is Sandler’s snarky comments. In that regard, Dinklage is a relief. His self-regarding blowhard is at least as much of a cartoon as the special effects. For those of us who missed out on the video game fad, the explanations of how these games work, which are integral to our understanding of the nerd-warriors’ capabilities, is welcome, though obviously aimed at younger viewers who I can’t help but think may find this all rather quaint. By comparison, Ghostbusters is primal.

poplarPoplar no Aki
Kazumi Yumoto’s novels address the way children process death. In this story set in a time before cell phones, a young nurse, Chiaki (Eri Murakawa), suffers a meltdown after breaking up with her lover. She then attends the funeral of an old acquaintance in the small town where she spent three years as a child (Miyu Honda) following the death of her father. The acquaintance (Tamao Nakamura) was her babysitter while her mother was at work. Recognizing that the wounds left by her father’s passing wouldn’t heal easily, the old woman suggested Chiaki write letters to him that she will “deliver” when she dies. Director Kenichi Omori belabors the structure of the story, layering flashbacks against flash-forwards and often repeating scenes from different points-of-view for no good reason. Given the simplicity of Yumoto’s tale, it’s difficult to understand why he needs all this expository business except to demonstrate some sort of directorial vision. The movie is affecting despite the overtime everyone puts into it, including the actors, who think they have to prove that they’re affected, too. In Japanese. (photo: Poplar no Aki Seisaku Iinkai)

ST. VINCENTSt. Vincent
Though the title role of this bittersweet comedy seems custom made for Bill Murray’s brand of measured cynicism, it was reportedly written with Jack Nicholson in mind. Despite his more calculated comic presence, Murray turns Vincent, a veteran who lives alone in his Brooklyn home in boozy indifference to the world, into a much larger character than Nicholson probably would have. Murray’s range may be narrower, but within that range he’s more resourceful, and Vincent the curmudgeon fits him like a glove. A certain degree of dramatic tension is struck when single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves next door with her young son Oliver (Jaeden Leiberher), who is routinely bullied at school. Vincent feigns disinterest with the boy’s plight but becomes his ad hoc babysitter when Maggie is repeatedly stuck at her hospital orderly job working overtime, struggling to make ends meet in order to prevent her ex-husband from gaining custody of Oliver. At first, Vincent either ignores the kid or takes advantage of his neediness for his own sake, but in accordance with writer-director Theodore Melfi’s sentimental aims he can’t help but tell Oliver about how the world works and in the process teach him something about compassion and honesty, though only in a way that makes sense within the confines of Vincent’s humorous misanthropy. This element of the film is more enjoyable than it normally would be owing to Murray’s timing and gift for subtlety, but Melfi muddles matters by injecting a Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts) into Vincent’s life, presumably as a device to prove that Vincent is basically a lonely guy with nothing to do except visit his beloved senile wife in a local nursing home once a week. As a writer, Melfi trusts more to signs (Vincent insists on doing his wife’s laundry even though it’s the nursing home’s job) than to believable plot lines. He completely loses the thread of Vincent’s financial troubles, and Oliver doesn’t so much solve his persecution problems as conveniently escape them. And Vincent is by no means a saint, though it’s obvious Melfi wants us to see him as such through Oliver’s eyes. In that regard, Nicholson might have dialed up the sentimental aspects. Murray stays away from them, regardless of what the script asks him to do. It’s one of the best performances he’s ever given. Too bad it’s in a movie that barely deserves it. (photo: St. V Films)

tellthePMTell the Prime Minister
Sourced from videos shot by participants, this somewhat stodgy documentary about the anti-nuke movement in Japan is nevertheless well-structured, explaining its premise in a refreshingly simple way. Concentrating on a core group of interviewees, including former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and representative activists, director Eiji Oguma shows how in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown, affected citizens lost all faith in both big business, as exemplified by Tepco, and the government. More to the point, they knew the mass media wasn’t giving them the information they needed, and while some have defended this reticence as a necessary evil to avoid panic, it basically treated the entire population as children, a notion reinforced by the fact that the burgeoning anti-nuke movement was hardly covered by the press. Probably the most moving testimony is from Risa Yoshida, a reserved retail employee who slowly found herself consumed with rage and joined the protests, where she became the resident fact checker. More than the perceived dangers of radiation, it was the authorities’ disregard for basic democratic principles that made these people stand up and yell. In Japanese and English with English subtitles. (photo: Eiji Oguma)

FOX_3558.psdWild
An exercise in perfectly matched minds collaborating on an endeavor that would appear to bring out the best in each, this film version of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir nevertheless rarely moves beyond its melodramatic premise. Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed, whose name is appropriate for a woman who, following the death of her beloved single mother (Laura Dern), spins out of control. She becomes addicted to heroin and wrecks her marriage by sleeping with anyone who will make her forget herself. As a means of giving purpose to her existence following a suicide attempt, she endeavors to walk the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to the Washington state border. Nick Hornby’s script alternates scenes of the past with mom with scenes of the cinematic present as Strayed struggles to complete her journey of self-discovery with nothing to protect her from the elements except her wits, given that she has an unfortunate habit of flinging supplies and equipment off of cliffs in frustration. The mode is confessional, even if the POV feels third person, and Witherspoon delivers her side of the bargain with more self-possession than she’s shown in the past, and she works closely with director Jean-Marc Vallee to maintain a through-line of personal development that isn’t derailed by Hornby’s tricky structure, which mimics the author’s free-associative writing style. Given her temperament, it’s difficult to believe Strayed will finish the ordeal, but as the trek continues we’re able to see how the very act of confrtoning difficulty, emotionally as well as physically, transforms her. It helps that she’s also difficult herself. She repeatedly runs into a male hiker who obviously is interested in her, and reacts to his solicitations by making sure she finishes even if he doesn’t. But if Witherspoon creates a wholly believable human being out of a nonlinear series of scenes, the lack of a story often makes the movie less compelling than it could be. Its episodic nature has the effect of dampening the suspense and flattening emotional peaks that are obviously meant to be higher than they feel, a drawback exacerbated by the extensive use of voice-over and montage whose only understandable purpose is to showcase the natural beauty that the trail is famous for. The trouble with journeys of self is that they often don’t abide hangers-on. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

wondersThe Wonders
An Italian film that feels Eastern European, Alice Rohracher’s semi-autobiographical feature benefits from its patchwork premise, a multi-ethnic family run like a commune whose “traditional values” were actually formulated in the 60s. The family, which runs an apiary, consists of an ex-hippie tyrant German father (Sam Louwyck), his quiet Italian wife (Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister), and four precocious daughters who run the business with more professional dedication than should be expected of them. Of the four, we’re most concerned with the oldest, 12-year-old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who is invited to appear on a local television series that celebrates Etruscan culture, particularly with regards to food, though her father is dead set against it for reasons that aren’t difficult to discern. Rohrwacher subverts the usual adolescent rebellion tale and makes it not only newly interesting, but more deeply affecting. She does it by conveying the magical qualities of these people’s everyday lives in unassuming ways. Even the parts that don’t readily make sense are mesmerizing. In Italian and German. (photo: temesta srl/AMKA Films Productions/Pola Pandora GmbH/ZDF/RSI Radiotelevisione svizzera SRG SSR idee Suisse)

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