October 2015 movies

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

That Green Hornet movie with Seth Rogen was a good idea that didn’t work out as planned. Basically a comic riff on superhero blockbusters that took into consideration the towering ludicrousness of the premise, it nevertheless stopped way short of the usual shenanigans one would expect from a movie with Rogen’s name over the title while shortchanging the kind of action it was supposedly deriding. Since Ant-Man is a Marvel production, it might be expected to demonstrate a little more self-consciousness in this regard. After all, almost all the Marvel movies are in some ways parodies of themselves. But it seems the studio decided to make this aspect purposeful, and not just by casting Paul Rudd, who is essentially Rogen’s more conventionally handsome cognate, as the titular superhero, but also by using a script by the only genuinely inventive comic filmmaker of the moment, Edgar Wright (along with Adam McKay, Joe Cornish, and Rudd, who basically took over when Wright left the project), and a bankable comedy director, Peyton Reed, to helm the thing. One of the better ideas this crew came up with is isolating the origin story from the hero. Michael Douglas plays Hank Pym, a scientist who creates a particle that makes things shrink. Naturally, his protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), wants to use it for evil purposes, and eventually Cross gains control of the technology while Pym is pushed into early retirement. However, neither Pym nor Cross are Ant-Man. That role falls to burglar Scott Lang (Rudd), who, thanks to a stint in prison and losing custody of his beloved daughter, is at the end of his proverbial rope. His savior is Pym, who catches Scott breaking into his safe and then recruits him to do the same at Cross’s company—the one he stole from Pym. To help him do the job, he makes him a suit that shrinks Scott down to ant size without compromising his full-size strength and speed. Though the dramatic component is dominated by Scott’s reluctance to continue in his criminal ways, the movie requires him to give in to them, and does so by making the whole shrinking process fun. It also helps that Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who works for Cross, is secretly helping her father and thus doubles as a love interest for Scott. If this all sounds painfully familiar, it just goes to show how some superhero conventions are impossible to resist, and as the film enters its third quarter, which is filled with SFX and a lot of cleverly staged action scenes that take full advantage of the shrinking premise, you may not notice that you aren’t laughing despite the pedigree on screen and off. By the time Ant-Man and Cross, using a similar shrinking technology, are beating each other up in a miniaturized world where raindrops become tidal waves and real ants qualify as the cavalry, you will have totally forgotten that this was supposed to be a comedy. Marvel wins again. (photo: Marvel)

fastenFasten Your Seatbelts
In this earnest Italian film about the way we love now, a budding restaurateur named Elena (Kasia Smutniak) embarks on a reckless love affair with a bigoted, homophobic mechanic named Antonio (Francesco Arca), despite their obvious incompatibilities and the fact that Antonio is dating Elena’s best friend and her business partner is an openly gay man. The director, Ferzan Ozpetek, has no problem conveying the initial lust between these two, and manages to weather the requisite interpersonal cock-ups it engenders, but once he skitters ahead in time to when the pair is married and have a child, the movie has a tough time making the relationship compelling. The point seems to be that while Elena and Antonio face the same problems most married couples do, physical need takes care of everything. As is often the case with Italian films, the naturalism of the situations pulls you in, but the characters never seem real enough to convince you of the basic premise that opposites can always attract. Thus the final section, meant to be emotionally wrenching, is just exhausting. In Italian. (photo: R&C Produzioni Sri-Faros Film)

F&D_Day20_0068.CR2Fathers & Daughters
Gabriele Muccino, who never met a tear he didn’t want to turn into a river, directs this heavy-handed story of a bipolar, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and his troubled relationship with his only daughter. Jake Davis’s (Russell Crowe) breakdown after the death of his wife impacts strongly on young Katie, and his rich in-laws try to wrest custody of her, claiming that Davis is not stable enough to raise a child on his own. The intrafamily conflict affects Katie badly, to the point that when she grows up into Amanda Seyfried she has developed serious neuroses of her own that manifest themselves as promiscuity and heavy drinking. Then she meets a good man (Aaron Paul) who tries to understand her problems. Brad Desch’s script offers nothing new to this predictable mix of cliches about the writing life (it’s hard) and the appeal of private education except a puzzling structure that keeps the real reason for Katie’s suffering off stage until the right moment, but by then anyone who hasn’t figured it out is probably asleep. (photo: Fathers & Daughters Nevada LLC)

Vivian Maier Self-PortraitFinding Vivian Maier
The appeal of outsider art is obvious yet limited, since by definition only people of a certain sensibility are going to appreciate it. The photographer Vivian Maier’s work doesn’t qualify as outsider art mainly because her appeal is more general and her talent was cultivated, but the appeal of outsider art is attached to her unusual story. During her lifetime, her work was not acknowledged, because she kept it from the public. Born in France and resident in New York and Chicago during the latter half of the 20th century, she made her living as a nanny. Street photography was a hobby, but one she pursued with an almost savage single-mindedness. She wouldn’t have come to the public’s attention if filmmaker John Maloof hadn’t purchased a trunk full of her negatives at an auction while looking for material for a book he was writing about his own Chicago neighborhood. What he found impressed him and he started posting photos from the collection on the Internet. They attracted a great deal of attention, which Maloof took advantage of by setting up gallery exhibitions and searching out more of her hidden stashes. And then he made this movie. What’s great about Finding Vivian Maier is the photographs themselves—stirringly intimate portraits of average folks and startlingly immediate cityscapes—and the mystery of her existence as it is filled out with interviews by the people—mostly her charges, now grown up—who were acquainted with her in any way. Many times she would even take the children she was caring for into the roughest parts of town while she snapped away at tableaux of desperation. The picture we get is of a woman who could be mean and cold on an individual basis, but also sensitive to the conditions around her, which is how she could take such sympathetic photographs. Set next to some of these photos, this portrait seems almost sensationalistic, overshadowing the power of the work itself. It’s a compelling story but one that feels forced since it serves Maloof’s purposes as her executor by default. To their credit, Maloof and his co-director, Charlie Siskel, discuss the ethics of publicizing work whose author seems to have never intended it to be publicized. It’s the old tree-in-the-forest conundrum: Is it only art if a lot of people agree it is? For sure, the world of photography, not to mention the fields of ethnography and urban studies, became richer when these pictures were made widely available, but by stoking the Maier promotional machine with this film, Maloof makes the moral concerns moot. The pictures are out there, regardless of whether or not Maier’s spirit wants them to be, and the benefactor is John Maloof. In English and French. (photo: Ravine Pictures LLC/Vivian Maier_Maloof Collection)

8E9A6771.CR2Good Kill
Films designed to empathize with soldiers have a tough time squaring the job with the sentiment. In this quiet drama, Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, an Air Force pilot who has flown his share of dangerous missions in Afghanistan and is now piloting drones over the same theater of operation but from a remote control center in Las Vegas. Director Andrew Niccol makes the most of the paradox: a soldier who kills the enemy by day and returns to a suburban family lifestyle at night and on weekends. Though Egan accepts the assignment, he wrestles with the moral exigencies, especially after the CIA commandeers his unit to take out terrorist actors without concern for collateral damage. The movie does an adequate job of stoking the controversy of “prosecuting” a war in which one side suffers unproportionately, but because Egan’s complaint is that he needs to get back up in the air the viewer may feel conflicted also. It’s about how combat has become a desk job, but the onus falls on the job, not what the job entails. (photo: Clear Skies Nevada LLC)

The second part of this film version of Veronica Roth’s YA novels about a future society where roles are delineated according to predelictions takes off where Divergent left off. Tris (Shailene Woodley) and her lover Four (Theo James) have escaped the authorities who mean to liquidate her as a citizen too genetically indeterminate to fit into any preselected role, thus making her a danger to the order of things. The appeal of the first installment was in seeing how this order was enforced and played out, but Part 2, having no new development to present, is just one action set piece after another as the two rebels round up others outside the walled city in an attempt to invade it and usurp power. Woodley isn’t as inspiring as Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, probably because she has too much symbolic baggage to carry. Like Katniss, Tris is required to bear the weight of her peculiar dystopia, but her personality isn’t allowed to expand beyond what it represented in the first movie. (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)

Anne Hathaway gets to play the other end of the mentor-apprentice spectrum as Jules, the founder of a successful internet clothing retailer. And while she’s much less imperious than the person she worked under in The Devil Wears Prada, she still has her princely prerogatives, one of which is to ignore anyone who deigns to make her life easier, like Ben (Robert De Niro), the 70-year-old widower-retiree hired as a “senior intern” to assist her. The joke about Ben is that he’s over-qualified but tech-illiterate, which occasions cute humor among the other, much younger interns. Of course, Ben eventually gets his benevolent comeuppance by providing all these nerdy emotional shutins with sage advice on how to love and live and work effectively in an office. Since this is a Nancy Meyers movie, the grown-up wisdom imparted ad nauseum amidst the designer porn is never contradicted and thus the movie seems targeted laser-like at boomers who think the way Ben does; except that no one in the real world has it as good as Ben. Though he earned his living as a marketer of telephone books—what could be more anachronistic?—he lives in a Brooklyn apartment that, even taking into consideration rent control, seems fit for a Trump. But it’s not Ben’s success as a family guy and organization man that causes Jules to succumb to his philosophical effusions. Ben’s avuncular ministrations soon flow over into Jules’ private life, where Ben realizes that her job has done a number on her marriage, even if she doesn’t realize it. Jules’ spouse has sacrificed his own tech career to be a househusband so that Jules can live the dream, and Ben soon sees the passive-aggressive way he sublimates his resentment. Meyer deserves at least some credit for making a deserving point about work being at least as important as family, but she does it in such a wishy-washy way that you’re as likely to believe the resulting redemption is as credible as Ben’s ability to keep his castle neat without the aid of a housekeeper. Then there’s the requisite whoopie between Ben and the tech firm’s resident masseuse (Rene Russo), included to demonstrate that septuagenarians can still get it on, and probably with less emotional turmoil than the young’uns. The Intern has only one purpose: to make people over 50 glad they’re over 50. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC)

johnwickJohn Wick
Beware directors who started their careers as stuntmen. Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is a relatively satisfying hired assassin action movie, but its reliance on the superhuman abilities of its title character (Keanu Reeves) is meant to distract the viewer from the thin plot and cardboard baddies. Wick is mourning his recently deceased wife when a group of Russian thugs invades his modernistic house to steal his car and, while they’re at it, kill the dog his wife gave him before she died. Though Wick is retired from the hit man game, he quickly unpacks his guns and sets out after the killers, one of whom is the son of a former employer, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), who knows what Wick is capable
of. The only interesting thing about the subsequent carnage is the way it works around the whole hired killer profession thing, which has its own specialty hotel in Manhattan. Once Viggo puts a price on Wick’s head, at least one former colleague takes the challenge, thus putting paid to the notion of honor among thieves. (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)

amvy_day6-219.CR2A Most Violent Year
As evidenced by this movie and David Simon’s recent mini-series, Show Me a Hero, both of which happen to star Oscar Isaac, there really is a market for movies and TV shows that deal with the nuts-and-bolts of social issues. J.C. Chandor’s third feature is fictional in design but based on an idea that is very real. In the New York metropolitan area in the 60s and 70s, a few families controlled the home heating oil business by fixing prices. Chandor’s movie takes place in the year 1981, when one man, Abel Morales (Isaac), who has bought one of these companies from his wife’s (Jessica Chastain) father, means to expand, but—get this—is determined to do it legally and above board. This determination to stay clean in a business that is fundamentally dirty is the source of the movie’s incredible tension. It should be pointed out that while Morales is principled, he is not necessarily a “good man,” as we have been conditioned to accept that term. He is, above all, a businessman and expects his workers to do exactly as he says without any special reward, and it is they—specifically one of his truck drivers—who receive the brunt of his competitors’ resentment. So if Morales doesn’t seem to be any less venal than Michael Corleone, chalk it up to the demands of capitalism, which is the real villain in the movie. In narrative terms, Chandor takes the viewer’s intelligence for granted, eschewing back story and exposition that would explain how the heating oil business works. He drops us directly into the action as Morales, along with his nervous lawyer (Albert Brooks), negotiates with a group of Hasids for a piece of the Brooklyn waterfront he wants to use for receiving and storage. They agree, but the deal is dependent on whether or not the rest of a promised loan will come through, and once unknown forces start attacking his delivery trucks in broad daylight, the bank balks and refuses to provide the loan. Morales, who is also under investigation by an earnest D.A. (David Oyelowo) for the past sins of his father-in-law, is thus hard pressed to come up with the rest of the money in time. But if he doesn’t he loses his million-dollar deposit. Contrary to the title, the movie isn’t all that violent, but the constant air of suspense might fool you into thinking it is. Chandor manages to get the same gritty textures that Scorsese and Lumet achieved in their NYC movies of the 70s, and without trying to copy either. He merely tells a story that is steeped in the age it represents and doesn’t attempt to make it relevant to a post-millennial audience. In the process, he gets exactly what he wants.

starredStarred Up
Jack O’Connell is turning into the most exciting young actor in films right now. Following close on the heels of ’71, in which he played a novice British soldier thrown head first into the internecine stew pot of Belfast during the bloodiest part of the Troubles, this prison drama presents him as a very different sort of character, but an equally intense one. Eric Love is a repeat felon who is sent to a maximum security British prison despite his relative youth (the title is slang for being pushed up out of juvenile detention). It just so happens that his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is also incarcerated here, serving a life sentence for murder. The notion that Eric’s criminal proclivities stem from the absence of a father figure in his childhood becomes a leitmotif, but director David MacKenzie manages to avoid the cliches that normally accummulate around such a theme. He focuses squarely on Eric’s irredeemable qualities and how they are only exacerbated by his environment. He’s a young man so taken with violence as a solution to every problem that he has no real understanding of its consequences, and often reacts viscerally to stimuli that are not actually threatening. As soon as he shows up in the place he antagonizes an entire set of older, more settled inmates whose good graces are vital to his survival. His resourcefulness is almost spontaneous, and, more significantly, free of fear, which is why he’s so dangerous, not only to other prisoners, but to the staff who are supposed to protect him. At first, Neville feels no compunction to make amends for how his son has turned out, or, for that matter, to explain himself, but under the watchful eye of a troubled therapist (Rupert Friend) who believes that the only way Eric can survive his sentence is to understand the source of his rage, he endeavors to broker a kind of truce between parent and child, and as a result the older man realizes his responsibility on what can only be called a cosmic level. The scenes between these two are electrically tense, and Mackenzie’s command of tone makes the development of their relationship both realistic and unpredictable. The dynamic of prison life has always been a potent theme for movies, but it’s never been presented with such emotional honesty and lack of sentimentality. (photo: Starred Up Films Ltd. and Channel Four Television Corp.)

One of the prize winners at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, this Russian feature by Aleksandr Kott has all the earmarks of a classic Eastern European coming-of-age comedy. An eccentric former pilot and his beautiful adolescent daughter live on the remote steppes, where the daughter invariably attracts the attention of any young male who happens to pass by. Two of this species, one local, the other foreign, eventually start hanging around vying for her attentions in humorous ways that Kott embelishes with touches of magic realism. The movie contains almost no dialogue and the soundtrack is mostly occupied by quiet, pretty music. The girl chooses the foreign boy, much to the local one’s chagrin and anger. A fight ensues without a lot of melodrama, and the movie seems complete in its own unassuming way, but then history rears its violent, ugly head. The fact that the movie’s time period is never clear adds to the ending’s shock value, but the moral of the story, as they used to say, isn’t particularly fresh. In Russian. (photo: Igor Tolstunov’s Film Production Co.)

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