November 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the November issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on October 25.

AmericanHeistAmerican Heist
Hayden Christensen and Adrien Brody act their asses off as brothers James and Frank, a pair of New Orleans ne’er-do-wells suckered into joining a bank heist. Frank has just finished ten years in the slammer for shooting a cop while James, who only did a year as an accessory, has turned his life around by trying to start an auto repair business. Frank owes Ray (Tory Kittles), an emotional fascist who justifies larceny as a political act, for saving his skin in prison and when he gets out Ray forces him to recruit James, an ace driver, to be the getaway guy against his will. Blood is thicker than water, but the viewer is expected to take the fraternal bond at face value based on the performative excess. Likewise, the heist itself never gears up sufficient excitement thanks to director Sarik Andreasyan’s pointlessly erratic style shifts. More problematic is the movie’s inadvertent take on racial dynamics: the black guys are evil opportunists while the white guys are naive dupes. It’s an interesting but bogus turnaround. (photo: Glacier Entertainment SARL of Luxembourg)

MariaClouds of Sils Maria
For most of its running time, Olivier Assayas’s latest feature is a two-hander, a spirited dialogue between a proud French movie star, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), and her capable, combative American personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). The story frame is a film festival in Zurich where Enders will present an award to the director who made her a star at 19 by casting her in an art house film that has since become a classic, but on the eve of the event the director dies. As Enders deals with the attendant emotional difficulties, Valentine handles the related logistical responsibilities in a professional way. So while Maria contacts the widow of her mentor and retools her honors speech into a eulogy, Valentine spins the tragedy into a PR opportunity. There’s nothing cynical about the way Assayas presents this parallel track, because each woman’s capability is a measure of her unique qualities. The two argue continually about the older woman’s attitude, which Valentine thinks is quaintly out-of-touch. Maria has attained the kind of star status that allows her to occasionally appear in Hollywood blockbusters for big bucks, and her disdain for “genre movies” pisses off Valentine, not because she thinks it’s hypocritical, but because she thinks Hollywood movies have value—it’s as if Maria were a child of the 30s complaining about rock’n roll. This attitude has a practical drawback, as well. Maria is conflicted about remaking the movie that set her career in motion with a younger star, Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), in the role Maria played originally. Jo-Ann is exactly the kind of star that an “artist” like Maria is supposed to reject, a young person whose off screen behavior has more to do with her bankability than her acting chops. Assayas knows this industry from the inside, and it’s refreshing to see it presented with such sympathetic candor, but the movie belongs to Stewart and Binoche, who seem locked in a struggle to derive some meaning from the lives they have chosen, both as characters in this filmed play and in their real lives as world class movie actors. The film is divided into compartmentalized chapters that are blocked and directed like mini stage performances, and the ellipses can be confusing. We know these two women are headed for a fall, but the changes indicated by the last scene are so abrupt you may wonder if the reels weren’t mixed up, but that seems to be Assayas’s point. Life is not like a movie, but only a movie can make that point. In English, French and German. (photo: CG Cinema-Pallas Film-Cab Productions-Vortex Sutra-Arte France Cinema-ZDF/Arte-Orange Studio-RTS Radio Television Suisse-SRG SSR)

everestEverest
The guilty pleasures of this 3D depiction of a team trek to the top of the tallest peak in the world in 1996 are impossible to resist given the money and talent involved, but those pleasures will be qualified by the viewer’s opinion of the benefits of mountain climbing. Scaling Everest is not like spending a few days hiking through the Adirondacks. As we’re told more than few times during the course of the film, the last thousand feet or so are as close to death as you’re ever likely to get without actually dying, and quite a few trekkers didn’t make it back. In one scene, the outdoor journalist, Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who is partaking himself, asks his fellow mountaineers why they’re doing it, and all they can do is laugh. It’s director Baltasar Kormaku’s job to convey the pain and horror of a climb that went very wrong, and while he elaborates on the logistical reasons for the disaster, he mostly allows the hubris of the climbers to go uninterrogated, except in the case of macho man Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a middle aged Texan blowhard whose arrogance is of the right-wing kind, so automatically his problems are rooted in something poisonous. But what about Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the New Zealander who leaves behind his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) to guide a dozen adventurers up the mountain for a cool $65,000 a head? He obviously knows the dangers, because it’s all he talks about, but how does he justify an act this reckless, regardless of all the safety measures taken, as a way of making a living? At least Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a rival guide taking his own troops up the hill, has a devil-may-care attitude epitomized by hard drinking and black humor. The story implies that the competition between these two groups (and one other) had something to do with the fatal outcome, because there were just too many people trying to get to the summit at the same time and not enough time to do it. Had Kormakur focussed on this aspect of the drama instead of relegating it to a plot footnote, the story may have had more traction, but it’s left to stand as a disaster epic, and succeeds all too well on that account. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography makes the most of the depth of field, especially when climbers weighted down with huge backpacks cross bottomless crevasses on shaky aluminum ladders. And you’ve never seen a blizzard cloud until you’ve seen it in IMAX 3D, which may be the point in the end. For all its dedication to telling a true story as faithfully as possible, the horrors are supposed to be sort of beautiful. And most of the people who die just fall asleep. (photo: Universal Pictures)

koibitotachiKoibitotachi
Director Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s characteristic restraint pays off in his latest work, which interweaves several loosely related tales. The official English title is Three Stories of Love, but they’re about much more. Atsushi (Atsushi Shinohara) is a bridge repairman who has lived alone in silent squalor ever since his wife was murdered indiscriminately on the streets of Ueno, waiting for the day her killer is punished. His frustration manifests as a kind of walking catatonia, but instead of milking the condition for pathos Hashiguchi contrasts it to almost comic effect. At work, Atsushi seems to be the only person who knows what he’s doing, and while his colleagues recognize his pain they are respectful of it; which only makes the pain worse because he can’t get past it. Ryo Ikeda plays Nishinomiya, the lawyer who took his case to punish the murderer in civil court, and after years of little progress he seems resigned to the fact that nothing will come of it, but he’s too much of a coward to be frank. Nishinomiya is gay, and while he seems to suffer no social stigmas—unless you count an “accident” that may not have been accidental—there is definitely a streak of self-loathing shooting through his persona that is best represented by the cruel way he treats his lover. When it is suggested by an old school friend—a man he has always had a crush on—that he may have pederast tendencies, Nishinomiya finally wakes up to the fact that he can’t empathize with anyone, a pretty serious drawback for a lawyer. Then there’s Toko (Toko Narushima), a housewife trapped in an arid marriage. She lives in a mildly silly fantasy world built around the Crown Princess, and eventually embarks on a fling with an irresponsible man who seems freer than almost anyone she knows but who is even more trapped by circumstances than she is. Hashiguchi’s main strength is his disarming ability to situate the micro crisis in the macro environment. He reveals in ways both subtle and obvious how these people’s problems are caused by a combination of social inflexibility and flawed character, and rather than present love as the answer, which is one of the biggest lies mainstream cinema has sold us, he posits it as just another aggravating factor in their misery. Hashiguchi himself reportedly suffers from depression, and few directors address despair on such a relatable level while also telling stories that are compelling and entertaining. The marginal characters, like a female TV announcer who discovers her new husband belongs to an “undesirable” social caste and wants to divorce him for fraud, and a bar owner who swindles customers with bottled water that supposedly has beautifying properties, deserve their own stories, and it’s indicative of Hashiguchi’s judgment as a storyteller that he doesn’t overuse them. In Japanese. (photo: Shochiku Broadcasting/Ark Films)

leviathan15Leviathan
Ever since his startlingly original debut in 2004, The Return, Andrey Zvyagentsev’s work has become more beautiful with each feature, while his stories have become bleaker and more naturalistic; which is saying something considering how bleak The Return was. As the title suggests, there’s something epic about his latest, Leviathan, even if the story is human-sized. In a small coastal town, a jack-of-all-trades, Kolia (Aleksei Serebrayakov), is fighting the mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), over the seizure of Kolia’s land, a stretch of coastline where he lives in a house he built for his family and which the town wants to use for a new public facility. Kolia employs Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovishenko), an old lawyer friend from Moscow, to help him sue the municipality, but the audience quickly realizes he will lose because the mayor, a constitutionally cruel man incapable of empathy, has the local mafia on his side, which has a stake in the construction, not to mention the church. Though there are class-conflict overtones, the story is mainly about power and how those who can wield it will often do anything they want regardless of whom they hurt in the process. This idea is made plain in almost every scene, sometimes with outright violence, and sometimes in comical ways, as when the judge in the case reads his verdict in a fast monotone that allows no feeling to emerge one way or the other, as if the outcome were decided even before any of these people were born. Typical of Zvyagintsev’s work, the plot, however, is almost beside the point, as what he’s concerned about is how environment shapes character and behavior. The title, for instance, refers directly to the way authority towers over the individual, but Zvyagentsev reinforces the notion with daunting but also innocent-looking images of real whales swimming in the nearby sea, as well as their monstrous skeletons scattered along the shore. The landscape is so monumental that the humans seem like nothing when set against it. Kolia will surely lose his case, so the only question becomes: Will he lose his family with it? Even the detail that the director employs in dissecting the many ways that the bureaucracy chips away at Kolia’s self-worth seems gratuitous, but nevertheless adds a fascinating measure of how mundane the proceedings are. That this crime is being committed against a working class man in a country that once championed the proletariat is not lost on Zvyagentsev—he boldly positions portraits of Russian leaders on the walls of rooms where these crimes are being enacted. He knows exactly who is to blame. In Russian. (photo: Pyramide/LM)

D3S_1223.DNGThe Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Guy Ritchie finally drops his adaptation of the 60s TV show that best replicated the cool Cold War espionage conceit developed by Ian Fleming. It doesn’t really resemble the show, and “U.N.C.L.E.” isn’t mentioned until the last 5 minutes, but the movie is even more tongue-in-cheek than the series was. Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is so unflappable he seems bored even when killing. The main conflict has less to do with the ex-Nazi trying to obtain a nuclear warhead than with the KGB agent, Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), assigned to help Solo track the villain down in a rare instance of East-West cooperation. In contrast to Solo, Kuryakin has a volatile temper, and the tension seems motivated more by homoerotic impulses than political ideology. It’s interesting that Solo, who was such a horn-dog in the series, displays no interest in the German woman (Alicia Vikander) they have to work with, thus leaving her to the Russian. Nobody stands out except Ritchie, whose sense of humor is so snarky it even overshadows the presence of Hugh Grant. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC)

Matt Damon (left) and George Clooney in Columbia Pictures' THE MONUMENTS MEN.The Monuments Men
George Clooney shows his true colors as a member of the Hollywood Club with this sanitized history lesson. Directing and playing the lead character, Frank Stokes, he renders the World War II sideshow of the recovery of European artworks looted by the Nazis into yet another sentimental tribute to the Greatest Generation. Heading a ragtag bunch of aesthetes, including Matt Damon as a museum director, John Goodman as a sculptor, and Bill Murray as an architect, Stokes enlists, goes through basic training, and hits Europe with his posse to track down all the Da Vincis and Van Goghs and Greek urns they can find. Though the conflict is winding down, there is still danger, but the nobility of the mission—to basically save the accoutrements of Western Civilization—is always pushed to the fore. Clooney can’t quite generate enough conflict or drama to make us care as much as these men do. Their anachronistic, jokey camaraderie feels forced, and the situations are merely anecdotal, building up to nothing that feels consequential. Moreover, the impressive cast looks confused. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

A031_A031_C013_1010S2_0005.jpgMy Old Lady
Israel Horovitz’s movie, based on his own play, is premised on the French viager system, in which a party sells a piece of property to another party at a low price in exchange for the right to stay in that property until he/she dies. Kevin Kline plays the American Mathias, who has inherited a roomy apartment in the middle of Paris from his father, a frequent traveler to the city. Maggie Smith plays 92-year-old Mme. Girard, who lives there under the viager system, and since Mathias is broke and looking to sell the place for liquidity, she offers him an upstairs room. The woman’s middle aged daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), is quite against Mathias’s freeloading since she knows he’s just waiting for her mother to die so he can sell the place to a smarmy entrepreneur (Stephane Freiss) who means to convert it into a hotel. At first, Kline’s caustic loser shtick is insufferable, but as the truth behind the real estate deal is revealed it becomes almost self-justifying. Still, it’s difficult to take the story as seriously as Horovitz does. (photo: Deux Chevaux Inc. and British Broadcasting Corp.)

1001grams1001 Grams
Norwegian director Bent Hamer fully exploits the Scandinavian penchant (bent?) for droll humor in this curiously uneventful movie based on a plot premise that, to say the least, is highly original. State physicist Marie (Ane Dahl Torp) is tasked with transporting a scientifically exact measure of 1 kilogram to an international seminar in Paris after her father, who is usually in charge of such things, falls terminally ill. Though some of the discussions related to the weight and how accurate it is engage the viewer’s imagination and show that Hamer has a talent for digging out the minutiae of professional pretensions, the movie is mainly a romantic trifle about Marie’s slow seduction by a French gardener who was once himself a serious scientist but has given all that up for studying birds and revelling in nature. The title refers to the difference one’s emotional burdens account for in terms that are measurable, but if Hamer has a point to make about how we love in the real world he’s being way too subtle. In Norwegian, English and French. (photo: BulBul Film, Pandora Film Produktion, Slot Machine)

?Re:LIFE???????The Rewrite
If Hugh Grant is disillusioned with his lucrative career as a rom-com fixture, he has no one to blame but himself—and his pal, writer-director Marc Lawrence, who keeps talking him into these things. His latest is more cynical than usual. Grant plays Keith Michaels, an Oscar-winning screenwriter who hasn’t been able to follow up his one hit with anything the studios like. He finds himself banished for financial reasons to the New York State burg of Binghamton, where he teaches a college class in writing. Michaels’ (and, by extension, Grant’s) entitlement as a Hollywood fixture wins him a pretty coed as a bedmate and a certain measure of license to blow off his seminar, but only for so long. Emotional entanglements threaten his tenure, but more importantly his interactions with an earnest single mother (Marisa Tomei) trying to improve herself and various “down-to-earth” colleagues turns his head around. The outcome is predictable, but Grant has not been this critical of his own image since About a Boy, and that was based on a novel. This was written for him. (photo: Professor Productions LLC)

truecostThe True Cost
At first a simple, effective exploration of the damage that the so-called fast fashion industry has wrought in the world, this brisk, efficient documentary by Andrew Morgan ends up being a very angry treatise on the unsustainable nature of runaway capitalism. Fast fashion is mainly represented by three global retail chains—Sweden’s H&M, Spain’s Zara, and the Los Angeles-based Forever 21—but Japan’s Uniqlo can probably be included this group even though its main promotional thrust, at least in Japan, is affordability. In fact, affordability is the main problem, since the idea of fast fashion is that the consumer can buy as much as he or she (usually she) wants because the items aren’t as expensive as brand fashion apparel. The problem with this model is two-fold: it requires very low overhead, and it produces a lot of waste. Morgan investigates the former problem by starting with Bangladeshi sweatshops, in particular the multi-story building in Dakar that collapsed several years ago killing more than one thousand workers who were making clothing for all of these companies. Activist groups have successfully rallied world opinion and the companies have pledged to improve working conditions and wages in these countries, but as one local factory manager points out, he is still pressured by his corporate customers to reduce prices, otherwise they will find other producers. Morgan successfully traces this pattern back to consumption with a hilariously disturbing montage of Internet vloggers whose topic is their shopping activities. The addiction to consumption, especially clothing, is what these companies count on. Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva explains how the industry has goosed demand for cotton, which should be a boon to farmers but actually isn’t. The development of cheaper GM cotton that requires loads of chemical is not only polluting rivers all over the world but destroying farmland at a rapid clip. Some 250,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide as a result. As one hyperactive economist points out near the end of the movie, calls to “improve the system” will never have any effect, because it’s the system itself that’s the problem. Morgan extrapolates on each destructive facet of the industry, from the competitiveness that drives clothing makers to demand ever lower labor costs to the runaway materialism that has infected the developed world with an unquenchable need to consume, and finally to the breakdown of human values. We see both sides, from those who justify the system by saying that working for near-slave wages is better than no wages, to responsible companies like Japan-based People Tree which starts with the idea of fair trade and produces their fashions accordingly. For once, an activist documentary that is relevant to everyone. In English and Bengali. (photo: Truecostmovie)

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