Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on November 25.
Art and Craft
Certain documentaries are premised on stories or personalities so unusual that they practically direct themselves. The art forger Mark Landis has been covered extensively by the media in both his native U.S. and by the European press, but directors Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman (with help from Mark Becker) have painstakingly accessed these source materials and then augmented them with commentary from the subject himself, as well as the people he’s affected through his actions, thus giving us a kind of meta view of a story that doesn’t appear to be finished. Landis’s eccentricities go beyond his compulsion to forge artworks. He lives in a messy house in Mississippi that he inherited from his mother along with her money. Here he chain smokes, drinks, and does his paintings, drawings, and collages. His peculiar speech patterns and defeated posture indicate a mind and body that work differently from the norm, and he receives counseling for what might be a mental illness or autism (he spent time in a psychiatric institution as a teenager), but what he gets away with also indicates a sharp understanding of human nature and a ripe sense of humor. Landis gives his forgeries away to museums, convincing them they’re the real thing, and he’s done it so many times and for so long that he’s become famous. Since he receives no money for the works, he is committing no crime, but that doesn’t mean a lot to the people he’s fooled, and they are hard pressed to think of him as being innocent. One of them, in fact, a former gallery curator for the University of Cincinnati named Matthew Leininger, has made it his life’s work to expose Landis to the world, and he has become so obsessed with this work that he can’t hold down a job. Leininger’s frustration is palpable and best characterized by his young daughter’s complete knowledge of Landis’s sins. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to make any difference. Despite Leininger’s PR gambits and features about Landis in some of the biggest newspapers in the world, Landis continues to distribute his paintings to museums, usually in the guise of a priest whose church has somehow come into possession of these works, most of which are religious in nature. That Landis can produce such faithful reproductions in so many styles and media is impressive enough, but the subterfuge is so rich that Cullman and Grausman could have shot a supplemental doc just about the meaning of art in our world and made something just as entertaining. Because at the heart of Landis’s story is our own obsession with “authenticity.” It’s only when the museums find out these works are fake that they get upset, but what is the difference between the fake and the original as long as the original’s author is still considered the author? In his own sly, crooked way, Landis is a genius. (photo: Purple Parrot Films)
The Farewell Party Set in a refreshingly elegant old folks home, this Israeli film mixes bittersweet comedy into episodes that should evoke despair. Retired handyman Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) is asked by neighbor Yana (Aliza Rosen) to build a “suicide machine” to put her cancer-ridden husband out of his misery. At first reluctant to do so (“I don’t want to end up in prison at my age”), he enlists the help of a veterinarian (Ilan Dar) to help him get the drugs, and, basing his design on the Kevorkian contraption, comes up with something that works. The vet’s male lover and Yehezkel’s wife, Levana (Levana Finkelstein), are clued in on the mercy mission and the intelligence leaks. Other residents of the assisted living facility request the group’s assisted dying services, and the film becomes a combination caper flick/weeper, especially after Levana starts descending into dementia. Writer-directors Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon never flinch from the weakness of the flesh, and as clever and poignant as The Farewell Party is, it is not at all reassuring. Death is a bitch. (photo: Pie Films/2-Team Productions/Pallas Film/Twenty Twenty Vision)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 2
Not too many surprises in the final installment of the beloved dystopian series since everything is already there in the book, and for once a director, in this case Francis Lawrence, didn’t veer from the source material. The finale starts exactly where Mockingjay Part 1 ended, with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) rescued from the capital but brainwashed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to kill the one he loves, Katniss Eberdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). The leader of the rebellion, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and her chief advisor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) ponder whether Katniss might be more valuable to the cause as a martyr. She doesn’t seem averse to such a fate given the alternative, but in any case it’s war, and Lawrence approaches his task as a war movie, complete with bloody battles and sacrifices and an all-or-nothing attitude. What makes Part 2 different, and especially different from other franchise finales, is the sense that even if the rebels win it will be at such a high cost that you wonder if it’s worth it. The filmmakers give in to the notion that only people who have followed the series this far are going to be interested in the ending, which means newcomers will not only not understand what’s going on, but that they probably won’t get the whole theme, which remains potently topical in light of our media-led march to global armageddon. More specifically, the situation of Panem, which is meant to mirror that of America, offers little in the way of hope, even as the brave forces of resistance reach the center of power. The rebellion, as it turns out, will simply replicate the sins of those it endeavors to overthrow, which is hardly a novel idea, but one that author Suzanne Collins seems determined to drive home. Consequently, anything that isn’t plugged directly into this theme seems almost trivial, from the deadly booby traps that threaten our central group of heros to the horrible mutant “mutts” that attack them later to the various characters played by A-level stars (Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Hoffman) who register as little more than curious cameos. All we’re really asked to care about is how Katniss will respond to Coin’s treachery, and the movie is little more than a series of adventures leading up to that realization. But if Mockingjay Part 2 is nothing if not predictable in its narrative arc, it is also deadly serious in its dramatic rigor. Jennifer Lawrence has created an epic hero whose self-doubt and determination are not merely the stuff of superhero fantasies. There’s something about the way she fixes on the suffering of others, even her enemies, that is central to the series’ appeal. Without her, The Hunger Games would just be Saturday morning cartoons. (photo: Murray Close)
Liza the Fox Fairy
Perhaps it’s intentional, but Karoly Ujj Meszaros’s black comedy flaunts its cognitive dissonance both temporally and culturally. Though set in 1970s Hungary, there is no indication of Soviet-era repression. In fact, a recurring motif is a US-themed hamburger restaurant. And while the titular heroine (Monika Balsai) works as a nurse for the Hungarian widow of a former Japanese ambassador, the Japanophilia is seriously askew. Nevertheless, the movie is entertaining and even thought-provoking in its determination to find a bittersweet side to paranoid delusion. When Liza’s employer dies, she’s left with the ghost of the J-pop singer (David Sakurai) whose singles Liza has become obsessed with over the years, and as she embarks on what she hopes is the kind of fairy tale romance she’s heard in song, the ghost jealously puts a curse on her that causes every potential boyfriend to die in a ridiculous manner. We know this is all in Liza’s head, and Meszaros makes the subterfuge compelling with an ace score that, while not resembling kayokyoku, is appealing in its own right, though in an Eastern European way.
The Peanuts Movie
Charles Schulz’s paean to childhood angst, one of the wellsprings of the American suburban boomer sensibility, is given the 3D computer-assisted treatment by the cartoonist’s heirs, and while it looks and feels a lot like those simple half-hour cartoon specials that continue to air annually on TV, the difference in tone is notable…and dismaying. Stuffing all the familiar Peanuts touchstones into a brisk 90 minutes and using an efficient shorthand that will nevertheless fail to convey to younger children the real meaning of these characters’ distinctive personality traits because they didn’t grow up with the strip, the producers have centered it all on Charlie Brown’s self-actualization as a human being while he pursues the little red-haired girl, and in the process they remove what was poignant about the strip and the TV specials, namely their acknowledgment that life is rigged and the sooner you figure that out the saner you’ll be. In the sketchy central plot, Charlie Brown aces a standardized test that suddenly makes him a hero to his peers, which is quite a turnaround for him, and thanks to encouragement from Linus he exploits his newfound notoriety to woe the little red-haired girl—several times to no avail, but not for want of trying. In the end, he is knocked off his pedestal by his own conscience, which sends a nice a message to those kids in the audience and is consistent with Schulz’s conception of Charlie Brown as a stand-up guy. Unfortunately, director Steve Martino won’t leave well enough alone, and the bitterness of fate is turned on its head to become a kind of triumph. Charlie Brown is thus presented as a martyr to decency who sooner rather than later is rewarded for his honesty, thus squaring him as a sympathetic figure in the Hollywood mold. Unfortunately, it also counteracts the melancholy sense of childhood futility that the strip was so good at relating. All that comes across is cuteness and warmth (Snoopy’s appearances feel like non sequiturs), which soften the bite of the more cynical touches—the kite-eating tree, Lucy’s psychiatric help stand, the base cruelty of team sports—even as it exploits them. Schulz must be spinning. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp/Peanuts Worldwide LLC)
Iranian director-in-exile Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s most recent films have been non-narrative allegories about the meaning of art. Here, he returns to topical matters, though in a more conventionally didactic way. The dictatorial president (Misha Gomiashvili) of a fictional Asian country ignores his subjects’ disenchantment and when he and his young grandson are driven from the palace during an uprising, they disguise themselves as refugees. Makhmalbaf avoids his characteristic sentimentality and depicts the president as a man of impossible self-regard, oblivious to the suffering of others. All he cares about is his grandson, who is too innocent to understand his grandfather’s true nature. They meet various poor souls who, unaware of this pair’s real identity, attempt to help them, often at risk to their own well-being. The director successfully conveys the arbitrariness of power—what replaces the dictator is another regime that will likely be just as ruthless. But shaped as a critique of the failed purposes of the Arab Spring, The President is often too obvious in its targets and too talky in its execution.
First released in 2010 but filmed three years earlier, Restrepo has already garnered a reputation as one of the grittiest war documentaries ever made. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger embedded themselves with a platoon of American soldiers in an Afghanistan valley for 15 months. Any explanation about the reason for the mission is offered by the soldiers themselves, but in any case it is a very dangerous mission. The title is the name of a soldier who was killed prior to the assignment, and for which the outpost is named. A good part of the screen time is actionless—the soldiers seem more likely to die of tedium than from the bullets of Taliban snipers—but when battle erupts it is sudden, chaotic, and deadly. More involving, however, is the platoon’s often confused interactions with non-aggressive locals, which does more to explain the reality of the overall situation. Korengal is a sequel of sorts cobbled together from unused footage and followup information about the status of the mission after 2010. It is mostly redundant. (photo: Goldcrest Films, Outpost Films)
Soaked in Bleach
A welcome but squirm-inducing corrective to Montage of Heck, the over-praised art project-cum-documentary centered on Kurt Cobain’s personal effluvia, Benjamin Statler’s film lays its paranoia on the table. Positing the possibility that the Nirvana front man’s death was not a suicide by interviewing forensic experts and recreating the path of Tom Grant, the private eye hired by Courtney Love days before her husband’s body was found, using Grant’s own on-screen testimony and some well-lit but cheesy reenactments, Statler never accuses Love of being a murderer, but there are talking heads who point out how much she had to gain by Cobain’s death. That implication explains why this film has gone straight to video while the Love-sanctioned Montage has become an art house item. Statler’s methodology scans as conspiracy theory, but the empirical data presented is compelling, and there are more than a few Cobain acquaintances who insist that he was a bullshit artist of the first order, thus deflating his image as a depressive, wounded soul. It’s the kind of stuff that needs to be refuted or elaborated on. (photo: Suburban Hitchhiker LLC)
The best thing about Skyfall, the previous Bond film, was that it ended on a note of finality. Though Casino Royale rebooted the franchise in a way that retained the grittier cliches of the series while adding a more potent dash of danger, the subsequent films were made to tie into an ongoing narrative that attempted to explain the way 007’s mind worked and why he was a sadistic, alchoholic mysogynist. If it seemed like an overreaction to the PC darts post-millennial audiences were throwing at the superspy, it also contradicted the simple pleasures that seemed as anachronistic as Sean Connery’s hairpieces. The only thing the last four movies had going for it was Daniel Craig, whose Bond really did embody the worst traits of the character and duly suffered for it. So it was nice when Skyfall seemed to put an end to all that, but apparently it didn’t. Though Spectre opens with one of the best action sequences in the series, an uninterrupted tracking shot that takes Bond from the streets of Mexico City during a Day of the Dead celebration into a hotel room with a willing senorita and out onto the rooftops to a terrorist lair and then up into the blue in a helicopter on which he battles two baddies. As it turns out, Bond is once again following his nose rather than orders. Specifically, he’s chasing a lead suggested by the previous M (Judy Dench), who died in Skyfall but not before leaving him a video message charging him with one last assignment. The new M (Ralph Fiennes) won’t have any of it and, unaware of his predecessor’s video, grounds Bond, who himself won’t have any of M’s directives, so once again we are forced to watch a rogue 007 take on the villains of the world single-handedly in order to purge his personal demons, which are all contained in one character, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who you may remember from the Connery days as the leader of the titular evil empire. But you can’t go home again, and this blast from the past feels desperate, a blockbuster example of having your cake and eating it too. Which isn’t to say Spectre isn’t enjoyable—actually, it’s the most fun Bond film since Casino Royale—only that it invests its considerable resources into something the audience doesn’t really need: meaning. Though Bond’s globetrotting here is superfluous it provides some excellent excuses for the kind of mischief Bond excels at: a superbly choreographed car chase through the streets of Roma and a fist fight on a train with a right formidable bruiser (Dave Bautista). Even the climactic blowout, which takes place on and around the Thames, is staged for maximum visceral pleasure, but by then it’s an explosion too far since it’s at the service of a plot turn that even the scriptwriters don’t seem sold on. (photo: Danjaq, MGM, CPII)
Straight Outta Compton
Not the first nor the last Hollywood hip-hop biopic, this chronicle of the rise and fall of gangsta rap progenitors N.W.A. is certainly the most ambitious so far, and while the pedigree of the people involved is impressive—executive produced by members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, as well as member Eazy-E’s widow, directed by homeboy F. Gary Gray, and with a star turn by Cube’s own son playing his father—it naturally gives rise to suspicions that the story, already controversial, will be skewed to put these principals in the best light. What might throw viewers off this track is the surface textures, which highlight the social abrasion of life in the black, lower middle class community of Compton in the late 80s and early 90s. The film opens with a shock to the system: pint-sized dope dealer Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) busts into an armed house to complain to a supposed business ally about logistics, and just as he’s about to get blown away the cops come and all hell breaks loose. This sequence makes too things clear: Compton is a war zone, and Eazy is a crazy motherfucker. Gray and his screenwriters elaborate on the former point as they introduce the other members, who only want to do rap music as gangbangers shoot up the hood and the cops shake down anyone darker than Pat Boone in response. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) writes rhymes about all this, and while he gets good responses from audiences has a tough time convincing local promoters and club owners, who counterintuitively think there’s no money in it. That all changes when Cube joins forces with DJs Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and another MC, Ren (Aldis Hodge), to form N.W.A. The only thing they need is money and talk Eazy into investing his ill-gotten gains. In the process, Dre also gets him to rap in the movie’s most entertaining and, for that matter, believable scene. Though Cube writes most of the lyrics and is by far the crew’s most dynamic presence, Eazy takes the spotlight and thus becomes the target of veteran music agent Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who quickly turns the group into a national scandal-sensation. Heller and, later, Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), who steals Dre away from the group after Cube has left in disgust over money matters, are the film’s heavies (Giamatti has developed a lucrative sub-career playing famous negative influences in the annals of pop), with Cube and Dre its moral conscience and Eazy it’s tragic innocent. Given how broadly delineated gangsta rap’s dramatic particulars are, this Manichean view of the N.W.A. saga is to be expected, but if, to paraphrase another influential late 80s rap collective, you believe the hype you’re just falling for the same old Hollywood bullshit, something Cube the movie star knows very well. (photo: Universal Studios)
The Strange Case of Angelica
Though centenarian Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira has been eclectic in his prodigious post-millennial output, the operative adjective for all his work has been “fantastical.” In this 2010 feature a young photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), is hired to take pictures of a young woman named Angelica who has just died of unnamed causes. The corpse is beautiful, smiling, and surrounded by a dozen kin. Isaac snaps away, and through his viewfinder sees Angelica open her eyes and looks directly at him. No one else sees it. The unsettling image haunts him for days. He dreams of flying through the sky with Angelica, and even sees her in his waking hours. Isaac’s obsession is often addressed passively: his landlady remarks on his behavior to her other tenants, and when Isaac photographs a group of orchard workers it seems like an attempt to get his mind off something else. Oliviera’s point is metaphorical and blunter than it needs to be, but the movie casts its own spell on the viewer, who becomes as haunted by that smile as Isaac is. (photo: Filmes Do Tejo II, Eddie Saeta S.A., Les Films De l’Apres-Midi, Mostra Internacional de Cinema)
Ryoo Seung-wan’s blockbuster intensifies the comic violence of Lethal Weapon with a home-grown flair for the casually ridiculous. Detective Seo Do-chul (Hwang Jeong-min) busts a ring of car smugglers and is set for a long-deserved promotion despite his unorthodox methods, which include beating the shit out of crooks. Though Seo is dangerous, he has an incorruptible moral core and begins to suspect that the playboy scion (Yoo Ah-in) to a Chaebol conglomerate is responsible for the near fatal injury of a truck driver acquaintance. His superiors tell him to lay off, not just because it’s out of his jurisdiction, but because the authorities are in the playboy’s pocket. Seo’s determination is irresistible, and Ryoo rewards our fascination with set pieces that transcend the absurd. If Seo is the cop who risks his life to bring bad men to justice, the playboy is the ultimate incarnation of venal self-preservation, and when the two square off one-on-one on a crowded Seoul street, there’s enough blood and crunched bone for a whole precinct. To some, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself. (photo: CJ E&M Corp.)
Woman in Gold
Covering similar ground as that explored by Monuments Men but more coherently, this true story nevertheless feels just as contrived. Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an elderly Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazis in 1938 and eventually settled in California. When her sister dies, she learns that a famous painting by Klimt which was once in her family’s possession (the subject is her Aunt Adele) may legally belong to her. The picture was stolen by the Nazis and later repatriated by the Austrian government, which has since claimed it as a seminal work of national culture. Altmann hires Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a struggling young attorney and the great-grandson of the namesake Austrian composer, to help her get it back, not out of possessiveness but rather a sense of “justice.” The distinction isn’t always clear, but in any case, the Austrian authorities prove to be almost as mean-spirited as the Germans they once answered to, and most of the movie is a fruitless legal tug-of-war, interrupted by flashbacks explaining Altmann’s upbringing in a cultured, upper class—though doomed—Viennese family. Director Simon Curtis and Mirren go to great pains to maintain this Old European attitude in the character. Though Altmann lives modestly in California, she retains a patrician air, and at first her determination to gain possession of the painting seems material and haughty, behavior that’s intensified by the actress’s posture and diction. Schoenberg, who can speak German, represents the more American sensibility of this Teutonic immigrant story, and while Reynolds provides needed dramatic ballast, he often looks as if he’s wandered in from an episode of Boston Legal. Mirren is a resourceful enough actor to eventually gain the viewer’s sympathy, though she’s helped enormously by the flashback sequences, where her character’s younger incarnation is played by Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black fame. The Old World-New World divide is also emphasized by Daniel Bruhl in the perfunctory role of an Austrian journalist whose sole purpose seems to be to add historical explication where needed, and Katie Holmes as Schoenberg’s preternaturally supportive young wife, an important consideration since the lawyer’s obsession with the case soon outstrips the plaintiff’s, and Reynolds isn’t as good at conveying this sort of passion as Mirren is, even when she’s in stern schoolteacher mode. (photo: The Weinstein Co./British Broadcasting Corp./Origin Pictures Ltd.)