January 2016 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.

aboutrayAbout Ray
Gaby Dellal’s bittersweet comedy assumes so many edgy POVs that it feels drained of meaning, with the resulting vacuum filled by a rush of barbed jokes and conventional domestic drama. The titular adolescent (Elle Fanning) is hoping to transition from a girl to a boy but needs both parents’ permission. Her put-upon single mom (Naomi Watts) is hard pressed to locate, much less contact, Ray’s father (Tate Donavan), who is cosily ensconced in the suburbs with a new family, so the kid’s impatience turns into the usual caustic teenage truculence, exacerbated by her and her mother’s material situation. They live with Ray’s grandmoter (Susan Sarandon) and the grandmother’s female lover (Linda Emond) in a stylish Manhattan town house. This purposely challenging clash of social dynamics becomes almost too much, and while the dialogue is often rich and Watts transcends her thankless role as enabler-in-charge with a portrait of desperation that’s much more effective than Fanning’s, the viewer never really empathizes with anyone’s situation because there’s nothing much to identify with. I mean, where do they get their money? (photo: Big Beach LLC)

BRIDGE OF SPIESBridge of Spies
The first ten minutes of Steven Spielberg’s new Cold War thriller contain almost no dialogue, but for some reason you don’t note it until someone actually opens their mouth to talk. It’s the late 50s, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the seemingly unemployed gentleman under scrutiny, whose name we later learn is Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), does little more than paint, and pictures of himself, for that matter. After he receives a phone call he goes out and runs an errand that has something to do with a hollowed-out nickel and involves lots of walking and catching glances. It’s a measure of Spielberg’s mastery of cinematic space that you know what Abel is doing even if you can’t quite work out the logistics. But obviously, someone else has, because as soon as he returns to his apartment it’s raided by half a dozen men in identical suits and hats—the FBI. Silence will essentially be the leitmotif of the rest of the film, even though it is filled with a lot of talk; that’s because spies aren’t supposed to talk. They’re supposed to keep quiet, watch, and report only when called upon to do so. Nevertheless, the U.S. government has to put Abel on trial, even if they get nothing out of him, and hire ace insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him, mostly out of courtesy to the Constitution. The public would prefer Abel hang, and part of Donovan’s remuneration presumably covers the cost of being seen to be a near traitor by a good portion of the American people. Justice is, of course, served, and Abel doesn’t hang because he may prove valuable later down the line, though the people don’t know that. This legal drama is only half the film, and while it’s the better half it isn’t the exciting half, because several years later the U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the USSR and doesn’t have the courtesy to off himself as he was ordered to do under such circumstances. The game now is to get Powers out of Russia before he cracks and says something the U.S. will regret, and they use Abel as a bargaining chip. Donovan, who has come to know and, to a certain extent, respect the Communist spy (a German), acts as liaison, without his family or too many other people knowing about it. The intrigue happens in Berlin, of course, the postwar physical embodiment of an ethical gray area, and as in the opening sequence Spielberg charts the complicated and delicate machinations that Donovan has to carry out, sometimes improvisationally, and which leads to an outcome that can satisfy everyone…or, almost everyone. While realists might gripe the movie is too neat, sometimes neatness is really, really impressive. (photo: Dreamworks II Distribution Co. LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Corp.)

closertogodCloser to God
It’s difficult to get a handle on director Billy Senese’s views about the applications of genetic manipulation. His low-budget speculative feature doesn’t know if it wants to be a cautionary tale or a horror movie, and his protagonist, biologist Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs), is so boring that you struggle to understand his reasoning. Reed has successfully cloned a baby girl, and the news leaks to the media and then the public, which camps out in front of his spooky, strangely baronial home accusing him of playing God and throwing burning doll parts over his fence. Inside, Reed’s wife (Shannon Hoppe) feels as if she and her two biological daughters are under siege, but what she doesn’t know is that the baby girl is Reed’s second attempt, and that his first, a little boy named Ethan, is still alive and locked away in another house on the property. When Ethan escapes and starts knocking off the help, the cautionary stuff comes to the fore, as if to say cloning is arrogant and dangerous, but only if you do it wrong. (photo: Closer To God LLC)

Rocky was the heavyweight spoiler of American 1970s cinema, a crowd-pleasing, old-fashioned melodrama that slew the storied competition at the 1976 Oscars, and one of the great things about the seventh installment in the series is how it reminds us what a unique accomplishment the original was. Creed shows how Philadelphia in 2015 hasn’t changed that much in forty years, except now it’s the black working class that has to fight out of the circumstances that keep it down. The title refers to the paternity of Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), namely, Apollo Creed, the man Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) fought in that first movie, and who became Rocky’s best friend before he died in the ring. Donnie is the product of a sexual liaison and never knew his father. He grows up in foster care and juvenile centers, spoiling for a fight with anyone who looks sideways at him, and then Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), adopts the boy and installs him in her Los Angeles mansion, even gets him a job with a finance company. But the scrapper remains. Donny spends his weekends in Tijuana boxing locals for the hell of it. Attempting something more substantial, the gym where his father trained refuses to work with him because Mary Anne disapproves, understanding what a boxing career does to the body and mind. So he packs up and moves to Philadelphia to confront the legendary Italian Stallion, who still runs that restaurant and lives in a world of ghosts. From here, writer-director Ryan Coogler does as he’s told, and overlays Donnie’s story with that of Rocky. After Rocky reluctantly agrees to train him, much to the chagrin of old boxing hands who don’t trust this restless black man, Donny repeats the grueling regimen that Rocky carried out in the first movie. He also falls in love with his own version of Adrian, but instead of Talia Shire’s painful insecurity, Tessa Thompson’s singer Bianca has to overcome a hearing defect and unease with Donnie’s over-sensitive nature before she can return his love. What makes the movie so affecting is the way Coogler honors the original’s purpose by improving on its themes and the way they’re delivered. As a young, disaffected black man, Donny is more highstrung than the chickens he chases, and the emotional payoffs are that much more satisfying. Just as Rocky’s date with destiny was secured by a weird twist of fate, Donny’s is confirmed by his pedigree, which attracts the notice of the world’s light heavyweight champion, an English pug named Conlan (Tony Bellew), who needs a payday badly. The boxing scenes are cut and staged with less visceral power than those in Raging Bull, but they’re more athletic and dramatic than any others I can remember, and the actors know exactly how to get the audience revved up, but it’s Stallone who carries the picture with the most intense, self-effacing performance of his life. He’s an old man, and acts like one. (photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Crimson PeakCrimson Peak
Regardless of narrative missteps, Guillermo del Toro’s movies always start from a rigorous attention to production design, which makes sense for someone whose vision of cinema is indistinguishable from fantasy. This ghost story from an original script by the director and Matthew Robbins is so visually engaging that it’s often difficult to see the thematic forest for the art directed trees. After an intriguing setup in late 19th century Buffalo where young Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is plagued by a feverish imagination and wooed by the mysterious British entrepreneur, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), the action moves to England and a haunted house in horrendous disrepair. The setting is so rich with humorous and terrible detail that the ghost-derived shocks don’t always have the intended effect, but in any case the real horror is Sharpe’s sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who has evil designs on her new sister-in-law. Even when these designs are explained and the blood flows freely, the gothic cast of the diabolical scheming dampens their impact. Del Toro luxuriates in decrepitude, and the effect is numbing. (photo: Universal Studios)

Unlike his Joy Division movie, Anton Corbijn’s take on the mystique of James Dean derives its power by focusing on a circumscribed period in the artist’s development. This is Dean even before he had released a film. Waiting for East of Eden to premiere and fishing for the lead in Rebel, the young actor (Dane Dehaan) attracts the attention of photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), who senses greatness and wants to do a magazine feature, though his agent back in New York would rather he just cover red carpet events. Dean’s artistic iconoclasm poisons his view of publicity, which he wants nothing to do with, and at first he rejects Stock’s entreaties; that is, until a long night of debauchery in New York and a subsequent visit to Dean’s hometown in Iowa. Corbijn, perhaps inadvertently, demonstrates how these episodes sealed Dean’s image as moody genius and Stock’s career as an artist, but as history the movie is lazy. Sideshows like Eartha Kitt, Piers Angeli, and Jack Warner come across as 2-dimensional cliches, and Stock’s unhappy domestic situation is a non-starter. (photo: Caitlin Cronenberg/See-Saw Films)

oneononeOne on One
Kim Ki-duk has never been averse to criticizing social systems and attitudes, though he usually does it from a skewed angle that exploits his aesthetic reputation as a visual and not just cultural provocateur. One on One starts out as a polemic, and proceeds to reduce its “message” about current Korean politics to white noise. Centered on an outlaw organization that kidnaps corporate men for crimes against humanity, the script is so bogged down in metaphors (the victims are accused of being responsible for the death of a girl name “Min-ju”—Korean for “democracy”) that it rarely breaks through as drama, despite the endless scenes of torture and righteous indignation. Kim gets more mileage out of the set design—the dungeon would be the envy of Eli Roth—than he does the ham-fisted dialogue. Even more perplexing is the story development, as the victims shift from feelings of revenge to those of guilt and redemption, none of which are convincing. Though Kim has made bad films before, here he does something worse. One on One is boring. (photo: KIM Ki-duk Film)

This CG-heavy adaptation of the Michael Bond books about a Peruvian bear living in London with a middle class family refuses to resort to the devices that modern-day kids’ movie utilize to get a rise out of presumably jaded adolescents. The premise is suitably ridiculous and much is made of Paddington’s (Ben Whishaw) heritage as the offspring of bears who were “civilized” in the wild by a jaunty British explorer. When his only guardian is forced to enter an assisted living facility for bears, young Paddington stows away on a freighter and makes his way to the UK, where he is adopted by the Browns, whose patriarch (Hugh Bonneville) would rather call the RSPCA while his wife (Sally Hawkins) thinks talking bears are cool and his kids have more important things to think about. The comedic qualities don’t resort to snarky references about pop culture, but rather a subplot involving a sexy taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who wants to stuff Paddington for twisted reasons. Despite some questionable grossout humor, the movie is visually compelling and highly entertaining. (photo: Studio Canal S.A. TFI Films Prod. S.A.S)

pawnPawn Sacrifice
For reasons that aren’t fully clear this engrossing drama about the epic and politically charged 1972 chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky took more than a year to achieve a theatrical release after its favorable festival reception in 2014. Though Cold War thrillers seem all the rage right now (see Bridge of Spies above), Fischer, the hero of his particular skirmish, is not the kind of person the authorities would like to boost as a savior of all that’s American. Later, he would become a virulent anti-Semite (despite being himself a Jew) and, more significantly, anti-American, and was sought for years by the FBI for breaking U.S. trade laws. He died before he could get caught. Director Edward Zwick makes a compelling case that Fischer’s consuming, caustic paranoia was a product of his peculiar upbringing during a very specific period in American history. Interestingly, he was the son of a Polish emigre (Regina Fischer) who, Zwick implies, may have been a Communist sympathizer. Little Bobby is tasked with keeping an eye out for men in dark coats while mom is shtupping whichever boyfriend she favors at the moment. Without a balancing father figure, Bobby retreats into mind games, the most potent of which is chess, and cultivates a hatred for everything his mother stands for, whether it be free love or socialist theory. As the years go by and Bobby’s skills as a chess player catch the attention of the world, he can’t help but notice that the greatest chess players are Russians, and whether or not this knowledge pushes him further into the game he formulates a life plan that sees him eventually defeating their best players, but it will be a victory for himself, not his country. Nevertheless, his country sees the PR advantages and soon one of those guys in dark coats, a lawyer named Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), prods him into carrying out his life’s work. He’s joined by Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), the only American chess master to ever beat Bobby, as coach and calming influence, because once Bobby gets into the fight he’s practically Jake Lamotta. The Russians understand this, and successfully block him out of international competitions causing him to quit the game in frustration, and promising to return only when he is given the chance to play the world’s number 1, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), who Zwick presents as a kind of cultured Superman next to Bobby’s skinny, poe-faced bag of neuroses. Though Zwick’s metier has always been the prevalence of the underdog, here he does something more during the epic match in Reykjavik: he makes a cerebral competition visceral. Pawn Sacrifice doesn’t strive for verisimilitude as much as Bridge of Spies does, but it may be even more exciting. (photo: Tony Rivetti Jr.)

???????Pink and Gray
Though it’s adapted from a bestselling novel, Isao Yukisada’s feature makes the most of cinema’s linearity to provide a pleasing jolt when this morality tale about fame and responsibility changes gears midway. Two high school friends (Yuto Nakajima, Masaki Suda) make do with casual modeling gigs and then get into acting, though only one of them makes a success of the latter, becoming a huge star while the other languishes in bit parts and a life of frustration. They share the affections of a woman who can’t seem to decide between them, and then one of them commits suicide. Though not entirely unexpected, the death isn’t what it seems, at least in terms of narrative, which, up to that point, was facile and hackneyed. As it turns out, those qualities were intended, because Yukisado is playing with the viewers’ prejudices about celebrity. But the gimmick is only intriguing for a little while, and soon the film falls back on cliche and trite melodrama, which may be the fault of the cast, who take it all way too seriously. In Japanese. (photo: Pink and Gray Seisaku Iinkai)

Two brothers, both sheep farmers, live next to each other on a sprawling treeless plateau in rural Iceland. They haven’t spoken to each other in forty years, and while the reason is never satisfactorily explained (something to do with an inheritance), it’s easy to comprehend why they’ve remained estranged for so long. Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) is sober and responsible, a man who loves his livestock as if they were his children, while Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson), is a drunk misanthrope whose laziness, it’s implied, has led to an infection in his flock that threatens to destroy his brother’s, as well, not to mention anyone else’s in the vicinity. The most pertinent point in Grimus Hakonarson’s surprisingly suspenseful snow-bound pastoral is that it is Gummi who discovers the disease on Kiddi’s property. Acting out of conscientiousness rather than spite, he reveals his suspicions to the local veterinary association after an annual ceremony at which Kiddi wins the award for the best ram of the year. Hakonarson plays this local celebration for all the rustic humor it’s worth, so Gummi’s determination to be the bearer of bad news and destroy his brother’s brief moment in the sun is particularly dramatic in contrast, and, of course, Kiddi’s enmity against his brother only grows larger, making matters worse between them. For a short while, the internecine feud takes on a cartoonish quality, with shots being fired clumsily through windows and people chasing each other naked through unheated structures. But then Gummi discovers his own flock is infected and he does the proper thing. After that the movie can never recover its oddly flippant tone, though it maintains its humanist theme. Hakonarson has such deep sympathy for this milieu and the people who inhabit it that his juxtaposition of wry humor and crushing remorse never feels like an emotional ploy. It’s his attention to the details of a solitary life—the way Gummi passes the time with his jigsaw puzzles and his careful preparation of meals—that provokes empathy. The movie has everything—pathos, violence, tension, and laughs that are at nobody’s expense—not to mention some very impressive wide-angle landscapes. And while Gummi is the hero of this tale, Kiddi’s transgressions are forgiven in one of the most heartbreaking climaxes you’ll see in a movie all year. In Icelandic. (photo: Netop Films, Hark Kvikmyndagerd, Profile Pictures)

souvenirsLes souvenirs
After her husband dies and she suffers a fall in her Paris apartment, Madeliene’s (Annie Cordy) three middle-aged bald sons talk her into moving into a nursing home, which she does reluctantly. Her only support is her beloved grandson, Romain (Mathieu Spinosi), an innocent young man who wants to be a novelist except he doesn’t have much in the way of experience. For that matter, neither does his newly retired father (Michel Blanc) or his bored housewife mother (Chantal Lauby). In fact, the theme of Jean-Paul Rouve’s adaptation of David Foenkinos’s novel is not so much staying vital right up to the end, but rather that the world must be engaged to be enjoyed. Though the movie’s humor is quaint and its situations staid, the simplicity of Romain’s quest for enlightenment and Madeliene’s last attempt to reconnect with a past she thought she’d forgotten is conveyed with subtle assurance, so even when Romain’s father sees the light near the end, it doesn’t feel as hokey as it might have. It only takes a little shove. In French. (photo: Nolita cinema-TF1 Droits Audiovisuels-UGC Images-Les films du Monsieur-Exodus-Nolita)

syndromesSyndromes and a Century
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2006 feature has taken a while to rate a theatrical release in Japan, despite the fact that it his most accessible film, if “accessible” can be applied to any of them. Ostensibly a veiled memoir about the director’s parents, who were both physicians, the movie is divided in half, with several decades and a marked change in material circumstances differentiating the two parts. The first takes place in a rural Thailand hospital and charts the romantic situation of a young female doctor, though there are so many side trips, both quotidian and surreal, that the viewer requires a loose understanding of “reality” to get the director’s point. The second takes place in the nominal present, at a modern Bangkok hospital, with the same dramatic personae though updated to a certain extent. Weerasethakul’s tangential approach doesn’t feel gratuitous, and whether or not you gain significance from one image to the next, the feeling of nostalgia, of the beat of time marking the evolution of a happy outlook, is never far from the surface. In Thai. (photo: Kick the Machine Films)

Music plays a central role in all of Abderrahmane Sissako’s films, but in his latest it serves as a measure of how far eastern Africa has changed, though this may be a blinkered Western reading of the film’s themes. As an IS-inspired militia takes over the titular area, known in the region as a mostly Muslim and, more significantly, cosmopolitan city, it bans music in all forms, a proscription the residents can hardly follow since music is so integral to their everyday lives. Painfully relevant at the moment, the movie shows how the forces that endeavor to speak for God persecute those who have little choice but to treat these so-called messengers as gods, except they are painfully, almost comically human, unable to stifle desires and lifetimes of conditioning that make them part of the world they try to control. Sissako’s most obvious manifestation of this dynamic is a scene showing the jihadists casually discussing European soccer stars, followed by a game on a dusty pitch by local boys who, forbidden from playing, pantomime without a ball and somehow make a real game of it. Though Timbuktu moves randomly and cautiously among different stories it spends a good deal of time with a family of cattle herders who are judged by the invaders, in particular one worldly Arab (Abel Jafri) who has no comprehension of local customs and languages and channels his frustration into clandestine cigarettes and hitting on the wife (Toulou Kiki) of the herdsman. Unsuccessful in his seductions he passive-aggressively berates her for not covering her head sufficiently. Her husband, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), is also not much of a Muslim in the eyes of the interlopers, but his secular failings are illustrated with an action that, at first, destroys our sympathy for his situation, thus making the viewer more resolute in his or her understanding of what constitutes justice. The horrors of authority that carry death in its grasp are given an everyday, almost nondescript relevance, and even the persecuted are forced to do things they wouldn’t countenance normally. Still, Sissako never loses sight of his own humanity, which demands he plumb the depths of the depicted oppressors who would stone a couple for the suggestion of adultery, and force a young woman to marry a stranger simply because they say the stranger is “right” in their interpretation of Allah’s will, though he is only right in that he has the might. The point is that regardless of our spiritual dedications, we are at the mercy of our feelings, and if we have the upper hand we can act on those feelings. If you concentrate too much on the callousness, if you allow your anger to sway your judgment, you’ll miss Sissako’s point. Faith is in the eye of the beholder, and no one can claim his is greater than yours. In French, Arabic, Bambara & English. (photo: Les Films du Worso, Dune Vision)

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in TriStar Pictures' THE WALK.The Walk
One wonders about Robert Zemeckis’s reaction when James Marsh’s excellent documentary, Man on Wire, was released in 2008. It’s likely at the time that Zemeckis was already thinking of making a feature film about the subject of Marsh’s movie—Philippe Petit’s astounding walk across a high wire suspended between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974—and the doc covered everything that could possibly interest a general audience about the feat. Moreover, it included ongoing voiceover by Petit himself, thus making it the authorized chronicle of the event. Zemeckis’s movie isn’t nearly as fascinating as Marsh’s, but it does have one thing going for it that the doc didn’t: a real-time recreation of the walk itself, and therein lies all the difference in the world. At first, Zemeckis, reverting to the showman mode that created Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, takes a cartoony approach to the material, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the young Petit, sporting a Loony Tunes French accent and standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, talking directly to the audience as if this were a documentary, though one built purely for entertainment purposes. Apropos his calling as a man-of-all-circus-trades, Petit’s narration is manic and often irritating. He elaborates on his development as a street performer, meeting cute with busker Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) as they compete for public real estate in Paris, dodging gendarme with comic aplomb, and eventually happening upon a magazine article about the proposed Twin Towers in a doctor’s waiting room. With the help of his mentor, a Czech circus performer played by Ben Kingsley, he polishes his skills as a high wire performer, all the while plotting his “coup” to sneak into the still-under-construction WTC and set up his performance gear on the sly. That goal, he understands, will require the assistance of others, and he cajoles a math expert (Cesar Domboy), a photographer (Clement Sibony), and, in New York, some shady characters who just want to stick it to the man. Marsh’s movie focused on this part of the story, whose comic-caper suspense elements were geared up to thrilling levels thanks to Petit’s exacting descriptions. Zemeckis downplays the difficulty of actually getting all that gear through security and up to the roof, implying that Americans were more innocent in 1974 and thus easier to fool. But once the film reaches the roof it changes into something else. Of course, it’s all computer graphics and filmic hocus-pocus, but that’s always been Zemeckis’s forte, and the challenges of Petit’s walk obviously inspired the director to, pardon the expression, new heights. And for once, the knowledge of the outcome of a climax doesn’t spoil the experience. Just because we know Petit survived his walk doesn’t detract from the thrill of watching it. It is at once terrifying and achingly beautiful and when it’s over you will feel just as the people did down below.

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