March 2016 movies

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

???????? ???????The Big Short
At the moment there is no more timely piece of entertainment than Adam McKay’s black comedy about the subprime fiasco of 2007-08, considering that we may soon be experiencing the same sort of economic disaster. Charles Randolph’s script is based on Michael Lewis’s non-fiction bestseller, but while most of the characters are based on real people, the situations are invented. McKay, whose comedy resume includes a few Will Ferrell movies, uses laughs to raise the audience’s ire—these clowns brought down the whole banking system—and in the end the viewer may feel more frustrated than enlightened or entertained. Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a cargo-short-wearing, heavy metal-cranking fund manager who has realized the shell game behind the mortgage securities everyone swears can’t fail. He determines they will, and sets out to buy credit default swaps to “short” the instruments, a move that spooks the people who supply him with money and clients but alerts other players on the grid, like Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an excitable bank executive who doesn’t trust his employer and quickly sketches out an end run around his superiors to make sure he’s in on the scam. Meanwhile, two young dorks (John Magaro, Finn Wittrock) with a startup hedge fund think they’re the only ones who notice the coming crash and consult their scruffy guru (Brad Pitt). The film’s narrator and devil’s advocate is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who explains the arcana involved or passes that chore, non sequitur-style, to a real celebrity like Selena Gomez or Margot Robbie (lecturing from a bubble bath, no less). The pace is madcap, the banter screwball precise, and it takes a while for the import of what’s happening to sink in. This deflection is intentional and achieved by means of shouted dialogue. Except for Burry, whose epiphanies occur in isolation, the characters are all so tightly wound they can’t hold a conversation without spitting and hyperventilating. Baum, who may be autistic, is a bullshit detector on legs, suspicious of all around him, a trait that gets him fired. Vennett is a facilitator of shouting, the guy who gets his team worked up to the point that they can’t hold it back. Only Pitt’s Ben Rickert, who has retired from the game, remains calm, which is why he’s also the only man who owns up to the horror he’s helping to perpetrate. See anything in common? Yeah, they’re all men, and what’s more depressing than amusing about The Big Short is its depiction of male entitlement as the source of all that’s wrong with the world. It’s not a bold assertion, but as it’s presented it may be just as cynical as the people who made money from this catastrophe, and I’m not sure if McKay and Randolph don’t share in that cynicism. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

It may sound like faint praise, but the best thing about Todd Haynes’ romantic drama is its attention to period detail. Though anyone with money can hire a good production designer, what Haynes achieves in his depiction of early 50s East Coast life is a feeling of alienation from the world on the screen. It’s not just the integrity of the visuals, but also the way behavior and speech have been calibrated to keep the viewer off balance. It’s an historical film that’s been carefully stripped of all anachronistic touches. Rooney Mara’s would-be bohemian, Therese, is so innocent about her desires that when she falls in love at first sight with the older, blue-blooded Carol (Cate Blanchett) in an upscale department store, it feels not only real but somehow inevitable, and all the more surprising, too. Likewise, Carol’s more measured approach to the affair—she left her husband some time ago—sets off an emotional flux of enormous proportions, lifting the story out of its melodramatic parameters and into the realm of the archetypal. The fact that the central romantic relationship is a same sex one is hardly incidental, but Haynes is meticulous about separating the personal from the social. This aspect is most pronounced in Therese’s relationship with Richard (Jake Lacy), the young man who has a crush on her and isn’t averse to her ambitions of being a photographer. More to the point, he seems less bothered by Therese’s attraction to an older woman than he is by the notion that he is being rejected in the process. Likewise, Carol’s ex-husband, the truly archetypal Harge (Kyle Chandler), who has known about his wife’s proclivities for years, takes a common sense approach to Carol’s latest “infatuation,” and uses it to his advantage, even as he claims he would prefer she reconfirm her domestic status for the sake of their child. He uses practicality as a weapon, and what makes Carol such an appealing figure is how she resists his bullying manner despite the cost. In that regard, Carol is a love story for the ages, since the obstacles to love are prodigious and scary, but even more the movie is a time capsule that delivers era-specific emotional truths directly to your heart. We can’t help but view the story, which Patricia Highsmith published in the 50s under a pseudonym—not because she was afraid of the lesbian subtext, but because it wasn’t in the style of her usual potboilers—with the moral incisiveness that hindsight affords, but thanks to Haynes’ genius for compartmentalization, it tells you exactly how people felt during that time. (photo: Number 9 Films (Carol) Ltd./Channel Four Television Corp.)

Decline1_main_[Darby Crash]The Decline of Western Civilization
Penelope Spheeris’s 1981 documentary about the Los Angeles punk scene is famous for being very punk-rock itself. Focusing on five acts of varying degrees of transgressive attitude and musical ability, the movie’s limited tech features add to its scuzzy appeal. More to the point, the interviews with scenesters and zine publishers are just as arresting as the interviews with the musicians in that they genuinely show up how muddled the thinking of the musicians are. It’s why the LA scene was so toxic: These people didn’t believe in anything. The performances, especially by X, can be riveting, and Spheeris displays a unique eye for composing sight against sound, though maybe it’s out of necessity given how small the venues are. The weirdest thing is that it’s not as dated as you might imagine. Her subsequent two docs in the series—Part II (1988) about the L.A. metal scene and Part III (1998) about homeless teens who live the punk life—will also be shown in tandem following the original. It would be too much to take them in all at once. (photo: Spheeris Films Inc.)

It’s pointless to say that Quentin Tarantino has grown too big for his britches. He was already stretching the wasteband with Pulp Fiction, and if he’s remained relevant as an idiosyncratic major filmmaker since then it’s because he has stayed true to a vision that’s more sophisticated than the pulpy movies he champions. He’s by no means an art movie director, but he knows art and how mainstream fare often betrays it base appeal by short-changing the intelligence of its audience. With his new Western, he’s cashed his check and spent it on a 70mm road show format, complete with overture and intermission, a score by Ennio Morricone, and a huge cast of actors whom he paid premium for. But by blowing his wad he seems to have neglected his credo, which is to not produce a story that can be called out. Set mostly in a snowed-in cabin in Wyoming not long after the Civil War, The Hateful Eight involves two bounty hunters, Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell), transporting, respectively, dead cargo and a real live wire by the name of Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a murderer set to hang in the next town. Seeking refuge in the remote Minnie’s Haberdashery, these three and a would-be sheriff (Walton Goggins) they picked up along the way, encounter a motley enough bunch to provide Tarantino with plenty of fun dialogue, not to mention the viewer with suspicions as to their all being here in one place. Though his set pieces always read like soliloquies for the stage, this is his first movie where everything feels like a play, and while the static mise en scene doesn’t detract from the give-and-take, it does make it that much more difficult to pull off the kind of switchback plot development the director has in mind. Much of the subtext is the war itself, where Warren, a black Union officer, didn’t think twice about killing rebel prisoners. This poisoned piece of intelligence is a red herring, the kind of plot device the purist Tarantino should despise, but maybe in his ardor to incorporate something racial into every script he writes he didn’t notice a problem. And as the players square off into alliances that seem counterintuitive, the mystery deepens—and the bloodshed begins. As the only female in this octet, Daisy is the character you watch the most. Much has been made of the violence visited upon her, but being offended by such behavior means we have to care not so much about Daisy but about the world this microcosm represents, and, in the end, it represents nothing except Tarantino’s version of a trite Western trope, the explanation of which is so simple it would be a spoiler. Those britches are in stitches. (photo: The Weinstein Co. LLC)

IMG_6407.CR2The Lobster
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s first feature in English isn’t much different in tone and sensibility from his previous curiosities (Dogtooth, Alps), but the fact that the language is understandable works to demystify a lot of what Lanthimos is attempting, and the results are somehow less salubrious. In this particular world, people who lose their spouses through divorce or death are required to check into a facility where they are charged with finding a new mate, and if they fail they will be turned into an animal of their choice. David’s (Colin Farrell) is the titular crustacean because they live long. Predictably, he doesn’t have much luck, but it’s difficult to pay attention to his plight with all the peripheral nonsense Lanthimos throws into the frame, including ludicrous hunting excursions, off-kilter dance parties, and humiliating health exams to make sure the “guests” aren’t masturbating. By now, the director has perfected a sort of slapstick violence that is simultaneously hilarious and disturbing, but there’s no substance to his allegory, if, in fact, that’s what it’s supposed to be. (photo: Element Pictures, Scarlet Films, Faliro House Prod. SA, Haut et Court, Lemming Film, The British Film Institute, Channel Four Television Corp.)

B027_R001_10277CLove 3D
It’s easy to prepare yourself for Gaspar Noe’s patented provocations, since his blackout style and modes of provocation—unsimulated sex and sudden bursts of emotional and/or physical violence—hardly change from one movie to another, even if his last one, Enter the Void, had a bit more whimsy. Though not the last word in obsessive love, his latest puts 3D to tacky use in the service of a story he probably thinks is pretty deep. Murphy (as in “law”), an American film student in Paris (Karl Glusman), falls seriously in love with the exotic, hyper-sexual Electra (Aomi Muyock), and though every other scene is a sex one, you almost feel relief whenever they start rutting because at least you don’t have to listen to the guy’s boneheaded voiceovers, which are all about the loss of self (“I wish I didn’t exist right now”). Murphy’s all-American racism and sexism is obviously meant to juice the audience’s gag reflex. Besides, in Japan you can’t see the sex details, so the 3D is just a waste. (photo: Les Cinemas de la Zone-Rectangle Prod.-Wild Bunch-RT Features-Scope Pictures)

martianThe Martian
These days, it seems we appreciate our cinematic science fiction more if it comes with an overlay of geeky techno-realism, and Ridley Scott’s take on Andy Weir’s bestseller does a fair job of incorporating the fact-based material into the suspenseful storyline. Matt Damon is so perfectly cast as the muscular, brainy, impossibly even-tempered botanist-astronaut Mark Watney that he practically writes his own lines. An accident at the NASA Mars base strands him on the red planet, but his fellow explorers, led by the steely Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and the folks back home think he’s dead. When they find out he isn’t, it’s as if the entire universe works together to ensure his return, but in the meantime he’s on his own and gets down to his resourceful thing. He manages to expand on his greenhouse project and cultivates a field of potatoes that should be enough to keep him fed until someone or something can return to retrieve him. Naturally, things screw up, otherwise the movie doesn’t have a lot of dramatic traction, and the script makes sure we understand why things screw up. Meanwhile, back on earth various bit players connive to make sure the solution to the problem is as unexpected as can be, and while the explanation of this solution is pitched at the layman’s level, thanks mainly to the inclusion of a NASA functionary (Jeff Daniels) whose skills are administrative rather than technical, the creaking plot mechanics are loud enough to wake the sleeping teens in the balcony. But what the movie misses more than anything is the edgy wonder we normally expect from science fiction. Gravity had the advantage of scale, and though it fronted as science rather than fiction, those vistas in Imax 3D were more mind-blowing than anything in Middle Earth. The Martian seems hardly concerned with the planet its named after except as a problem to address. There’s nothing about it that makes us want to find out more; even the storm that causes the problems in the first place seems hardly exceptional, and nothing compared to that tsunami in Interstellar, a movie that, for all its needless complications, at least injected some wide-eyed fantasy into its physics. There’s no denying the ingenuity of both the man on the screen and the people behind the camera in The Martian, but a little of this sort of determination goes a long way. The movie is just one long build-up to the rescue attempt. It’s entertaining but feels hopelessly lost in its own integrity. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

Shots from "Mia Madre"Mia Madre
Director Nanni Moretti recently lost his mother, so it’s tempting to read his own story into that of Margherita (Margherita Buy), the filmmaker whose own mother is dying during the course of Moretti’s new movie. But Margherita’s circumstances are gender-specific. She is a woman in a male-dominated industry, illustrated to comic effect in one instance where Margherita blocks out a scene on her movie set while being followed by a knot of black-clothed males. The film-within-the-film, which stars an insecure, temperamental American actor (John Turturro), has already done a number on her nerves, and after every day’s shooting she contends with her mother’s (Giulia Lazzarini) deteriorating condition. The fact that her soft-spoken brother (Moretti) is there most of the time is not much comfort to her. It exacerbates her feelings of guilt, which Moretti depicts with blackouts that could be fantasias or flashbacks. The more dramatic scenes go on too long and a lot of the material seems gratuitous, but Margherita is a fascinating, heart-wrenching character, a perfect portrait of middle aged anxiety. In Italian. (photo: Sacher Film, Fandanfo, Le Pacte, Arte France Cinema)

?????????Ricki and the Flash
The names are impressive and, in the end, misleading. The director is Jonathan Demme, the youngest of the Hollywood upstarts who emerged in the 70s, the scenarist Diablo Cody, whose expressive nom de plume telegraphs her reputation as the boldest of the new breed of writers, as evidenced by her scripts for Juno and Young Adult. Then there’s Meryl Streep being paired with her daughter, the up-and-coming Mamie Gummer. Add former rock/soap heartthrob Rick Springfield as an aging guitarist and you have the makings of an interesting take on whatever it is these people are doing. And while Ricki and the Flash is an earnestly made, thoughtful consideration of how personal cultural choices affect relationships over the long run, it’s dramatically at odds with itself. Streep is the title character, a boomer who chucked marriage and motherhood to pursue her dream of the rock n roll life, and has a regular gig at a bar in the San Fernando Valley playing classic rock tunes for folks her age and younger people who are obviously not into hip-hop. During the day she makes an actual living working at a coffee shop in a mall. Ricki’s an interesting character on the surface, a red-state “supporter of our troops” who doesn’t care for Obama. She sleeps with her guitarist, Greg (Springfield), who clearly adores her, but seems, in a nod to male rock stereotypes, uncommitted to something more permanent. She’s already had that, and an inevitable reckoning with the past she’d prefer to leave there comes when her daughter, Julie (Gummer), attempts suicide after her own divorce. Ricki’s ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), who still calls her by her real name, Linda, summons her back to Indiana, where he lives in late middle age comfort in a huge house with his second wife (Audra McDonald), the woman who raised Ricki’s three children after she left. The first problem with Cody’s story is that it’s difficult to understand what Pete thought Ricki could do, since Julie hates her mother’s guts and Ricki doesn’t think she has any place in this family’s collective life. The drama that ensues, complete with recriminations and heartily shed tears, has a forced quality, as if mandated by the studio. The eventual reconciliation, while tastefully staged by Demme, is set at a wedding, a cliche that Cody should be expected to subvert but, instead, plays strictly for the usual bittersweet payoff, complete with a Springsteen song that Ricki sings for the newlyweds. As usual, the only thing that emerges unscathed from this clash of half-baked sensibilities is Streep’s performance. Ricki remains stubbornly unsympathetic to the end, a mildly gifted musician whose dedication to her art has not been honored by the marketplace and thus whose decision to follow her muse feels like a serious miscalculation, and one she won’t acknowledge. That’s the story Cody should have harnessed, not the one about familial love being incontrovertible.

IMG_0091.CR2The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Given that seniors have a sooner sell-by date that the rest of humanity, a sequel to the popular movie about a down-at-the-heels Indian hotel catering to retired British elders sounds like a stretch, and to his credit director John Madden doesn’t allow the proceedings to get too morbid. Nevertheless, the viewer may sense a feeling of futility. The local, clumsy boy wonder, Sonny (Dev Patel), still runs the establishment, now with the help of the salty ex-housekeeper, Muriel (Maggie Smith), and is still not married to his fiancee Suneina (Tena Desae). The underlying conflict has to do with the two proprietors trying to secure a loan from a San Diego hotel developer for an annex, and in the opening scene Muriel takes the lead in the negotiations while barely hiding her disgust with the American sensibility. The scene is both valuable and limiting in that it posits Maggie Smith as the film’s secret weapon but gives the impression that she’s mostly here for color and perspective, and, for sure, as the movie unfolds her role is eclipsed by the various comedic and melancholic sideshows, in particular Sonny’s jealousy of a handsome friend whom he believes is vying for Suneina’s affections, and the attempts of divorced Douglas (Bill Nighy) to make Evelyn (Judi Dench) want to spend the rest of her days with him. Unfortunately, the script gives the impression that Evelyn’s newfound success as a textile exporter would be at odds with this romantic possibility, as if the two prospects were mutually exclusive. As it stands, the sequel tempers romance with commerce, as evidenced by the arrival of a new oldster, Richard Gere as a single traveler whom Sonny is convinced is a spy from the developer to find out if their core business is good enough to invest in. This interloper has the nerve to try and pick up Sonny’s widowed mother (Lillete Dubey), and while they make a cute couple, Gere’s very American presence spoils the staid British tone of the movie. He’s just not a comic actor, and every scene he enters wilts. More to the point, the sequel barely seems interested in the other holdovers from the original, the playboy-wannabe Norman (Ronald Pickup) and his two female suitors, Madge (Celia Imrie) and Jean (Penelope Wilton), whose stories are so watered down you never get a grip on what they’re competing for. The film’s premise that seniors can have satisfying, compelling sex lives is fully engaged by the cast, who are attractive and game, and seem truly enamored of their adopted milieu. Whatever you want to say about the film’s prioritizing Caucasians, at least the white folks have assimilated in a way that doesn’t condescend. I don’t think Maggie Smith would have appeared in the movie if it did. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

Though Emily Blunt is the central character in Denis Villeneuve’s vision of the Mexican drug war, her FBI agent, Kate Macer, is kept in the dark for much of the film with regard to the real purpose of a special team she’s assigned to and which is trying to nail one particularly vicious honcho living in Mexico, meaning outside the jurisdiction of the team, which is headed by the uncomfortably cool Matt (Josh Brolin) and made more mysterious by the somber presence of Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), the only Hispanic. As Kate slowly puts the pieces together she is subjected to a near rape-murder, lots of mutilated corpses, and a general condescending attitude from her all-male group of colleagues. Villeneuve maintains a potent sense of dread mostly through lighting and indirection, but for the sake of story effect he occasionally leaves Kate’s POV, and the change, especially during the tense denouement, is discouraging, since it feels like such a cheat. We know Kate’s a pawn, but it seems like a betrayal when Blunt is treated that way, as well. (photo: Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.)

stevejobs_mainSteve Jobs
It doesn’t matter that Steve Jobs was produced after that disastrous, rushed Ashton Kutcher biopic. If anything, the care that went into it contrasts even more starkly with its predecessor, not to mention its impressive staff (Aaron Sorkin, Danny Boyle) and cast (Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s thus easy to overlook its pretentions, which challenge Jobs’ own as a bullying prima donna, regardless of the genius on display. Sorkin structures his tale as prologues to three of the Apple founder’s famous keynote speeches/product launches, and does an excellent job of integrating insight into the Zeitgeist along with tech babble and revelations of Jobs’ messy private life, which involve not only conflicts with his professional colleagues, but loved ones who justifiably don’t feel as loved as they should. Winslet is the ringer as his long-suffering German-accented assistant, who despite the actor’s inventive performance feels like a clever plot device. Insofar as Sorkin’s dialogue is always simultaneously entertaining and infuriating, the movie is a satisfying study of megalomania, but it’s also as phony as hell. (photo: Universal Studios/Universal Pictures)

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