Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on April 25.
Captain America: Civil War
No, Cap hasn’t been transported back in time to fight the Rebs. The internecine struggle indicated by the title is between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), thus making this latest Marvel blockbuster not only another chapter in the Avengers series, but also an inadvertent (?) Marvel response to the recent Batman versus Superman fiasco. That it isn’t a fiasco itself says more about Marvel Studios’ knowhow as purveyors of cinematic bombast than any distinctions you might want to draw between the two superhero institutions as institutions. Marvel has had more practice and are better at spending money than the DC people, even if the DC people have been in the comics game much longer. In a more essential way, Marvel, while always a bit too casual with the cynicism, bothers to consider the superhero genre as something that actually has an influence on society. The problem with the Superman and Batman movies is that they’re so generic. The civil war in this instance is sparked by something us skeptics have always huffed about in these movies: the incredible collateral damage that comes with saving the world. In the opening recap, we get the greatest hits of the Avengers’ carnage in various world cities, which has brought the wrath of these countries down on their heads and with it an intermediary (William Hurt) to run roughshod on their activities. Rogers, who suspects they’re being set up by one of those evil forces they were formed to fight, doesn’t go for the leash, while Stark, at one time the loose cannon destructo king, takes the bit. They clash, and the other Avengers line up behind one or the other, depending on their political stance. In the meantime, some stray members of the Marvel universe are finally recruited, with Ant Man (Paul Rudd) hanging with Cap and the preternaturally millennial Spider-Man (Tom Holland, in his debut as the character) taking Stark’s stand. Though it’s more coherent and intellectually stimulating than Winter Soldier, there’s still a lot of flab in terms of set pieces whose only purpose seems to be to spread the action amongst as many superheroes as possible, and since there are so many (Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as Falcon, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, etc., etc.) it’s a lot of fighting to sit through. Daniel Bruhl plays the heavy, an outlier whose own score to settle with the Avengers actually has some merit, and makes you wonder how much better the movie might have been if his story had been given more attention. Since everybody assumes the Avengers stand for America, it’s nice to see them get their comeuppance for once, but apparently there’s always a limit to such things. (photo: Marvel)
Though mostly a matter of coincidence, we seem to be awash in movies, both documentary and fictional, about the Mexican drug trade, a subject that, admittedly, can withstand the overkill. Matthew Heineman’s Oscar-nominated documentary is probably the most characteristic in that it presents a comprehensive overall picture of the problem while delivering visceral excitement that also happens to be real. Heineman jockeys back and forth between two vigilante groups, one on either side of the border, who don’t think the authorities are doing enough, and he rightly spends more time with Autodefensas de Michoacan, a militia founded by physician Manuel Mirales, who is trying to reclaim his home town from the vicious cartels. Since Mirales and his compatriots have much more to lose than the paramilitary Arizona Border Recon, the latter tends to come across as more or less a cosplay exercise. The footage from the Mexican side is fraught with violence and frustration, an aspect that clouds over some of the political ramifications. In this particular case, I would have actually preferred some voiceover explanation. (photo: A&E Television Networks LLC)
The 5th Wave
Yet another planned start for a potential movie franchise based on a series of young-adult novels centered on a teenage girl protagonist, The 5th Wave would seem to have a marked advantage in its choice of leading lady. Chloe Grace Moretz is already a star as she enters early adulthood, even more so than Jennifer Lawrence was when she began the Hunger Games films. But maybe that will be to the franchise’s detriment. By overshadowing the material with her star power, Moretz calls attention to the fact that the material can’t stand up to her. Not to take anything away from Lawrence’s talent, but the strength of the Hunger Games story pulled her along. In this case, it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to sit through The 5th Wave without Moretz’s involvement. Even more problematic, Moretz is meant to represent a very ordinary type of teenager forced to perform extraordinary deeds. While Cassie is doing whatever it is normal American high school girls do these days, earth is invaded by an extraterrestrial force that unleashes a series of Biblical-grade plagues. Electromagentic interference wipes out communications and sends airliners crashing to the ground. Tsunami wipe out coastal cities. Diseases kill whole species in a matter of weeks. The few who survive these devastations are herded by the authorities into camps where they undergo basic military training in preparation for combat against the “Others,” who can only be seen with special goggles after they have infiltrated a human skull. The central terror is that “they” walk amongst us looking exactly like us. Due to pure serendipity, Cassie misses the bus that is taking her group away, and it’s assumed she has barely escaped indoctrination herself, but her little brother is on that bus and she’s determined to save him. What entails is survivalist porn as Cassie quickly learns how to shoot a gun from a strapping hunk (Alex Roe), thus pushing the notion that American kids are hot-wired to handle firearms. The plot quickly changes from sci-fi thriller to para-military actioner, with Cassie simultaneously learning how to waste the enemy and suffering the normal adolescent indignities of not being able to choose between her new squeeze and her dependable high school boyfriend, Ben (Nick Robinson), who has conveniently survived himself. However, all these plot points remain woefully undeveloped, as if the franchise, being self-evident, would clear it all up in one or two installments. But there’s only so much exposition you can endure before you want at least provisional closure, and even the battle scenes are designed to be open-ended to the point that you don’t who wins, only who isn’t killed. In any case, the first installment didn’t make much of an impression on the box office, so maybe nothing will ever be resolved, and we’ll never know if the Others get their just desserts.
The title refers to the period of time the two main characters have been married. Geoff (Tom Courtenay) is a decade older than Kate (Charlotte Rampling). They live in comfortable retirement in the English countryside, ensconsed in a routine that, childless as they are, includes friends but no one who could possibly break their seemingly impervious intimacy. However, a week before they are to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with a large party at the nearby town hall, the ghost of Geoff’s first fiancee, Katya, who died in a hiking accident in the mountains of Switzerland years before he met Kate, moves in with them. Geoff receives a letter from the Swiss authorities stating they have finally found her body, which has been missing since 1962. At first Geoff seems more distracted than distressed, and feels frustrated that his German isn’t as good as it used to be. Kate finds his dictionary, and is unsettled by the news but not greatly. However, as the days pass and Geoff obviously can’t get his old lover out of his mind, Kate begins to question their marriage in ways she had never contemplated before. Geoff’s behavior changes, he starts smoking again, and while he’s perfectly honest with her about the circumstances of his fiancee’s death and what she meant to him at the time, Kate senses that there’s more, and while he is away one day in the company of his old employees, she searches through his memorabilia and learns something that shocks her to her core. Director Andrew Haigh keeps the focus on Kate, which means Geoff’s digressions and sudden changes in temperament feel startlingly, uncomfortably strange, and as she comes to realize that she has, essentially, been living with the ghost of Katya for 45 years without knowing it, a subtle but palpable terror overcomes her. What did those 45 years really mean? Because so much of the movie takes place in rural, overcast isolation, the horror show elements are penetrating and lingering. You almost expect Katya’s spirit to jump out of a closet at any moment. Rampling, who was nominated for an Oscar, wears her growing despair with apt gravity, but it’s Courtenay who gives the movie its heavy weather power. His transformation is hardly subtle. If anything it’s ugly in the way it conflates nostalgia with a fear of growing old. In response, Kate’s repulsion is understandable and overwhelming. And it will overwhelm you, too, as you learn to understand the changes she is undergoing as well. (photo: The Bureau Film Co. Ltd., Channel Four TV Corp. and the British Film Institute)
As often happens when the Coens go for straight comedy rather than the blackish kind, the whole is not necessarily the sum of its more humorous parts, and making fun of Hollywood under the studio system is a walk in the park for them. Still, the details are priceless, especially the personality traits of Josh Brolin’s earnest, accommodating, very Catholic studio exec, who fixes everything from a starlet’s (Scarlett Johansson) out-of-wedlock pregnancy to the kidnapping of a leading man (George Clooney) by a cell of Communist screenwriters to smoothing out the difficult relationship between an old world European director (Ralph Fiennes) and a new world American cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich). Since there’s no through-plot to speak of, the viewer is free to enjoy these bits in isolation, and most work well, even Channing Tatum’s musical number with the very obvious gay subtext. And the cast seems to be having a ball, which is not always the case, apparently, on Coen sets. Walks in the park are often happy events for everybody, especially the audience. (photo: Universal Studios)
Harold Is Here
Norwegians and Swedes share enough linguistic material to communicate, which may explain their mutual enmity. In this comedy from the former country, the enmity is pointed like a laser at Sweden’s most famous company, Ikea. When the home furnishing behemoth opens a new outlet right across the street from an independent furniture store, the owner, Harold (Bjorn Sundquist), stays calm, secure in the knowledge that locals will appreciate his finer quality merchandise. Six months later he is bankrupt and his wife has succumbed to dementia. With little left to live for, he travels to Sweden to kidnap none other than Ikea’s founder (Bjorn Granath), who, it turns out, isn’t happy with his lot either. Since Harold has no purpose in mind—he doesn’t ask for ransom money—the kidnapping is purely symbolic and descends into slapstick foolishness tempered by the participation of an iconoclastic young woman (Fanny Ketter) who finds in Harold a kindred spirit of desperate anger. Though funny in spots, Harold Is Here never justifies its idiosyncrasies except to suggest that Scandinavians have too much time on their hands. In Norwegian, Swedish and English. (photo: Mer Film AS)
Mountains May Depart
Jia Zhang-ke’s latest uses a more challenging narrative style to explain the things he’s always explained. He extends his story over two decades, but in this case moves into the future. The first section revolves around a triangle that sees Tao (Zhao Tao) throwing over the poor coal miner Liangzi (Lian Jing-dong) for the rich investor Zhang (Zhang Yi). As characters, the two men fall too conveniently into trite categories of selflessness and greed, but Jia effectively shows how all three fit into their environment. Liangzi disappears from the movie as it moves ten years into the future, when Tao’s and Zhang’s marriage is on the rocks, and even further to 2025, after Zhang has moved to Australia with their son, Dollar (Dong Zijian), who clearly hates his father and has an affair with an older expat woman, who represents the mother (i.e., China) he no longer remembers. The movie loses focus as it progresses, showing that Jia doesn’t really know what to do outside of his usual comfort zone and his native language. In Mandarin & English. (photo: Bandai Visual, Bitters End, Office Kitano)
Whether you approach Hany Abu-Assad’s latest film as a love story or a double-edged analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it never fails to surprise. The title character (Adam Bakri) is a Palestinian baker who sneaks over the wall to visit his high school-age girlfriend, Nadia (Leem Lubany), the younger sister of his best friend, Tarek (Eyad Hourani), who is the leader of an underground anti-Israeli brigade. When another friend, Amjad (Samer Bisharat), kills an Israeli soldier as a kind of rite of passage, Omar is arrested by Israeli intelligence and tortured. Though he doesn’t reveal the name of the killer, he’s let loose on a provisional basis, and his friends, including Nadia, think he may have betrayed them. Omar is so tightly plotted that sometimes motivations get lost in the action, which is structured like a Hollywood thriller. In fact, the love story seems secondary until Amjad’s own love for Nadia becomes an issue that affects everything Omar holds dear, including his identity as a Palestinian. A thoughtful film, but also a maddening one. In Arabic.
It’s tempting to call The Revenant Alejandro G. Inarittu’s Malick Movie, but such a flip statement assumes that 1) every Hollywood director longs to break free of studio strictures and wallow in nature, and 2) Terrence Malick is some kind of auteurist hero to his younger colleagues. With his second consecutive Oscar under his belt, Inarritu himself is probably becoming more of an auteurist hero than the slow-moving Malick, and commands just as distinctive a style, though the two movies for which he won those little gold statues are his most uncharacteristic. And that should be a good thing. The kind of parallel-plotted epics that Inarittu was known for were only done well once—in his Mexican movie Amores Perros—and had already become tiring by the time he applied it to Babel. Last year’s Birdman jettisoned the narrative pretension but retained the melodrama-as-high-wire-act tone that typifies his movies, and that tone is evident in The Revenant, which is as stylistically purple as a Conrad story but without the depth of feeling that Conrad brought to his tales of desperation. The story is simple enough. A group of trappers is ambushed by Indians in 1823 along a stretch of the Missouri River. Most of the party is killed, and in an unrelated incident the group’s tracker, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is attacked by a bear. Too injured to travel back to the nearest fort, he is left in the care of two trappers who pledge to bring him and his half-breed son (Forrest Goodluck) back to civilization if and when he improves, but one of the trappers, the opportunistic Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), becomes impatient and buries Glass alive after killing the boy. The rest of the movie shows how Glass superhumanly survives his ordeal and exacts his revenge. Based on a legend that has been recounted in literature more than a few times, the tale is ripe for any kind of interpretation, and Inarittu goes for the kind of pastoral gore-fest that Malick brought to The Thin Red Line, only with more gore. Glass lives through so much injury and pain that much of the movie’s visual component has to be viewed through his own shocked sensibility, and in that regard Inarittu may have stumbled onto something new and sublime—the glory of nature as filtered through the experience of physical agony. Tumbling over rapids, eating raw meat, seeking shelter from the cold inside a dead horse, stitching up multiple lacerations and arrow wounds, Glass is a Jesus figure for the survivalist crowd, and like any larger-than-life character he’s a hair’s breadth away from ludicrousness. By the time the action is reduced to knife vs. hatchet, you may have to stifle your giggles. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)
Though Brie Larson won the Oscar, it’s five-year-old Jacob Tremblay who makes Lenny Abrahamson’s film of Emma Donogue’s adaptation of her own novel more than a psychological thriller. As a boy whose world view is expanded immeasurably in the course of a single afternoon, Tremblay has to convey confusion and wonder and a dire sense of being unprepared for human company. It’s easier to do this in a novel since subjectitivity can be achieved though suggestion, and Abrahamson can only do so much visually. The circumstances of Jack’s and his mother’s confined situation are not clarified verbally, since Joy understands her son couldn’t possible process the truth without being told how the world and human relationships operate, and all he has in that regard is television, which he looks upon as a different world entirely (and it is). Though much has been made of how the movie posits the media as a character in its own right, such reductionism diminishes the simple power of the storytelling, which proceeds at a leisurely pace without slackening in dramatic force. (photo: Element Pictures/Room Prod. Inc./Channel Four TV Corp.)
The Sea of Trees
If it seems barely distinguishable as a Gus Van Sant movie, The Sea of Trees retains the quirky director’s sometimes problematic fascination with the ethereal, not to mention his obsession with death. Matthew McConaughey plays Arthur, a university physicist who travels all the way to Japan in order to commit suicide in a vast forest near Mt. Fuji that he learns, via Google, is the perfect place to vanish from the world. Arthur’s dour wanderings through the pristine undergrowth are interrupted by flashbacks to his non-idyllic California life with peevish wife Joan (Naomi Watts) and then a meeting with another seeker-of-oblivion, salaryman Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), who seemingly jolts him out of his method stupor so that he can at least save another lost soul. More than the creaky plot with its trite justifications, it’s the interactions between Arthur and Nakamura that confound common sense, even when you take into consideration the notion that these people want to kill themselves. McConaughey’s furrowed brow intellectualism contrasts excruciatingly with Watanabe’s patented overkill, and you want them to just get it over with. (photo: Grand Experiment LLC)
The movies have always had a soft spot for journalists, who traditionally brought street smarts to the nominally intellectual craft of writing. Tom McCarthy’s Best Picture Oscar winner about the Boston Globe’s monumental reporting on the Catholic Church’s coverup of widespread pedophilia among its priests fits comfortably within this genre without avoiding the problems that have beset the press in the post-Internet age. In fact, the most revealing aspect of the story is that it takes an outsider, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Jew from Florida who assumes the executive editor post after the fiercely parochial Globe is bought by the owners of the New York Times, to sick the award-winning Spotlight investigative team on the Church. Though the story has been simmering in broad daylight for two decades, burbling up in little stories buried deep within the paper, the Globe’s reporters are all Catholics and as such hesitant to make connections that might shake the community. When Baron suggests it would make a perfect topic for Spotlight’s editor, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Robinson is slightly taken aback, understanding that he should have made the suggestion, but he still resists. “I think the readers would be interested,” Baron says, his eye on the bottom line but his reporter’s heart pumping with anticipation. The central conflict is between Robinson’s ethics as a professional and his concerns as a lifelong citizen of the city, and this struggle is played out among his staff, especially the forthrightly obsessive Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), who, while he calls himself “lapsed,” feels acute anger as the evidence of sexual predation mounts, slowly but surely. And just as Robinson feared, the revelations threaten to rend the community, since the fact that these sins have been going on for so long means that many lay members of the church (the clergy has become adept at covering them up through transfers and other sleights-of-hand) have been denying what’s been right in front of their faces. Certainly the film’s most characteristic scene is the one where reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) confronts an ex-priest point blank with the statements of his victims and he not only admits to abusing young boys but defends himself by saying that he was a victim of rape himself. What you immediately take away from the scene is that no one ever bothered to ask him. If Spotlight doesn’t deliver as much drama as you might expect, it’s probably because McCarthy, intimidated by the enormity of the story, goes to great lengths to preserve its narrative integrity. When 911 happens and the investigation is put on hold, it feels as if a videotape has been paused, and the movie never quite recovers its momentum. Real reporter movies just keep barrelling on to the end. (photo: Spotlight Film LLC)
Torneranno i Prati
The title translates as “The Greenery Will Return,” an awkward reference to the cruel winter of the setting. It is near the end of World War I at an Italian outpost in the southern Alps. Though there is a ceasefire, disease, the occasional bomb, and despair brought about by the barren existence is whittling away at the detail. Director Ermanno Olmi injects moments of life into this death wait, mainly by providing color amidst the monochromatic deathliness, even if it’s the orange flame of a shell exploding. As in the tonally opposite Fury, the drama is steeped in the melancholy of knowing that the war is practically finished though the job of dying isn’t. This being an Italian group, the melancholy is especially melodramatic and will likely be less pungent for cynical northern Europeans, who will have to settle for the effectively rendered claustrophobia to make them think about home. Hardly a trifle, the movie nevertheless seems so particular in its depiction of a specific place and mode of behavior that it vanishes from memory the moment you step out of the theater. In Italian.
The closest Disney Animation has come to the conceptual sophistication of the Pixar films, this allegory about a “post-predator” mixed-species urban utopia may be rated PG, but it should entertain young kids sufficiently without watering down its message. A female rabbit, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), aims to be the first “bunny cop” in the history of Zootopia and gets into the police program despite her small stature and evolutionary position as one-time prey for half the city’s population. Though Zootopia has laws against the eating of fellow citizens, it still has crime, as personified by Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox con-man who belittles Judy’s chops as a law enforcer without taking anything away from the fact that he could consider her a meal in the so-called natural world. In fact, Judy was traumatized by a fox when she was very young, as shown in a prefatory sequence that may be tough for very young children to sit through. Though the sequence doesn’t upset the general tone or continuity of the plot, it offers a point that the filmmakers obviously feel needs to be offset with something lighter, and so when Judy leaves her country home for the big, bad city her nervous parents give her a can of fox repellant. And while the folks will obviously be pleased when Judy is assigned to parking duty, she feels insulted and stereotyped, but eventually she stumbles on a plot involving the kidnapping of predators, a case that’s already being investigated by her betters, and Nick, at first skeptical of her suspicions and with better things to do, gets caught up in the mystery and joins her in the sleuthing. Since her suprervisor, a water buffalo (Idris Elba), forbids her from getting involved, she has to carry out her detective work on her own, and the wily Nick, who knows the ins-and-outs of bureaucracy and the underground economy—including the workings of an organized crime syndicate headed by a shrew—she’s schooled in the art of policing more quickly than any other rookie on the force. Eventually, the two discover that the missing predators have “gone savage,” meaning they’re reverted to their natural state, but what caused such a change? Meanwhile, Judy’s discoveries, while giving her cred in the department, panics the cintizenry, who believe order is breaking down. If the story misrepresents the real order of things in order to make a metaphorical point about racism and prejudice in human society, it does so in a way that isn’t terribly insulting to the intelligence of either adults or children. But the comedy is playful and knowing in its own use of stereotypes (sloths run the DMV; rabbits are good at math—i.e., “multiplying”), and for once the can-do spirit promoted by the Disney cinematic sensibility doesn’t feel forced by obligation. (photo: Disney)