Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on May 25.
Bradley Cooper is good at playing assholes, and Adam Jones, the borderline sociopathic chef he portrays in Burnt, takes the cake. An American from the wrong side of the tracks who made his way to France as a teen and quickly rose in the world of haute cuisine with the help of a superstar mentor, he struggles with addiction when not getting everyone who has ever appreciated him pissed off. After cleaning up in New Orleans, Jones arrives in London to start his own restaurant and assembles a group of ne’er-do-wells as his kitchen staff, including a sous chef named Helen (Sienne Miller) who understandably doesn’t trust him. Director John Wells transits between food porn and scenes of Jones melting down and treating his staff like shit. Beyond the offensive stereotypes, this narrative development doesn’t work dramatically because it’s at the service of food that most of us aren’t interested in. It certainly isn’t worth getting emotional over. Although there is obviously an audience for this kind of thing, I would like to think it’s a very small one. (photo: The Weinstein Company LLC)
The matter-of-fact nature of Michel Franco’s filmmaking style masks a deep emotional engagement, and it’s difficult to gauge the motives of home-care nurse David (Tim Roth) in the way he attends to his charges, who are usually terminally ill. Franco isn’t much for establishing shots or cutting away in the middle of a scene, and we get seemingly interminable sequences of David washing his incontinent patients or comforting them as they suffer through vomiting and coughing fits. The only way to evaluate his clinical approach is through the reactions of those patients, which alternate between need and resentment. It’s not until almost halfway through the movie, after we’ve seen David stalk a young woman, that we learn something of his situation. He’s called in by his supervisor and quietly fired because of “inappropriate” actions in dealing with one particular patient. For sure, while his charges seem to appreciate the attention, their loved ones think the intimacy is strange, and the viewer knows that David lies a lot. The reason behind his behavior may sound trite on paper, but Franco develops it so subtly that it makes sense in your bones. Chronic won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes in 2015, which seems odd because there’s little dialogue and almost no exposition. We see David with three patients, a middle aged woman (Rachel Pickup) dying of AIDS, an older gentleman (Michael Cristofer), who has just suffered a stroke, and the mysteriously contrary Martha (Robin Bartlett), a woman struggling through chemotherapy who seems to know something about David’s checkered past but hires him anyway on a contract basis. Much of the movie’s distancing effect is due to its setting, which appears to be Southern California, and Franco’s use of flat lighting accentuates the bland subdivision decor, not to mention his decision to not use music, adds a kind of documentary-like rigor to the visuals. When the story gets to that place you expect it to go, you’re still surprised, though, because there’s no real emotional preparation. Reportedly, Roth met Franco at Cannes in 2012 when the actor was on the jury and worked on the idea of the film with the director, and his performance is central to the movie’s queasy effect, not so much because David is odd or off-putting, but because he’s so difficult to read, which is why so many people, once they’re around him long enough, don’t trust him. That is, except his patients, whose wants are met in ways they couldn’t have predicted. Chronic is too limited as a film to be completely satisfying, but it’s unique. (photo: Gregory Smit)
Three years after he exposed the American intelligence community’s wholesale surveillance of most of the people on the planet Edward Snowden has become an amorphous but very real presence in our lives, the spirit of selfless sacrifice for the greater political good, and Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary shows us the real person in ways that most historical documentaries can’t since they tend to deal with circumstances long after they actually occurred. Poitras, who had already produced two movies about American policy after 911, was contacted by Snowden anonymously and offered a great deal of information that would be damaging to the CIA and the NSA, two organizations that he worked for on a retainer basis. Poitras chronicles their cautious back-and-forth through a bit of voiceover but mostly with text messages recreated in all their stark simplicity for the screen. The human rights lawyer-turned-human rights journalist, Glenn Greenwald, was brought into the mix at Snowden’s request (apparently, he contacted Greenwald even before Poitras but there were security problems), since the whole point of exposing the surveillance was to find the appropriate media to dessiminate its purport. Greenwald seemed like a person Snowden could trust. As background, Poitras includes footage, some archival, some she filmed herself, of hearings and interviews that predicted what Snowden would reveal. So by the time the 29-year-old security expert finally steps in front of Poitras’s camera in a Hong Kong hotel room, we have some measure of what he is and what he’s in for, and his casual acceptance of his fate is disarming. He stresses to Greenwald and a reporter from the Guardian that he wants to get this information out as quickly as possible because he knows eventually the story will center on him (“that’s how the media works”). So it is here on Poitras’s tapes that we do see him up close and personal, fretting over his hair before meeting the press, breaking the news to his girlfriend, who knew nothing about his work and suddenly, alone, is caught up in the clutches of international intrigue. Snowden knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s caught, but seems resigned to that. It’s only later, after CNN has picked up the story and run with it and the U.S. government brings three felony charges against him, that Snowden considers the rest of his life. Then Poitras loses direct access to him, and the movie takes on, as one reporter puts it, the contours of a Le Carre novel. Though almost nothing visceral happens in the movie, it’s tense and absorbing, despite the reams of tech-talk that’s presented unfiltered. It’s a fascinating portrait, in real time, of a unique individual and a watershed moment in world history. (photo: Praxis Films)
Robots in science fiction movies are almost always created to be servants. Eventually, they grow beyond their slave roles after they gain sentience. Alex Garland’s movie about a self-centered tech mogul who is trying to develop an A.I. program that leap-frogs this conceit is difficult to probe because there are only two human characters in the story and both are men, while the experimental android is nominally female. In fact, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), the employee who “wins” the chance to help the mogul, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), improve his android, Ava (Alicia Vikander), seems to have been chosen for his qualities as a male sexual partner. Nathan’s laboratory is built into his sprawling personal compound located in the midst of a remote, mountain-top jungle that can only be accessed by helicopter. Caleb is installed and immediately becomes Nathan’s confident in a series of alcohol-fueled bull sessions that are more philosophical than scientific in nature. Nathan’s aim is to make Ava so responsive that her inerlocutor doesn’t realize she is a computer. Caleb’s job is to chat up Ava and fine tune her responses through repetition, and as the experiment continues he finds himself becoming emotionally attached to the robot. Claustrophobia plays a part in the investment, since there’s nothing to react to in Nathan’s lair except Nathan, Ava, and Nathan’s mysterious personal assistant (Sonoya Mizuno). And as it becomes clear that Nathan’s use of Caleb is not what Caleb thought he signed on for, the audience, lulled by the lushly rendered sci-fi cliches that Garland provides, concludes the story isn’t going where you would think it does. Actually, it does go there. The difference is in the presentation, which posits the idea that both Nathan and Caleb, in their own distinct ways, are intimidated by the idea of intimacy with women. Ava, who is programmed to pick up on such stimuli and “learn” from them, predictably develops ahead of the curve and with surprising—and disastrous—results. Neither the macho poseur Nathan nor the wilting geek Caleb can do much to counter Ava’s sense of self-preservation, but in the end the robot is still viewed as a sex toy with a hard drive. If Ava, in the end, seems more human than either of these two guys, it’s because neither is really believable as the kind of character they’re supposed to be. That’s partly the fault of Garland’s hyper-literate dialogue, but it could also be due to its strangely old-fashioned view of sex. (photo: Universal Pictures)
As he approaches his 90th decade, Woody Allen manages to maintain a certain edge in his writing and directing, but his audience may have become inured to his habit of recycling. His latest takes plot elements from Match Point, Crimes and Misdemeanors (not to mention a steal from Hitchcock), and the May-September themes of a good many of his other films, basically reheating them. Undergraduate Jill (Emma Stone) is enamored of her alcoholic, existentially challenged philosophy professor Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) and they embark on an affair. Little does she know that, in order to reignite his intellectual mojo, Abe is planning to murder a judge who hands down decisions he believes are morally indefensible. Despite a certain return to form in terms of dialogue composition, Allen invests his characters with the usual variety of stereotypes, though Phoenix manages to make something tragic of his and Parker Posey, as a disaffected chemistry professor who also has an affair with Abe, is weirdly touching despite the fact that Allen still doesn’t know how to write lines for women that sound as if women would actually say them. (photo: Gravier Productions Inc.)
The Lazarus Effect
Since they’re high-concept by definition, horror films these days feel as if they were written backwards. David Gelb’s gloss on the Frankenstein romance is so fixated on its premise of bringing dead flesh back to life that every other consideration is second-guessed. All the characters are graduate students working on a project to bring comatose patients back to waking reality. During an experiment they discover they can bring a dead dog back to life and then totally ignore the fact that the dog seems to have contracted rabies in the process. The unspoken explanation is that students are immature and live only in the moment and thus can’t fully appreciate the outcome of their actions, so when one of the researchers, Zoe (Olivia Wilde), is electrocuted in the course of their work, her would-be boyfriend and co-researcher, Frank (Mark Duplass), decides to see if their new God powers will work on a human. The fact that the results are predictable isn’t half as annoying as the fact that the carnage and jolts inspired less imagination than the premise itself. (photo: Daniel McFadden)
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown
As the title suggests, Alex Gibney’s documentary is biographically limited. It only goes as far as what Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson describes as Soul Brother No. 1’s “mustache period” in the mid-70s, and while it does provide a kind of epilogue that describes JB’s influence on hip-hop, it avoids his deepening drug addiction, his nagging tax problems, and the loss of originality that made his post 1980 records afterthoughts. But within the scope of what Gibney does cover, the movie is perhaps the best of its kind. It charts his rise with psychological detail and a larger consideration of the social environment in which JB revolutionized mid-20th century music, and not just black music. Visually, Gibney is limited to the materials at hand, so Brown’s childhood is explicated using stock photos, and when there is film available of early concerts he shows just enough to give you a feel for how revolutionary a performer Brown was. However, it’s in the interviews where the film hits its stride. Musicians who worked with Brown, like Maceo and Jab’o and Pee Wee and Martha High, speak frankly about his tyrannical predelictions, though in a playful tone that takes some of the edge off. Mick Jagger, who produced the doc, clarifies the “schooling” he got from Brown on “The T.A.M.I. Show,” which crossed JB over to a white audience, by explaining that the Rolling Stones did not “follow” Brown but played several hours after his historical performance and in front of a different audience. Where the movie really succeeds is in the way it conflates his self-taught musical genius with his social conservatism. Everything that made him a star was calculated to the last notion, from the dance moves to the stage costumes to the way he prioritized the first and third beats of the measure (as opposed to the 2nd and 4th, which would have made his music jazz) and to his notoriously skinflint habits as a bandleader and employer. These impulses flowed from a deep insecurity developed as a child who was abandoned by both his mother and his father. More to the point, his reactionary temperament, which lead him to be attracted to winners like Richard Nixon and fed his sometimes violent misogyny, was part of a self-image that brokered no help from anyone, even if he couldn’t have possibly created his unique sound without those great selfless musicians. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who considered him a father figure, provides the most eloquent commentary on the man’s outlook, but in the end, it’s Gibney’s careful use of concert footage, showing how the pulse and the language and the interaction worked together, that really explains JB’s cultural impact. You see it on stage, where he was as perfect a performer as any musical artist has ever been. (photo: Mr. Dynamite LLC)
George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the flamboyant host of a CNBC-style financial program that provides stock tips to viewers. More a media celebrity and showman than an investment wiz, Gates nevertheless is trusted by a certain stratum of Americans who don’t really understand that Wall Street is a racket, so when one of those viewers, a deliveryman named Kyle (Jack O’Connell), invades the set while it’s being aired live and straps a bomb vest to Gates’ person, the host is notably shocked but hardly surprised. His producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), may be even less surprised, which gives you some indication of the level of cynicism this thriller is operating on. Director Jodie Foster ably takes care of the suspense aspects by presenting the entire incident in real time, so the trick is in shifting the viewer’s sympathies from one put-upon character to another. She mainly does this through Fenn, who acts as the nexus for all the different storylines. In a sense, she is forced to do the kind of journalism that Gates barely countenances, finding out how and why the stock that made Kyle $60,000 poorer tanked so quickly. Ostensibly, the culprit is technology: global markets have been automated to work at such extraordinary speeds that no one can keep up with them, including the experts who use them. When you have a system that encourages everyone involved to think of only their own self-interests, someone has to lose in the end. So the secret for the winners is to make sure the losers don’t take out their frustrations on them. While Fenn is feeding lines to Gates through his earpiece she’s also talking to a computer programmer in South Korea and the assistant of the man whose company, it turned out, made a killing when his stock went through the floor. In the meantime, the police are setting up Gates for a fall and arranging for Kyle’s girlfriend to humiliate him on the air. It’s a heady brew of loudmouth excitement and in the end if it comes across as simplistic and rather too forgiving of Wall Street as an institution (the message seems to be that our economic troubles are caused by just a few bad apples), it does a nice job of showing how the media sells hope with smoke and mirrors. The loss of nerve in the final ten minutes seems to be a function of all the thriller cliches that Foster has no desire to subvert. Like Patty Fenn, the director knows she has to keep everything moving forward, and in that regard she succeeds. Just don’t go into Money Monster expecting to learn something about the global economy.
It’s been 20 years since Dutch director Mike van Diem won an Oscar for Karakter, and this black comedy is hardly what one would expect. Billionaire Jacob (Jeroen van Koningbrugge) has been numb since the age of 4 after his father disappeared. When his mother passes he still feels nothing and decides to sell his estate and end his life, but has problems carrying out the latter. He goes to a company that promises to kill him when he least expects it. On the premises, however, he meets another would-be suicide, Anne (Georgina Verbaan), and they fall in love, but once you sign your contract there’s no turning back. The opening sequences are done in the manner of Wes Anderson, but once the chase is on The Surprise unsurprisingly turns into an action film, and a half-assed one at that, despite an effective plot twist about two-thirds into the movie. By then, the whimsy has been dissipated by gratuitous subplots and odd directoral choices (making the heavies Indian immigrants). The winking coda implies this is van Diem’s belated love letter to Hollywood. In Dutch, English, Hindi and French. (photo: Surprise Filmproductie VOF/Vara/Prime Time/Riva Film/Fastnet Films)
Where to Invade Next
Though one’s opinion of Michael Moore generally depends on which side of the political fence you stand, there are plenty of liberals who can’t stand his jokey, confrontational methodology, and for sure, a little Moore can go a long way in his normally lengthy documentaries. Nevertheless, he never wears out the subjects he happens to pick, which may be why his latest comes across as uninspired. The concept of “invading” foreign countries—though, only one of the countries he visits is not in Europe—to cherry pick their best social ideas for the purpose of bringing them back to America as “spoils” doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny for more than a minute, especially since Moore accepts them so readily. That isn’t to say these ideas aren’t worth adapting, only that Moore doesn’t apply much rigor to his investigation. The premise is that the American system, once the envy of the world, has fallen prey to government laziness and bad faith, and the “invasion” of the title is meant to suggest just how much American taxpayers spend on the military to the detriment of its infrastructure, education, environment, etc. The best thing he does is remind us that many of the ideas he lauds actually originated in the U.S. In Italy he interviews workers and learns they are guaranteed 30 days of vacation a year, and new mothers get five months of paid maternity leave. When unions were considered positive forces in America, such largesse wasn’t unheard of. Likewise, he sees that Finnish children are considered some of the smartest in the world, and that their education system was first based on America’s, but while American public schools are failing at an alarming rate, those in Finland are getting better results with new ideas, such as not assigning homework. Colleges in Slovenia—Slovenia!—are free, even for foreign students. However, the most stirring comparisons come into play when he visits Iceland, which after its financial meltdown in 2007 sent the executives of three of its four biggest banks to jail. The fourth not only didn’t do anything illegal, but managed to flourish during the recession, and it just happened to be managed by women. Though Moore isn’t necessarily saying that women are better than men at finance, he is saying that Iceland—the first country in the world to ever elect a woman president—has moved forward in terms of equality and has benefitted in ways you might not have expected. Where he starts stretching matters to fit his agenda is Norway, whose criminals live in country club comfort, even their murderers. The result is a much lower recidivism rate, but he fails to really interrogate what makes that so. He certainly doesn’t ask the murderers he meets about their crimes. You come away with a slightly different take than what was probably intended: If you want to break the law, it’s best to do it in Norway. (photo: North End Productions)