August 2016 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on July 25.

Vodafone Summer Series, Somerset House, London, Britain - 20 Jul 2007Amy
Since the late Amy Winehouse’s career dovetailed with the social media era, her life was thoroughly documented, even before she became famous. Director Asif Kapadia simply edits and arranges the available material into a coherent narrative, and given that Winehouse’s record company funded the project, he was free to use all the music and concert footage he needed. The result, however, is almost too revealing. Though it does an excellent job of proving what an enormous talent Winehouse was, it revels in her self-destructive tendencies even as it explains how those tendencies were enabled by her father, Mitchell, and her husband, Blake Fielder, both of whom exploited her to their own respective advantages. In that regard, the story is almost banal in its predictability, and not just because we already know how it ends. Even if we didn’t, it was obvious as soon as Winehouse hit the big time that she was totally unprepared for stardom, despite her bracing honesty and uncommon understanding of human nature (or maybe because of it?). Through extensive use of public footage, Kapadia shows how the international media exacerbated her phobias, but he hardly needs to press the point as often and intensely as he does here. In fact, Kapadia’s approach might have reaped something more worthwhile had he given even more time to Winehouse’s closest friends, the ones who tried to save her, than to the biz people who loved her but pretty much stood by and watched her self-destruct. Nick Shymansky, who became her manager when he was only 19 and she still finding her voice as a teen, is one of the few witnesses who resided in both camps, and it’s frustrating when his comments fade in the final reel, because he might have shone a light on the film’s most pressing question: Why couldn’t Winehouse, who knew she was in trouble, save herself? The usual psycho-detective stuff is presented, mostly having to do with daddy issues—Mitchell left the family when Amy was young and didn’t come back until she was famous—and her low self-image, manifested even before she became well-known as anorexia nervosa. The movie doesn’t stint on showing Mitchell and Fielder as the jerks they were, but it isn’t really enough. For sure, the movie is fascinating, and the performance clips prove her amazing breadth as a musician, but compared to the new Janis Joplin biodoc, which relates more with less, it feels like a lost opportunity. (photo: Universal Music Operations Ltd.)

As a mystery, Francois Favrat’s adaptation of the bestseller by Tatiana De Rosnay is not very compelling, and the director seems so determined to make sure the viewer understands the particulars of the story that he basically burdens the first half of the film with plodding exposition, which is a shame, because once we comprehend that 40-year-old Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is the way he is—prone to ugly jags of anger aimed at the ones he loves—his obsession to find out why his mother drowned when he was 10 years old becomes truly compelling. His curiosity sparked by an old photo and his therapist’s recommendation that he talk to his family more about his feelings, he soon learns just how much he didn’t know about the night his mother died. Of course, the family, including his younger sister, Agathe (Melanie Laurent), would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, seemingly because they don’t want to end up as depressed as Antoine, and his insistence on answers gradually tears the family apart. In French. (photo: Les Films Du Kiosque France 2 Cinema TF1 Droits Audiovisuels UGC Images)

11minutes main11 Minutes
One of those self-reflexive cinematic stunts that were popular around the turn of the millennium, Jerzy Skolimowski’s thriller redeems itself through force of will, but only if you can keep up with it. There’s a plot, but it’s presented in such a free-form fashion that some viewers may be at a loss to make sense of it. The activities of several people in Warsaw are chronicled from 5 to 5:11 p.m., switching from one point of view to another, at random and with no regard for continuity. The titular time period is stretched out and rerun to ridiculous proportions. At first, the purposes seem to be formal: Create suspense and turn it into dread, then play with the viewer’s need for release. To say all these disparate stories, which cover themes as varied as sexual jealousy and larceny, add up to a shocking whole would be to reduce the exercise to its mechanics, but in the end whatever resonance 11 Minutes generates is due to the way it conflates everyday banality with how unprepared we are. Too bad the payoff is so outlandish. In Polish & English. (photo: Skopia Film, Element Pictures, HBO, Orange Polska S.A., TVP S.A., Tumult)

By now it seems more practical to describe certain Pixar movies as not being masterpieces, since they are the exceptions to the rule. Those would include all the sequels except the ones for Toy Story and that forgettable dinosaur thing that came out a few months ago. Finding Dory, a sequel to the greatest fish movie ever made, Finding Nemo, is every bit as good as its predecessor mainly because it’s almost identical. As the title suggests, it’s about a search for something that’s lost, except with one significant change. Nemo was the child that father clown fish Marlin (Albert Brooks) was looking for after the youngster was swept away in a storm. Dory, however, is both the searcher and the searchee. If you remember Nemo you’ll certainly remember Dory, a blue tang whose absent-mindedness as voiced by Ellen DeGeneres added the perfect note of non-seriousness to what was, at bottom, a very serious affair. As the center of attention is Dory’s forgetfulness, her inability to remember anything that occurred more than a minute ago, which acts as the movie’s prodding plot point. We first see Dory as a child whose parents (Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy) fret over her welfare since she’s apt to get lost; and, of course, one day she does and can’t get back to the folks because she can’t quite remember them. Prodded by vague impulses years later, she decides to find her parents in earnest and, in the process, find herself. This time Marlin, not to mention Nemo (Hayden Rolence), are her sidekicks rather than the other way around. Perhaps in order to distinguish the odyssey from the previous one, most of the action takes place in manmade confines rather than the open sea, namely the Marine Life Institute, an aquarium-cum-research center that comes across as a kind of magic kingdom of sea creatures, and as it turns out, most of these creatures, like Dory and Nemo (who has a deformed fin), also have disabilities that, at times, can be turned into strengths. Along the way, the filmmakers keep their eyes on the money and reintroduce characters from the first film so as to provide as many tearful reunions as possible, but they also add new characters, like Idris Elba’s and Dominic West’s Brit-toned sea lions, Kaitlin Olson’s near-sighted whale shark, and Ed O’Neill’s seven-legged octopus, who, despite his handicap, can drive a truck. In fact, the movie may be too stuffed with characters whose indiosyncrasies cancel each other out—a viewer may have a tough time remembering what actually happened in the movie later since so much happens so fast. The story has no surprises, either, but each emotional payoff still hits like ton of sardines. How do they do it? (photo: Disney/Pixar)

Having never really appreciated the original as either a great comedy or a landmark Hollywood production, I bring no excess baggage of expectation to this female-centered remake. It’s all relatively new to me, including the plot but not the tenor of the jokes, which has been dominant in American comedies since the 80s and, thus, probably the result of the original’s landmark status. In all honesty, this style of American humor—patently ridiculous, casually scatological—has always been hit-or-miss with me. Tina Fey has managed to do wonderful things with it, but for the most part it wears its adolescent iconoclasm too proudly; which is to say I didn’t laugh as much as I had expected during the new Ghostbusters. For one thing, the premise, which I understand was lifted wholesale from the original, feels undernourished. Kristen Wiig’s Erin Gilbert is a physics professor gunning for tenure at Columbia Univ. when a book about ghosts she wrote with an old friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), comes to the attention of her department head. As it stands, Abby is still hunting ghosts and has somehow gotten a much more run-of-the-mill educational institute to fund her. When Erin loses her job she reluctantly joins Abby and her tech-nerd sidekick, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), in their startup as poltergeist exterminators. Eventually, a fourth woman, NYC mass transit employee Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), joins the company pretty much just because she wants to. Now that the movie has its requisite quartet, it can get down to the business of ghostbusting, and there’s a flimsy plotline involving a bullied depressive who, as a form of revenge, has found a way of unleashing pent-up ghosts on the city, but for the most part the movie is simply a series of intertwined running gags that never get up enough steam to break through into full-on hilarity. The best one concerns Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the hunky but clueless young man the women hire as their receptionist, and it has nothing to do with the script’s success at standing the ditzy secretary stereotype on its penis and everything to do with Hemsworth’s bizarre performance. With the exception of McKinnon, the other principals are so locked into their poorly sketched characters that their jokes often misfire. More to the point, the scenes are so patchy and the development so poorly paced that the humor can’t gain traction. I had a lot of trouble following the logic of the action-packed last third, where the effects drown out the funny business, and while I understand it’s too much to ask of such a comedy, I can’t help thinking that filmmakers with a bit more time on their hands and a grounding in classic Hollywood screwball style would have made a much better movie. (photo: Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc.)

hollywoodbankerHollywood Banker
Beware biodocs written and directed by the children of their subjects, though in the case of this movie about Dutch film financier Frans Afman, the subject is so obscure that any hagiographical elements are subsumed in a story that reveals a lot of unknown things about the American film industry in the 80s. As the head of Credit Lyonnais Bank, Afman was asked by Dino De Laurentiis to fund the original Superman, and when that was a success, Afman put himself forward to other producers who couldn’t always get a green light from studios. Afman’s successful efforts in that regard should not be judged according to the quality of the product he helped bring about—he did for Dances With Wolves what he did for Platoon, both Best Picture Oscar winners—but rather how they changed the way movies came to be financed. His honesty with partners in explaining how investments could be lucrative attracted more production houses to his door and thus other financiers adopted his effective methods. Eventually, he was brought down by someone he trusted but who wasn’t entirely honest with him. Though the doc includes lots of loving testimony from huge stars and excellent play-by-play from Afman himself before he died several years ago, it’s the gestalt that impresses: a world where art and money actually get along just fine. In English and Dutch. (photo: CTM Docs/Don Camp)

Though Disney’s popular 1967 version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic wasn’t the last word in musical animated features, like all Disney adaptations it eclipsed the original work—a loosely connected volume of short stories—in the imagination of the general public, who reads even less now than they did 50 years ago. Jon Favreau’s CG version is Kipling twice removed, since it retains the cartoon’s fabricated plotline. The man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is an accepted member of the jungle community until the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) tries to convince his four-footed compatriots that Mowgli will grow to be a man and thus a danger to them. What ensues is a more new agey take on the original, with a larger cast of critters (Christopher Walken’s ape, Ben Kingsley’s panther, Scarlett Johansson’ python) willing to help Mowgli survive the tiger’s wrath, and some things are better, like the magical look of the jungle and the way the animals convey human feelings without compromising their salient traits as wildlife. However, the famous song, “Bear Necessities,” as sung by Bill Murray, is shoehorned into a movie that doesn’t need it. (photo: Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

ken-kazuKen and Kazu
Hiroshi Shoji’s debut feature doesn’t add much to the classic tale of chinpira-in-over-their-heads, but it does reveal a talent for working with raw actors. Ken (Shinsuke Kato) and Kazu (Katsuya Maiguma) are low-level drug dealers who work together at an auto repair shop. In the opening scene they successfully chase off the competition, thanks to their willingness to get violent. As with most modern Japanese films of this ilk, the point is that gangsters today have no code, and it soon becomes clear that the more level-headed Ken wants out of the game. He isn’t averse to betraying Kazu but he doesn’t have the mental wherewithal to do so. Ken’s girlfriend is pregnant, so while the motivation for his behavior is there, Shoji doesn’t sufficiently expose it in the workings of the story, which is simply one thing after another, all of it low level thuggery that does nothing to reveal why these guys are friends. Indeed, the pair are such hapless enforcers that you wonder why their higher-ups don’t just get rid of them. In Japanese. (photo: Ken to Kazu Seisaku Iinkai)

Ken Takakura, who died in late 2014, is considered to be Japan’s last movie star, if you define the term as meaning someone whose public persona was embodied in his screen work and vice versa. This surprisingly thoughtful documentary, which analyzes his effect on Japanese and international cinema, contains plenty of material that scans as hagiographic, but director Yuichi Hibi mostly avoids Takakura’s private life except when it bears on his work as an actor. As Paul Schrader, who worked with the actor on The Yakuza, so succinctly puts it, Takakura, who made a hundred ninkyo eiga (yakuza movies) with Toei in the 60s and 70s, was a limited performer, but within his bailiwick he was world-class, and for “typecasters” like him, he was perfect. Eventually, Takakura wanted out of the typecasting and became an independent, though he still played the outsider, the non-conformist, which appealed hugely to that most conformist of societies, the Japanese. Invariably, he became the person he played, a loner, and while this quality imbued his characters with depth and real feeling, it made him sad in the bargain. In Japanese & English. (photo: Team “Ken San”)

measureThe Measure of a Man
When we meet 51-year-old Thierry Taugourdeau (Vincent Lindon), he has already been out of work for more than a year. He gets by on a small unemployment check, but the months of suffering through pointless “retraining” for jobs he’s too old to get and “interview consultations” that he’s not suited to have left him frustrated, cynical, and depressed. He no longer has the energy to get mad, if, in fact, he ever did, and perseveres in the face of endless, mind-numbing bureaucratic indignity. That this all takes place in France, generally thought to be a place where workers have fought for and earned certain rights, isn’t so much ironic as tragic, but like the Dardennes in neighboring Belgium, director Stephane Brize doesn’t push the drama on the viewer. If anything, the overall tone is so even-handed that you get the feeling Brize is giving the system the benefit of the doubt. But some scenes are so fraught with pathos you beg for them to end just as they are getting started. Forced to sell a trailer home he doesn’t really need, Thierry haggles with the buyer over a few hundred euros as if they were being torn from his soul. When he applies for a loan, he keeps a stone face as the loan officer points out that eternal Catch-22: she can’t grant him a loan because he isn’t employed, and then coldly tells him to sell his home, a move that even the audience understands would almost be an act of suicide since he would no longer have a roof over his family’s heads. Brize balances these cringe-inducing scenes with interludes that show Thierry as a decent husband and a loving father, though Lindon’s understated but evocative performance lets us know he has already given up on whatever it is he expected from life. Eventually, he finds employment in a big box store, where his job is to shake down shoplifters and employees who cheat; in other words, fellow victims of the capitalist steamroller. And the movie becomes even more painful, since Thierry seems incapable of altering his temperament to be as effective as his employers expect him to be. His fear of being unemployed again clashes with his disgust at the way the marginalized members of society—of which he’s only a heartbeat away from rejoining—have been abandoned so casually. In a key scene where a colleague pressures a cashier to admit she picked discarded coupons from the trash to use for herself, you can feel Thierry trying to disappear right in front of your eyes. But it’s not an act of cowardice, and in the end, the heroism he deploys, though hardly heroic in conventional terms, pierces you to the core. As hokey as the English title sounds, it encapsulates the theme perfectly. In French. (photo: Nord-Ouest Films-Arte France Cinema)

『ロスト・バケーション』The Shallows
Shark movies are fairly bullet-proof as audience pleasers though all have to contend with the legacy of Jaws, which essentially made Spielberg the man he is. Though the simple premise and extremely small cast of The Shallows pegs it as no more or less frivolous than the next shark movie, director Jaume Collet-Serra uses that simplicity to direct our attention to everything that really matters, not so much to build suspense but rather to involve us more directly in the plight of the young surfer, Nancy (Blake Lively), who is stranded on a small outcropping 200 meters from shore with a serious shark bite on her thigh. The backstory is the biggest problem: Nancy impulsively drops out of medical school after her mother dies of cancer, and she decides to locate a hidden beach in Mexico that her mother once said had the best waves ever. Though this excuse is overly sentimental and slightly unbelievable, Collet-Serra sets it up in a charming, disarming fashion, by explaining it during the jeep ride to the beach, with Nancy and her friendly driver (Oscar Jaenada) struggling with language issues. However, once the movie enters the turquoise waters it becomes single-minded in its determination to identify with all the feelings Nancy is experiencing. Suspense, as it were, is for chumps, and Collet-Serra isn’t really interested in grabbing you by the throat. He wants you to feel more and more desperate about the situation, as the rising tide threatens to rob Nancy of her perch. Nevertheless, someone has to get chomped big time, otherwise it isn’t a shark movie, and the less said about the use of natives as meat puppets the better. What keeps you riveted is the camerawork, which stays close up and personal with Nancy, whether she’s riding a tube or using her medical smarts to gauge her injuries. In the most bravura scene, Nancy gets hold a lost GoPro camera and records a distress message, but adds a tearful farewell to her father and sister in case she doesn’t make it. The scene is ripe for maudlin tearjerking, but Lively’s measured delivery combined with Collet-Serra’s decision to frame the GoPro screen with the vastness of nature in the background (including a seagull that has decided to keep Nancy company) negates its hackneyed potential. Dedicated fans of the genre will probably be disappointed that the shark gets minimum screen time, but as the opening of Jaws attested, its the invisibility of the creature in open water that’s so terrifying. Though the main appeal is Nancy’s resourcefulness in keeping herself alive, she isn’t portrayed as some sort of superwoman. More to the point, while Lively is attractive and spends the entire movie in a bikini, Collet-Serra avoids gratuitious cheescake shots. If we admire her form, it’s because the director accentuates her athleticism in the service of survival. (photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment)

singstreetSing Street
Director John Carney returns to Ireland for his third music-inspired drama, this time setting his story in the mid-80s. The movie is overwhelmed by the attendant nostalgia, and the story is certainly designed to be more conventionally appealing. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a typically cynical teen from a soon-to-be-broken home who decides to start a band from scratch for the sole purpose of impressing aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who wants to make a music video for her portfolio. Helped by his older, shut-in brother (Jack Reynor), a music maven with the biting insight of a Lester Bangs, he quickly masters the lexicon of contemporary pop and then recruits people who can really play to form a group. Though the movie is structured as a coming-of-age tale, it’s also a shameless fantasy about being a star on one’s own terms. Conor, it turns out, is a natural songwriter, and by the time of the group’s first big gig at his school he’s pretty much turned into Roddy Frame at the top of his game. There’s no place to go but horizontally. (photo: Cosmo Films Ltd.)

lahoreSong of Lahore
It would be easy to market Song of Lahore as the Middle Eastern cognate to The Buena Vista Social Club. Most of the same narrative elements are there, but Lahore is more affecting. Focusing on a group of Pakistani musicians who were banned from pursuing their vocation after the 1977 coup implemented Sharia law, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s and Andy Shocken’s documentary explores how easily an ancient art form can dry up in one generation from lack of attention. Fortunately, these musicians survived and, once rules were relaxed, renewed their passions, even building their own studio in order to make sure it would endure. But the Sachal Studio Ensemble knew it would have to adapt in order to survive, so the director brings his love for jazz into the fold, and eventually the group is discovered by Wynton Marsalis, who invites them to Lincoln Center for a joint concert. Though the second half of the film isn’t as involving as the first, the dynamic of struggle that ensues when West meets East is instructive, and all the more liberating when there’s a breakthrough. In Urdu, Panjabi and English. (photo: Ravi Films LLC)

songofseaSong of the Sea
Though Disney is the Western animation house that tends to be mentioned most often when discussing Hayao Miyazaki, Irish director Tomm Moore is closer in sensibility and style, even though he only has two features to his name. His second, Song of the Sea, resembles Ghibli movies in their unique mix of traditional storytelling and individualistic outlook. The story, about a mute little girl, Saoirse, who turns out to be part seal, is based on Irish mythology but uses modern dramatic tropes that appeal to both children and adults. Saoirse’s mother disappeared after giving birth, leaving her older brother, Ben, and father in a constant state of depression. Transferred from their island idyll to the big city by their grandmother, who thinks their lifestyle unhealthy, the siblings embark on an adventure that puts them into contact with witches, sea gods, and a comical trio of legendary musicians. Though the numerous digressions weaken whatever passes as plot here, the animation is so imaginative and expressive that the film evokes a singular world that is immediately comprehensible, and, in the end, quite moving. (photo: Cartoon Saloon, Melusine Prod., The Big Farm, Superprod, Norium)

Though this biopic isn’t strictly a Hollywood production, as directed by Jay Roach it has the self-justifying air of a Tinseltown prestige product and would have been produced by Stanley Kramer had it been released in the era it depicts. Bryan Cranston plays the famously prolific and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo as a cranky, flawed man of principle who stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and then flourished as a pseudonymous hack, while also winning an Oscar under his assumed name. Trumbo’s intellectual posturing is conveyed through the contempt he shows toward the work he’s forced to write in order to keep his family fed, but, naturally, he ignores the family because his selfish mindset trumps any attention he might give them. The side players—John Goodman as the opportunistic B-movie producer who gives Trumbo work, Helen Mirren as gossip harridan Hedda Hopper—have a great time, but, like Cranston, overdo their characters’ pecadilloes. You can tell where the script veered from fact for the sake of dramatic intensity, but even the stuff you know is true is over-the-top. (photo: Trumbo Prod. LLC)

trustThe Trust
Like the proverbial monkeys writing Shakespeare, the odds are that with all the movies Nicolas Cage makes so indiscriminately, once in a while one will be good. This relatively intelligent heist film gains something with Cage playing the lead as Stone, an aggrieved Las Vegas cop who works in the properties department. When Stone learns that a low-level drug dealer was sprung with $200,000 in cash, he locates the possible vault for the money and talks his equally aggrieved subordinate, Waters (Elijah Wood), to help him break into it. The directors, Alex and Benjamin Brewer, did their homework, and the heist itself is filled with fine details that add up to something intriguing, but it’s the chemistry between Stone and Waters—and, by extension, between Cage and Wood—that makes the movie better than it has a right to be. Cage tempers his usual wild man persona, but just enough to make Stone’s increasingly intermperate decisions truly scary, and the slightly more level-headed Waters has to keep recalibrating his responses. A neat little movie that delivers exactly what it promises. (photo: Vault Film LLC)

The devil is literally in the details in this closely observed chronicle of the story that brought Dan Rather’s career to an ignominious close. In 2004, CBS News ran an item on 60 Minutes that claimed George W. Bush, who was running for reelection, had shirked his duties as a pilot with the National Guard, which he had joined in order to avoid serving in Vietnam. The producer of the piece, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), didn’t sufficiently check her sources and they were questioned after the story ran. She, Rather, and some executives were forced to quit as a result. Director James Vanderbilt’s script is almost anal in the way it follows the journalism, but he renders CBS’s attackers as an amorphous clique of trolls who were too thorough to deny, and it’s obvious that the movie thinks the whole thing was a setup to entrap CBS. As a study of how a mainstream American news organization works, Truth is better than a lot of similar-minded films, including Oscar-winner Spotlight, since it shows how badly things can go when you rush a story. Mapes was instrumental is airing the Abu Ghraib scoop, the first major news item that exposed the US military’s wrong-headed prosecution of the Iraq War and which damaged Bush’s reelection chances. Though Vanderbilt doesn’t sufficiently interrogate this aspect of the subsequent scandal, it’s apparent that the success of the Abu Ghraib investigation made Mapes & Co. a bit cocky, and when evidence of Bush’s avoidance of duty during his National Guard days was presented to them, they were so anxious to get it out there as quickly as possible that they over-trusted a key on-the-record source, who, it turned out, wasn’t as reliable as they believed him to be. Vanderbilt, who wrote the excellent, monumental script for David Fincher’s Zodiac, can turn all this forensic material into something that’s thrilling and frustrating at the same time, because the viewer knows that Mapes is onto something. Nevertheless, the movie makes it seem as if it’s mainly her fault, that she was so distracted by her desire to be a good mother on the one hand, and her distressing coping methods on the other (pills, alcohol, etc.), that she didn’t possess the wherewithal to see how the forces of evil were rallying against her. It’s easy to understand how Rather got innocently caught up in the mess, but Redford himself is a distraction; not so much because he doesn’t look or sound like Rather, but because Redford the star adds gravitas to a role that already has too much to begin with. Mapes & Co. made a stupid mistake, but Truth doesn’t get to the heart of the problem: Dirty tricks have become an art form, not a science. (photo: FEA Prod.)

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