December 2016 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which was ditributed in Tokyo last week.

RZ6A8660.JPGA Bigger Splash
The emotional frenzy wrought by Italian director Luca Guadagnino in his first English-language film helps to distract from its weak underlying plot premises. Tilda Swinton is Marianne, a rock star resting up her shot vocal cords on a sun-drenched Mediterranean island with her younger lover Paul (Matthias Schoenarts), who’s also recovering from something self-inflicted. Their idyll is shattered by the arrival of Marianne’s ex, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), an old school debaucher who brings along his jaded daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), and, in a bid to win back Marianne, proceeds to ruin everyone’s life. Though the film’s notable quirk—Marianne is mute by necessity—is also its default source of humor, it allows Fiennes to run away with the film, mugging shamelessly in an attempt to prove that Harry is still a force of nature. The fact that he’s a monumental jerk in the bargain is telescoped too soon, so when the shock ending implicates him it doesn’t feel as heavy as it should. The externals, including references to actual pop music and a real world subtext of refugees passing through, add nothing, so Fiennes gets the movie all to himself. (photo: Frenesy Film Company)

born-blueBorn to Be Blue
The far-flung input for this biopic of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker is apparent in its lack of purpose. Ethan Hawke has the cheekbones and enough of a cool vibe to pull off the impersonation, but Canadian writer-director Robert Budreau approaches his subject at such a careful remove you get the idea the movie was actually shot in Canada. The time frame is limited to the period after Baker was beaten to a pulp by a drug dealer and his re-entry later into the jazz fold, and Budreau gives just enough background to show what Baker lost to drugs and the attendant dissipated attitude. Never taken seriously on the East Coast, Baker comes by his gift seemingly by accident, and there’s little to convince us of his peculiar genius except snippets of tunes and casual comments. The mid-60s atmosphere is accurately recreated, but the made-up romance between Baker and a young black woman (Carmen Ejogo) feels predetermined. She’s obviously standing in for more than one love interest. The movie’s look is more impressive than Baker as a fetish object. (photo: BTB Blue Productions Ltd. and BTBB Productions SPV Ltd.)

271A0126.jpgEye in the Sky
Helen Mirren gets to revisit the frisson of professional frustration she cultivated so well as Jane Tennyson in the Prime Suspect series in this talky thriller about drone warfare. Col. Katherine Powell, secure in a London bunker, is remotely following the exploits of a British-born terrorist plotting a suicide bombing in Nairobi. On the other side of the world, in Nevada, USAF Lt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is ready to fire the missile when Powell makes her decision to strike, and the bulk of the movie is spent reaching that fateful choice, since collateral damage must be factored into the equation and all proper channels explored. Director Gavin Hood has a thing for the tech side that gives the movie its sheen of credibility, but even more, the contentiousness that each involved party, including a Kenyan spy on the ground (Barkhad Abdi) and Powell’s superior (Alan Rickman), injects into the stew of doubt and paranoia builds to a level of palpable discomfort. Hood doesn’t bother with the personal back stories that compromised the similarly themed Good Kill. He sticks to the matter at hand. (photo: eOne Films (EITS) Ltd.)

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEMFantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Maybe because it wasn’t author-vetted as a novel the way the Harry Potter series was, but there’s something about this new venture by J.K. Rowling, written directly for the screen and based on her 2001 “bestiary,” that feels undercooked, as if the job of creating a through-plot that can accommodate four more movies were something she specifically wanted to avoid because it’s obviously a lot of work. Since the imagination as represented on screen mostly has to do with visualizing the kinds of creatures Rowling is so rightly famous for, the movie is more director David Yates’s baby than it is Rowlings’, and the absence of her storytelling mojo is sorely felt. Also, we’re in the U.S. in the 1920s, a time and place that Rowling doesn’t seem to grasp with anything other than a passing familiarity with later Hollywood films about that time. Wizard-zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in the Big Apple for no pointed reason except to lose his suitcase full of magical critters when it’s accidentally picked up in a bank by a factory worker “no-maj” (a muggle by any other name). Though the audience has a certain advantage with knowing something about the wizard universe from the HP stories, Yates doesn’t clearly explicate the mechanics of that universe as it impacts on the situation at hand, and once the factory worker, Jacob (Dan Fogler), opens the case and lets the randy animals loose, the whole parallel world of wizards has to work overtime in making sure the mortals don’t find out about that world through a magical process called “obliviation.” This concern makes for a rather confusing confluence: a somewhat politically based thriller imbued with extreme action sequences of the kind that belong in a Marvel blockbuster. Colin Farrell gives the movie whatever weight it carries as the villain, a wizard enforcer-cum-aspiring office holder whose evil design is to engage the humans in a kind of world war that will eventually see their demise. Unfortunately, the tone and pacing of the film doesn’t accommodate this apocalyptic sub-theme, and what you do remember from the story is mainly self-contained episodes where a character is introduced—probably for exploitation in one of the future sequels—and allowed to bask in the audience’s attention. Redmayne, as the hero, has little to do except guide the camera’s attention from one episode to the next, and I, for one, fell off the movie’s train of thought. Katherine Waterstone is both ubiquitous as Newt’s romantic foil, Porpentina Goldstein, and oddly beside the point in that she never seems to fill a purpose in the story. Presented as a kind of wizardly private eye, she lacks the wisacre cleverness that comes with the vocation and fades in and out of the action. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

florenceFlorence Foster Jenkins
The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a real heiress who lived in New York City during the first half of the 20th century, has been told before on film, at least once in fairly straightforward fashion and numerous other times as the messenger of a theme: People who are very bad at something but have somehow come to believe they are good at it. Such a theme seems particularly prescient right now with the ascendance of Donald Trump, but this film by Stephen Frears has different subtextual fish to fry. Conceived as a sentimental comedy, and a very broad one, it sympathizes with its deluded protagonist and tries to make a case for living one’s dream, regardless of that dream’s worth. In Nicolas Martin’s script, Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a selfless patron of the arts who wants to help musicians be “free from the tyranny of ambition.” She gives away her inherited wealth generously and happily to all sorts of creative endeavor, but mainly to the city opera, which is her passion. But she is not just a fan. She is also an enthusiast, and takes singing lessons, despite the fact that she has a tin ear. Of course, the beneficiaries of her largesse never disabuse her of this fact, fearful they may offend her and have their money conduit cut off, but underlying this politic is real affection. The subterfuge, however, is chiefly maintained by Jenkins’ husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who at first comes across as a golddigger, but given the tireless effort he exerts keeping the lie afloat the viewer can’t help but wonder about his real motives. Bayfield, as it happens, doesn’t actually live with his wife, and when his chores of propping up her ego are done for the day he retires to a separate apartment he shares with a younger mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), who resents his two-timing more than Florence does, though it’s never entirely clear how much Florence knows. The comedy, which is rife in the scenes where Jenkins sings to faces whose conflicting reactions are played for all they’re worth, is undercut with this mystery. How wise is she to the subterfuge? It’s what makes Streep’s performance extraordinary, since not only does the actress pull off the sorry singing style (more difficult than you might imagine), she conveys the woman’s frailty of spirit—which is directly connected to her frailty of body—with depth and sincerity. In a sense, the performance contradicts Frears’ comic purposes, until the end, when Jenkins gives a benefit performance at Carnegie Hall for World War II veterans that turns the tables on everyone, thanks mainly to a fellow rich person who previously wouldn’t countenance her singing. You will leave the theater heartened, but also supremely confused. (photo: Pathe Productions Ltd.)

girl-trainThe Girl on the Train
Based on a bestselling novel that was structured as a series of shifting POVs, Tate Taylor’s film version tries desperately to keep the focus on the action as it keeps whipping the viewer around from one distinct sensibility to another. The main one belongs to the titular “girl,” Rachel (Emily Blunt), whose divorce has left her shipwrecked on her own neediness, a situation that exacerbates her alcoholism and sets her on a self-destructive path of stalking her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their neighbors, Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans). When Megan disappears, fingers are pointed at Rachel, who suffers from booze-induced blackouts. Mixed into all this are the usual desperate plot-deciders—adultery, infertility, misogyny—though none of them have to do with money, which is strange considering how high-rent the setting is. The men, including a cluelessly unsympathetic therapist (Edgar Ramirez), are uniformly horrid, but the women don’t come off much more sympathetically. We are obviously meant to feel superior to all of them. (photo: Universal Pictures)

greatmuseumThe Great Museum
Documentaries about museums come in two types: poetic odes to architecture and history, such as Sokurov’s Hermitage movie, and wonky studies of how they operate, such as Wiseman’s National Gallery. Johannes Holzhausen’s exploration of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum does both and more by separating the tasks of maintaining the works of arts, which are carried out by blue collar types and left-wing craftsmen, from those involved with keeping the money flowing, which are carried out by you-know-who. The ongoing tension between these two tribes gives the movie a dramatic edge you don’t expect, and puts the history of the art on display in a proper socioeconomic context. Both take their work seriously and in doing so the museum’s mission always comes first, even in the face of mass digitalization and a debased cultural attitude, and there’s a difference in perception between a touch-up artist repairing a 16th century portrait of a noble child and a group of wealthy patrons being given a personal guided tour by the museum’s director. The paintings become more than just pretty pictures. In German and English. (photo: Navigator Film)

hitchcock16Hitchcock/Truffaut
Since it’s based on a 1966 book that was a transcript of a taped conversation between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, this documentary by Kent Jones must supplement that conversation with something visual, and what we mainly get are clips from films that illustrate the two men’s remarks, as well as talking head interviews with other directors and film-related people about the influence of the book on their life and work. What’s slightly disappointing about this approach is that it doesn’t really offer up anything new after all these years, which implies that maybe we reached all our conclusions about Alfred Hitchcock right after the book was published. However, we haven’t formed any conclusions about Truffaut, and while his work wasn’t the subject of the book, it might have been interesting to see how his own work evolved after the fateful meeting, given that he directed another dozen or so films and Hitchcock only two. In the end, we learn more about Hitchcock’s influence over his heirs in the industry, and while it might have been interesting to hear what Brian De Palma had to say, the comments by Wes Andersen, Olivier Assayas, Paul Schrader, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Peter Bogdanovich make the movie really worth watching. (Maybe it’s because he’s over-exposed as an interviewee in these kinds of docs, but Martin Scorsese’s comments feel redundant) Given their temporal proximity, Hitchcock’s two most popular films, Psycho and The Birds, get quite a bit of run time, but Vertigo, certainly his most controversial and influential work, is covered amply as well. Technical aspects are paramount (“everything is a function of the light”), but Truffaut seems to be after something more salient, an idea of how Hitchcock’s peculiar sensibility (advertising man turned tech flunky turned instant auteur) actually shaped 20th century art, and not just film art. He mostly gets what he asks for, thanks to Hitchcock’s inherently avid responses to sycophantic overtures. As far as Hitchcock’s infamous pecadilloes go, this was the place where he notoriously called actors “cattle” and Jones’ explications of this sensibility work marvelously. He’s less enlightening on Hitch’s misogyny, though he does mention the director’s persecution of Tippi Hedron, but only in passing. Most significantly, the movie places Hitchcock’s movies in their historical context, and we see how his formalist decisions helped us see a world that no longer exists, a place of secret sexual frustrations and misanthropic urges, and does so without the usual pedantic fuss. It’s refreshing to hear Hitchcock explain these things themselves in his plainspoken British-American hybrid diction. For all his petty cruelties and fetishes, he was a down-to-earth soul who didn’t differentiate his own feelings from those of his audience, even if he looked down on them, which is the most vulgar definition of a genius. In English, French & Japanese. (photo: Cohen Media Group/Artline Films/Arte France & Philippe Halsman/Magnum)

nullJapanese Girls Never Die
Daigo Matsui has it in for his male elders, not to mention some of his own cohort, who put on a uniform front of assholery when it comes to women. The English title is slightly misleading since the main plot point is the “disappearance” of the lead female character, Haruko (Yu Aoi), a 28-year-old OL who is sick of her male colleagues’ offhanded sexism and isn’t getting much in the way of emotional satisfaction from her sad sack fuck buddy, and so she drops out of the social stratum in her dull suburban home town without actually leaving. Matsui does something clever here by showing how men don’t “see” women, anyway, and while the subplot involving a gang of teenage girls terrorizing men on the street at night has a kinky apocalyptic charge, it feels thrown off, like an idea that wasn’t taken to its natural conclusion. Despite its narrative ingenuity the movie is as immature as its characters, and fails to reveal much of anything about those characters except their impulses in the face of crushing boredom. In Japanese. (photo: Azumi Haruko wa Koho Fumei Seisaku Iinkai)

landofmineLand of Mine
This Danish film is about a little-known episode from WWII. Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, and when they were defeated they left behind 2 million land mines. The victors then used German POWs to dig up those mines. Due to attrition, most of these ex-soldiers are mere boys, though the resentful Danes hardly care. Director Martin Pieter Zandvliet obviously sympathizes with the young Germans, who are roundly bullied and victimized. The action takes place along a wide stretch of seacoast, and each explosion and the body it destroys is rendered as shockingly tragic as Zandvliet can make it. The built-in suspense is milked for all its worth. Each boy is given a touching backstory, while the two main Danish characters form a dialectic of cruelty and sympathy that doesn’t always hold up to dramatic scrutiny since the sources of their differing antipathies are more or less dramatic devices. The movie is conventional in theme and almost radical in approach—it’s a thriller that’s supposed to make you feel differently about something huge, even if it only shines a light into a narrow, dark corner. In Danish & German. (photo: Nordisk Film Prod. A/S & Amusement Park Film GMBH & ZDF)

louder-copyLouder Than Bombs
Battle journalism as an addictive drug is the idea that sits uncomfortably at the margins of this melancholy family drama. Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a famous war photographer, is killed in an accident shortly after retiring. Director Joachim Trier is cagey with the circumstances, but the death is ruled a suicide, and the viewer forced to wonder just how damaged Isabelle was by all that proximity to death on a daily basis. Her pain is presented indirectly through the problems of her son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), who flees his family after his first son is born; husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne), who doesn’t know how to move on; and teenage son Conrad (Devin Druid), who’s at the age when any sort of trauma is triply unmooring. Set mostly in the rich suburbs of Westchester County, the film’s roller coaster of emotions passes through instances of rationality and irrationality, meant to mirror Isabelle’s dual life as a family rock and risk-taker. The entrance of an old lover and hopeful biographer (David Straitharn) only works to muddy the already opaque narrative, but it has its powerful moments. (photo: Motlys-Memento Films Prod.-Nimbus Films-Arte France Cinema)

milesMiles Ahead
The skinny on Don Cheadle’s biopic of Miles Davis is that the fictional plot premise of the trumpeter being pursued by a journalist from Rolling Stone was forced on the actor-director by a studio that felt it needed a prominent white character to sell the movie. From all reports it was not a hit in the U.S. when it opened earlier this year, but the greater disappointment was in the way Cheadle and his scriptwriter, Steven Bagelman, accommodated Davis in hindsight to this intruding journalist. The movie takes place in the early 70s when Davis (Cheadle), strung out on coke, was cooling his heels before setting out on his revolutionary fusion period. The reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), is desperate to get the scoop on Miles’ 5-year disappearance and does everything in his power to wheedle his way past the front door of Davis’s fortress-like Manhattan home. Bagelman’s script trades in facile shorthand, so we know Brill’s mentality when he refers to Miles as “jazz’s Howard Hughes,” and as it turns out he’s even more of a jerk that you would imagine. Though worshipful of Davis as a musical force, he is rude and dismissive of him as a man. Davis waves him off as a white-privilege bug, but in order to keep him in the movie’s loop Cheadle introduces intrigue involving a rehearsal tape, Columbia Records’ pissed-off brass, drug dealers, and the thuggish record producer (Michael Stuhlbarg) who owes Davis a lot of money. Though much of Davis’s erratic behavior is obviously due to the drugs, Cheadle wisely avoids the cliches about genius-and-weakness that are now inextricably bound to the biopic genre because of Ray and Walk the Line. Though his drug habit causes him inconvenience, it doesn’t make him a lesser person, and, in fact, there’s something defiant about his addiction that reinforces Davis’s reputation as an artist of fierce self-possession. He snorts coke because he likes it. At the same time, Cheadle doesn’t explore whatever demons drove Davis to persecute his wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), shown in flashbacks, when he was the king of bop and the most innovative musician in the world. Such an oversight makes Brill’s seminal interview topic—Why the 5-year vacation?—meaningless, since it’s never answered; which isn’t to say it’s not a good question. But that’s the problem with the film. Though it gives us a good emotional portrait of a great artist, it doesn’t show what made him great. It’s assumed we already know; or that we’ll take everyone’s word for it. The question becomes even more acute at the end, when Cheadle fronts an ensemble of recognizable post-millennial jazz musicians to recreate his great jazz-rock group: Is this a fantasy or a representation?

thenetThe Net
Korean iconoclast Kim Ki-duk has covered the north-south divide before, but usually indirectly. In this black comedy he addresses it through the figure of a hapless North Korean fisherman, Nam (Ryoo Seung-beom), whose motorboat conks out one day and inadvertently drifts into the waters of South Korea, where he’s arrested as a spy. Nam’s life in the north is pitiably lean but tolerable in that he has a loving wife and a cute daughter. When he’s transported through Seoul to an intelligence compound for interrogation he shuts his eyes so that he won’t be “contaminated” by the decadence around him. In fact, much of the conflict among the various South Korean functionaries charged with addressing his presence has to do with whether or not he should be imprisoned or “turned.” His interrogator, a mid-level manager with a serious case of retribution anxiety, tortures and bullies Nam in order to find out who his “contact” is in the South, while a sympathetic guard, Jin-woo (Lee Son-geun), sees him as an innocent caught between two very different worlds. As is often the case with Kim, a lot of these scenes go on without much reason to, and the viewer, stuck with him in all these cramped grey rooms, will feel antsy even before the protagonist does. Eventually, Jin-woo convinces his superiors to let Nam loose in the middle of Seoul to see how he reacts, the idea being that once he releases how free and comfortable life is in the South, he will become easier to deal with, but that isn’t what happens. While walking around aimlessly, Nam saves a sex parlor worker from a pair of low level hoodlums. Rather than turn him, the incident simply steels his resolve that the south is an immoral, opportunistic sewer, a view that Kim doesn’t seem to disagree with. The director doesn’t let the north off the hook, though, because when Nam eventually returns home after the South has given up on him, he’s subjected to the same abuse and suspicion, in an cleverly mirrored take on what went on in Seoul. Kim’s affection for sudden, ridiculous explosions of violence is tempered here—though there are some disturbing scenes none is particularly shocking. But as always, his characters lack depth and the stroytelling is schematic to a fault. It’s surprisingly tame thematically, so the typically hysterical execution makes the viewing experience exhausting. Unlike some of his post-Ariran works, it doesn’t feel as deliberately transgressive. Some will see that as an improvement, but given his fiercely held independence in a national industry that commands adherence to a certain vision, it’s a distressingly measured movie. In Korean. (photo: Kim Ki-duk Film)

" STONEWALL " Photo by Philippe BosseStonewall
Roland Emmerich, who made Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, would seem an odd choice to direct a movie about the riots that jump-started the American gay rights movement. What’s really odd about the movie is that the riots, with their furious action, should have been right up Emmerich’s alley, but that pivotal moment doesn’t get as much attention as you might imagine, at least compared to the long fictional coming-of-age story that culminates on that fateful day in 1970. Danny (Jeremy Irvine) is a typical closet case as a high school senior in Indiana, where his dad coaches the school’s football team. He is caught in a compromising position with another male student by some classmates and word gets around. As a result, Danny is effectively kicked out of the family home. Having been accepted to Columbia he makes his way to New York, where he gravitates to Christopher Street in the Village and falls in with the homeless queer scene. Since his father won’t sign for his scholarship, he is forced to, first, turn a trick for cash and then take a job in a small neighborhood grocery store, all the while cultivating friendships with a predictably varied range of LGBTQ characters, the most interesting of whom is the proto-trans Puerto Rican Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a flamboyant leader of the pack who likes nothing better than showing the new kid around. Danny’s Midwest farmer’s boy look and attitude finds lots of comers at the Stonewall, a kind of speakeasy for gays that is raided on a regular basis by the police and run by the mob. He is eventually taken in by an educated rabble-rouser (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who tries to politicize him, and it works to a certain extent but also alienates him from the gay hoi polloi, who don’t trust politics of any kind, even that which is supposed to make their lives better. If the script by Jon Robin Baitz gets anything right dramatically, it’s the sense of building frustration across the whole spectrum of Village habitues that explodes in the famous riots, which starts when Danny throws the first brick, an act that has more significance for him than it does for the audience—or the movement, for that matter. Still, as hackneyed as it is, Stonewall contains a lot of elements that are impressive in their own right, including a few scenes that feel creepily plucked from the time they depict, and for what it’s worth, the period production design is spot on, capturing the Village vibe in all its cramped, dingy glory. (photo: Stonewall USA Productions LLC/Philippe Bosse)

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