February 2017 movies

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

A return to the “real romances” that were so central to Hollywood’s primacy in the 40s, Robert Zemeckis’s stylish war movie doesn’t attempt the kind of verisimilitude that Spielberg has been trying to achieve lately. Brad Pitt plays a Canadian soldier named Max who travels undercover to Vichy-controlled Morocco as a Frenchman in order to assassinate a German governor with the help of Resistance fighter Marianne (Marion Cotillard). The conceit is that they pose as a well-off French married couple—the main joke being that Max’s Quebecois accent needs work—and, in the process of planning and executing their mission, fall in love. However, later, back in London, with an infant and the war still going on, Max is told his wife may be a double agent, and he works desperately to disprove the suspicion. Though Zemeckis does a fine job of recreating the various settings and pushing his two leads toward each other with credible chemistry, there is a depressing inevitability to the second half of the film, which kills not only the suspense, but the whole romantic atmosphere. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Less narratively stable than his last two films, Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, the latest by Jean-Marc Vallee is too dependent on the quirks of its characters to make a coherent impression. Jake Gyllenhaal is safely within his comfort zone as Davis, a disillusioned investment banker who freaks out after his wife dies because he doesn’t feel depressed. This realization leads to its own special breed of depression that manifests as destruction of his high-rent job, of his high-end abode, and of any relationship he’s sealed along the way. The movie’s more precious plot device is his friendship with Karen (Naomi Watts), the pot-smoking vending machine customer service rep who receives a complaint from Davis that he uses to vent his disappointment with his life. Davis bonds with Karen’s emotionally volatile sixth-grader son (Judah Lewis), who returns the favor by using Davis as target practice, whether it be with invective or live ammunition. Though entertaining in a transgressive way, the movie just keeps piling one example of weird behavior on another until it falls over, top heavy with insignificance. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., Demolition Movie LLC and TSG Entertainment Finance LLC)

Compelled to research questions regarding authority, conformity, and conscience after the capture of the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) conducted an infamous experiment to find how much pain a person would inflict on another simply because he was ordered to do so. In truth, there was no pain involved at all—the “receiver” of the test was a hired actor prompted to scream in agony as the “examination” proceeded—but the “examiners” didn’t know this and tended to ratchet up the voltage of the shocks simply because he or she was told that the integrity of the experiment depended on it. Most continued, even if they expressed concern for the other person’s well-being. Milgram eventually became a sort of academic pariah, and while director Michael Almereyda shows how this criticism impacted his life, Experimenter is itself a kind of experiment. The POV is fluid and changing. Sometimes the viewer is an observer, sometimes an unwilling participant. Milgram himself addresses the viewer directly through the fourth wall. Almereyda is also interested in showing how a specific time and place shaped a certain mindset. We’re in that rarefied atmosphere of early 60s East Coast academia, where men in sweaters, sporting longish hair, and speaking with quiet authority represented not just the elite, but the future of American thought. In recreating and conveying an attitude that was a product of its age and its particular milieu, Almereyda makes something almost as immersive as Mad Men. The Brechtian touches have a way of draining the story of its psychological power, but the picture that emerges of this unusually thoughtful, complicated man is entertaining—an absurd biopic. As the movie progresses into the 70s and Milgram grows the requisite college professor beard, he revels in his notoriety, using it not for the usual perks such as sex and money, but an almost godlike position as the ultimate arbiter of authoritarian behavior, even if many people think his studies are cruel and wrong-headed. “Obedience isn’t an instrument of evil,” one student chides him and he won’t argue, because he’s come to the conclusion that most behavior is hot-wired rather than learned. The trick is to overcome nature. Interestingly, he doesn’t wield his notoriety like a cudgel. If anything, he’s too self-aware. Almereyda’s most disconcerting decision is to leave everything up to the viewer: You won’t exit the theater thinking one way or the other about Milgram’s moral stature. For one thing he seemed to be a fine father and a loving husband to his devoted wife, Sasha (Winona Ryder), who is portrayed as not only a willing accomplice in his experiments, but an invaluable collaborator. (photo: Experimenter Productions LLC)

IMG_9479.CR2A Hologram for the King
Tom Hanks barely saves Tom Tykwer’s awkward adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel about an American trying to sell an expensive new conference-call technology to the king of Saudi Arabia. Alan Clay is hardly making ends meet any more: divorced with a daughter who doesn’t seem to appreciate him and a boss who has essentially said this sale is his last chance, he’s a habitual over-sleeper and becomes dependent on his English-speaking driver (Dhaffer L’Abidine) to get him to meetings that never materialize, anyway, due to reasons that are never revealed. As Alan’s trip starts looking like a total bust he’s shanghaied by Danish sales agents, mistaken for a CIA operative by some natives, and operated on by a female physician (Sarita Choudhury) who removes a large growth from between his shoulder blades. The only really compelling plot development is Alan’s relationship with the doctor, which turns into something both predictable and surprising. That’s supposed to be Eggers’ strong point as a writer, but Tykwer can’t quite get all of it onto the screen. (photo: Hologram for the King Ltd.)

LLL d 29 _5194.NEFLa La Land
In his previous feature, Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle depicted art, in this case jazz drumming, with a filmic style that attempted to match the visceral impact of that art, so you got a lot of quick, abrupt edits that spun you around. This obviousness is even more at play in his new movie, which is a genuine movie musical, and not just a movie about music. In the impressive opening production number, which is made to look like a single take, a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway becomes an extended chorus line of individuals singing and dancing their thoughts as they wait in their cars. The sequence is meant to set the mood—this is what L.A. is all about—but it’s hardly revealing or insightful, because everyone knows about L.A. traffic jams. It’s simply a cliche opened up. Dutifully, Chazelle visits all the familiar Tinseltown landmarks for other production numbers, and his anchoring story about a love affair between an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist who wants to open his own club is so generic as to be public domain material. The appeal is in the presentation, not the stuff itself. The catch copy of the film’s ad campaign goes, “Here’s to the fools who dream,” as hackneyed a phrase as you’re likely to hear, but that seems to be the point. Chazelle wants either to up-end all the cliches or intensify them to such a point that they don’t feel like cliches any more. It’s difficult to tell which. In any case, they’re old-fashioned on purpose. Mia (Emma Stone) has been doing auditions for so long that she already seems to have aged past her competition, meaning every blonde white girl on the West Coast. Her doggedness is affecting but entirely beside the point. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), on the other hand, is bullheaded about the purity of his calling—he wants to play “real” jazz, meaning something unadulterated by the need to make money or people happy. Other critics have already mentioned how this attitude becomes offensive once he takes a job playing with an old colleague in the friend’s new, and very popular, R&B group, given that this character (played by R&B pro John Legend) is black and Sebastian is white. But what’s more off-putting is Sebastian’s use of African-American vernacular and his equating of “real” with underground (that’s where his club is going to be, anyway). But as trite as the characters are, Chazelle does make their romance credible and, in the end, touching, and he gets help in that regard from the songs by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, which are melodically meaty enough to chew on. Chazelle obviously longs for a time when the values expressed in the script still had credence, but only the songs make that case convincingly. (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)

Jeff Nichols brings his affinity for rural American life to this true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga), an interracial couple who were hounded out of the state of Virginia after they got married in 1958. Though the gist of the film is the early 1960s court case that eventually changed miscegenation laws all over America, the heart of the film is in its low-key portrayal of the marriage itself, which has been fictionalized to a certain extent. Nichols doesn’t have to do anything to provoke the viewer’s indignation about the bigotry on display, and so he concentrates on what’s important—the love story, which starts before Richard and Mildred married. In this pocket of Virginia blacks and poor whites intermingle naturally owing more to economic circumstances than anything else. The bigoted outside world rarely intrudes here, but when they decide to marry they do so in Washington D.C., where it is legal. They then sneak back to Virginia where Richard has bought a plot of land to build a home, but soon the authorities find out and arrest the couple, in the middle of the night, no less. After a protracted court hearing the Lovings decide to move to Washington, where Mildred has relatives, thus giving up their dream of a home of their own. The only time they return is so Mildred can have her baby at the home of Richard’s mother, who is a midwife, but they are busted again, and getting Mildred out of jail is more difficult this time. Some years later, Mildred writes a letter to a lawyer, who passes it on to the ACLU, which decides to take their case as a constitutional test. Richard is nervous and self-conscious, and doesn’t like the attention the case attracts, while Mildred understands that she has to take the initiative, though, as a black woman, her resources are limited. Nichols gives mostly cursory attention to the progress of the case, which at least allows the Lovings to move conditionally back to Virginia. When the case attracts media attention, a photographer (Michael Shannon) from Life magazine visits and takes the iconic pictures that probably had more to do with the case’s success than anything, since what they showed is a married couple who very obviously have a warm relationship. What’s enlightening is how the movie traces this marriage over the years, showing how the Lovings’ relationships with friends and relatives, as well as the rearing of their three children, gave them a normality that most people would be envious of, even if most people would not want to be in their shoes. The fact that the movie tries to avoid any excitement except where it’s absolutely necessary is actually what makes it so irresistable. (photo: Big Beach LLC)

Denzel Washington;Chris Pratt;Ethan Hawke;Manuel Garcia-Rulfo;Vincent D Onofrio;Martin Sensmeier;Byung-hun LeeThe Magnificent Seven
Essentially a remake of a Western that itself was a reimagining of a famous Japanese film, Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven mostly repositions a serviceable plot by upping the body count, intensifying the violence, and, thanks to sharp pulpy dialogue by Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective), adding a touch of wry modernist humor to the mix. But probably the most obvious change is how evil the villians are. The mining boss, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), is cosmically, operatically bad. Fuqua sets the stakes pretty high by staging Bogue’s entrance in a church, where he not only tells the residents of Rose Creek that he’s going to get their land by any means necessary but proceeds to kill a number of people who have the nerve to challenge him right there in front of God, whom he equates with capitalism. The townspeople, represented by one of the instant widows of Bogue’s demonstration, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), want revenge and they want it now. So whereas the impetus for the action in the previous two versions of the story was simply self-defense, here it has an extra layer of justification that, in turn, justifies the gore. Cullen seeks out a sharp-shooting bounty hunter, Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), to help her get what she wants, and for some reason it doesn’t take much to convince him to take the job. He starts putting together the titular rogues gallery of killers, beginning with a former Civil War foe, Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-throwing Asian sidekick, Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun). So already we have a black Union soldier-turned-cowboy and a guy from the East (nationality undetermined, though), which provides another twist to the formula: diversity. The septet is filled out with a Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an exiled Comanche (Martin Sensmeier), a certifiably insane mofo (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), the only white male without any distinctive baggage and, as such, the movie’s center in terms of audience identification. Fuqua has some fun pitting Farraday against the Mexican in mildly racist terms, which means when the fighting starts they end up having each other’s back. Since the bulk of the film is made up of getting these guys on board and then training the townsfolk in the arts of mutual self-destruction, there are plenty of opportunities for character development, which is where Pizzolatto’s dialogue comes in handy by reducing everyone to a set of clever sound bites. But all this preparation for the climactic battle that the audience is looking forward to never feels obligatory thanks to Fuqua’s even-handed direction. He makes sure each set piece has its own perverted appeal, and once the carnage begins we already know the special deadly trait of each of the seven. If the climax isn’t quite as thrilling as we expect it to be, maybe that’s because Fuqua has succeeded to well in the setup. There’s a little too much incendiaries and not enough mano-a-mano eye-gouging clinches.

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDRENMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Tim Burton regains his creative equilibrium with this adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ novel about a boy in search of the truth about his grandfather, who regaled him with stories about growing up in a orphanage in Wales. Jake (Asa Butterfield) is an odd boy out in Florida and seems to have some of his grandfather’s (Terence Stamp) “peculiarity.” A counselor (Alison Janney) suggests that Jake confront the source of his anxiety and he embarks for Wales, where the orphanage does exist, though only he can see it. The “peculiar children” include a girl who defies gravity, another with a mouth in the back of her head, and an invisible boy. The headmistress, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), is just as odd, but it’s her ability to loop time that makes her institution more than just a sanctuary for the unique. As with many time travel tales, this one often gets ahead (or behind) itself, so the plot may escape some viewers, but it’s suitably creepy and delightful in succession, and the most entertaining thing Burton has done in a while. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

At first blush, this vanity project by Martin Scorsese comes across as punishing as the persecuting officials it depicts. This is a heavily Catholic movie that discusses the kind of weighty spiritual matters that writers like Graham Greene occasionally tackled in his more serious books. That it is taken from a source novel written by a Japanese Catholic physician adds even more interesting subtext, and while the movie does turn into quite a slog, it manages to convey its concepts with a bracing clarity that will disturb the faithful and offend the unfaithful. In the late 17th century, two Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), journey to Japan, which was closed to outsiders at that point. Their mission is to rescue Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has renounced his faith after attending to the minority of Japanese Catholics driven underground by the Shogunate’s ban on Christianity. When they arrive their mission is sidetracked by the Catholics they encounter, who have been practicing their faith in secret and long for the kind of sacramental attention that only an ordained priest can provide them with. Scorsese effectively presents their lives as being a living purgatory. They reside in mist-shrouded hamlets far from anything resembling civilization, surviving as animals, yet clinging to dogma that has become repurposed for Japanese culture. The two priests are confronted with this dogma in ways they can’t fully appreciate: all the kakure kirishitans (hidden Christians) seem to care about is that there is a life beyond this one that isn’t about want only, and while that does seem to be the point of Christianity, the priests regret they can’t offer anything more immediate. Eventually, they are caught by local government representatives in the guise of the hissing villain Inoue (Issey Ogata), a man whose understanding of the appeal of religion is disarmingly precise. The fly in the ointment, as it were, is the reprobate Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who seems to retain his faith even as he “tramps” on the image of Christ in order to placate Inoue, who couldn’t care less about what’s really in his heart. It’s all about appearances. Thus we can’t help but pity the faithful who don’t desecrate, because they are tortured and die terribly. With the exception of one beheading, Scorsese presents the horrors sparingly, sometimes even beautifully—a crucifixion on the beach is breathtaking and stirring—as if to show that martyrdom really does offer up a state of grace. It’s a shame that the mix of accents and occasionally over-written dialogue (by Jay Cocks) is so distracting, because by the end the ideas about the meaning of faith and how it can be as oppressive as despair hit their intended marks. Even an atheist who takes the “silence” for granted can learn something from Scorsese’s movie. In English and Japanese. (photo: FM Films LLC/Kerry Brown)

Timely given the currrent political climate, this fictionalized story about British women struggling to win the right to vote attempts to make it about something more. Opening in 1912, it centers on Maud (Carey Mulligan), a wife and mother who works in an industrial laundry with her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), for low pay. Subject to sexual harassment that she accepts as a matter of course, Maud eventually gravitates to the suffrage movement in solidarity with a co-worker. Though she attends secret meetings, her movements soon invite the attention of a local police detective (Brendan Gleeson) and when Sonny finds out he banishes her from their home and forbids her to see their son, which he can do by law. Naturally, Maud’s maternal instinct is enflamed and she throws herself into her advocacy with more passion. As history goes, Suffragette feels wan, even though it includes genuine historical figures (Emily Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep) and ends with a famous act of martyrdom. Its value is as a reminder that the subjugation of women is still a real problem. (photo: Pathe Productions Ltd., Channel Four Television Corp. and the British Film Institute)

The PR hook for this ambitious indie is that it was all shot on iPhones, which says less about the skills of the director, Sean Baker, and everything about the quality of our mobile devices. But what it really says is that creativity doesn’t have to be a function of funding, because Tangerine is one of the liveliest, funniest, most poignant romantic comedies of the new millennium. Set along a seedy stretch of downtown Los Angeles, it mainly centers on the misadventures of two transgender hookers, Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor) and their straight lovers during the course of a single Christmas Eve. The action is sparked when Sin-Dee, just out of jail, meets her BFF Alexandra at the local donut shop and gains intelligence that her pimp-boyfriend, Chester (James Ransome), is with somebody else. Determined to get satisfaction, she starts scouring the vicinity for her man, with Alexandra, who feels guilty about spilling the beans, tagging along to make sure she doesn’t murder the other woman (Mickey O’Hagan), whose name is Dinah. The contrast is immediately appealing and somehow comforting in its strange familiarity: Alexandra the voice of reason and calm trying to placate Sin-Dee the proverbial motor-mouthed trans diva, whose store of put-downs needs to be published as a manifesto of trash talking art form. Baker matches the verbal rhythms with camera moves that are just as funny and inventive. Though the production deserves the props the movie has gotten, it’s the performances that lift it out of the merely curious. To say these two women embody an idea of femininity that transcends stereotypes is almost insulting because they embody the stereotype with a fierce sense of individual entitlement. The fact that the movie takes place in Hollywood is just gravy, because it’s the most Hollywood-conscious indie since Mulholland Drive. What’s refreshing, and entertaining, about Tangerine is that it doesn’t deal at all in identity politics, but simply uses its characters and environment to tell an old story in a new, exciting way. Moreover, it’s populated with other demimonde denizens who give the movie texture and social balance, especially an Armenian cab driver (Karren Karaguilan) whose relatively conventional home life is explored in sensitive detail. It even has relatively nice things to say about the johns whom Sin-Dee and Alexandra service. The result is colorful, hilarious, and even suspenseful, as Sin-Dee finally zeroes in on her prey. But more than anything, Tangerine is full of delightful surprises. You may think you’ve seen it before, but soon you realize, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. (photo: Tangerine Films LLC)

The titular dachshund is the barely serviceable glue that holds together a group of thematically linked tales. Since the director is Todd Solondz, these stories trade in humiliation and disappointment, but they aren’t as provocative as some of the things he’s done in the past. Of the four stories, the queasiest features Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), who you’ll remember from Solondz’s first movie. She has grown up into a veterinary assistant who steals the dog after its previous owner asks her to put it down. Having fulfilled its role in drawing Dawn into the movie, the dog has no purpose in the attendant story about her road trip with a sullen opportunist (Kieran Culkin). When the dog ends up in the possession of a bitterly failed screenwriter (Danny DeVito) it becomes the delivery device for his enmity and only survives to silently observe the contemporary family generation gap, which despite a potently ornery turn by Ellen Burstyn, feels generic. Though funny in spots, the movie’s cynicism overrides whatever insight you might derive from the sad human interactions on display. (photo: Whiffle Baller LLC)

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