December 2017 movies

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

The Age of Shadows
Set during the Japanese colonial period of the 1920s, Kim Jee-woon’s double agent thriller wears its political context lightly. Song Kang-ho plays Capt. Lee, a Korean in the employ of the Japanese police who is rising fast within the ranks. His main prey is resistance fighter Kim Jan-ok (Park Hee-soon), who, in the early minutes of the movie, is betrayed by a mole in the underground movement. As it turns out, Kim and Lee were once classmates and are still friends of a sort. As a policeman, Lee prefers to work by stealth and ingenuity, while his hot-headed Japanese partner (Um Tae-goo) works the old-fashioned way, through torture and intimidation. He also doesn’t trust Lee because he’s Korean, and, in fact, the viewer is always wondering if and when the other shoe will drop and Lee turns against his Japanese superiors. The script becomes unnecessarily complicated at times, and the action set pieces, in particular a long, complex section set on a train, are extremely tense and exciting. The ending is one of the more satisfying climaxes of the year. In Korean & Japanese. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

The Assignment
If I had my way, I would declare a moratorium on violent thrillers hith hired assassin protagonists. If movies really are the world, then one out of every four people on the planet is a hit man—or woman (hit person?). Though the appeal of such a charactr is obvious, there are no assassination-based plots that haven’t been done, no depths of the hit man psyche that haven’t been plumbed. Having said that, I have to hand it to veteran action maven Walter Hill for taking on one more hit man movie, because the premise here is so ridiculously out there, that only a technician of Hill’s stature could pull it off without looking like a total loser. Which isn’t to say the movie is actually good, only that it’s watchable and compelling up to a point. Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank Kitchen, a surly, brutish freelancer, with a beard and penis that may or may not have been digitally added. Frank’s m.o. is that he doesn’t fret much over his marks or why he’s killing them. He’s rough with women and loose with his money and his liquor. One of Frank’s employers, a jerk named Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia), pays him to kill a drug addicted art collector, whose sister, a black market plastic surgeon named Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), resents the whack and pledges to get revenge. She pays off Honest John who delivers Frank to her, and she performs gender reassignment surgery on the killer, turning him into a her. Rodriguez has made a nice pile playing the same butch-but-femme hardass every since she debuted in Girl Fight, and the fact that there isn’t much tonal difference between Frank with tits and Frank without tits is one of the movie’s better jokes. As long as Rodriguez commands the screen, even when she’s unconvincingly serenading Frank’s “girlfriend,” Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), the movie has a certain transgressive appeal. The mistake was Weaver, a great actress who isn’t good at selling really bad roles. Dr. Kay’s ubermensch megalomania is strictly for fanboys, and as soon as she opens her mouth and quotes another line from Shakespeare the movie grinds to a halt. It’s easy to wonder what a really dedicated action director, like John Woo, might have done with this material. I mean, the premise is just as stupid as Face Off, and that movie was the bomb. (photo: SBS Films)

Denial
Clinical in its approach to the facts of the case yet passionately devoted to the attendant emotional implications, David Hare’s script, based on the book by American Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, is built to provoke frustration. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) was sued by the English Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) for libel after she dismissed his work in a publication. Irving’s advantage is that he uses British libel laws, which compel the defendant to prove she didn’t defame the plaintiff. Under such circumstances she cannot call Holocaust survivors to her defense because they are not material to the matter at hand, and Irving knows this. She thus must trust her English counsel (Tom Wilkinson) to strategize her defense in accordance with the niceties of British law. What’s particularly interesting about the case, and which Hare expertly focuses on throughout, is that until he got the Holocaust bug, Irving was a respected and reputable historian, and you keep wondering why he insists on perpetuating falsehoods that only cause pain to others. The only possible answer Hare comes up with is that it’s a challenge. As Spall plays him, Irving is a game player, a likely anti-semite, and most certainly a misogynist. Lipstadt represents everything he hates about academia, and he means to ruin her thoroughly, even if he doesn’t know her. As such, Irving’s obsession becomes the most trenchant cinematic portrayal of the conspiracy theorist, whose purchase on his own version of the truth is so sure that he approaches any argument as if it were a riddle to be solved. And so while everyone in the film is impressive, Spall particularly captures the venal cluelessness of his character, an outsider whose material wealth can’t shield him from the hatred his beliefs incur, and so he deploys underhanded but accepted methods to get revenge. He’s the victim here, not the Jewish survivors. He defines the word “pathetic.” At times, Hare’s tone is so sober as to be almost trance-inducing, and the legal minutae may try those in the audience who came for a good bigot-bashing. As an outraged American (the worst, and best, kind), Lipstadt at first tests the court’s patience with her inability to grasp the fine points of British libel law, and her lawyers can only do so much to contain her. At one point, a group of influential Jewish Londoners askss her over dinner if she shouldn’t settle for a plea bargain, since they are afraid she might actually lose the case due to her hot temper and they would be left holding the bag of shit. It’s at this point that the Jewish Lipstadt realizes the real difference that separates her sensibility from that of Europeans. She really is an outsider, even among her own people…or, at least, people she thought were her people. (photo: Denial Film LLC and British Broadcasting Corp.)

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Al Gore’s latest plea for the planet goes wider without necessarily getting deeper than its Oscar-winning predecessor. The power point presentation about global warming, which dominated the first movie, is still wielded here in some scenes, but mostly the film is peripatetic. Gore globe-trots to beat the band, bringing his message to the choir and a few who might like to join, but rarely does he come up against those who refuse to even countenance the idea of human-caused climate change. The ensuing years have given the former vice presdient more ammunition, and the film assertively presents undeniable visual and statistical evidence that warming is happening and making people’s lives miserable as we speak. With the suddenly appended coda of Donald Trump’s victory, the movie’s dire warnings become even more immediate. As a polemic it’s effective, but too much emotional currency is spent on Gore’s haggard personage. It’s all personal to him, and the movie can’t help but seem like the last gasp of a defeated man. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Interlude in Prague
Not so much Amadeus-lite as it is a total brain-buggery of all the things we think we know about Mozart, this UK-Czech co-production, starring people you’ve never heard of, attempts to provide some sort of context for Don Giovanni, perhaps the maestro’s deepest work. Mozart (Anuerin Barnard), whose wife has just suffered a miscarriage, is brought to Prague by a bunch of wealthy residents to conduct the final performance of Figaro at a local theater, and while there he falls in love with a budding soprano (Morfydd Clark) who is betrothed to Baron Saloka (James Purefoy), the city’s richest man and a notorious womanizer. Saloka becomes the model for Don Giovanni, but while director John Stephenson addresses the music with reverence and taste, he can’t bring together the purple soap opera plot and the opera’s themes, which are left to the audience to figure out. Purefoy is the only actor who seems to be enjoying himself, injecting the Baron with a slimy self-regard that’s practically Malkovichian. Amadeus looks like Shakespeare in comparison. (photo: Trio in Prague)

Kingsman: The Golden Circle
It’s giving nothing away to say right off the bat that Colin Firth’s character, Harry Hart, from the first Kingsman film, is brought back from the dead in the sequel, since he’s very obviously alive in all the trailiers and promotional materials that preceded the opening. However, the means of his resurrection I’ll leave to your imagination so that there will be something to look forward to if and when you decide to see Kingsman: The Golden Circle. But even if you don’t, there is probably not much to miss, because the film as a whole is something of a long shot. What is more likely to pique your curiosity is the intelligence that Elton John plays himself and is held hostage by the movie’s villain, a global drug dealer named Poppy (Julianne Moore) who’s into pink things and talks like a housewife with a surplus of diet pills. Suffice to say that The Golden Circle outdoes its predecessor in terms of snarky parody humor. Even the Austin Powers movies, which essentially just made fun of the idea of spy flicks, can’t hold a candle to Kingsman’s 360-degree respectability destruction. The whole Savile Row suit-wearing values that this privatized British secret service assumes for the series is only an entryway into a world built entirely on appearances, which is also why the movie feels flat after a while. You don’t go to see a film like Kingsman for depth, but this sort of shallow humor won’t sustain most people for the length of an entire feature, and this one is 2 hours and 20 minutes. It opens with one of Matthew Vaughn’s extreme car demolition montages, done in varying degrees of slow motion and incorporating enough of London’s wet-street aesthetic to make it impressive on a visual level. Emerging unscathed from the mayhem is Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), the former punk and young pretender to the throne previously occupied by Harry in the ranks of British espionage. The running joke here is that the tailor shop that serves as the front for the Kingsmen has been forced, for financial reasons, to merge with a U.S. spy network that uses a whiskey distillery as its front, thus injecting a knee-slapping Yankee subtext into the fun, not to mention stars like Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, and Channing Tatum, none of whom are known to be able to rock a British accent. The subtitle refers not to the whiskey distillery but to Poppy’s drug cartel, which is run out of Cambodia. She’s the one who kidnaps Sir Elton as a kind of balm against loneliness, but as with all the jokes in the movie, the Elton one plays out long past its due date. If Colin Firth comes out smelling a bit sweeter in the midst all the tasteless gags and hyper-violence, it’s probably because he shows up halfway through. Or am I not supposed to tell you that? (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Kubo and the Two Strings
As CG has practically taken over mainstream animation, stop-action has found its niche as the most satisfying alternative. The production house Laika, which has produced the movies Coraline and ParaNorman, presents its most ambitious venture yet, an original fairy tale based on various Japanese folk legends that necessitated some of the most complicated and enormous puppets ever conceived for a cartoon. Suitably, the story centers on an artistically gifted orphan, Kubo (Art Parkinson), whose father was killed by his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who took one of his eyes and forced him and his mother to flee into hiding. The reason for the Moon King’s anger is that Kubo’s mother is a god and his father wasn’t, which makes Kubo a kind of cosmic half-breed. Out of the heavens, Kubo’s mother loses her magical powers, leaving Kubo at the mercy of her evil sisters (Rooney Mara, all of them). Director Travis Knight incorporates Japanese ideas of transience and filial respect into his story without making it exotic to Western sensibilities, especially those of children. In a potent early scene set at a rural Obon festival, Kubo expects to speak with his dead parents and when he lingers too long is protected from the sisters by the spirit of his mother, who also tells Kubo that the only thing that will save him from his grandfather is his father’s lost armor. Kubo is transported to a faraway land where he is joined by a monkey (Charlize Theron) and a stag beetle (Matthew McConaughey) on his odyssey-like quest. Though the figures and situations are straight out of Japanese mythology, the episodic structure of the story—Kubo is challenged by a series of tests—is like that of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, clearly a model for this kid of stop-motion movie. But Knight knows his principal audience and uses humor effectively, and when he does need to use CG, he does so without drawing attention to its technical sophistication. Because what’s most impressive visually about Kubo is the scenery, which is static but like nothing you’ve ever seen, at least in an American production. And Dario Marionelli’s music, which is a vital component of the storytelling since Kubo’s own artistry is wrapped up in his magical shamisen, marries Japanese forms to Western scales without making either sound appropriated or superfluous. The stop-motion technology also acts as a reminder of the story’s promotion of tradition, though the underlying theme is that traditions must bow to moral imperative. Kubo’s mixed heritage is both his curse and his strength. It is also his means of coming to terms with death and impermanence, since his rejection of his cosmic destiny is also a rejection of immortality. It’s something every kid grapples with, but usually not this entertainingly. (photo: Two Strings LLC)

The Leisure Seeker
Experience counts for more than a few of the things that are good about this often exasperating movie. The chemistry between Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, as a long-married couple taking their last road trip together in the titular 1975 Winnebago, is palpable and affecting. Ella has cancer and John floats in an out of dementia—a condition that doesn’t seem to affect his driving skills—which explains why their grown children (Christian McKay, Janel Maloney) are freaked out by their parents’ unannounced vacation. At first, you might be, too, but while the movie’s somewhat—pardon the adverb—leisurely pace makes it obvious nothing untoward is going to happen right away, the drama does deepen as the comedy sort of stumbles along in fits and starts—much like the RV itself. Naturally, old resentments are unearthed along the way thanks to John’s lack of a rational filter, and while some of the situations feel forced, in general this is one of the better “Alzheimers movies” thanks to the generosity of Stephen Amidon’s script and the leads’ willingness to look their age. You do wish they had done something more original with the road trip theme. The destination is Key West (they live in Massachusetts), specifically Ernest Hemingway’s house, since John is a literature professor who has taught Hemingway but never seen his digs. There is an occasional glimpse of a shotgun stashed in an overhead bin, and while it’s used once, mainly for shock comic effect, its implication never wears off. It’s a red herring of the deepest, and most unnecessary sort. The people they meet along the way are a cornucopia of Americans, and director Paolo Virzi insists on being up to the minute—much talk about Donald Trump and glimpses of the people who elected him. In fact, Virzi might have done better if he had made more of this theme. Ella and John are not exactly dyed-in-the-wool lefties (Ella is working class, from the South), but they’ve laid in enough common sense to understand that if this is, in fact, their last trip together, they’re not getting out too soon. Though corny in spots, this is sort of what America feels like right now, and Ella’s navigation of its contours is admirable if perhaps a little fantastical. She’s bossy with waiters and gas station attendants, not because she thinks she’s better than them, but because she doesn’t suffer anyone who gets in the way of what she wants to do right now. John is selfish because he has lost his social bearings. She’s selfish because she can be, and all the more impressive for it. The most moving scene in the movie is the simplest: Ella removing her wig and laying down next to her snoring husband. It’s why she’s here in the first—and last—place. The Leisure Seeker is sentimental to a fault, but it certainly isn’t stereotypical. (photo: Luca Bigazzi)

Logan Lucky
Steven Soderbergh returns to feature filmmaking with what looks on paper like a slam-dunk: a caper movie in the mold of his successful Oceans series, but this time he trades the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas for the strip malls and race tracks of West Virginia. The change of venue is vital to the movie’s appeal, which is about a family of losers who mean to change their luck with an ingenious plan to steal a lot of money from a major Nascar event. Though the mechanics of the robbery are, as is normal with heist movies, overly elaborate and patently implausible, Soderbergh’s setup makes it all the more interesting. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a former high school football star, has, like many in his community, had to move away for work, in his case to North Carolina, where he builds factories and such. When he’s laid off he returns to West Virginia to find that his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) and her car salesman husband (David Denman) are planning on moving out of town with Jimmy’s daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie). Apparently, Jimmy’s misfortunes, according to his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a veteran who lost a hand in Iraq, are part of a family curse. Jimmy decides to break that curse by robbing the local track during a big Nascar race, but he needs help and endeavors to round up a crew consisting of Clyde, their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), an explosives expert with the unlikely name of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, loving every inch of his faux Southern accent), and Joe’s two dimwit brothers (Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson). Once this gang gets together and the friction starts, Soderbergh is in his element. He plays the various personalities off one another like a Stadivarius, confounding the viewer’s need to keep everything in check so as to not lose track of the vector of the plan and the success of the heist. We take for granted that Jimmy and Clyde are smarter than their partners in crime, but that knowledge is tested at various junctures during the execution of the plan, which involves elaborate impersonations and a fairly deep understanding of the psychology of race track habitues. At some point, however, the whole thing seems to run off the rails and Soderbergh’s peculiar genius for comprehending the audience’s comprehension comes into play. Along the way he is assisted enormously by some startlingly unusual cameos, particularly Seth MacFarlane as a profane race car driver and Hillary Swank as a not-clever-enough federal agent. It’s by no means a great movie, but it does what it sets out to do with little fuss and a great deal of skill. (photo: Incarcerated Industries Inc.)

The Midwife
Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot square off as polar opposites in Martin Provost’s neo-realist but sentimental tale about making amends. Frot is Claire, a dedicated midwife whose organic methods are at odds with the modern medical technology encroaching on her bailiwick. Deneuve is Beatrice, the former mistress of Claire’s father, who re-enters Claire’s life when she discovers she has a brain tumor. She wants to square things with her old lover, whom she left some years ago when he decided to move to the countryside, but Claire tells her he committed suicide, and seems to blame her for it. Though the two have nothing in common—Claire is sober and methodical; Beatrice drinks, smokes, and gambles excessively—they eventually reach an understanding as Beatrice’s condition worsens and Claire’s nurturing nature kicks in. The movie works best when these two women are at each other’s throats and tends to taper off when others move into the frame, such as Claire’s indecisive son (Quentin Dolmaire), or Claire’s new boyfriend (Olivier Gourmet), a truck driver with a rather trite “free” take on life. In French. (photo: Curiosa Films-Versus Production-France 3 Cinema/Michael Crollo)

Mr. Long
We don’t really need another sensitive hit-man movie, but Japanese actor-turned-director Sabu met veteran actor Chen Chang at the Toronto Film Festival and, after each admired the other’s work, decided to do something together. Chen plays the titular Taiwanese assassin, sent to Japan to whack a reprobate. He fails, forcing him to hide out in a derelict seaside community and wait for a chance to smuggle himself out of the country. The reticent Long befriends a street kid whose prostitute mother (Yao Yi-ti), another Taiwanese, is strung out on drugs. Mr. Long gets her straight in his own no-nonsense fashion and becomes acquainted with other, more middle class denizens of the neighborhood. He impresses them with his culinary skills and they set him up with a street stall that becomes an immediate hit but also attracts the attention of the mob elements he was out to exterminate and who now want to return the favor. Sabu is a flawless technician, and the scenes of violence and food preparation are equally delicious, but they can’t make up for the total lack or originality. In Mandarin and Japanese. (photo: Live Max Film/High Brow Cinema)

The Other Side of Hope
The second feature in a proposed “refugee trilogy,” Aki Kaurismaki’s latest takes the idea from his last film, Le Havre, in which a Gabonian refugee hides out in the French port city, and transplants it to his native Finland. Here the displaced person is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee seeking asylum. Khaled sneaks into the country via a coal container and immediately gives himself up to the police and asks for asylum. When his application runs into trouble, he hides out in a sushi restaurant recently opened by Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanan), who has just left his wife and is trying to start life anew. The fact that he knows nothing about Japanese food is a typical Kaurismaki leitmotif. The comic and socially relevant possibilities of this setup are never fully realized, however, with each man’s story heading in different directions, though they do eventually reach an accommodation with each other. The bureaucratic machinations behind the plotting will mean something to Finns but went over my head. The point seems to be that the same incompetence Wikstrom exhibits in entrepreneurship is at work in the government. In Finnish, English and Arabic (photo: Sputnik Oy)

Rodin
Jacques Doillon’s portrait of the French sculptor is mostly a greatest hits affair, a series of anecdotes and vignettes that purport to show the artist in his element, but except for the stunning production design and some nifty reproductions of the works, the movie as a whole feels empty of interest. The only things that point to the position Rodin (Vincent Lindon) occupies in art history is the constant name-dropping of other contemporary celebrity artists and dialogue that drips with self-regard (“we’re masterpieces as artists but useless as human beings”). The fascinating aspects of the movie—Rodin’s work was almost all commissioned, and his methods were chiefly conveyor belt-ready—is thrown over for his decade-long affair with acolyte Camille Claudel (Izia Higelin), which was done better in at least two other French films. Besides that, the only through-plot is the long agonizing process of completing a statue of Balzac, which was solved when Rodin threw a plaster-drenched overcoat over the completed nude figure that had horrified those who commissioned it. It’s the only funny bit in the movie. In French. (photo: Les Films du Lendemain/Shanna Besson)

Yarn
If you want to know about the textiles industry, this is not your documentary. Four artists who work in yarn are profiled, and while their crocheting skills are cool that isn’t the point, which is exploring how yarn helps them achieve their vision. Two of the artists, Japan’s Toshiko Horiuchi and Iceland’s Tinna, make a point of explaining how the women in their families taught them how to knit and in doing so indirectly made them feminists. Tinna travels the world placing her knitted products in public places as graffiti comments on patriarchy, while Horiuchi designs play areas for children made of yarn. Poland’s Olek is more exhibitionist: she knits brightly colored suits right on the bodies of models, who then parade them on the streets. The most ambitious is Tilde Bjorfors, the artistic director of a Danish circus whose performers use elaborate yarn sets in their act. Writer Barbara Kingsolver provides lively narration that doesn’t always bring things together, but she does convey the joy of creation that can result from a pleasingly monotonous pastime. In English, Icelandic and Polish (photo: Compass Films Production)

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