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Kaze tachinu (2013)
A beautiful animation, like its planes.
"The wind is rising! We must try to live!" Paul Valery
The Wind Rises has two stories: the story of Jiro Horikoshi (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who designed the Japanese Zero, arguably the most effective fighter plane in WWII, or at least the most feared; and the story of love for his tubercular young wife, Nahoko (Emily Blunt). The animated planes soar like beautiful birds, and his love soars in a similarly graceful, albeit short, arc like a sweeping wing.
The genial director, Hayao Miyazaki, who has so imaginatively shown us flying pigs and castles and other unworldly things, comes down to earth with a gentle bio and a love story so unlike Frozen it's no wonder Wind did not beat it in the Oscar race. The slow pace of the film, so different from our quick cutting, cookie cutting stories, gives everyone a chance to think about the deep issues in the film, but it could make American audiences squirm with impatience.
The real world of Japanese war mongers who used Jiro's design to foment war contrasts with the idealism of a gifted aeronautical engineer who loved only flight, not fight.
Miyazaki's recent death, making this arguably his last work, highlights his brilliance: Cat buses can give way to airplanes, from a director whose dad owned an airplane factory. Miyazaki left a legacy of intelligence and romance for animation. Perhaps the wind rises is also the story of the director himself, whose spirit rose like a prevailing wind.
The genius Italian flight designer Caproni (Stanley Tucci) best expresses the film's amalgam of romance and realism:
"Airplanes are just cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up."
Back off an international flight for a while--this is good thriller stuff.
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson): "I hate flying. The lines. The crowds. The delays . . . . " Jen Summers (Julianne Moore): "I always kinda liked it. Six hours. One seat. Nobody can get to you."
So you ask me to recommend a film after the Oscars and before the better summer fare. Ordinarily I'd tell you to wait until then because this time of year traditionally offers mediocre or worse movies. Now I can recommend an enjoyable experience with all the thriller tropes in good form and a hero to be admired: Non-Stop with Liam Neeson. Contrary to the above quote from Jen, somebody "gets" everyone associated with this flight.
Neeson's Bill Marks is an alcoholic air marshal who doesn't like to fly and gets caught in an electronic terror aboard a transatlantic flight to London. He's trying to find out who aboard is sending texts calling for a passenger death every 20 minutes until the airline puts $150 Million into a safe account. Marks is himself a suspect (the off-shore account is in his name!), and he has to kill to remain in the game.
Wait, waitit gets more fantastical, from a number of suspects the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, has planted in various frames, as any respectable thriller would, to the big red LED lights ticking off explosion time. But what makes it all believable is the unbelievably adept acting of Neeson, who looks heroic with his solid tall frame and crooked nose.
Non-Stop does not stop giving the audience faces to put behind the terror, and Neeson turns out to be as resourceful as Denzel Washington's drunken pilot in "Flight." The director also deftly careen's through the cabin with Bill to relieve the imprisoning small space feel all planes give, even in movies.
Working previously with Neeson, the director knows how to coax the credible out of him, keeping his uncharacteristic smiling for a final scene and not too much of it. Well, who can blame Marks, when troubled but helpful passenger Julianne Moore is the object of that good feeling?
Like all air trips, Non-Stop has its dull moments yet enough action to help moviegoers through the movie dead zone to better flights in May.
By the way, don't see this film if you fly regularly to London.
An engaging thriller and love story with a political background. Oscar worthy.
"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a tragedy, a clash between one very powerful, very convincing, very painful claim over this land and another no less powerful, no less convincing claim." Amos Oz
It's not easy to fit the story of Romeo and Juliet into a thriller about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad does it with care and believability. So good is he in that balancing act that the notoriously endless national struggle is almost overshadowed by the challenging love Omar (Adam Bakri) has for Nadja (Leem Lubany).
Palestinian Omar, an impassioned freedom fighter in a street gang, becomes ensnared in a convoluted plot as an informant after being tricked into admitting his guilt by association for an Israeli's murder. The major theme is betrayal, found everywhere, informing every life.
Scaling the giant separation wall running through occupied Palestine to visit Nadja, however, is less scary than the torture Israelis inflict on him and the betrayal they demand. How he will free himself when he is caught in a covert action is the thriller part of the story.
Taking the pretzel plot one step further is the trickery of getting Omar to be an informant and the torturous path he must take as the tries to play both sides. Indeed, moments occur when the audience may not be sure which side Omar is on as he fights for his life and his love. No matter, family and nationalism will be major players in his fate.
The film is a powerful screed against the tactics and dominance of Israelis and a simple Shakespearean-like tale of loyalty, love, and jealousy. With the exception of Waleed Zuaiter as Agent Rami, because the actors are new to acting, they bring naturalism to the all-too-real conflict.
The narrow alleys through which Omar races aptly represent the dangerous nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Neither Nablus nor Nazareth is filmed in any glamorous way. With the impressive claustrophobic compositions and sets, outside and inside, the director has even more skillfully shown through his star-crossed lovers that this war in not over for soldiers or lovers anytime soon:
"I believe that in the long run, separation between Israel and the Palestinians is the best solution for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Yitzhak Rabin
Al midan (2013)
You are right there in the Square.
Himself - Revolutionary: "We're not looking for a leader as much as we're looking for a conscience . . . . If we are able to create this conscience within the society, we'll be able to find a good president."
And so a revolution goesnot a coherent plan but a passion for democratic equality and justice. The Square squarely hits the historical details about the people's revolution in Egypt in Cairo's Tahrir Square from 2011-2013.
As the Egyptian proletariat protest and dethrone President Hosni Mubarak, remove the military, and install Mohamed Morsi, nothing is as they wanted it. Each time, even now, produces another repressive regime while the people hope for freedom.
Acclaimed director Jehane Noujaim (Sundance award for Startup.com) consistently shows the protesters' point of view, in a remarkably consistent tone that is neither preachy nor emotionally removed. She reveals the frustration of the revolutionaries, who willingly give their lives for their ideals but still end up imprisoned by the ruling elite, whom the revolutionaries were instrumental in installing.
Noujaim does not make a judgment; rather she shows the complexities of the revolutionaries' motives and strategies without predicting the future. The doc puts in perspective the four major components: Muslim Brotherhood, ruling parties, military, and commoners, and emphasizing the irony of this review's opening quote. While seeking a conscience, Egyptians seem to miss the importance of a charismatic leader (Che Guevera? Abraham Lincoln? MLK? See above quote).
Their quest for "conscience" exposes the weakness of the doc as well: Missing a compelling protagonist in a revolution and a documentary leads to a tedious repetition of events without the umbrella of a defining leader with an incendiary philosophy. But that imperfection leads to a realistic depiction of revolution, whose ideals Westerners can easily identify with:
Himself - Revolutionary: "The leaders play on top. The people pay the price for everything. The people always pay the price."
"I fought the law and the law won."
That song plays under the credits of RoboCop (2014), and it's the best part of the film besides the appearance of Frank Sinatra. Otherwise, this latest iteration of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic is so full of thriller-super-hero tropes you'll think you wrote the screenplay. No, you didn't, because you might have done better at not repeating the clichés.
The story is best summarized by bad-boy OmniCorp president, Raymond Sellars, played with effective understatement by Michael Keaton: "Forget the machines. They want a product with a conscience. Something that knows what it feels like to be human. We gonna put a man inside a machine."
Sellars creates a low-rent Iron Man; in no way does Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnamen) compare with Tony Stark's (a memorable Robert Downey, Jr.) robust intellect and dramatic range.
As for the marital romance between RoboCop Alex and his wife, Clara (Abbey Cornish) and the parental love for his child, David (Jean Paul Ruttan), it's all by the book, ho hum. At one point wife and son become hostagesimagine that. Where are Peter Weller and Nancy Allen when you need them?
Worst of all, the film takes probably an hour to set up the creation of RoboCop, when the audience already knows something about it. More importantly, the aud needs to see Robocop doing his duty on the streets of Detroit, but he's not on the beat. Nor does director Jose Padhila mine the rich material inherent in troubled Detroit. The film could have been set in Montreal for all the attention paid to Detroit's ill fate in the past and the present.
On a more positive note, Gary Oldman's conflicted scientist, Dennett Norton, lends sinister grace. His RoboCop Dr. Frankenstein has the right amount of ambivalence about his creation to make me watch his every reaction to the chaos he has created.
Samuel Jackson as the Bill-O'Reilly-conservative TV host, Pat Novak, unknowingly sounds the liberal criticism and theme of the film: "This is the future of American justice!" A question mark rather than an exclamation point could encapsulate the argument about drones of any kind: Do we want machines to make decisions?
This RoboFilm is concerned with shooting up everything as the genre dictates. Leave the nuances to Iron Man.
"What the hell did you do to me?" RoboCop
The Monuments Men (2014)
Entertaining search for a Madonna and other great pieces.
"This is our history. It's not to be stolen or destroyed. It's to be held up and admired." Frank Stokes
Considering the great art works recovered from the Nazis in 1944 by the Monuments Men, losing 2 lives in the operation might have been worth it. Or at least that's the struggle of the hero in the titular film inspired by the events: Frank Stokes (George Clooney), a curator at Harvard's Fogg Museum, goes back to the Army to head a small art recovery contingent (7most out of shape and aging like John Goodman), with echoes of the Magnificent Seven and Dirty Dozen recruiting sequences, promising exceptional wit and action that doesn't materialize.
Why is such a high-concept plot lost in a February opening? Possibly because it's enjoyable but not remarkable, a pastiche of brief episodes not always connected to the plot's central vision (shooting at a German sniper youth thought to be an adult?). The episodes may be meant to establish character while sliding over them to chronicle a not always interesting path to the mines and castle where the Nazis have hidden the loot. At least the studio had the good sense not to pit this modest adventure against, say, American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave in the Oscar prelims in November and December.
The action picks up as they find the destinations, but along the way James Granger (Matt Damon) interacts with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) in a low-key romance that finds great art but small love. Changing Claire from the original monument woman Rose into a love-seeking operative angers some historians. Another concern besides history and coherence is tone: Reverence for the mission clashes with the jokey camaraderie of old-fashioned WWII movies.
It is a delight to hear the names of artists like Picasso and Rembrandt even though they had little influence on the film's fair-to midlin' screenplay penned by Clooney and Grant Heslov. Looking for Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges and van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece is definitely grand, but the grandeur is not matched by the screenplay.
As for directing, Clooney misses the sharpness of his Good Night and Good Luck while he helms here what seems a small story about an odd group of soldiers struggling to rise to the occasion of history's greatest art reclamation. It's an enjoyable film but not a great one.
Labor Day (2013)
Surprisingly entertaining for this time of movie year.
"I'm a lot stronger than you think." "I don't doubt that." Adele and Frank.
Director Jason Reitman is no stranger to unusual family stories (Juno) or character drama (Up in the Air), so his enjoyable Labor Day is a bit of both without the humor. Because this is January, a dead-zone time for releases, it's even more impressive as an audience-pleasing drama about an escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) and a mother he kidnaps, Adele (Kate Winslet), along with her 7th grade son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith).
Let's get the formula out now: she falls in love with her captor and the son willingly learns about life and baseball. The real life, however, is hounding them as the law closes in on their 5 days of "family" bliss. However, the authorities are too slow to stop the best family pie making scene ever, domestic stuff just one of charming murderer Frank's gifts and a Reitman specialty.
Recently Mud is similarly about the coming of age and criminal motif and Revolutionary Road with Winslet about a disintegrating family. Yet Reitman and novelist Joyce Maynard have crafted a story that slowly makes believable the growing love between captive and captor, a relationship helped by the classy acting chops of Winslet and Brolin. Although everyone knows helping an escaped criminal leads to serious jail time, this case actually cuts Adele a great deal of slack in the guilty category. As Reitman slowly reveals their mutually grim backgrounds, we are aware that her needs for the touch of a lover are so acute that even this gamble could be worth the risk.
Although Labor Day comes close to Nicholas Sparks' sentimental claptrap, Reitman preserves everyone's dignity, lets love grow, and ushers a kid into a complicated world of love and dangera labor of love, so to speak, on the film's titular weekend, typically American and hard work: "I sensed my inadequacy," says the adult Henry in voice over. In matters of the heart, we're all inadequate and need films like Labor Day to help us move on.
The Rocket (2013)
A plot as imaginative as anything else out there.
Tired of the Oscar race and its obviously-baiting nominees? The Rocket, set in Laos, is more unusual and imaginative than anything you will see, even Her, under the Oscar umbrella. Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), a surviving Laotian twin at birth and therefore potentially bad luck for his family, travels with his family and two friends to find a new home after being displaced by plans for another dam.
Not only is Ahlo played by a new young actor who keeps your sympathy, but also Kia (Loungnman Kaosainam), his girl friend (he can't be more than 10 and she about 9) is equally charming and intelligent. Their journey is plagued by setbacks, yet Ahlo remains intrepid and creative as he finally plans to nix this curse and become a hero.
So far the film is filled with bizarre adventures, mostly suggesting he is a curse on the family as bad luck plagues it (It's not Little Miss Sunshine's pleasant turbulence; however, Rocket's family is an eccentric crew). One of the most interesting fairs to be seen ever in film is the Rocket Contest, held each year to send missiles to the clouds to induce rain, to "poke the gods' arse," or something like that. This event is the Holy Grail of the family's journey, a way to gain prize money and to counter the bad karma of Ahlo's birth.
The natural performances of Beasts of the Southern Wild echo in The Rocket, both leads believable as intrepid young, underprivileged waifs of pluck and imagination. The relationship between Ahlo and his loving but too vulnerable father, Toma (Sumrit Warin) is reminiscent of father and son in Vittorio DeSica's Bicycle Thief. Caitlin Yeo's original score, never obtrusive, like the film itself, tells the story with dignity and respect for the characters.
Writer-director Kim Mordaunt has balanced the disparate elements perfectly. And best of all, it is not some exploitative tome about the emerging third world. It's about family! Its formulaic nature and slight drift to the sentimental do not keep it from being an original work of merit.
The Rocket, winner of the World Narrative prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, is one of the year's best movies with a plot as imaginative as anything else out there.
Camille Claudel 1915 (2013)
You'll demand of yourself to know more about brother and sister.
"There is something sadder to lose than life the reason for living." Paul Claudel, poet, playwright, diplomat and younger brother of Camille.
Camille Claudel 1915 is not The King of Hearts, a lyrical 1966 drama about a WWII French asylum in a town about to be invaded by Nazis. Claudel is decidedly not lyrical except for its exceptionally artistic cinematography dominated by trees that look like sculptures and buildings ancient with secrets.
It's a somber but fascinating three-day narrative about artist Camille Claudel's confinement in a madhouse while she is awaiting her famous mystic-poet brother, Paul, to visit her.
Previous to 1915, Camille had been the student and lover of Auguste Rodin, the most famous French sculptor of his time and one of the greatest in the history of civilization. Her incarceration was due to her paranoia in general about his alleged plot to poison her and her schizophrenia, both reflected after breaking up with Rodin in her smashing her sculptures in her own studio.
This film deals little with Rodin but much with her brother, who refused her entreaties, and those of the mental hospital staff, to release her. His chilling visitation to her is redolent of his reliance on a mystical relation with God and certainty that she not be released to go home. The introductory quote suggests he may not have adhered to his own philosophy by ignoring the signs that she was sane and the reality of denying her a reason to live.
This stark film concentrates mostly on her lonely struggle to protect herself from the plot to poison her and her loss of her sculptures and tools. Her artistry is supplanted by boiling potatoes and avoiding crazed fellow inmates. She says in one of her letters, "Madhouses are houses made on purpose to cause suffering .I cannot stand any longer the screams of these creatures." The movie is static but intensely suggestive through the brilliant Binoche's expressions of wisdom and isolation.
It's not hard to sympathize with an artist robbed of her livelihood and family. That she may truly be schizophrenic and paranoid is always possible; however Binoche's humanity tips the scale in favor of Camille's sanity and the world's indifference. As a woman and an artist in the shadow of Rodin, she is doomed to second-class citizenship.
Camille will spend almost three decades without hope: "Sadder than to lose one's possessions is to lose one's hope." Paul Claudel
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
Entertaining diversion for the movie dead zone until May
Bright, beautiful, bland, boring: descriptors for Chris Pine's Jack Ryan and for the rebooted series entry, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. The film is not adapted from an original Tom Clancy novel but is rather a re- imagining. As such, it is lifeless while giving the audience the usual tropes from modern post-9/11 and Cold-War spy movies. Lamentably, Pine is no Harrison Ford, lovely as Pine's blue eyes are. But he beats the Ryan's of Ben Affleck and Alec Baldwin as he brings a bit of Captain Kirk cool with his charming weaknesses.
Then, what did I think seeing a major motion picture early in the New Year, almost always a sign of a weak production? Yes, it is. Grand as are the gleaming buildings and flawless computers improbably blinking inscrutable graphs with colors blazing, heart and imagination give way to genre-demanding clichés. Even Patrick Doyle's throbbing score reminds me of many other thrillers with black SUV's, sunglasses, and earpieces.
We see Jack from his London School of Economics days, at the time of 9/11, to him as a covert financial analyst who sees a Russian plot to deep-six American finances and terrorize the country. This immature Jack is not your usually slick Clancy operative who can easily extricate himself from any situationhe's more untidy Jason Bourne than invulnerable James Bond.
As the genre usually demands, Jack falls in love with a glam doc, Cathy (American sounding Keira Knightly), a lovely but expendable lover barely needed except to make him vulnerable to bad-boy Russians. There can be little suspense because from countless spy thrillers, we know that obligatory love will be a pawn in Jack's struggle with Russian villains like Viktor Cherevin (director Kenneth Branagh), a dying oligarch lacking any love for the good ol' USA.
Branagh snarls with what little lips he has, just too sinister for a Shakespearean actor capable of subtlety. Branagh is menacing and intelligent if flawed (he's weakened by vodka, Vanity and women) a caricature of Russia's current martial arts president.
Some delights emerge from the shadows: the cinematography is spectacular while the buildings and BMW's are as glamorous as to be expected in these Euro-intrigues. The sets are spacious and sleek, overpowering the weak plot.
Kevin Costner as Jack's CIA supervisor, Harper, effectively underplays, with one of the best lines of the screenplay: While Jack argues with Cathy, Harper says, "This is geopolitics, not couples' therapy." When he appears in a Navy uniform, not only do we remember the romantic younger Costner in No Way Out, but we also feel a confidence that this veteran can successfully pass the torch to greenhorn Jack.
This interchange may best exemplify my disappointment with this thriller:
Viktor Cherevin: "You Americans like to think of yourselves as direct. Perhaps you are just rude." Jack Ryan: "Perhaps you're just touchy."
I'm just touchy about my thrillers: I need freshness and challenging intrigue. Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing brings life to a centuries- old story from the greatest literary genius in the English language; his Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a shadow of what that great director can do and what mad mischief a Clancy character can be.