New Releases 4/21/15

Top Hits
Cake (drama, Jennifer Aniston. Rotten Tomatoes: 49%. Metacritic: 49. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “The modestly scaled, sad-funny indie drama “Cake” centers on a woman and the kind of grief that’s so unbearable this movie can’t even handle it. Jennifer Aniston plays Claire, who, having survived a horrific accident, now lives in near isolation in Los Angeles in a mid-century magazine layout of a house. Its clean lines, drawn by an architect and embellished by a period-design obsessive, make a vivid contrast with the scars jaggedly slashed across Claire’s face and body. Her wounds have healed, but her grimace and the shadows darkening it announce that she’s far from whole.” Read more…)

Walter (comedy, Milo Ventimiglia. Rotten Tomatoes: 55%. Metacritic: 36. From Daniel M. Gold’s New York Times review: “The narrative is effectively constructed and the cinematography is crisp. Even so, in touching lightly on themes without committing to any of them, the movie falls flat. What should be sweet is saccharine, what might be profound seems trite. Supernatural comedy, psychological mystery, modern-day parable, “Walter” is a little of all of these — another way of saying it can’t decide what it is or what story it wants to tell.” Read more…)

Little Accidents (drama, Elizabeth Banks. Rotten Tomatoes: 52%. Metacritic: 56. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “The sympathetic young actor Jacob Lofland lights up the American independent movie ‘Little Accidents,’ an earnest, schematic, pocket-size drama about three people struggling under the weight of a calamity. He plays Owen, the elder of two boys who’ve recently lost their father in a coal mining accident that has left 10 dead and upended a West Virginia town. Now, amid the region’s sweeping green mountains, its ominous mines and traumatized population, Owen tries with lurching uncertainty to ease back into normal, even as the writer and director Sara Colangelo clutters his path with enough obstacles to challenge the most heroically determined traveler.” Read more…)

Last Weekend (drama/comedy, Patricia Clarkson. Rotten Tomatoes: 33%. Metacritic: 40. From Andy Webster’s New York Times review: “But mostly, ‘Last Weekend’ is an elegiac ode to affluence. This is one Lands’ End catalog of a movie, with woodsy, impeccably appointed interiors; crowded tables of culinary plenty; and a sunny society fund-raiser at the spread of a neighbor [Judith Light]. The reliably impressive Ms. Clarkson is a prickly paragon of benevolent upper-crust virtue. The only wistful suggestion at its comforting close is that such rarefied privilege for its characters might one day be gone.” Read more…)

The Babadook (horror, Essie Davis. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 86. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “The brilliance of ‘The Babadook,’ beyond [director Jennifer] Kent’s skillful deployment of the tried-and-true visual and aural techniques of movie horror, lies in its interlocking ambiguities. For a long time, you’re not sure if the Babadook is a supernatural or a psychological phenomenon. Once you’ve started to figure that out — or to decide that you’re too freaked out for it to matter — another, more disturbing question starts to arise. Maybe the monster is all in someone’s head, but if so, whose? Sam’s? Amelia’s? Yours?” Read more…)

Taken 3 (action, Liam Neeson. Rotten Tomatoes: 9%. Metacritic: 26. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “After “’Non-Stop,’ ‘Unknown’ and three installments of the ‘Taken’ thrillers, I’m not sure that Liam Neeson’s signature avengers are actually good people to know. On the plus side, they’ll use any means necessary to rescue you from kidnappers and killers. But if you’ve been kidnapped or are facing death, it’s probably directly related to knowing Mr. Neeson’s character in the first place, or just being nearby.” Read more…)

New Foreign
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Iran, vampire, Sheila Vand. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 81. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “By the time the vampire in the chador is skateboarding down a dark, desolate street, the director Ana Lily Amirpour has ensured that ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ will roll on in your memory. The vampire, a Persian-speaking waif called the Girl [Sheila Vand], also wears a striped fishing shirt and an occasional smear across her mouth that isn’t lipstick. She’s taken the skateboard from a nameless tyke [Milad Eghbali], whose indomitable quality and threadbare clothes evoke the children populating Abbas Kiarostami’s early films and, in turn, those of Italian neorealism. Whatever the inspiration, the kid is just one of a number of character types drifting through Ms. Amirpour’s cinematic fun house.” Read more…)

New Television
Fortitude (drama/thriller, Stanley Tucci. Rotten Tomatoes: 88%. Metacritic: 75.)
Veep: Season 3 (comedy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: 86.)

New Documentaries
The Source Family (religion, cults, rock music, Father Yod. Rotten Tomatoes: 74%. Metacritic: 62. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “For anyone looking to teach a master class in brainwashing techniques, ‘The Source Family’ might be an excellent place to start. Documenting the hippy-dippy lifestyle and hedonistic principles of Hollywood’s favorite 1970s cult — led by the self-professed guru and suspected bank robber Jim Baker, a k a Father Yod — Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille’s disturbing film is an object lesson in psychological manipulation.” Read more…)

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (actor bio, movie history. Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. Metacritic: 75. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “‘How would you like to be remembered?’ the director David Lynch asks the actor Harry Dean Stanton during the documentary ‘Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction.’ ‘Doesn’t matter,’ is the laconic reply, and you know he means it. It does matter, however, to the Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber, who seems to have chosen a particularly tough subject for her first feature. Guarded in the extreme and bereft of vanity, Mr. Stanton, now 87, may have plumbed the inner workings of close to 200 characters, but he’s cagey about revealing his own.” Read more…)

Rob Harmon’s Picks 4/21/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebTwo by Hirokazu Kore-eda:
I Wish (2011)
Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda burst onto the international scene in 1995 with his debut feature MABOROSI before solidifying his position over the following fifteen years with additional art house hits such as AFTER LIFE (1998), NOBODY KNOWS (2004), and STILL WALKING (2008).

Yet, in spite of this admirable track record, Kore-eda remains something of an elusive presence outside of Japan, likely because of his tendency to eschew “safe” material in favor of more personal, idiosyncratic work, seemingly never following a predictable pattern. In short, because Kore-eda is unconcerned with simply producing a single type of film, he has probably never “materialized” in the minds of many Western viewers, which is a shame.

One of the things Kore-eda should be better known for in this country is his ability to work effectively with children. He is the rare filmmaker patient enough to film kids in their element, ensuring that they are not relegated to the role of mere devices in movies that are actually about adults. Kore-eda’s worldview is expansive and his two most recent films illustrate this fact beautifully.

I_WishI WISH tells the story of young brothers Koichi and Ryunosuke, dealing with the unpleasant reality of being separated for the first time in their lives, their parents having recently split up. Sullen Koichi (Kohki Maeda) lives at his grandparents’ house with his mom in Kagoshima, in the shadow of a volcano which daily spews ash into the air. Cheerful Ryunosuke (real-life brother Ohshiro Maeda, with a 1,000-watt smile) lives in Fukuoka with his dad, a slacker who works a menial job and spends much of his time strumming on the guitar and dreaming of rock band success with his bandmates. (Indeed, if anyone comes off as a little childish in this movie it is the parents!)

Koichi and Ryu desperately miss each other and want to reunite their family, when Koichi hits upon a solution, a variation, in fact, on a common Japanese folk belief: if one makes a wish at the point where two trains pass each other at top speed — in this case, a newly-opened bullet train line — the wish will come true. Koichi and Ryu (and assorted friends) concoct a pal, involving saving money and feigning illness to get out of school, to join each other at the crossing point miles and miles away. Meanwhile, Grandpa has a starry-eyed scheme of his own: to start a business manufacturing a traditional Japanese confection, the karukan. Just about everyone in this film is filled with desires and dreams… in short, with wishes.

Instead of following the expected fairy tale trajectories, Kore-eda’s parable of fraternal devotion chugs along at its own pace, never sabotaging the children’s characterizations for saccharine plot turns, the story luffing along like a summer’s breeze. Kore-eda even reserves a stylistic flourish for the climax, a “montage of wishing” which is both unexpected and heartbreaking in its simplicity.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON is the story of an affluent couple, Ryota and Midori, who are informed that their six-year old boy Keita is not, in fact, their own — there was a mix-up at the hospital at birth — and they, and the parents, Yudai and Yukari, who have been unknowingly raising their boy, Ryusei, must now decide whether to switch back, or….

Like_Father_Like_SonClearly, Kore-eda closely examines the idea of familial bonds and the meaning of family in LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. Also undoubtedly, the scenario seems, on the surface, formulated to maximize the tearjerker potential. The theme of children being separated from their parents is common enough in melodrama and Hollywood history — think of Jackie Coogan being pulled from the arms of the little tramp in the THE KID or Barbara Stanwyck as the quintessential self-sacrificing mother, STELLA DALLAS, bedraggled and standing in the rain, watching her daughter’s wedding through a window from the street — scenes which can be generally counted upon to open the lachrymal floodgates of the audience.

However, Kore-eda again hijacks audience expectations by making the protagonist Ryota the least sympathetic character in the film. Though a crackerjack salaryman in the office, at home he is cold and aloof, an overly-pedantic taskmaster, both to his wife and his son. Kore-eda, in other words, challenges the audience to relate to someone who is a bit of a jerk, while his opposite, Yudai, though provincial, disheveled, and a bit of a loser, seems more the salt of the earth and is revered by his children. Ryota, in fact, is revealed to be the son of a remote and unfeeling father, and he struggles with his impending decision and the conflicting emotions that are awakened within him. Later on in the film, when it is revealed that the switching of the boys was no mere accident but a deliberate act on the part of a wayward hospital employee, Kore-eda defies expectations for a showdown in favor of a far more emotionally measured and realistic outcome.

If anything Kore-eda’s aim in this film seems to be to defer the moment of cathartic emotional release, and not to bring it on, wave after wave after wave. Given the immense emotional power of its material, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON is remarkably restrained. Such restraint lends the entire film more beauty, and the “moments,” when they do come, more power.