Category Archives: 2019

Valley of the Gods (2019, Lech Majewski)

Valley of the Gods is a cautionary tale. If you’re going to make a combination of Citizen Kane—with either actual footage or a recreated shot—and then a bunch of vague Kubrick nods, including Keir Dullea (arguably in the film’s best performance) as a snippy butler and a HAL while doing a retelling of the Navajo creation myth set on the Navajo Nation Reservation near Monument Valley and the Valley of the Gods… I don’t know, make sure you’ve got enough money your cinematographers (director Majewski and Pawel Tybora are credited) are able to light the digital video well and maybe, even more importantly, hire CGI people who are good at their jobs. The third act of Gods should be an outrageous disaster but instead it’s a whimper of one, as each of the film’s four “plots” fails.

The driving force is the Navajo creation myth retelling, which has Steven Skyler—who is not good—getting drunk and sad because an unseen industrialist is going to mine uranium on the Reservation and pay off the tribe. So like any drunk man who is sad, he goes home to girlfriend Owee Rae and kind of tries to rape her but, you know, they’re dating and he’s drunk so what’s her problem.

So he goes off and forces himself on a rock.

Majewski—who also writes, co-produces, and co-production designs (I feel like this one is where he’s got real strength)—has a lot of interesting writing choices. They’re bad, yes, but they’re also exaggerated tropes. I forgot to mention Skyler’s got some kind of problem with Rae because she won’t bear him a son or something. It’s not an actual subplot because making it a subplot might require giving Rae some lines. She gets like two. But a nude singing scene because, you know, life’s pretty empty otherwise.

With Skyler’s story, Majewski’s writing more or less gets a pass because he’s trying to do the creation story. The film opens with the creation story in text, which is way too obvious but Majewski’s always way too obvious. If there’s something good he could make better by not explaining it, he spends six minutes explaining it. Like why is top-billed Josh Hartnett driving out into the Valley of the Gods, parking, getting a writing desk out of his SUV and sitting down to write in fountain pen on special paper—I’m not looking up the term—the point is Hartnett’s a luddite artisté writer without a cell phone who’s a dedicated… wait for it… ad writer in L.A. He hates the life, as one would imagine his coworkers hate their lives too when they have to fax him—it’s okay because he’s got a fax machine in his car—but at least he’s got wife Jaime Ray Newman. Except she leaves him because he’s not exciting and he’s overdramatic with his writing needs. She dumps him for a hang-gliding instructor. Maybe. I hope. It’s be something good so let’s pretend.

Newman’s terrible.

Hartnett holds it together okay for a bit but once he’s in John Malkovich’s CGI Citizen Kane castle, it’s all over. Simultaneously we meet Bérénice Marlohe, whose son has been taken away for some reason—I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the teensy-weensy visual detail explaining it; Majewski can’t stop with the narration so long as it’s about Hartnett being sad about being a White guy or everyone talking about Malkovich being the “richest man on the planet” (Majewski grew up speaking Polish… does that phrase sound less insipid in Polish?), but when it’s establishing Marlohe, he’s got no time. Doesn’t matter, she’s basically a single night sex partner for Malkovich, who brings in a different woman every night to pretend to be his dead wife. Still alive, but like, his dead wife.

Because Valley of the Gods is all about the healthy relationships between men and women. As long as that healthy relationship is women pampering men—seriously, the stuff with Newman having to coddle Hartnett’s ego is painful and seems way too based on reality.

Malkovich is fine. Like, he’s in a hood a bunch of it so they could use a double, but when he gets his big scene it’s fine. He can act through the bad. Especially in close-up, which he gets, unlike most everyone else. Hartnett gets the wrong close-ups—he does get a solid rant scene at one point; shame the dialogue’s crap. It’s at his psychiatrist’s. John Rhys-Davies plays the psychiatrist and he blathers nonsense at Hartnett to set up the plot (Hartnett’s supposed to do absurd things, hence the desk in the desert, ruining it being an interesting vision) and he does sound vaguely authoritative but I think it’s because Rhys-Davies is Freud-ing up the accent. But their appointment is sort of when all reality goes out the window. It’d be more believable if Rhy-Davies were just some guy Hartnett bothered into listening to his problems as opposed to a mental health professional who recommends his depressed patient risk his life multiple times.

There’s a lot you could do in Valley of the Gods and make it work by just not being nonsensical about it.

But Majewski doesn’t.

For a while it seems like absolutely gorgeous production design—presumably a lot of it mixing in CGI and doing it very well (before the finale does it very poorly)—exquisite editing (Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik), good photography from Majewski and Tybora (the Valley exteriors are appropriately gorgeous and foreboding), and the script not being too terrible (yet)—it seems like Valley might make it. Then Newman’s second scene ruins it and it’s just a slide down.

Marlohe’s bad but maybe it’s Majewski’s fault—he doesn’t direct the actors, which all of them except Malkovich and Dullea apparently need because the writing’s so wanting….

Take out all the talking, entirely rescore it, and fix the inept CGI and who knows. Pretty might be enough.

Though it does move pretty well for two hours, I guess.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lech Majewski; directors of photography, Majewski and Pawel Tybora; edited by Eliot Ems and Norbert Rudzik; music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; production designers, Christopher R. DeMuri and Majewski; costume designers, Ewa Kochanska, Carolyn Leone, and Ewa Minge; produced by Majewski and Filip Jan Rymsza; released by Well Go USA Entertainment.

Starring Steven Skyler (Grey Horse), Josh Hartnett (John Ecas), Bérénice Marlohe (Karen Kitson), Keir Dullea (Ulim), John Malkovich (Wes Tauros), Joseph Runningfox (Third Eye), Jaime Ray Newman (Laura Ecas), and John Rhys-Davies (Dr. Hermann), and John A. Lorenz (Bird Face), and Owee Rae (Sweet Grass).


Samurai Marathon (2019, Bernard Rose)

Samurai Marathon has some strange epilogue problems; all of a sudden the movie’s about marathons, when it turns out the marathon isn’t a particularly big deal in the story. It’s central to the story, but as a narrative tool. It provides the right stage for these characters. Though, with a title like Samurai Marathon, you’re thinking how important the marathon’s going to be.

It’s not.

Director (and co-screenwriter) Rose doesn’t rush through the marathon—no pun—but he keeps up a good clip. Especially after he establishes the shenanigans. At least two people in the marathon—high ranking samurai—are cheating, which is in addition to one of the runners being a spy, which is in addition to another of the runners being the Lord’s runaway daughter (Komatsu Nana). Satoh Takeru is the spy—raised from a child to be the Shogun’s spy in the Lord’s court, a life-long sleeper agent—Moriyama Mirai is the Lord’s favorite, who gets to marry Komatsu, who’s so thrilled with the prospect she runs away in the first place. Then there are nice guy runners Sometani Shôta and Joey Iwanaga, they’re just out to win and better their lives. Sometani might be able to elevate his position, which would help with the family, and Iwanaga needs a promotion to impress a girl.

It’s never soapy because Rose keeps Marathon grounded when it’s time for the dramatics. The first act also has a lot of Philip Glass music over fading shots, it’s very much a Philip Glass scored movie; he’s good at a lot of it, even some of the action, but if the main theme isn’t a nod to Liz Phair’s cover of Chopsticks… then it’s just Glass doing Chopsticks and not doing anything with it.

So. Could use a better theme.

There’s a cute subplot about old retired samurai Takenaka Naoto who bonds with former colleague’s son Wakabayashi Ruka. Rose seems very aware things are only going to look nice living in the 1850s for so long so he rushes through a bunch, which is particularly noticeable with Komatsu, whose female empowerment arc works because Komatsu’s appealing and pretty good and Rose’s direction is good, not because it’s a real arc. It’s less substantive than, say, that Takenaka and Wakabayashi arc, which is very much background and Komatsu is very much foreground.

Similarly, Satoh’s arc is a tad too pragmatic.

Not to mention the whole thing with Danny Huston, playing the U.S. Navy Admiral who shows up in Japan trying to start trade, which sets off cultural panic. Part of that panic is regional lord Hasegawa Hiroki deciding his men are too weak in the face of Colt revolvers so they need to do a thirty-six mile marathon. But the movie’s not about them running thirty-six miles in kimonos with a very rigid running stance, it’s about Satoh sounding the alarm on his spy channel without realizing Hasegawa just wants some pageantry not to revolt against the Shogun. So these samurai have to fight an invading force, turning it in a war movie. There’s a little bit of Western in it too, the way Rose establishes the characters; just not really any sports movie.

Until the end.

When it’s forced in and is absolutely bewildering.

But Samurai Marathon’s pretty good. Strong performances without any particular standouts, gorgeous photography from Ishizaka Takuro (love the primary color use), Glass-appropriate editing from Kamitsuna Mako, and decent direction from Rose. Solid sword fights.

I’m sure every fourteenth shot is an homage to one of Rose’s favorite Japanese movies, but adequately wraps them in a compelling story.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bernard Rose; screenplay by Rose, Saitô Hiroshi, and Yamagishi Kikumi, based on a novel by Dobashi Akihiro; director of photography, Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Kamitsuna Mako; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Sasaki Takashi; costume designer, Wada Emi; produced by Iguchi Takashi, Ikegami Tsutakasa, Nakazawa Toshiaki, Ohno Takahiro, Sasaki Motoi, Yagi Seiji, Zushi Kensuke, and Jeremy Thomas; released by GAGA.

Starring Satoh Takeru (Jinnai), Komatsu Nana (Princess Yuki), Moriyama Mirai (Tsujimura), Sometani Shôta (Uesugi), Aoki Munetaka (Ueki), Kohata Ryu (Hayabusa), Koseki Yûta (Saburo), Fukami Motoki (Momose), Kato Shinsuke (Okajima), Joey Iwanaga (Kakizaki), Wakabayashi Ruka (Isuke), Tsutsui Mariko (Kiyo), and Takenaka Naoto (Mataemon).


Ashfall (2019, Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun)

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see Ashfall if it hadn’t been for a blogathon. Maybe never. While I’m a Ma Dong-seok fan because how can you not be, I’ve always been lukewarm on top-billed Lee Byung-hun. Lee’s not actually the lead; the lead is Ha Jung-woo, who I don’t follow. So, yeah… probably wouldn’t have seen Ashfall if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a disaster movie and also wanted to watch a (relatively) new South Korean movie.

So I’m glad I saw Ashfall, against the various odd. Writers and directors Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun don’t have many—or possibly any—original ideas in the film, which has a real-life volcano Baekdu Mountain erupting and threatening all life on the Korean Peninsula, North and South. Lee’s a North Korean double agent (or triple agent), it’s never clear. Possibly quadruple. Ma is a Korean-American scientist who finds himself drug into the government response because he’s the one who’s been trying to tell them the volcano is dangerous—I wonder if it’s the Korean equivalent of a Yellowstone “vulcanist”–for years. Ha is the Army bomb tech who’s got two days left on his compulsory military service. Ha’s a bit of an eccentric who can never remember his appointments with pregnant wife Suzy Bae, who doesn’t quite look sixteen years younger than Ha but definitely looks a little younger. They try to play it off with Ha being just immature but… he’s more like just unreliable. It’s unclear.

So the President (Choi Kwang-il very good in a small part) puts Jeon Hye-jin in charge of figuring out how to not go the way of Pompeii and she brings in Ma, who’s got a plan involving detonating nuclear warheads in a copper mine because Ma really likes Broken Arrow, but South Korea doesn’t have any nukes so they have to go steal some from North Korea even though they’re really friendly in this nearish, post-nuclear North Korea, but also pro-disarmament North Korea. Not important. What’s important is spy Lee knows where there are some nukes and they know where Lee’s at because he’s got a GPS tracker in him. The real Army is going in to extract him and go find some nukes, Ha’s team is there to get the nukes transferred into a special case to nuke the volcano.

It’s kind of a Lee and Ha buddy movie, also kind of not because they don’t have any common foes. Not really. The U.S. Army shows up to humiliate South Korea, which Lee finds really amusing, but they’re not really a plot impediment. They’re just something else the movie throws into the batter, albeit with a lot of overt subtexts. Robert Curtis Brown is actually find as the shitty American ambassador, which fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest but then, of course, it was crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest. Michael Ray is profoundly bad as the general. Though Jai Day could be worse as the guy on the ground.

So most of it’s just Lee and Ha being awful to one another while getting through “Mission: Impossible: Bomb Disposal Unit” with some earthquake stuff thrown in. There’s some great CGI disaster shots in Ashfall but there’s also a lot of bad directing during the disaster scenes too. Kim and Lee are far more successful combining narrative tropes than they are executing mix and match action set pieces. The first one, Ha in a car chase type sequence during the first earthquake, shows they clearly don’t have it cracked and nothing else in the film is ever any better. You eventually just have to give it a pass on that type of action because at least the visuals are interesting. Ashfall’s an odyssey. Lots of different locations and settings. And it often looks great—Kim Ji-yong’s photography, whoever does the CGI; Ashfall’s a fine looking film.

Well, except when it looks like Kim’s got the “soap opera mode” turned on and the artifice shines bright, which happens more in the second half than the first. The first has the most successful visual sequences. The second half is when it needs to have the action sequences….

Unfortunately, the directors just aren’t very good at directing action scenes. It would help immensely.

The acting’s all fine or better. Ma and Jeon have the worst parts of the top-billed but still give the best performances. The material’s so weak. It’s a wonder what they do with it. Lee’s good enough I’m going to have to give him another chance, but he’s also a lot better than Ha, which isn’t what the movie needs.

It’s too long by twenty minutes, but Ashfall’s more than a good enough action-spy-disaster movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun; director of photography, Kim Ji-yong; music by Bang Joon-seok; production designer, Kim Byung-han; produced by Kang Myung-chan; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Byung-hun (Lee Joon-Pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-Chang), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-Kyung), Ma Dong-seok (Kang Bong-Rae), Suzy Bae (Choi Ji-Young), Michael Ray (General Michaels), Robert Curtis Brown (Ambassador Wilson), and Choi Kwang-il as the President.



Bad Education (2019, Cory Finley)

Bad Education is the story of a junior in high school (Geraldine Viswanathan) uncovering the biggest school embezzlement case in United States history, something like $12 million dollars. Only it’s not Viswanathan’s movie. It’s Hugh Jackman’s movie, which makes sense because Hugh Jackman’s great in it. Not transcendent, but he’s really good. He can’t be transcendent because Finley’s direction and particularly Mike Makowsky’s script… it doesn’t let him be. Jackman’s got to be the star but can’t be the protagonist, can’t even be the main character, even though—in its final stumble—the film tries hard to force it for the postscript.

It’s disappointing, but the whole third act’s disappointing so, while maybe a surprise, not an unpredictable one.

Also a bigger star in the movie than Viswanathan is Allison Janney. She plays school district superintendent Jackman’s assistant superintendent. The one who handles all the money. Janney and Jackman are excellent together so it’s really too bad when they don’t get to have any more scenes together. Unlike everyone else Jackman plays off—school board president Ray Romano, accountant Jeremy Shamos, boyfriend (and former student, but we’ll get to this one in a bit) Rafael Casal, and then partner of thirty-three years Stephen Spinella, Jackman doesn’t bullshit Janney, so you get some insight into the character in their interactions. Because the rest of the time you’re just watching to see if Jackman’s going to turn out to be the sociopath he seems destined to turn out to be.

Plus… they make Janney sympathetic. She’s got genuine nice guy husband Ray Abruzzo looking out for her and if he loves her, she can’t be all bad. Right? Meanwhile, the film introduces Jackman being gay after him hooking up with former student Casal (who he coincidentally meets while at a conference). It makes Jackman look like a creepy closeted teacher—even giving him an apparently fake dead wife—when, in actuality, the Casal romance seems the most honest look we’re getting at Jackman. It’s humanizing, even as the movie presents manipulatively.

Compounding it being problematic is apparently it’s all fictitious; yes, the real guy was gay, yes, he had a long-term relationship, but he never hooked up with a student or faked having a dead wife. So… odd choice, bad choice, especially since when it doesn’t pan out at all it leaves Jackman’s only character development subplot unresolved.

Ditto some of the stuff about Jackman as educator, which might be hard to play—as it involves Viswanathan (Jackman’s encouragement is what gives her the self-confidence to dig as a school paper reporter)–and there’s a scene where Jackman kind of threatens Viswanathan and Finley doesn’t direct it well. Finley’s constantly showcasing Jackman when the attention should be somewhere else. It’s disappointing. Especially after it seems like Finley’s seemingly gotten past some of the problems and adjusted the narrative distance, only for him to fall back into the same techniques.

Good supporting performances from Shamos and Romano. Janney’s great. Not much of a part but she’s great. Hari Dhillon’s occasionally in it as Viswanathan’s dad. He’s good.

It’s simultaneously not creative enough and too creative while doing the docudrama thing. Finley gets good and better performances from the cast and his composition’s… fine, but his direction holds back the character development. And the script’s already got problems with it. Someone needs to be invested in the characters, not unfolding the story. Someone besides the actors.

Bad Education’s pretty good considering it’s all over the place.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Cory Finley; screenplay by Mike Makowsky, based on an article by Robert Kolker; director of photography, Lyle Vincent; edited by Louise Ford; music by Michael Abels; production designer, Meredith Lippincott; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Fred Berger, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Julia Lebedev, Makowsky, Oren Moverman, and Eddie Vaisman; aired by Home Box Office.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Frank Tassone), Allison Janney (Pam Gluckin), Ray Romano (Big Bob Spicer), Geraldine Viswanathan (Rachel Bhargava), Alex Wolff (Nick Fleischman), Rafael Casal (Kyle Contreras), Annaleigh Ashford (Jenny Aquila), Hari Dhillon (David Bhargava), Ray Abruzzo (Howard Gluckin), Stephen Spinella (Tom Tuggiero), Jeremy Shamos (Phil Metzger), and Welker White (Mary Ann).