Friday, October 21, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Jack Reacher: Never Go BackBefore the credits, the corrupt sheriff narrows his eyes at the title character, who’s just gotten the better of him, and growls “Who the hell are you?” Reacher glares right back and says “The guy you didn’t count on.”

Oh, snap.

As far as I can tell, none of this is intended as a parody, but intentional or not, this second movie featuring Tom Cruise as the itinerant ex-military badass from Lee Child’s popular novels is one of the year’s funnier comedies. Partly it’s because of zinger lines like that, and partly it’s because of the utter earnestness with which Cruise delivers them. He’s had a lot of success playing these sorts of imperturbably confident special-ops men of action, but I can’t take him seriously in such roles for a second. He’s like a seven-year-old doing one of Liam Neeson’s scary hushed threats in the mirror.

After flicking away the rotten sheriff and his goons, Reacher shows up in D.C. hoping to take an attractive Army Major (Cobie Smulders) he’s met over the phone out to dinner. Instead, he finds she’s being framed for espionage by crooked defense contractors who plan to kill her. It’s always something. He also learns that he may have a daughter (Danika Yarosh) that he didn’t know about.

Fights and chases and shootouts and squabbling ensue. The director is the always-capable Edward Zwick, working from a script credited to Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick, so even when the dialogue is risibly clichéd and humorless, which is almost every line, the movie remains diverting.

Until it isn’t any more, that is. In the homestretch, set in New Orleans at Halloween—they’d never think of setting it at Mardi Gras; that would be corny—the long stalk through the crowd of masked revelers between Reacher and his friends and the heavies grows rather tedious. The movie is a competent piece of Hollywood craft, but there’s not a scene in it that we haven’t seen already, too many times.

Miss HokusaiThis anime feature is about O-Ei, daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, the 19th-Century Japanese artist best known—in the West, at least—for The Great Wave. O-Ei was a superb artist in her own right, supposedly rated by her father as his superior in some respects, but she spent her life in his shadow, as his assistant.

I know the material sounds like a depressing drag, but don't skip this one. Directed by Keiichi Hara from a manga by Hanako Sugiura, it's a quietly poignant, sometimes funny, often delightful character study set against an exquisite evocation of Edo (Tokyo) in the early 1800s. It's one of the best movies I've seen this year.

Though emotionally distant, old Hokusai isn't a bad sort as depicted here. He isn't particularly oppressive toward O-Ei, who has inherited his brusque, slightly intimidating manner. The other men in her life, cronies or patrons of her father, are likewise drunken or neurotic but not unlikable, and she's able to handle them, though she's thrown by the young artist who likes her. O-Ei seems relatively liberated in social terms; to the extent that she's hemmed in, it's by her own psychology. How accurate this is historically I couldn't say, but dramatically it's refreshing and believable.

Though the period atmosphere is intensely vivid, the movie has a fanciful side as well, showing us the effect that Hokusai and O-Ei's artistry had, both on their own their own imaginations and those of their viewers. Demons and dragons and astral projections spring matter-of-factly into their real world, suggesting that art can haunt as much as it can bless. This movie does both.

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