Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which came out yesterday. They cover films released in Tokyo between late November and mid-December. Titles without opening dates have already been released.
Amelia Mira Nair’s biopic of pioneering woman pilot Amelia Earhart wants to be so many things to so many viewers that it ends up being not very much of anything to anybody. As a historical re-creation, the film invests a great deal in fashion, props, and accents that attempt to capture the clipped cadences of mid-century movie stars. Hilary Swank, whose career is more about impersonation than acting, provides a stiff heroine whose aw-shucks approach to everything fails to reveal much about her inner life. And that’s OK, except that Nair and her screenwriters, Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, concentrate on her marriage to publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), a relationship that doesn’t make much sense without more information about what makes the aviatrix tick. Her extramarital fling with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), father of Gore (here seen as a timid, impressionable child), is explained as the decision of a liberated woman and is unconvincing. Maybe the material is beyond Nair’s capabilities. The structure renders the chronology incoherent, and the depiction of Earhart’s last flight is dramatically flat. (111 min.)
More reviews after the jump.
A Christmas Tale To Arnaud Desplechin, there are no gimmicks or techniques when it comes to making a narrative film. There is only the effect. It’s a credo that allows him to use every trick in the book, from the usually misbegotten (addressing the camera) to the suspiciously lazy (voiceover), without giving it a second thought. His movies are so crowded with “effect” that it becomes impossible to separate gimmick from context, which in his case is filled with inconceivably rich incident and unbelievably complex characters. Lots of characters. As one struggles to make sense of the intricate family relationships laid out in A Christmas Tale, what passes as plot sinks into a dense pudding of emotional exposition. Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is the matriarch of the Vuillards, who run a factory in the city of Roubaix. She has been diagnosed with the same rare form of leukemia that killed her second child several years after his birth, and only a bone marrow transplant can save her. The problem is that the only two possible matches are her black sheep son Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and her emotionally disturbed grandson Paul (Emile Berling), who, not wanting to go through with the operation, invites his uncle to the annual Christmas get-together. Henri has not attended the yearly wingding since Paul’s mother, the depressive playwright Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), banished him from the family for reasons so personally complicated no one else challenged it, even though they all had gripes against him, including Junon, who supposedly conceived him as a donor for his doomed older brother. But Henri’s arrival at the family manse with his new Jewish girlfriend (Emmanuelle Devos) in tow and his infamous alcoholism undiminished isn’t the only diversion. Youngest son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) and his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) come with two young sons and their own marital infirmities. Given the combinations, the cock-ups are potentially infinite, and Desplechin actually tries to explore every one of them, mixing and matching family members (including a wayward cousin, the lesbian lover of Junon’s late mother-in-law, and Elizabeth’s mathematician husband, the only person wise enough to bolt the get-together) for maximum meltdown possibilities. Since no single storyline takes precedence, they all stumble up against one another, intensifying the feeling of being in the midst of a real family. Some of the banter borders on cuteness (Henri: “Still don’t love me?” Junon: “Never did.”), but families by definition can be eye-rollingly obvious to outsiders. What makes this the ultimate example of the dysfunctional holiday movie is its presentation of each family as a unique social element rather than something that we can all identiry with. I wouldn’t be a Vuillard if you paid me, but it’s a gas hanging out with them for two-and-a-half hours. (150 minutes)
The Experiment Two Best Actor Oscar winners anchor this flimsy American remake of an already flimsy German movie about a famous psychological experiment that went disastrously wrong. Adrien Brody, as the hippie whose live-and-let-live philosophy is sorely tested, shows off to better effect than Forest Whitaker, as the mama’s boy who finds a legitimate outlet for all his pent-up psycho-sexual aggression. These two losers sign up to receive $14,000 each in a two-week program that simulates a prison environment. Some of the participants are guards and some are prisoners, but the situation is rigged to bring out base responses: Draconian and arbitrary rules are punishable, but ostensibly not by “violence.” If prisoners misbehave and the guards don’t discipline them “commensurately,” the experiment is voided and no one gets paid. We never see the “researchers” once the experiment starts, and the potential for psychological probing is squandered on hackneyed characters (the Aryan, the sex addict, the soft-bodied nerd) and circumstances contrived to push the audience’s buttons as handily as the prisoners’. It’s Michael Haneke for morons. Opens Dec. 4 (97 min.)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 It’s obvious that anyone who has made it this far into the movie version of the Harry Potter saga is expected to be up to speed on the myriad characters, ever-multiplying subplots, and general thrust of the Harry-versus-Voldemort conflict. The fact that a period of one to two years can elapse between episodes is no excuse, and Part One of the movie version of the last book doesn’t bother rehashing what went on in the previous movie. It’s sink or swim, and one’s ability to dog paddle through this muddle makes all the difference in terms of enjoyment. The opening scene of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, relishing evil as only he can) presiding over a conference of Death Eaters and other hangers-on is ferociously direct and ends with a bit of severe nastiness that presages more severe nastiness to come. On the good guys side, however, we have Harry being spirited away from his suddenly deserted muggle abode by Moody (Brendan Gleeson), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and the entire Weasley brood after they’ve gotten word that Voldemort is sending his henchmen to finally dispose of the boy wizard. Though thrillingly staged, the escape by broomstick and flying sidecar doesn’t have a real context until well after Harry reaches his destination, when the Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy) delivers to him and his sidekicks, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), their shares of the legacy of the late head of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, who died so spectacularly in the last movie. The minister is about to become the victim of a coup, which will result in the new minister, a Voldemort acolyte, launching a kind of witch hunt in reverse: purging the ministry, not to mention this particular land of magic, of its muggle influences, including the half-blood Harry. All of these general plot points make sense, but using the tools that Dumbledore bequeathed them, our teen trio endeavors to destroy the sacred lockets that contain Voldemort’s soul. “I don’t understand,” is Harry’s frequent rejoinder to intelligence he solicits. Join the club. For the bulk of the two-and-a-half hour running time, Harry, Hermione, and Ron teleport from one nostalgia-laden location to another for reasons that are only explained in hindsight but may have more to do with film economics than story integrity. It seemed important to divide this last book into two long movies, and this one is all exposition, most of which is given over to the relationship between the three principals, especially Ron’s resentment over what he sees as Harry moving in on Hermione. As background noise, the nascent teen soap opera was cute, but as main event it’s thin gruel, especially when you leave the theater feeling you’re totally unprepared for the big showdown promised in the trailers but which won’t happen until Part 2. (146 minutes)
Herb & Dorothy It’s easy to dismiss this documentary about famous “average folks” art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel as being cutesy and unserious, but when you’ve got two subjects as naturally sweet and unpretentious as the Vogels it’s a pointless criticism. The couple accummulated one of the most extensive collections of minimalist and conceptual art in the world, and on earnings that Herb made as a post office employee (and pensioner) and Dorothy as a librarian. Despite the “tough art” (Herb’s description) reputation of the Vogels’ preferred schools, the movie manages to convey their love of these unusual works and even explain them, something that deeper and more “sophisticated” art documentaries often fail to do. But the main appeal of the film is the couple’s everyday appreciation of life and the way that appreciation informs their collecting and their very interesting relationships to the artists, many of whom the Vogels befriended before they were world famous. Director Megumi Sasaki wisely lets the Vogels speak for themselves in their dinky, two-bedroom, art-stuffed, rent-controlled New York apartment. They’re excellent company. (87 min.)
Kick-Ass Postmodernism eats itself in this comic book adaptation about a world informed by comic books. Our hero, Dave (Aaron Johnson), is the proverbial high school drip who hangs out at comic book stores, can’t get girls to look twice at him, and is the natural target of muggers. He decides to live the dream, though in his mind he knows he’ll get his ass kicked. He buys a wetsuit and prowls the streets looking to do good deeds and, of course, gets his ass kicked; but someone videotapes his refusal to let bad guys get away with murder. The video goes viral, and an underground superhero is born. It’s a lot to live up to, but his example fires the bloodlust of a framed ex-cop (Nicolas Cage) and his 11-year-old daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), who know what it takes to kick ass. Eventually, these three take on a vicious crime boss (Mark Strong) and things get really bloody; thus, a promising comment on our need for heroes turns into yet another ultra-violent revenge fantasy. Opens Dec. 18 (117 min.)
Lebanon The 1982 invasion of Lebanon has had a latent psychological effect on the nation of Israel, especially those men and women who fought in it when they were barely in their 20s. The ones who became filmmakers possess memories that have obviously been fermenting in their subconscious for decades, and following Ari Folman’s animated, aestheticized rendering of his experience, Waltz With Bashir, another veteran, Samuel Moaz, literally gets down in the nitty-gritty. His movie, simply titled Lebanon, as if it were the last word on the subject, takes place almost entirely inside a tank during the first 24 hours of the invasion. As with all great war movies, it offers no commentary on the rightness or wrongness of the conflict it depicts, but simply places us in the heat of the moment. The difference here is that the moment is perpetually claustrophobic. Moaz intensifies the terror and craziness of war by limiting its parameters to about four square meters. Until a small bit at the end, the only glimpse we have of the outside world is through the tank’s gunsights, which emphasizes the POV of the warrior: everything is a potential target. This particular POV is that of the director’s proxy, Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the green gunner whose hesitation to shoot causes the death of an Israeli soldier. Once he overcomes that hesitation, he wantonly fires a shell into the truck of an innocent chicken farmer. Though it’s hardly a point that needs to be made, Moaz immediately confirms the irrationality that takes over in the fire of combat, and gets even more mileage from the usual war movie cliches. Shmulik’s comrades include a panicky driver (Michael Moshonov), a hardened cynic (Oshri Cohen), and an anxious and ineffective superior officer (Itay Tiran). Several characters pop in and out of the tank (both dead and alive), most notably the inhabitants’ main link to the outside world, the platoon leader Jamil (Johar Strauss), whose most important job seems to be to make sure the soldiers in the tank don’t leave the tank. It says something about this man’s army that Jamil is the most self-assured person in the movie and nevertheless proves to be clueless about the situation on the ground. “It will be easy,” he says, well before the shit hits the fan. The viewers, like the soldiers, are not given the chance to project what might happen since the movie’s present-tense mise en scene is so brutally tight. Grimey faces fill the screen; oil and water cascade down the walls of the interior like sweat; the deafening grind of gears is incessant and makes the dialogue that much more difficult to understand. Thank God for subtitles. To say that Lebanon is an immersive experience is an understatement. Opens Dec. 11. (92 minutes)
Lemmy Informative and totally unsurprising, this worshipful documentary about Motorhead bassist and acknowledged heavy metal progenitor Lemmy Kilmister is celebratory and cautionary at the same time. A hundred major rock artists sing the 63-year-old Welshman’s praises, not only for his pioneering work as a musician, but more importantly for “not assimilating,” to paraphrase Joan Jett. Though he suffers from high blood pressure and is a borderline diabetic, Lemmy still gulps Jack Daniels-and-coke, takes speed, chain smokes, and lives in a pig sty. He’s a hoarder, a World War II aficianado and collector of Nazi memorabilia (“if the Israeli army had good uniforms I’d collect them, but they don’t”), a shameless womanizer, and, despite his reputation as a libertine, something of a musical fuddy duddy (“I’m not interested in Prince. I’ve seen Hendrix”). For metalheads, Lemmy is must-see. For people interested in music, it’s enlightening only in that you’d never imagine so many major rock stars would be this sentimental about such a boor; but maybe that’s why they’re major rock stars. Opens Dec. 4 (117 min.)
Ricky The title character is a baby with extremely special needs, born to a couple of modest means. In the Francophone world of cinema that sounds like the recipe for a Dardennes movie, but this is Francois Ozon, who favors the quirky over the social. Katie (Alexandra Lamy) is a single mother whose 7-year-old daughter, Lisa (Melusine Mayance), exhibits a greater sense of responsibility than her mother. When Katie meets a Spanish co-worker named Paco (Sergi Lopez) at the factory where she works, it’s love at first shag, and before long he’s moved in, much to Lisa’s chagrin. A baby quickly follows. They name him Ricky, and when Katie discovers what look like bruises on his back, she accuses Paco of abuse. He denies the charge and walks out. Soon, Ricky has sprouted wings. He flies wherever he wants, and the media start camping outside Katie’s rundown apartment building. Paco returns, and a family bond is finally formed, presumably thanks to Ricky. It all means less than you think. Flying babies aren’t angels. They’re just flying babies. (90 min.)
Robin Hood Historical revisionism in the movies is more acceptable than historical revisionism in other contexts, and here we have a beloved legend that gets the revisionist treatment from none other than the man who practically invented cinematic revisionism: Ridley Scott. The fact that Robin Hood plays as a classic period adventure epic, the kind that used to star anyone from the O’Toole/Burton/Harris axis of drunken British thesps, adds an edge of nostalgia to this reworking of the Robin Hood tale, especially when you’ve got Russell Crowe covering the title role, the closest thing we’ve got to that triad of lip-quivering manliness. Basically an origin story, the film posits Robin Longstride as a “common archer” attached to King Richard the Lionheart’s (Danny Huston) years-long Crusade to the Holy Land, a job whose wanton brutality has disillusioned the soldier. Pillaging his way through France back to England, Richard is killed in a grove by Godfrey (Mark Strong, heavy-of-the-month), an English turncoat who is playing the French king against Richard’s successor, John (Oscar Isaac). Who should discover the king’s body but Robin and his not-so-merry men? They also discover the king’s knight, Robert Loxley, who before he expires convinces Robin to bring his family sword back to his home in Nottingham, where he is persuaded by Loxley’s father (Max Von Sydow) to continue impersonating his son so as to stave off the sheriff, who has been charged with fleecing everyone to pay for Richard’s crusades and now John’s dissolute lifestyle. Much has been made in the American press about this taxpayer rebellion, but if that’s a hook Scott and his scenarist Brian Helgeland believe will bring more middle class people into theaters then they have an over-abundance of faith in the average moviegoer’s desire to glean political subtext from their bloody action entertainments. Americans, in the end, will probably get more of that from the movie’s strident anti-French position. In any case, Robin, who we eventually learn is the orphaned son of a republican-minded, rabble-rousing martyr, doesn’t so much rob from the rich to give to the poor as rob from the authorities to give to the landed, which includes the Loxley clan. As the proxy Sir Robert, Robin also has to be a husband to Marian (Cate Blanchett), who was barely married to the knight before he shipped out for Palestine. Whatever you want to say about Scott’s hyperbolic style, he manages to fit all the required epic elements–the history, the hetero-romance, the class conflict, the bloody battles–into his epics. If Robin Hood isn’t as entertaining as Gladiator it’s because Scott fails to make all these disparate elements work together coherently. Myths are open to revision, but you should do it in a way that makes sense. Opens Dec. 10 (140 minutes)
Whatever Works Waste not want not. Woody Allen recycles a script he originally wrote for the late Zero Mostel in the 1970s and updates it to the naughty noughties. Larry David substitutes for Mostel, meaning he really substitutes for Allen, as a misanthropic “Nobel prize candidate” physicist named Boris who has given up on the pursuit of happiness. He teaches chess in Washington Sqaure Park to kids he can’t stand and lives in a dump on the Lower East Side. Against his better judgment he takes in a 21-year-old runaway from Mississippi (Evan Rachel Wood) and the two end up falling in love and marrying, though Boris doesn’t change his cranky ways. The stereotypes are thicker on the ground than they usually are in Allen’s movies, and in a way the cliches boost the fun quotient of gags and situations that have become as sclerotic as Allen’s arteries. Though David can’t act or even appropriate Allen’s tics as a performer, Wood and Patricia Clarkson as a Southern-fried Republican who finds her mojo in Manhattan both energize an otherwise frumpy, often meandering script. Opens Dec. 11 (91 min.)
The White Ribbon Austrian director Michael Haneke returns to his native German after making an international name in other languages, mainly French. Having honed a peculiarly austere style and a purposely confrontational effect in the course of his late, award-winning career, Haneke uses these aspects to ponder the sources of 20th century authoritarianism as it applied to the German nation. His crucible is a small town on the eve of World War I where meaningless crimes are being committed. First, the town physician is nearly killed when his horse trips over a wire stretched across his path. The incident has all the earmarks of a prank, and tacit suspicion, aided by Haneke’s leading hand, falls on the town’s children. Though a culprit is never found, the viewer is presented with an abundance of suspects and the free-floating point-of-view visits various households to behold the everyday cruelties and indignities meted out by this brand of Teutonic patriarchy. The town pastor (Burghart Klaussner) coldly whips his sons when he suspects them of lying and makes his children wear white ribbons as a sign of moral transgression. Humiliation is not limited to adolescents. The baron (Ulrich Tukur) treats his servants and tenant farmers with such measured condescension that one young peasant believes the baron is responsible for his mother’s death-by-accident, thus instigating a complex cycle involving the destruction of the baron’s cabbage patch and another peasant’s suicide. The physician, a widower, is hardly immune. After recovering and returning to his home and two young children, he berates the town midwife, with whom he is having a brutally cold affair, and dismisses her from his life for being unattractive. “Why won’t you just die?” he says in frustration. Though the audience observes these seemingly unconnected scenes omnisciently, the movie is narrated by the town’s schoolteacher as an old man years later in order to comprehend “what is happening in this country,” meaning, presumably, the rise of National Socialism. The schoolteacher in his youth (Christian Friedel) is the only male with a sense of decency, but even as he tries to get to the bottom of the escalating trespasses, which include the mutilation of a mentally deficient boy and the burning of a barn, Haneke keeps his distance, refusing to serve up the perpetrator or, more likely, perpetrators. The high-contrast black-and-white photography makes this approach even more austere than usual, as if Haneke were recreating in his art the severity of attitude that makes this town such a hotbed of repressed resentments. It’s not as effective as Cache, which also refused to reveal the identity of its “criminal,” but maybe that’s only because Cache takes place in the present day. The White Ribbon affords some historical distance. Opens Dec. 4. (144 minutes)