Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the January 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which came out on Christmas day. They cover films released in Tokyo between late December and mid-January.
Postmodernism is dead, according to Burlesque, a movie with all the potential for good, trashy fun and not a trace of irony. In fact, one is hard put to find any trace of burlesque as it’s usually defined–not so much as the precursor to strip clubs, but as a form of entertainment that wasn’t afraid to get a bit low in terms of humor and titillation. The dancing on display is two parts Broadway aerobic workout to three parts slice-and-dice hip-hop video; while the songs express that kind of belty blandness you find when Elton John writes for the theater. The fact that the story is a generic backstage coming-of-age tale is not a problem in and of itself, but no one seemed brave enough to make fun of it, least of all Christina Aguilera as the spunky Midwestern orphan Ali, who comes to Los Angeles to make her fortune as a singer and ends up waitressing in a neo-burlesque club on the Sunset Strip. Her obstacles to fame and self-actualization are a backbiting prima donna (Kristen Bell) and a proprietor (Cher) who’s too busy keeping the creditor wolves from the door to pay much attention to Ali’s insistence that she can sing Etta James songs better than Beyonce. As the audience waits for the inevitable scene where Ali’s tonsils blow everyone away on this side of the San Gabriel mountains, they have to sit through her stumbling romance with a hot bartender-cum-songwriter (Cam Gigandet) who, because he has a fiancee back in New York trying to fulfill her own show biz dreams, is designated as being off-limits. No problem, since despite the one naked backside and the occasional sensual production number, sex doesn’t really have much to do in this movie. And except for the prima donna, Nikki, whose meanness is clearly a function of self-esteem issues, there aren’t any characters to hiss at. Even the rich real estate guy (Eric Dane) who supplants the bartender in Ali’s affections and plans to buy the burlesque joint and turn it into a high-rise condominium, is characterized as someone who is just following his natural talents in business, much in the same way that Ali is following her musical ambitions. Even Disney has the sense to make their villains evil. The only people here who get it are Cher, whose line readings betray a fuller understanding of her character’s (underwritten) comic potential, and Stanley Tucci, as the club’s gay stage manager, a man who has obviously seen it all and is hardly fazed by anything. Tucci’s coolness is a tacit rebuke to the movie’s overheated style, from the production numbers to the editing to the way Aguilera wears her costumes and makeup. She’s a kiln-fired porcelain diva.
Reportedly Jean-Luc Godard‘s last feature, Film socialisme contains just enough linear content to qualify as a narrative work, divided into three distinct portions that take place on a Mediterranean cruise ship, at a “camp” outside a gas station in the French countryside, and in the amorphous realm of “cinema” that Godard has been exploring for the past 20 years through old film clips and references to other art forms. The provocatively vague intertitles hinder more than help the narrative, and because Godard is considered an anti-Semite by many, the points made about repression of Palestinians and “Hollywood Jews” will likely be more noticeable than the comments about the decline of Europe, which, as one character describes it, has been “conquered by suffering, humiliated by liberty.” These are hardly new themes for the 80-year-old filmmaker, but the creative use of video in mostly naturalistic settings make them fresher than they’ve been for a while. That won’t be enough for people who dismiss Godard as too opaque, or too obtuse, but it’s enough for the rest of us. (photo: France Eigasha)
More or less a primer on modern food production, this documentary by Robert Kenner will feel familiar to anyone who has followed the issue even marginally. Eric Schlosser, who produces this film and wrote Fast Food Nation, is one of the prime talking heads, as is Michael Pollan, the author of The Ominivore’s Dilemma; and viewers who think some of the sections deserve full-length docs of their own should check out Super Size Me and King Corn; or even Richard Linklater’s fictional version of Schlosser’s book. Kenner’s movie credibly describes the destruction of the family farm and the decline of wholesome food production for the sake of “efficiency,” which means more farmland in the hands of fewer conglomerates. Technology is the enemy, and not just of the poor livestock shown suffering in their own shit before slaughter. The US subsidization of corn has a direct effect on diet, as evidenced by an overweight family who can’t afford healthy food but can afford McDonald’s. The film spreads itself too thin on some points, but it’s provocative, and in the end that’s what matters. (photo: Participant Media)
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
Having become an art world superstar at a time when the tech-driven celebrity-making machine was first coming into its own, Jean-Michel Basquiat lived the dream, if not the cliche. This thoughtful documentary, built around footage that director Tamra Davis has been sitting on since Basquiat’s death at the age of 27 in 1988, tries to make a case for the young New Yorker’s place in the pantheon of great 20th century painters but in the end feels like the story of an over-extended rock star. The son of middle class Caribbean immigrants, Jean-Michel aimed for stardom as a teen, and rocketed through the requisite bohemian stage during the headiest years of the Downtown scene, where it was his candid, boyish personality as much as his graffiti-inspired art that impressed people. The trajectory was fast, not to mention lucrative. By his 21st birthday he was getting $30,000 per painting. Davis’s talking head count is augmented by intimate conversations with the artist himself that reveal his intelligence while ably conveying his charisma. The movie hardly does justice to him. (photo: lee.jaffe)
Letters to Father Jacob
By itself restraint isn’t a laudable trait for a movie, but when it’s exercised in the service of a story that’s inherently sentimental it can evince admiration, even if the movie itself isn’t that admirable. This small, two-character study charts the relationship between Leila (Kaarina Hazard), a sullen prison inmate, and the blind, retired priest, Father Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen), who secures her parole. She reluctantly comes to live at his delapidated rectory in the Finnish countryside to read and respond to letters that people send to him for “prayers of intercession.” Both characters are abandoned: Leila by society in general, and Jacob by God. But while Leila is scornful and cynical, Jacob is despairing. The postman’s daily visit is his only chance at spiritual deliverance, but Leila resents his neediness as self-deception and, even worse, condescension. The icy interactions give way to the inevitable break and consequent reconciliation, and if the latter feels over-determined, Leila’s reaction isn’t. Someting in Hazard’s body language and director Klaus Haro’s careful framing convey Leila’s history more directly than the climactic revelation.
Looking for Eric
No one will mistake this ripe slice of British social melodrama for anything other than a Ken Loach movie, but the earnest moralist has for once allowed himself some whimsy in amongst the usual desperation and heartbreak. Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a typical Loach protagonist: a middle aged postal worker saddled with two hopeless stepsons and guiltily pining for his first wife, whom he abandoned years before. Despite his colleagues’ creative attempts to cheer him up, Eric is a mess, as evidenced by the opening scene, which shows him circling a roundabout endlessly. Eric’s one comfort is another Eric, Eric Cantona, the former star of Eric’s home team Manchester United, who appears in front of him with sage advice whenever he gets high. As usually happens in a Loach film (this one, again, written by Paul Laverty) the dramatic trajectory gets way too dire for comfort, this time involving one of the stepsons’ relations with a local ganglord, but the other Eric–played by Cantona himself with wry humanity–keeps things light. The climax is transgressively feel-good. (photo: Canto Bros. Productions, Sixteen Films Ltd, Why Not Productions SA, Wild Bunch SA, Channel Four Television Corporation, France 2 Cinema, BIM Distribuzione, Les Films du Fleuve, RTBF, Tornasol Films)
As is often the case with Asian urban gangster films, the second feature by Taiwan director Doze Niu Chen-zer, may be more interesting to the outsider for its depiction of a closed-off world than for its action set pieces. In terms of story, Monga, the name of a district in 1980s Taipei that’s controlled by several competing gangs, doesn’t offer much that is new or fresh. Our guide to this milieu is Mosquito (Mark Chao), a newcomer to the local high school who stands up to bullies and is thus befriended by the enemy of his enemy, a group of boys attached to one particular boss. These pals eventually become full-time made men, and loyalties are strained to the breaking point when mainland elements start moving into the tiny enclave. Motivation becomes a bit fuzzy as brother takes on brother, and the climactic bloodbath is both predictable and needlessly drawn-out, which is unfortunate because Doze has a peculiar knack for teasing out nuanced characterizations from his players, including himself as the most conflicted of the Monga bosses. (photo: Green Days Film Co., Honto Prod.)
Mother and Child
Rodrigo Garcia’s empathy with women is so impassioned that he often doesn’t realize how close his subjects come to caricature. Once again we’re in suburban L.A. watching middle class women leading lives with emotional holes at their centers. Physical therapist Karen (Annette Bening) secretly resents her bedridden mother for making her give up a child for adoption when she was fourteen. The resentment makes itself felt in her abrupt interactions with colleagues and, in particular, her housekeeper and the housekeeper’s young daughter. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is an adoptive child who has grown into a successful lawyer but doesn’t care about finding her birth mother, which may or may not explain her predatory sexuality, but in any case she eventually becomes pregnant unexpectedly. You don’t have to be Faulkner to figure out these two characters’ connection, though it takes a bit longer to understand the purpose of the third character, a married but infertile bakery owner (Kerry Washington) who is looking to adopt. For all their facile contrivances, Garcia’s movies can be affecting simply because the actresses are. (photo: Mother and Child Prod.)
Francois Ozon revisits the colorful 70s TV kitsch of his most popular (though not with critics) film, 8 Women, with this adaptation of a stage play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gedy that stars Catherine Deneuve as a trophy housewife who finds her mojo first in business and then in politics. Suzanne is happy enough in her palatial manse, cooking for her philandering, chauvinistic hubby, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), and jotting cutesy poems in her little notebook. When the family umbrella factory goes on strike against Robert’s pennypinching ways, he suffers a heart attack and Suzanne takes over (the factory was her father’s). Naturally, her feminine touch solves all the problems and by the time Robert is recovered, she has decided to stay in her position, confident that between her share and those of her two grown children (Judith Godreche, Jeremie Renier) she can overrule Robert at the board meeting, but someone turns the tables. Ozon’s touch is so light that the feminist subtext seems more of an affectation than a stance. That women’s lib stuff was so quaint. (photo: Mandarin Films)
Shrek Forever After
Character-driven animated franchises like Shrek don’t really need storylines. All they require are sequences that exploit the comic potential of the voice actors, whose peculiar behaviors everyone anticipates: Shrek’s taciturn grumpiness, Donkey’s manic neediness, Puss’s put-on chivalry. The second and third installments faded quickly from memory. This fourth and, reportedly, last episode may linger a bit longer since Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke have actually come up with an integrated script. Everyone’s favorite green ogre (Mike Meyers) is settling into domestic comfort–three ogrelings now occupy the bed between our hero and his better half, Fiona (Cameron Diaz)–with second thoughts. In a sequence that drives home the crushing redundancy of Shrek’s existence, we see him slowly unravel at the prospect of never being able to scare another person or muck about as he did when he was younger. The mid-life crisis is a durable dramatic cliche, but Klausner and Lemke adapt it to the mock fairy tale milieu in an ingenious manner by introducing the character Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), one of the minor villains in fantasy literature but perfect for the movie’s purposes. Having been cheated out of a swindle that would have put the Kingdom of Far Far Away under his control when Shrek rescued Fiona back in the first film, “Mr. Stiltskin” sees payback in Shrek’s existential crisis. He offers him a full day as his old ogre self in exchange for any day from Shrek’s past. Shrek signs the contract and enjoys his brief freedom but soon discovers that RS has fooled him, taking in exchange the day Shrek was born, thus nullifying all the history that came after, including his rescue of Fiona, who is now a Braveheart-like freedom fighter battling the RS’s minions who keep the ogre population suppressed. Shrek has to make her fall in love with him all over again. He also has to get Donkey (Eddie Murphy), a beast of burden for the witches, and Puss (Antonio Banderas), who’s grown fat and lazy, back in his good graces, but that’s not so hard considering their personalities. The metaphysical ramifications of the story should amuse young and old alike, and the resulting action sequences at least have a purpose behind them. Nevertheless, Klausner and Lemke seem to have shot their wad on the story, because the humor is even more anemic than usual. There’s little pop cultural hay to be made any more from sending up Disneyfied fairy tales. Murphy’s verbal non sequiturs are still the best thing here (“You must have mistaken me for another talking donkey”), and Rumpelstiltskin’s boundless evil imagination brings the necessary weirdness, but the mood is mostly as complacent as Shrek’s middle class life in the bog. (photo: Dreamworks Animation LLC)
The Social Network
The subtext of David Fincher’s movie about the creation of Facebook is pedigree, which also informs the making of The Social Network. Since emerging from the dark with Se7en, Fincher has become as close to a Stanley Kubrick as the current studio system has produced, a director whose distinctively recognizable style has become a high-end brand. Moreover, the movie was written by Aaron Sorkin, who helped turn TV into a more intellectual dramatic medium than film in America with series like The West Wing and Sports Night. In the context of Hollywood product, The Social Network exists in its own rarefied realm, much as the university students we see in the beginning exist in a state of grace, drinking in a bar, invincible with youth and possibility because they all attend elite schools, some more elite than others. Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) chats up his date, Erica (Rooney Mara), a lowly BU student, about getting into one of his school’s exclusive finals clubs, effectively souring her to his self-importance. Sorkin’s ping-pong dialogue is as intricately engineered as a Swiss watch and ends with a line that will probably go down in movie history. Shocked and dismayed, Zuckerberg returns to his dorm through Fincher’s somber credit sequence scored to Trent Reznor’s uncharacteristically subdued music. He creates a website overnight that will humiliate the female Harvard undergrads, but only after he insults Erica on his blog. This vengeful wankery shuts down the Harvard computer system, gets Zuckerberg in hot water, and makes him an instant legend. Enter the Winkelvoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer), rich kids who recruit Zuckerberg to create a Harvard-only social network site. Impressed with their status but not their intellects, Zuckerberg agrees but while doing the work comes up with his own social network idea, The Facebook, and launches it with the help of his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), without the Winkelvosses’ dispensation. They’re pissed, and as Facebook gains in popularity at the speed of light, the twins plot a lawsuit, claiming that Zuckerberg stole their idea. Once the movie enters into this legal he-said-she-said dynamic it loses its narrative rigor and requires Justin Timberlake, as the manipulative Internet entrepreneur Sean Parker who introduces Zuckerberg to West Coast money, to maintain the initial light touch and Wilderean sense of the absurd. Sorkin works best with two or three people in a closed space, but he has less success with plot lines and as the intrigues accumulate and Saverin is alienated from the burgeoning Facebook empire the movie becomes constricted: half a dozen primary planets surrounded by satellites. Female characters are rendered as nothing more than plot devices, and dialogue that was potent in the beginning is reduced to isolated zingers.
Though based on a memoir, Ang Lee’s movie about the backstage maneuverings that helped bring about the legendary 1969 rock festival is a pastiche of countercultural cliches held together by the interactions of several vividly imagined characters. The movie will likely annoy youngsters already tired of their parents’ selective recollection of the 60s and pass over those parents, who won’t recognize themselves in any of these people. Demetri Martin is suitably laid back as Elliott, the son of Russian Jews (Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton) who own a crumbling motel in the Catskills. He lives in Greenwich Village but spends most of his time keeping the motel running and heading the local chamber of commerce, which is how he comes to issue a permit to the festival organizers and lead them to dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Elliott’s head-on collision with hippies, Vietnam vets, and transvestites results in his raised consciousness regarding psychedelics, his own homosexuality, and his parents’ relationship. The movie adds nothing new to the conversation about the 60s, but it’s very sweet. (photo: Focus Features LLC)
The backdoor legend about Disney’s legendary cyberworld movie Tron, which came out way back in the stone age, is that most of the kids it was aimed at preferred the video game to the film. Given Disney’s commercial vector over the past fifty years or so, that may very well have been the intention, but almost thirty years later the inevitable sequel has a lot more to contend with. In 1982 computers were only the property of wealthy companies and the government. Now, even elementary school students understand the theory and philosophy behind digital technology, and, even worse, they’ve probably seen The Matrix, a movie that really thought carefully about the human-cyber interface. Consequently, there’s lots of cognitive dissonace in Tron:Legacy, and it starts with Jeff Bridges’ CGI counterpart, an image that presents the star of the first movie just as he was when we left him, at about the age of 30. As Kevin Flynn, master game designer and the conscience of computer science, he explains to his young song, Sam, that he plans to use technology to “reshape the future,” certainly one of the clunkiest lines in a movie full of them. Flynn then disappears into thin air, leaving his son (Garrett Hedlund) to grow up as a shareholder in Encom, the Microsoft manque he helped found, constantly sabotaging Encom’s bid to control the world through software monopolies. This Robin Hood attitude, we’re meant to understand, is his father’s legacy, though he’s still pissed at the old man for abandoning him. So when his father’s old partner tells him he got a message on his pager from Flynn in the ether, Sam checks out the old man’s office in the game arcade he used to run, where those old video games still rock and Journey is on the jukebox, and gets sucked into his DOS-V computer and spit out into the “grid,” where he’s immediately captured by droning cops and deposited in a laboratory to be fitted for gladitorial entertainments. Everybody in this dark, sleek world is addressed as “programs,” but Sam, it turns out, is a “user,” meaning somebody who, back in the real world, plays games. It’s an interesting dynamic and one the filmmakers have no use for. Irony is beyond them, and what we get is, basically, gunfights (with glowing disks susbstituting as firearms), car chases (more specifically, motorbikes), authoritarian overlords, a persecuted race, and a father-and-son reunion. The visuals are spiffy and the 3D, while not really necessary, isn’t as annoying as it usually is. In any event, it isn’t as distracting as the inconsistencies in logic: Why do these “programs” need to eat and sleep? How are flesh-and-blood humans translated into digital information, and vice versa? Why is Jeff Bridges still channeling the Dude? The kids will want to know. (photo: Disney Enterprises)
There seems to be a pattern here. Last year’s big runaway train movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, also starred Denzel Washington as a veteran railroad man and was directed by Tony Scott. In fact, since that movie was a remake and the suspense was as dependent on the repartee as it was on the train action, it appears that Scott didn’t quite work out all his issues with runaway trains as a cinematic concept. All that character development and pretense about the inherent unreliability of authority just got in the way of what was important: huge lumbering railroad cars smashing into each other and making lots of noise. The pretense here is so thin that Scott can get it over with in a minute: Rookie engineer Will (Chris Pine) shows up for work the first day and is assigned to veteran engineer Frank (Washington), who treats the younger man with ill-disguised contempt, since it’s known that Will got his job through family connections, while employees Frank’s age are being downsized left and right. Every little mistake Will makes invites Frank’s derision, but something more momentous is brewing. Another younger engineer (Ethan Suplee) on a different line has, through a series of poor decisions, inadvertently allowed a locomotive attached to dozens of freight cars filled with dangerous chemicals to get out of his control, and without a driver, no less. This train is headed at full-speed toward several well-populated towns in the Pennsylvania heartland, and Will and Frank’s locomotive is also right in its path. Scott’s filmic explication of how this disaster-in-the-making started is bracingly clear. Though Scott can get pretty hairy with the editing and the visual effects, he knows exactly how the mind comprehends a series of images, and even the difficult technical aspects of the runaway train situation are rendered coherently. This attention to detail basically elevates Unstoppable above most train movies, and once the crashing and near misses start it achieves a level of believability that disaster movies of this financial caliber normally fall short of. As long as the camera is in a helicopter in the sky or in a flatbed rushing along a parallel road, the movie keeps the heart racing. It’s when it reverts back to the cab occupied by Frank and Will, who eventually forget their differences to concentrate on stopping that train (because, of course, they are the only persons who can do it!), that the movie loses steam. Though heroes are absolutely indispensable to a movie like this, not to mention villains (the corporate suits who run this particular railroad are portrayed as inept bottom-liners), there isn’t a character in the movie aside from Rosario Dawson’s traffic manager who behaves in a way we could identify with. They just can’t compare with trains. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)
The opening scenes of Philippe Lioret’s latest film are harrowingly direct, showing the lengths to which a Kurdish youth, Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), and other emigres go in order to enter Britain illegally. Stranded in limbo on the French side, they wait for their next chance or a deportation order. Bilal, whose girlfriend is in London and about to be married off to an older man, can’t wait and decides to swim the Channel. He asks for lessons from a former Olympic champion named Simon (Vincent Lindon) who works at a local pool. The immersive immigrant existence is then traded in for domestic melodrama. Simon’s bond with the boy is fortified by his sense of guilt over his pending divorce from a woman who works with immigrants. But even if Lioret didn’t force this emotional connection he still has trouble making the premise credible. Simon’s insistence that no one can swim the Channel without supervision doesn’t stop him from helping Bilal. It’s quite effective filmmaking and Lindon is particulary moving, but the story sinks under the weight of its own pretense. (photo: Nord-Ouest Films-Studio37-France 3 Cinema-Mars Films-Fin Aout Prod.)