February 2011 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the February 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which came out on Jan. 25. They cover films released in Tokyo between late January and mid-February.

The Dilemma
Vince Vaughn and Kevin James beat the post-boomer guy sensibility to death in this mirthless comedy about conflicting loyalties. When super salesman Ronny (Vaughn) learns firsthand that Geneva (Winona Ryder), the wife of his best friend and business partner, Nick (James), is having an affair, he despairs over whether or not he should tell him, especially after Geneva finds out he knows and threatens to reveal to Nick that she and Ronny were lovers before they met. Vaughn milks the discomfort this situation causes for all its worth as Ronny devises lame excuses for his actions to his would-be fiancee, Beth (Jennifer Connelly), while making foolish attempts to get the goods on Geneva and the bubble-headed boy toy (Channing Tatum) she’s shagging. Director Ron Howard betrays absolutely no interest in Allan Loeb’s incoherent script, allowing gross incongruities in plotting and motivation to stand, and giving neither Vaughn nor James any help with the excruciatingly static humor. Even Queen Latifah, as an automobile executive with a taste for over-literal double entendres, is on her own, and it’s not a pretty sight. (photo: Universal Pictures)

Due Date
Robert Downey, Jr. as an obsessive-compulsive asshole sparring with Zach Galifianakis as Zach Galifianakis promises all sorts of transgressive fun, and Todd Phillips (The Hangover), the meister of low-down dude comedy, would seem the perfect catalyst, but one can only take so many jokes involving corrupt Mexican law enforcers, marijuana dependency, and child abuse before one wonders why all this envelope-pushing is at the service of such a generic story. Peter (Downey), a frazzled architect anxious to get back to L.A. to attend the birth of his first child, and Ethan (Galifianakis), a wannabe sitcom actor and good-natured simpleton, both get kicked off a flight out of Atlanta when the latter provokes the former with the help of a French bulldog. Forced to make the trip West by rental car, the pair invariably end up at each other’s throats, though Ethan’s throat is a more frequent object of wringing owing to Peter’s acute anger issues. What really cracks Phillips up is America’s preternaturally rude service industry employees (except dope dealers), especially when they’re in wheelchairs. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Gonzo
Great literature is transforming, and great literature that is read at an impressionable age as it is being published is indistinguishable from the adult sensibility it can’t help but inform. Hunter Thompson‘s reports from the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign as they appeared in Rolling Stone in 1971 and 1972 shaped a generation who came to the magazine as adolescents for news about rock’n roll and emerged from that series with a political consciousness. Nothing like it had been written about the American electoral process before. Alex Gibney‘s biodoc about Thompson, though full of holes, gets that much right about the unruly journalist, who died by his own hand in 2005. Though one wants more information about Thompson’s childhood and his evolution as a writer (we get a factoid that he typed The Great Gatsby to absorb its style), and less of Johnny Depp’s actorly voice-over, Gibney wisely devotes what limited time he has to the situations surrounding the creation of the major books: Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. By doing so he explains not only Thompson’s development as both a new type of journalist and an outlaw personality, but also how Thompson and his era influenced each other. It’s a more incisive and clear-headed chronicle of that over-analyzed period than other recent documentaries have provided. Gibney shows how Thomspon channeled his personal credo, a mixture of Southern gentility, out-of-control libertarianism, and a solid moral center born of common sense into writing that was no less honest and revealing for all its notoriously scabrous partisanship. The fact that he despised Richard Nixon does not prevent Nixon speechwriter, Patrick Buchanan, from appearing in the film and talking warmly about Thompson. Nor did his equally undisguised contempt for Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie prevent Frank Mankeiwicz, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, whom Thompson once called America’s only decent politician, from calling his reporting of that campaign “the least factual, most accurate account” of it. These portions are so strong that one forgives Gibney his surrender to Thompson’s infamous image as a gun-loving, alcoholic, drug-taking caricature, which he couldn’t help but reinforce after he lost his mojo as a writer in the mid-70s having already burned his bridges. It says something about Thompson’s own tastes that he crashed with Jimmy Buffett for an extended time during his decline. Thompson’s fundamental writing style, though bracing and original, was often pure corn, and he never realized it. A man whose identification with the 60s was based on his fear and loathing of hypocrisy in the end couldn’t recognize his own failings as an independent thinker until it was too late. And then he shot himself in the head. (photo: HDNet Films)

The Green Hornet
This 3-D piss take on the superhero genre posits a peculiar problem in that its director, Michel Gondry, has already made a movie that basically parodies all the genre’s conceits. In Be Kind Rewind Jack Black and Mos Def, playing anachronistic video store clerks (meaning the kind of video store that still offers tapes), recreate some of the blockbusters in their lineup themselves, with cut-rate effects and using an old VHS camcorder. The reported $120 million price tag for The Green Hornet places its budget below the norm for studio superhero movies but nonetheless clarifies its priorities. Regardless of Gondry’s more poetic visual touches and Seth Rogen‘s and Evan Goldberg’s goofy, who-gives-a-shit screenplay, Sony’s prerogatives stand: lots of destructive car chases and gunplay and martial arts fisticuffs. Rogen also plays the hero, debauched party boy Britt Reid, who takes over his father’s newspaper after the old man dies of a bee sting. Rogen doesn’t venture outside his usual comedic comfort zone, and for short spurts the movie humorously engages with Reid’s arrogant sense of white-guy privilege and its effect on his relationship with his “sidekick,” the infinitely more intelligent and resourceful Chinese car mechanic Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou). Bored and confused by the newspaper business, Reid latches on to Kato’s talents and proposes they become crime-fighting superheroes just because “it would be awesome.” As a comment on geek fandom this is actually better than Kick-Ass, but Rogen and Goldberg aren’t disciplined enough to take it or the racist implications to any place interesting. More significantly, they toss off the exposition, which has to do with an ambitious, blood-thirsty crime boss (Christoph Waltz) and a district attorney (David Harbour) who may have had Reid’s father (Tom Wilkinson) in his pocket. Gondry is forced to take up the storytelling slack, but even he seems uninterested, letting Waltz and Cameron Diaz, who plays another enabler, Reid’s scholarly secretary, flail around with dialogue that might have made more sense in a movie by Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith (who was attached to this movie during a previous incarnation). Gondry doesn’t really come into his own until the hugely violent final set piece, which involves the Green Hornet’s indestrucitble car, the Black Beauty, sheered in half but plowing through the offices of Reid’s newspaper, guns blazing all around it. It’s like something from one of Gael Garcia Bernal’s dreams in The Science of Sleep, another Gondry movie. But probably the most disconcerting aspect of The Green Hornet is its incoherence as a comedy. The scenarists’ lack of imagination is mainly revealed by their fall-back reliance on gay jokes (as in “we’re not”) and the tacit understanding that a dude like Rogen would never end up a girl like Diaz, regardless of what happened in Knocked Up.

Hereafter
Reportedly thrown together by producer Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Clint Eastwood seem constitutionally unsuited for each other. The central conceit of this tripartite drama is Matt Damon as a man who laments his “gift” (“It’s more like a curse,” he says more than once) for being able to communicate with the dead, though people desperately seek his assistance to connect with loved ones, including a 12-year-old English boy (George McLaren) who can’t move past the loss of his twin brother. Meanwhile, in Paris, a high-profile telejournalist (Cecile de France) who survives a near-death experience investigates the “irrefutable evidence” that there is an afterlife. Morgan’s machinations in bringing these three people together are way too obvious, while Eastwood’s attempts to humanize the occult mumbo-jumbo, though effective on a scene-to-scence basis, never passes muster. The amazing opening sequence of a devastating tsunami and an ingeniously blocked scene involving a visit by social services to the home of a junkie prove that Eastwood retains a remarkable ability to visualize narrative ideas. Unfortunately, Hereafter doesn’t contain any worthy ones. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment) Opens Feb. 19

How Do You Know
James L. Brooks, who will justifiably go down as one of the most innovative people in the history of American television comedy, occasionally makes ambitious adult movies that attract a great deal of undue attention simply because they are ambitious adult comedies, a kind of product no one has taken seriously since the 1970s. Originally swathed in secrecy, his latest film arrives with an imprimatur of importance it can’t possible live up to, though it tries so hard you can’t help but feel a kind of awe that Brooks even got it made. Basically a roundelay romantic comedy about people with “real problems,” How Do You Know, like all of Brooks’ movies, attempts to extract laughs from situations that its principals find appalling. At the center is Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a 31-year-old softball superstar who gets cut from the USA team. Having lived by platitudes she post-its on her bathroom mirror, Lisa can’t process the change she is forced to undergo. Softball is all she knows, and she easily falls into the arms of another professional athlete, Matty (Owen Wilson), who makes millions pitching for the Washington Senators and is willing to give up his sexual adventurousness (or, at least, to a point) if Lisa moves in with him. However, thanks to machinations that Brooks fails to explain thoroughly, Lisa is also steered into a blind date with George (Paul Rudd), a company CEO who himself has just received incredibly bad news–that he is the target of a federal racketeering investigation–and while the two can hardly hit it off when they’re both preoccupied with the abyss, they do connect in a way that only people in Brooks’ movies do–through sheer desperation. Jack Nicholson, as George’s father, the founder of the company he heads and the man who appears to be the real perpetrator of the sin being investigated, promises the kind of screwball presence that Brooks seems to be preparing for, but the movie continually stalls as it changes gears between one static scene of two-person dialogue and the next. Because Matty is so fun and irresponsible, according to the rules of romantic-comedy Lisa isn’t meant for him but rather for George, with his inarticulate neediness and lack of guile; and the only stimulating aspect of the story is figuring out how these two will be brought together. The answer is: In fits and starts, some of which, like a loopily imagined scene in a hospital room involving George’s secretary, her new baby, and her boyfriend, actually makes you realize what an inspired writer Brooks can be. How Do You Know is surprising and likable in a shaggy dog kind of way. It might even be good if it were funny.

Law Abiding Citizen
A vigilante revenge fantasy on crack, this gory crime thriller from the potent F. Gary Gray disposes of its repellant setup in less than five minutes: Home invasion by two drug-addled burglars leaves woman and girl dead and wounded husband-father (Gerard Butler) desperate for “justice.” Despite this man’s own eyewitness account of the break-in, there isn’t enough evidence to put both men on death row, so instead of risking an acquittal for both the go-getting D.A. (Jamie Foxx) makes a plea bargain that gives the scuzzier of the two only a few years in stir while the other fries. Feeling betrayed by “the system,” the husband goes underground and then rogue–ten years later. He tortures and dismembers the surviving perpetrator and then, after arrest, somehow orchestrates the murder of other people involved in the case, including the D.A.’s colleagues, from inside prison. Butler and Foxx play cinema stereotypes in extremis: the former is a brilliant engineer who, conveniently, designs killing machines for the government, while the latter is a cold, pragmatic workaholic. Both are jerks. (photo: LAC Films)

Paranormal Activity 2
The makers of this sequel to the surprise no-budget horror hit of 2009 have ingeniously incorporated the original into the “storyline” of their movie in such a way that the viewer doesn’t realize the relationship until the scares start getting serious. This strategy may totally backfire with people who didn’t see the original, but PA2 is nevertheless more unsettling regardless of what you bring to it. As with PA1, the family we observe through private camcorder footage and security camera monitoring treat the spooky goings-on cavalierly for most of the running time, giving the audience time to familiarize themselves with the house and its surroundings, in particular the nursery where the family’s baby seems to be the focus of all attention. Though the “filmmaking” is more obvious here, the conceit of “real” visuals isn’t as distracting as it was before. The tension-building devices are so leisurely and assured that you register them viscerally, and by the time the evil force starts levitating people and dragging others downstairs you’ll have internalized that seemingly contrived storyline. (photo: 2010 Paramount Pictures) Opens Feb. 11

RED
Though it’s based on a bunch of comic books by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, RED looks more like a desperate attempt to make up for various recent action movies whose dedication to formula was seriously compromised by poor direction and too much studio interference. No need to actually cite those movies, because while Robert Schwentke’s is more successful with the winking irony and careless violence it still suffers the same handicap as the competition: Winking irony and careless violence no longer hold any cachet of originality. Casting Bruce Willis as a retired CIA operative who is so bored by his aimless suburban lifestyle in Cleveland that his only stimulation is flirting on the phone with the woman who sends him his government checks telegraphs Schwentke’s concept of what this sort of movie should entail. It isn’t long before Willis’s Frank is beseiged by men-in-black hoisting automatic weapons for no clear reason and he disposes of them with little more than a flick of his beefy Willisy wrist. But knowing that his dalliance with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the Social Security drudge, has put her in danger, he scoops her up and endeavors to figure out just why his former employers are trying to kill him. Along the way he contacts other “retired and extremely dangerous” operatives, including a raging paranoid (John Malkovich) who lives under a junked car in a Florida swamp, a mischievous, cancer-ridden geezer (Morgan Freeman) living in a nursing home, and a stylish matron (Helen Mirren) who “takes odd jobs on the side” and still keeps an AK-47 behind the cabinet with the flatware and the Llado. Just so you don’t miss all the work invested in the high-conceptness of the movie, there are other slumming veteran actors on hand to provide cognitive counterpoint, such as Richard Dreyfuss as a corrupt arms dealer, Brian Cox as a former Soviet adversary now aligned with the good guys just for old time’s sake, and the oldest veteran of all, Ernest Borgnine, in a delightfully pointless role as “Henry, the records keeper.” It is, of course, possible to have a ripping good time, especially with Malkovich, whose impersonation of an acid casuality is more unpredictable than it has any right to be, but for reasons that should have been obvious during the script conferences the movie eventually has to come to grips with some sort of plot, and the one that materializes about war crimes in Guatemala and an assassination attempt on the vice president sucks all the latent fun out of the proceedings with depressing efficiency. And all we’re left with is guns, which in the hands of Mirren are supposed to take on a whole new meaning. No, they’re the same. It’s all the same. (photo: Summit Entertainment)

Soul Kitchen
The Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin dispenses with the earnestness that hallmarked his first two well-received features while retaining their reckless momentum. In the service of a comedy that would appear to be a good plan, and Soul Kitchen has an appealing surplus of energy. Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), the young Greek owner of the titular restaurant, is a sympathetic misfit, dedicated to his iconoclastic, borderline self-sufficient lifestyle without actually possessing much in the way of culinary or business skills. Akin’s aim is to show how Zinos’s peculiar personality traits combined with shifting socioeconomic circumstances and a melting-pot coterie of Euro-transients can make for desperate slapstick. While Zinos suffers excruciating back pain, a larcenous brother (Moritz Bleibtrau), a haughty chef, a long-distance romance, and a trecherous best friend, his woeful establishment undergoes multiple facelifts and changes in ownership, not to mention personnel. It’s a heady brew that doesn’t stop long enough for you to take a deep, appreciative draught, and thus it’s difficult to work up any feeling for these people even as you laugh at their predicaments.

The Town
A movie that tries to be all things to all audiences, Ben Affleck’s sophomore directing effort manages to pull off much of what it attempts, which is admirable in and of itself but given how often we’ve seen this particular setup it’s safe to say that he’s had plenty to fall back on. Affleck himself plays the criminal-as-antihero protagonist, Doug McRay, a denizen of the Irish ghetto of Charlestown, Boston. McRay heads a team of bank robbers whose larcenous roots seem to go back generations, a plot point that might set eyes a’rolling if the movie didn’t open with a statement that “the town” is the “bank robbery capital of America.” We’ll take their word for it, but the opening heist, carried out in broad daylight, has that super-efficient but brutal quality that’s become so familiar from any number of heist movies, and whatever specific regional tone Affleck wants to bring to this tale (he grew up Boston) he can’t quite alleviate the pall of contrived entertainment the scene casts over the rest of the movie. But it does the job, which is mainly to introduce the two most important relationships in the plot: The one between McRay and his impulsive, violent best-friend-forever Jem (Jeremy Renner), and the one between McRay and a bank employee they take hostage, Claire (Rebecca Hall). Since they’re masked, Claire doesn’t see the robbers’ faces, but after they let her go near Boston Harbor, the gang wonders if she knows anything, and McRay is sent to tail her. Inevitably they bond in a laundromat in a meet-cute scene that Affleck the born-again leading man handles with skill even though Affleck the newly minted film director should know better. Hardly credible, their budding and secretive romance–she still doesn’t know he was her abductor, and Jem doesn’t know they’re sleeping together–nevertheless gives the movie its necessary tension, and Affleck ably stages big time car chases and gun battles against this background, which gives McRay a reason for trying to get away from the game. It’s more difficult than it sounds, and not just because Jem interprets it as a personal affront. The brains behind the operation, a bloodthirsty florist-fence (Pete Postlethwaite, in his last role), won’t hear of it, and even Doug’s father (Chris Cooper), who’s doing a long stretch in prison, doesn’t see the point in it. Though the action keeps things lively, the plot becomes triter and triter, with Jon Hamm getting all macho as a G-man and Blake Lively as a drug-addicted slut whose jealousy of Claire sets McRay up for a fall. From there, the movie runs away from Affleck in several directions at once. What started out as a solid crime drama ends up nowhere definite, as if everybody wanted to keep their options open for a sequel. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment & Legendary Pictures)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
The best thing about Oliver Stone’s sequel to his Oscar-winning 1987 film is that it manages to credibly recreate the atmosphere of hubris-turning-to-dread that descended on America’s financial houses during that watershed year of 2008. That was the only reason for Stone to revisit this particular realm, since he pretty much said everything he wanted to say about it in the first film, which slyly predicted the meltdown in its own way. Because Stone grew up in this milieu (his father was a stockbroker) he knows exactly what it feels like, and even if his purplish style makes the innocent seem more naive and the suits more cartoonishly venal, it’s easy to get swept up in the drama because the details are taken care of. But as in finance, ambition can be a dangerous thing in the movies, and Stone’s Shakespearean purposes can often seem like empty bombast. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) emerges from prison in 2001 with nothing except the clothes on his back and a brick-sized portable phone. The man who once declared that greed is good claws his way back to the top by first hitting the lecture circuit via a self-effacing autobiography and smarmy patter that’s so contrived it’s difficult to believe these Wall Street pros, even the young ones, would fall for it. One of the impressed is Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), himself a young investment banker whose bailiwick is emerging energy, thus making him a hustler for a good cause. Moore also happens to be living with Gekko’s daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who refuses to have anything to do with her father since she blames him for the death of her brother, an important detail Stone glosses over as if it were an inconvenience. Moore is the acolyte of a legendary dealer (Frank Langella) who is taken down by means of subterfuge by another financial house led by a slick parvenu (Josh Brolin), and after the old man throws himself in front of a subway, Moore’s connection with Gekko, which he keeps secret from Winnie, becomes stronger out of a mutual desire to bring down the parvenu, who also had something to do with Gekko’s going to prison. While the dramatic elements often feel forced, the technicalities in the background keep the interest level high, and Stone does an impressive job of keeping the emerging financial meltdown in focus without it getting in the way. In fact, the most disappointing aspect of WS2 is that it doesn’t fully convey the enormity of the crash, instead channeling its effects on the population at large into a subplot having to do with Moore’s mother (Susan Sarandon), a nurse who became a player on the Long Island real estate market. The foregrounded family soap opera is so much smaller than Stone thinks it is. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox) Opens Feb. 4.

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