August 2011 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the Aug. issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week. The movies are opening here between late July and mid-August.

Edge of Darkness
Mel Gibson’s first lead role in eight years is a Boston cop whose grown daughter is murdered outside his home. At first, it’s assumed the shotgun blast was meant for him, but as he starts looking into his daughter’s recent history he learns she may have been involved with a radical group trying to expose illegal research at the top secret facility where she worked. Though everything in Gibson’s bulldog performance and Martin Campbell’s direction indicates a vigilante revenge fantasy, the movie doesn’t go full-tilt gonzo until the very end. The script, based on a British TV miniseries, has pretensions to sociopolitical seriousness that are undermined by the presence of a shadowy fixer (Ray Winstone) whose loyalties waver right from the start. Assigned by the government to keep an eye on Gibson’s investigation, he makes friends with the ornery detective for no other reason than to provide the movie with macho banter (“Who am I? I’m the guy with nothing to lose”). It’s a waste of time and distracts from Gibson’s effective demonstration of star power. (photo: GK Films LLC)

Essential Killing
Veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski says he was less interested in politics than in studying the challenge of “one against the many” in this opaque thriller about a Muslim man (Vincent Gallo) who is captured and tortured in Afghanistan and then escapes while being transported through Eastern Europe. Existentialism means never having to explain incredible plot points, so the prisoner’s ability to survive sub-zero temperatures, a bear trap , and at least one gunshot wound while dispatching a half dozen armed soldiers can only be chalked up to his indominatable will and, as implied in several gauzy flashbacks, his religious faith. When he stumbles into the house of a deaf woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) he is treated like a hunted animal; that is, with sympathy, even if some in the audience may consider him less than innocent. The waterboarding scene seems designed to spark discussion, but it is what it is and nothing more, and while the movie is beautifully shot and edited for maximum excitement, it doesn’t make much of an impact, emotional or otherwise. (photo: Skopia Film, Cylinder Prod., Element Pictures,Mythberg Films, Syrena Films, Canal+ Poland)

The First Grader
Justin Chadwick’s recreation of the tribulations of Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, who spent a decade in prisons after trying to drive out the British prior to Kenya’s independence, works better as didactic self-reflection (the movie was produced by the BBC) than as cinematic art. Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo) is in his 80s when he endeavors to join a newly established elementary school that is “free to all.” Maruge wants to learn how to read, but the authorities say he cannot attend a school intended for children. However, the headmistress (Naomie Harris) accepts the old man into her classroom, thus sparking violence and a national scandal. As a member of the Kikuyu tribe who fought alongside the terrorist Mau Maus, Maruge has a legacy that is too painful for people who worked with and for the British under colonialism. Chadwick spares no expense in outlining the horrors Maruge endured, thus making his late life bid for literacy all the more poignant, but the acting and the writing is awkward, playing up sentimental cliches that counteract the movie’s message. (photo: British Broadcasting Corp., UK Film Council and First Grader Prod. Ltd.)

Hanna
Egged on by popular culture, all kids dream of being spies or superheroes, not just because it allows them to fantasize heroic things, but because those two vocations imply secret lives and thus grant them a measure of separateness from the demeaning world of childhood. The titular hero of this action movie is an adolescent girl (Saoirse Ronan) trained in the espionage arts since infancy by her father (Eric Bana) in a remote region of Finland. Deprived of electricity and thus the normal accoutrements of modern youth, including music, Hanna has no distractions, and she dispatches elk ten times her weight with bows and arrows and not a touch of squeamishness or regret. The purpose of this tutorial in survival remains a mystery during the long introductory passage, even after Dad gives Hanna a box with a red button. “When you’re ready, push it,” he says, and goes out to bag a wild boar. It’s clear that everything Hanna has learned has been in preparation for this moment, and after she makes the plunge, her father leaves and their cabin is invaded by men with guns. The signal was meant for a woman named Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a CIA operative with a funny Southern accent and a very sharp axe to grind. Apparently, she has been looking for both the girl and her father, who is a rogue German agent, for a long time, and the movie dangles “why” in front of the audience until the very end. Even Hanna, who breaks out of the high security compound she’s taken to in Northern Africa by killing several able-bodied men, doesn’t know why she has to make her way to Berlin to meet her father, but she does as she’s told, even when distractions threaten to pull her from her destiny. She meets a family of hippie caravaners (Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng) whose daughter (Jessica Barden) is the antithesis of Hanna in that she’s a vessel filled to the top with pop culture intelligence. Hanna stows away with the family to get into Europe while a fey, blonde German hit man (Tom Hollander) pursues her at Marissa’s request. This passage is the most satisfying in the movie, because it plays up Hanna’s innocence while showing off her deadly arts–she’s Jason Bourne without the amnesia excuse. Director Joe Wright is obviously intrigued by this aspect, but Seth Lochhead’s story can’t get around the requisite espionage mayhem, which becomes more complex when the story arrives in Berlin. Wright does a good job with that mayhem, keeping it interesting and funny, but the visual allusions to fairy tales (Marissa is either the wicked witch of the West or the big bad wolf) can’t put off the unexceptional answer to the mystery forever. So enjoy the buildup while you can.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
At this point in the saga you either know what you’re watching or you don’t, so it’s meaningless to complain that the final Harry Potter movie provides no recap of what went down in the previous film. It doesn’t even bother with an opening credits sequence, understanding that the meat-and-potatoes fans just want to get on with it. In its own way, it’s an admirable position, and while I scoured my memory (after all, the previous film was only released last fall) for clues as to how that goblin got in the beach cottage where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermoine (Emma Watson) are holed up as fugitives from the evil forces that now hold sway over the land of the wizards, I immediately fell under the spell of the filmmaking. Which is to say, not having a clear idea of the machinations that brought Harry to this desperate junction will in no way detracts from your enjoyment of the proceedings, but it will definitely make you feel like an outsider since it probably indicates you didn’t read the books. But that means HPATDHP2 is less a movie than an obligation, which not only makes it unreviewable, but rather pointless to synopsize. Nevertheless, the first half chronicles our courageous trio’s quest to locate and destroy the remaining horcruxes that contain the powers wielded by Harry’s arch-enemy, the nasally challenged Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). These provide episodic opportunities for chases and violent displays of wizardry that only partially justify the 3D expense, which, again, renders an already dark movie even murkier. Since the point of the whole series is Voldemort’s determination to kill Harry the way he killed his parents, it’s important to understand the source of that enmity, and you probably do need to have read the book to fully appreciate the dark lord’s purposes, not to mention those of other characters whose roles in Harry’s fate are so significant. In that regard, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) takes center stage once again, but initially as the man who killed off Harry’s mentor, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Though I now understand Snape’s reasons for doing what he did, understanding those reasons only gives rise to questions of greater import but lesser immediacy, such as “Why exactly was it so vital for Voldemort to kill Harry as an infant?” Such a thought gives rise to images of snakes swallowing their own tails. Still, it all comes down to a monumental duel between the forces of good and evil that David Yates pulls off with brio, a seige of Hogwarts that even John Carpenter or John Woo would admire, complete with lesser characters showing their true colors and more than a few deaths, though there’s only one you really care about. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

LennoNYC
Immediately rendered redundant by going over much of the ground covered in more painstaking detail by The U.S. vs. John Lennon, this documentary by Michael Epstein about the erstwhile Beatle’s last ten years, lived mostly in New York City, does offer some insightful information about the infamous “lost weekend” in L.A. after his split from Yoko Ono, and is generally more interested in Lennon’s work as a musician than as a celebrity or voice of his generation. Nevertheless, it relies for illustration almost exclusively on interviews with people who were close to him, including Ono, and while it is frank about his peevish personality and childishness (on explaining his drunken days on the West Coast: “I’d never been a bachelor”) the portrait doesn’t add anything; and that’s to be expected. Lennon may be the most documented rock musician of all time, owing to his willingness to engage all comers while he was alive and Yoko Ono’s determination to construct a certain image of her murdered husband for posterity. She’s been all too successful. (photo: Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right Prod., Dakota Group, WNET.org)

Let Me In
Hollywood remakes of non-English language movies are by definition inferior to the originals, usually because what made the original noteworthy becomes difficult to translate into terms Hollywood understands. Despite its Best Picture Oscar and considerable merits, The Departed is a case in point because it lacked the capability of recognizing its own implausibility the way Infernal Affairs did. Matt Reeves’ interpretation of the Swedish stunner Let the Right One In is as close to an exception to this rule as I’ve seen. Though I don’t think it’s as good, it stands up extremely well by its own standards and in some ways improves on the original. The story is irresistible. A little girl and her middle-aged male guardian move into a rundown apartment complex. The only person who pays any attention is a twelve-year-old boy who lives with his distracted, soon-to-be-divorced mother and is constantly bullied at school. He befriends the little girl, who seems to be oblivious to the cold and only comes out at night. Meanwhile, a local youth is murdered and someone else is attacked. It’s revealing nothing to point out that this is a vampire tale, though one has to completely reroute the circuiting in one’s brain to comprehend vampires in the way the movie demands. For one thing, we’re talking about children, and though child vampires have been depicted in movies before, they’ve never been this sympathetic or open to interpretation. Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) admits to being “more or less” the same age as Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and one looks for evidence of “experience” that never reveals itself. If anything, Abby’s demeanor bespeaks a sheltered existence, a notion reinforced by her guardian’s (Richard Jenkins) self-imposed responsibility to secure her sustenance. But her attraction to Owen is more than just normal adolescent curiosity, and it was this aspect of John Ajvide Lindqust’s story that made the original movie so compelling and, in the end, terrifying. These two really need each other in ways that make the romance in the Twilight saga seem trivial. As in the original, Owen’s bullies are a bit too vicious; their eventual comeuppance works only as a device to confirm Owen’s and Abby’s bond. Reeves is also more literal with the violence, which could be interpreted as a concession to American tastes, but in any case results in one breath-taking sequence that takes place inside a car spinning out of control. Also, his decision to place the story in New Mexico during the early days of the Reagan presidency feels exactly right. The characters are rootless and aimless, untethered to a society that might look out for them. They have been cut loose to fend for themselves. They need someone to need them. (photo: Hammer Let Me In Prod. LLC)

Miral
A labor of love in every sense of the term, painter Julian Schnabel’s fifth film is based on an autobiographical novel by journalist Rula Jebreal, who is also his girlfriend. Jebreal’s story is worthy of a movie, though Schnabel wants it to be more than an inspiring tale. He wants it to be the last word on the “Palestinian problem,” which, of course, it could never be if only because the issue is constantly in flux. Nevertheless, Schnabel holds up the failed Oslo peace accord of 1993 as a kind of reprimand to everyone who didn’t make it a reality, meaning all of us. Though the movie’s structure is half the problem, its focus on a succession of female individuals who reflect the evolution of the problem since the birth of Israel in 1948 provides dramatic traction. Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), an Arab native of Jerusalem, adopts children made orphans by the civil strife unleashed by the British Mandate for Palestine, and her school eventually becomes an institution that provides educational sanctuary within Israel for Palestinian children, one of whom is Miral (Freida Pinto), the rebellious daughter of an Arab groundskeeper (Alexander Siddiq) who would prefer to keep a low profile. Miral’s troubled psyche is understandable. Her mother, sexually abused as a child, left home as a teenager and was eventually jailed by the Israelis for a minor offense. Radicalized in prison, she couldn’t properly function on the outside and killed herself. Her father places Miral in Hind’s school because he thinks she’ll be safer there, but she becomes even more radicalized than her mother was, hooking up with a young activist who uses her and her Israeli citizenship as tools to undermine the Jewish settlements, which Schnabel demonizes. Eventually, Miral herself is arrested and tortured by the authorities, but when she is released because of a legal loophole, even though she gave away no secrets she becomes suspect in the eyes of the Intifada and Palestinian militants. These suspicions also fall on her boyfriend, who in the meantime has become a moderate in that he believes the Oslo Peace Accord is the only realistic hope for a Palestinian state. The militants reject it out of hand. Regardless of how you feel about the politics, Schnabel’s highly impressionistic style isn’t the best fit for such an exposition-heavy script. Moreover, he seems tone-deaf to the dialogue’s canned quality (“You are my hope!” “This is a difficult period of transition”) and tolerates the patented stereotypes embodied by the characters. And what on earth is a Tom Waits song doing on the soundtrack during the funeral of of a Muslim woman? Obviously, it’s simply a song that Schnabel likes, and he’s the director. He can do whatever he wants. (photo: Pathe-Er Prod.-Eagle Pictures-India Take One Prod. with participation of Canal+ and Cinecinema A Jon Kilik Prod.)

Nashville
Topping off an incredible five-year run of films whose imagination and inventiveness have never been matched, Robert Altman’s 1975 tour de force is generally said to be his most characteristic work and his greatest. I would probably nominate The Long Goodbye myself, but in terms of scope and technique, Nashville remains an astounding accomplishment, an improvisational ensemble piece that actually holds together. By the time he made Nashville, Altman had already perfected his famous overlapping dialogue, an element that acknowledged the way people really talked, but it wasn’t until he used it here that its value was completely appreciated. There are some two dozen characters in the movie and all have equal claim on the viewer’s attention. Taking place over a five-day period in the capital of country music during a presidential campaign that features an upstart whose popularity is based on warm homilies (“Christmas has always smelled like oranges to me”) and who is never shown, the movie exists on several social strata at once without ever changing tone. Thus the privileged–meaning the country royalty represented by Henry Gibson’s veteran singer and Ronee Blakley’s younger queen of heartbreak–are presented as unflatteringly as the waitresses, soldiers, music star wannabes, and housewives that move in and out of the frame as if by accident. Though the political ramifications are obvious (Nixon resigned while the movie was being shot) it’s the personal dramas that make the starkest impression, especially when they intersect, as with Keith Carradine’s self-obsessed singer-songwriter and Lily Tomlin’s lonely homemaker. More importantly, as Pauline Kael observed in her famous review of the movie, the venality and selfishness on display was not as cartoonish as it was presented in other movies of the era. The “Republican” family ideals that this patch of America so resolutely championed were not as hypocritical as their detractors thought. Even if Haven Hamilton (Gibson) is cheating on his wife, he believes that hard work and Christian charity really are paramount values and in the end he practices what he preaches. Thus the assassination subplot that runs through the movie like a lit fuse is all the more tense since, unlike in conventional movies, we know that people may be hurt who don’t deserve to be hurt–in real life, no one deserves to be hurt like that. But even beyond its thematic integrity, the music (all songs are sung and mostly written by the principals) and the production values combine to create a world that’s unique, regardless of whether or not it mimics Nashville in reality. The major set pieces filmed at the Grand Ole Opry and other Nashville music venues are flawless examples of control and planning that allows the micro to shine through the macro. (photo: Paramount Picture Corp.)

The Other Guys
There are more good throwaway lines in the latest Will Ferrell vehicle than you can shake a Glock at, a circumstance that comes close to defining Will Ferrell vehicles. The first fifteen minutes of this buddy cop parody focus on two super-badass detectives (Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson) who destroy New York while saving it from various lowlifes. Their inglorious, hilarious end opens the door for other cops who want a piece of the glory. Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), an officer with a short fuse, is itching for the big case, but thanks to a faux pas at Yankee Stadium involving Derek Jeter, he’s been partnered with desk jockey Gambel (Ferrell), who likes writing everybody else’s reports. Director Adam McKay knows which cop movie cliches to tweak for full comic effect, but the movie’s main plot about an investment banker (Steve Coogan) and his illegal transactions is so weak and overly-involved that the movie never hits its stride. Compared to Hot Fuzz, where all the elements contributed to the general hilarity, The Other Guys is just lazy. (photo: Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.)

Shanghai
A throwback to those epic dramas of the 1950s and 60s, like 55 Days at Peking, in which an international all-star cast played out a story against the backdrop of a great historical event. Here we have Shanghai on the eve of Pearl Harbor, with John Cusack’s American naval intelligence officer posing as a reporter with Nazi sympathies. His best friend and colleague (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who preceded him in the Chinese city, is murdered the day he arrives, and as he tries to piece together what the friend was after he becomes romantically involved with the beautiful wife (Gong Li) of a local triad boss (Chow Yun-fat) who is reluctantly aiding the Japanese law enforcement chief (Ken Watanabe) to quell the Chinese uprising. The different acting styles clash dissonantly, and the dialogue is mostly atrocious, even when the dueling accents don’t get in the way. One can take pleasure in the costumes and the elaborate set designs, but the movie is dramatically inert. There’s nothing to get involved with. Also with Rinko Kikuchi, David Morse, and Franke Potente. (photo: TWC Asian Film Fund LLC)

Super
Hot on the heels of Kick Ass, James Gunn’s black comedy uses the same premise of a loser assuming a superhero persona to deal with his “issues,” and is more successful in that it sticks with the premise until the end. Frank (Rainn Wilson) is a dour short order cook whose only accomplishment in a life of being picked on is having saved his wife (Liv Tyler) from drug addiction; so when she’s lured back to the needle by her sleazy ex-boyfriend (Kevin Bacon) he goes off the deep end, identifying with a cheapo TV superhero modeled on Jesus and embarking on his own crime-fighting spree, which extends to bashing people in the face who cut in line at the movies. Ellen Page plays his sidekick, a comic book store employee who wants in on the hero racket, and the two make a suitably odd couple. Having learned his craft at the low-budger horror studio Troma, Gunn has no trouble with Super‘s aethetically challenged production values, though you may. The muddy DV and crappy lighting come off even worse when set against the ambitious CG. (photo: Crimson Bolt LLC)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Michael Bay is what Americans–maybe even the world–equate with “fun” at the movies. Though the third installment in the Hasbro franchise gets all its ideas from 911, a good time is had by all: adolescent boys see a lot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s ass, techies get a whole new set of robot pinups, serious moviegoers see the Coen Bros. repertory company slumming it, and everyone watches Chicago get totally annihilated. What no one gets is a coherent plot, and anyone who tries to make heads or tails of this one is wasting brain cells; which isn’t to say it’s a complete waste of time. The non-seriousness makes for a number of good jokes, most of them delivered by the Johns, Turturro and Malkovich (whose teeth are so fake-looking I suspected they, too, were Transformers), and Ken Jeong. The inevitable battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons is a blurry bore, but as much as I hated myself for it, the sequence where the glass skyscraper toppled over and everyone inside starts sliding toward the windows was thrilling. Touche, Michael Bay. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick is not Stanley Kubrick, but no other Western director has managed to sell his idiosyncratic personal vision unchanged to major producers on such a consistent basis. (Maybe Tarantino, but his vision isn’t as idiosyncratic as it’s made out to be) The Tree of Life is Malick’s magnum opus, a movie that lays out his thematic concerns without making any concessions to popular taste or narrative conventions; which isn’t to say it’s difficult. Though the movie follows no linear sense and makes bold detours in terms of time and tone, the beautiful and beautifully rendered voiceovers–a Malick trademark–immediately state what the movie is about: Grace vs. nature, the former represented by the mother (Jessica Chastain) of the main character and the latter represented by his father (Brad Pitt). Embodied by Sean Penn as a troubled adult, Jack appears to be sifting through random memories of his childhood in 1950s Waco, Texas. Though both his traditionally minded parents are religious, his mother takes God as a model of goodness, whereas his father takes him as only a symbol, and following “nature’s directives” he believes it requires “a fierce will to get ahead in the world.” Thus the young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his two brothers are torn between a feminine force of forgiveness and tolerance, and a masculine force of responsibility and propriety. These are eternal themes, and Malick’s bid for immortality is to give them perspective, going back to the dawn of time to show how life evolved. Some will find this device pretentious, but Malick is nothing if not a completist, and even if the startling images of the earth forming in the cosmos or a dinosaur seemingly contemplating the meaning of death don’t register as anything more than beautiful tableaux, they inform the episodic distillation of Jack’s childhood and his struggle with meaning: How to love a tyrant who is a failure to himself; how to forgive a woman who puts up with such a man; and how to make peace with the opportunities for sin that childhood supplies in abundance. The wonder of Malick’s methodology is how well it serves his astounding memory. The feeling of resentment is acute when the father berates his son for neglecting his chores; the fear palpable as Jack invades the empty house of a neighbor and looks through her things. Death takes on the power of mystery while it tears people apart. But even in the details Malick understands his message means nothing without identification: The sense of repulsion at the sight of a lame person; the peculiar entitlement of being white in a Texas town in the 50s; the lost art of the inventor and traveling salesman. These bits, though located in a specific time and place, make the movie universal. Whatever else Malick’s masterpiece is, it’s perfectly titled. (photo: Cottonwood Pictures LLC)

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One Response to August 2011 movies

  1. Excellent and extensive written movie reviews, would use them, If I was in japan and wanted to see a movie, you have good English grammar , and use it, well with, proficiency and finesse

    I have bookmarked your blog for later use,
    Thanks for the insight into the foreign land that is japan,

    Thanks,
    Jacob D.
    USA

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