Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the November issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last Thursday.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Though clearly a stupid movie, this adaptation locates the exploitative kernel of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel and brings it valiantly to the fore. Director Timur Bakmambetov, responsible for the super-manic Night Watch vampire series, keeps the straightest face imaginable as he presents the sixteenth president of the United States as a man whose dedication to making the union both freer and stronger was more hands-on than previously thought. Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the screenplay, posits Honest Abe’s motivations as springing from the trauma of his mother’s death at the hands of bloodsuckers, an event that thrusts him into the path of Henry (Dominic Cooper), who trains him in the art of vampire slaughter. Wielding a silver-edged axe like a baton and busting fung fu moves that should make Jet Li thankful he’s retired, Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) pledges his life to ridding the country once and for all of vampires, who happen to run things. The best joke is that slavery was perpetrated by vampires, who became plantation owners not so much to build a mercantile empire—though there’s that, too—but to guarantee a permanent supply of food for themselves. The Civil War and the freeing of the slaves was thus Lincoln’s main gambit for destroying their evil league. Personally, I have no problem equating slaveowners with monsters, but the movie only takes the analogy to the level it needs, and half of the running time is occupied by gruesome one-on-ones whose only coherence with the over-arching Lincoln narrative is their imaginative use of 19th century paraphernalia (Lincoln’s axe doubles as a shotgun). And because Lincoln does all this evil cleansing out of the public eye, the movie takes on the cast of just another blockbuster superhero movie. In that (pardon the pun) vein, tertiary characters are utilized without any consideration for history. Mary Todd Lincoln (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is not the neurotic helpmate but a bitchin’ babe with her own vampire-snuffing skills. Lincoln’s cabinet is made up of old pals who share his secret life, including one African-American whom he treats as a brother. And since every superhero movie has to have an arch-enemy, we get Adam (Rufus Sewell), the king vampire who is presented as the real cause of the Civil War. No one involved in the film demands you take it seriously, but Grahame-Smith can’t be bothered with taking his inventive conceit to its natural conclusion. It’s just an excuse to explore creative means of decapitation. Had it been truly tongue-in-cheek, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter could have provided the welcome antidote to the solemn hagiography that Steven Spielberg’s upcoming biopic of Lincoln promises to be. What a wasted opportunity. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)
At the beginning of Ben Affleck’s recreation of a recently declassified CIA scheme to spirit Americans out of Iran during the embassy hostage crisis of 1979 there is a neat summation of the background of the crisis that takes in thirty years of Iranian history. In a sense, it’s the movie’s most satisfying representation of its theme. In less than ten minutes you get a balanced history (the Shah’s crimes are not glossed over) and some very convincing reenactments of the violent demonstrations that took place outside the U.S. embassy. These scenes also set the dramatic pace of the film, which is fast, succinct, and efficient to a fault. During the chaos that envelopes the embassy, six staffers sneak out and somehow make it to the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), where they lie low for many months, unbeknownst to the new Revolutionary administration, which is demanding the return of the ill shah from the U.S. in return for the rest of the hostages. Back in Washington, the CIA ponders several possible escape scenarios involving bicycles and English teachers, but all are shot down by Tony Mendez (Affleck), a “exfiltration expert” who for reasons not entirely clear isn’t in the agency’s good graces at the moment. His plan, to mount a mock movie production involving Canadian money and have the six pose as Canadian tech people scouting locations for a science fiction movie, is first dismissed as ridiculous, but once he enlists the services of a well-known Hollywood makeup artist (John Goodman) and an old-school studio producer (Alan Arkin), he’s able to make his case, and eventually the agency gives its grudging approval. Given the premise, a certain amount of navel-gazing is inevitable, not to mention some really good jokes at the expense of the movie industry and Affleck’s rep as a filmmaker (“any one can direct a movie, even a rhesus monkey”). The movie actually loses something vital when it moves full-time to Teheran and the scheme is put in motion. Affleck is quite capable with the suspense elements and makes clear the stakes involved—if the Iranian authorities catch these Americans with their fake Canadian passports, they can be summarily executed as spies. His calculations are also all too clear, and the simmer-to-a-boil development of the plan can’t help but seem stagey. Nevertheless, Argo is a sufficiently adult film. In fact, it’s the kind of quality product that, had it been released during the period it depicts, might have been both a box office hit and an Oscar contender. It’s also something of a fairy tale in that it advances the idea that there’s nothing movie people can’t do when they put their minds to it, but that’s a credo that applies as much to Transformers as it does to Taxi Driver. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Beats, Rhymes & Life
Actor Michael Rapaport’s fledgling documentary about the seminal New York rap group A Tribe Called Quest is a labor of love, specifically the love of a fan for a musical enterprise that deeply affected his life. Nevertheless, even a hagiographical study of a successful group will uncover unpleasant truths, and Rapaport is responsible enough to let them stand. Though the movie does a good job of charting the genesis of ATCQ in the petrie dish of the New York rap world and shows how their juxtaposition of cerebral (Q-Tip) and earthy (Phife Dawg) spoke to hip-hop aficionados in a new way, it necessarily gets bogged down in the conflict of sensibilities that gave rise to these styles. Rapaport doesn’t want to make Q-Tip into the heavy because he disbanded the group in 1998 and has since enjoyed a successful solo career while Phife has suffered life-threatening health problems and financial stress. The subject of the movie just gets away from Rapaport, and you can sense his desperation. A labor of love shouldn’t be such a source of pain for everyone involved. (photo: Beats Rhymes & Fights Prod.)
The Cold Light of Day
Mabrouk El Mechri obviously succeeded in convincing somebody with money that he was a real director with the offbeat JCVD, which featured Jean-Claude Van Damme parodying his own anachronistic pointlessness. This Euro spy thriller proves that El Mechri knows his gaffer from his focus puller, but that’s about it. Henry Cavill struggles mightily to convince us he’s a disaffected young American adult with daddy problems as he grudgingly visits the folks in Spain, where his father (Bruce Willis) works for some cultural agency. It turns out the old man is and always has been a CIA agent, and after the kid abandons the family yacht in a petulant huff, the kinfolk are kidnapped and it’s up to this whiny twenty-something to save them. Neither the script nor Cavill’s portrayal ever convinces us that he can shoot a gun, much less outrun the seasoned terrorists and turncoat American spies who pursue him—or he them, it’s sometimes difficult to tell. I’d like to think the world’s espionage community is more adept at their work than these bozos. (photo: Fria Luz del Dia AIE)
A Dangerous Method
Psychoanalysis was the great new philosophical concept of the 20th century, a set of theories that not only challenged religious faith as a means of spiritual redemption but liberated Western society from the fear of sexual meaning. In that regard, the dynamic between its two original practitioners, Sigmund Freud and his acolyte Carl Jung, demands close investigation, and while a movie like David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method can’t possibly satisfy such a demand, it does an admirable job of showing how the philosophy took hold. Jung (Michael Fassbender) utilizes “the talking cure,” as it’s called, on a new patient, the rich Russian woman Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who shows up at his Zurich clinic writhing and spitting in a fit of manic possession. Carefully sitting behind Spielrein during their sessions so as not to distract her from the task of dredging up uncomfortable memories, Jung prods her with gentle questions that are nevertheless shockingly invasive considering that it is only 1904. As it turns out, Spielrein’s condition seems to be a latent reaction to the spankings she received from her father as a child, spankings that she enjoyed. Though a bit too neat in presentation, this startling revelation seems to confirm Freud’s theory of repression, and as the analysis continues on its slow, methodical path Spielrein’s hysteria subsides, while Jung’s libido is freed, albeit in an almost intellectual fashion. Another patient, a cynical polygamist (Vincent Cassel), persuades him that “freedom” is, at base, a sexual issue, thus speaking to Jung’s ongoing emotional detachment from his loving but sexually conventional wife (Sarah Gadon) and pushing him deeper into the arms of the more adventurous Spielrein, who eventually internalizes her treatment so effectively that she takes up psychiatry herself and becomes a success at it. In the meantime, Jung has finally met his mentor Freud (Viggo Mortensen), a cold, imperious man who “examines” Spielrein himself, and their relationship turns sour as the younger physician follows the philosophical ramifications of psychoanalysis to their natural end: mysticism and the collective conscious. Fortunately, Cronenberg doesn’t interrogate this dispute deeper than Freud’s adherence to empiricism, and Jung’s emergence as his own man isn’t portrayed as some kind of triumph. But he does emerge as, above all, a man, and that’s where the film succeeds most illuminatingly. If the point of psychoanalysis is to connect us to our own animal impulses as a means of understanding why we feel a certain way, A Dangerous Method shows how the larger repression exerted by social norms can be every bit as personality-warping; not that this realization helped Jung personally. He is rightly conflicted in his love for Sabina, who goes on without him. Cronenberg doesn’t just analyze psychoanalysis, he dramatizes a condition, heartbreak, like no one has before. (photo: Lago Film GmbH Talking Cure Prod. Ltd. RPC Danger Ltd. Elbe Film GmbH)
Et si on vivait tous ensemble?
Jane Fonda is only one actor in this ensemble piece about the challenges of growing old, and if she dominates it it has as much to do with her naturalistic acting style as with her undeniable star power. As Jeanne, she has to make us believe she is still in love with her husband, Albert (Pierre Richard), who is succumbing to dementia. A retired philosophy professor, Jeanne derives too much frustration and not enough intellectual nourishment from her marriage, though she clearly adores Albert. The couple’s best friends, psychiatrist Annie (Geraldine Chaplin) and political activist Jean (Guy Bedos), are neurologically sound but constantly at each other’s throats, a relationship the director, Stephane Robelin, conveys succinctly with a surprising scene of after-battle sex. Then there’s Claude (Claude Rich), a widower who buys prostitutes on the sly and suffers a heart attack that precipitates all five moving in together. Though some lively banter ensues about whether the arrangement should be “collectivist or libertarian,” the expected conflicts boil down to old chickens coming home to roost, and unfortunately they are very predictable chickens. In French. (photo: Les productions Cinematographiques de la Butte Montmartre/Rommel Film/Manny Films/Studio 37/Home Run Pictures)
Hong Sang-Soo: 4 Films About Love
Hong Sang-soo is the most prolific director in Korea, which some people will say is no big deal because he basically films the same story over and over. Such a methodology could be explained by laziness, but it could also be justified as a desire to explore every facet of a theme until you get it right. In that regard the Western filmmaker he skews closest to is Woody Allen, but Allen would never be this sexually explicit or cynical. The men in Hong’s comedies are clumsy predators and the women, while hip to the male gaze, rarely make wise choices. These four films, along with his latest, In Another Country, which opens this month’s FILMeX, brings his Japanese fans up to date. Like You Know It All features a Hong archetype: the film director who keeps putting his foot in his mouth. Ku (Kim Tae-wu) comes to a film festival to serve on the jury, but spends most of his time getting drunk and making passes at married women, the success of which is left to the viewer’s imagination. In HaHaHa, two film professionals, one a critic (Yu Jun-sang) with marital problems, the other a fledgling director (Kim Sang-kyung) about to leave for Canada, get together and drink and pour out their problems, punctuating each miserably funny anecdote with a toast. As evidenced by one scene where the ghost of a revered military figure gives advice to the critic, these reveries are anything but reliable, but they get at painful and funny truths. Oki’s Movie trades on Hong’s fondness for meta-structures, presenting several viewpoints of narratives that aren’t clear in the first place but which involve a male film student (Lee Sun-kyun) with a romantic interest in a female film student (Jung Yumi) who happens to have feelings for their professor (Moon Sung-keun). Though marked by two examples of Hong-styled squirm comedy, the director seems more concerned with form than anything else, as if he were testing out a new theory. If he was, it comes to fruition in The Day He Arrives, one of his best films. A failed film director (Yu Jun-sang) comes to his hometown to visit a friend and ends up drinking with strangers and acquaintances before dropping in unannounced on an ex-girlfriend (Kim Bo-kyung). That is only the gist of the movie, since Hong repeats the general storyline with different variations in tone, structure, and even characterization. A random exploration of randomness, The Day He Arrives nevertheless builds in both emotional sincerity and hilarity as the familiar lines and situations pile up into a huge mound of insignificance. It’s Hong in a nutshell: don’t take life too seriously because you’ll be dead before long. In Korean.
Juan of the Dead
“Revolution or death” takes on new meaning in this zombie comedy from Cuba, where the commandante has been in power so long that some may wonder if he’s undead himself. The title character (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) is a petty thief and thus in the parlance of socialism a “parasite,” but once zombies appear inexplicably (the authorities explain they are part of a CIA plot), Juan and his buddy Lazaro (Jorge Molina), as well as his previously estranged daughter (Andrea Duro) and Lazaro’s dim bulb son (Andros Perugorria), hire themselves out to families who want to eliminate the infected in their midst but are too squeamish to do so. With this basic idea the director, Alejandro Brugues, not only comments on how capitalism has woven itself into the communist fabric, but avails himself of every possible means of destruction, be it blunt objects, blades, wire, vehicles, even catapults and sporting goods. The fact that Havana itself already looks like a zombie city means he also saves pesos on production design. Funny—and resourceful, too. In Spanish. (photo: La Zanfona Producciones – Inti Herrera)
Mysteries of Lisbon
The Chilean director Raul Ruiz died last year in Paris at the age of 70, and Japan is finally getting to see his last and best movie, an adaptation of 19th century Portuguese novelist Camilo Castelo Branco’s Mysteries of Lisbon, whose intricate sprawl resembles that of Proust’s masterpiece, part of which Ruiz also adapted. The first thing that has to be said about the story is that they just don’t write ‘em like that any more, and while Ruiz’s original six-hour version was designed for TV it makes more sense on the big screen, where the various overlapping storylines are given enough room to be properly absorbed, even if it necessitates cutting the material down to four-and-a-half hours. The tale centers on Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), a socially aware priest who runs an orphanage, and one of his charges, initially called Joao, who frets over his unknown parentage. Bending to the boy’s desperation, the priest introduces him to his real mother, a woman of noble birth who abandoned him when she became pregnant out of wedlock. The two forge a shaky familial bond and the boy, now called Pedro, as if the discovery of his heritage changed everything about him, becomes even more insistent about understanding his origins. As the story unravels it digresses repeatedly into sub-plots involving the various characters it picks up along the way, though Father Dinis always has some part to play. One could have made a compelling film out of any of these tales, but Ruiz, intent on preserving the integrity of the novel, finds a way to tell them all without shortchanging any one. But the effort to keep all the storylines and character developments straight as they drop in and out of the narrative without warning doesn’t lessen the dramatic pull of the movie. If anything, thanks to Ruiz’s ability to place the camera in the most advantageous viewing position, it forces the audience deeper into a labyrinth of competing intrigues that takes in a good deal of Western European (and even a little South American) history. We see how Father Dinis renounced worldly love as a young man after his wife died in childbirth and, wracked with grief, gave his child up for adoption, propelling him on the path to divinity that eerily mimics the one taken by his own father, whom he encounters in a bizarre scene in a monastery that generates a whole other tale. We see how the mercenary assassin, dispatched by Pedro’s mother’s proud father to eliminate her lower class lover, figures prominently in Pedro’s adult life after transforming his ill-gotten gold into a successful business career and marrying up in the world. And always we see how Pedro (Ricardo Pereira) translates his unresolved feeling of abandonment into eternal resentment toward anyone who would betray an unmediated love. In Portuguese and French.
Poulet aux prunes
The wonder of Marjane Satrapi’s previous film, Persepolis, was the way it evoked a sentimental response without resorting to sentimentality. Her newest film, directed with Vincent Paronnaud, tries for something similar but since it’s a fable it forces its emotional connections. The self-absorbed violinist Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric) decides to commit suicide by waiting in his bed for death to arrive. The ostensible reason for his despair is the loss of his violin, though as the narrative jumps nimbly through time we learn that a very different loss, that of his first love, is the root of his troubles. Unlike Persepolis, Poulet is rolled out in live action, though the production design resembles a children’s television program, all pink sunsets and colorful clothing and ultra-flat props and sets. This aesthetic strategy doesn’t so much distance the viewer from the story as trivialize it. And while there’s enough of Satrapi’s off-center humor to keep things from getting too maudlin—it’s the most painless suicide ever committed to film— it means you have to concentrate really hard to feel the melancholy. In French. (photo: Celluloid Dreams – The Manipulators – uFilm Studio 37 – Le Pacte – Arte France Cinema – ZDF/Arte – Lorette Prod.)
The Raid: Redemption
The confusingly descriptive title is indicative of this Indonesian action movie’s sense of entertainment. Because the idea of a commando-style police squad laying seige to a grungey apartment block controlled by a ruthless drug kingpin won’t strike anyone as fresh, the director, Gareth Evans, places all his resources in the execution of ridiculously long, complex martial arts fight scenes. But in case that’s not enough, he also slathers on the gore for that extra touch of “realism.” Since the bad guys are not only bad but psychotically oblivious to their mortality, the brutality of the combat is pretty intense, and since the rookie cop (Iko Uwais) whom we’re supposed to identify with is handsome, wholesome, and an expectant father, we wince all the more at every karate chop and knife slash. Evans loses track of the dodgy plot, with its internecine duplicity and a late act revelation that doesn’t make sense, but the climactic battle between one skinny bad guy and two earnestcops is so bone-crunchingly extreme you never worry that it’s not a fair fight. In Indonesian. (photo: Pt. Merentau Films)
The problem with this blockheaded but serviceable suspense thriller is that its dense action scenes leave no room for Nicolas Cage’s weirdness. It’s known that Cage is deep in debt and has to take any job he can, so it does no good to complain about his choices. But even in the worst clunkers those patented Cage tics make the viewing worthwhile. Not here. Cage is Will, a safecracker who, rather than kill an innocent guard during a botched job, allows himself to get caught and ends up doing 7 years. Upon release his daughter (Sami Gayle) is kidnapped by his former partner (Josh Lucas), who believes Will hid the loot for safekeeping. He hasn’t, but nevertheless has to come up with $10 million to get his daughter back. The time limit is complicated by a dogged detective (Danny Huston) and the fact that Mardi Gras is taking place. New Orleans’ rehabilitation is a pet project of Cage’s so it’s nice to know his ongoing program of self-abnegation is being exploited for a good cause.(photo: Medal Productions Inc.)
The men in actor Paddy Considine’s directoral debut are overcome with violent urges, and the only explanation is that they’re English. Our protagonist, Joseph (Peter Mullan), immediately alienates our sympathies by kicking his dog to death, and then attempts to find sanctuary in the second-hand clothing shop of Hannah (Olivia Colman) where he ridicules her Christian charity and then breaks down in guilty remorse. Olivia should know the type, since she’s married to one, though James (Eddie Marsan) doesn’t do remorse very well. Sexually rebuked, he takes out his frustration on his wife by urinating on her while she pretends to sleep, but later he does something much worse. There isn’t anything to say about these men, or the mean neighbor with the vicious dog (dogs really get the short end in this film), or the usual drunken racists who hang out at the pub. You wait for redemption and check your watch. Maybe it’s because Mullan has played this part so many times before, but it arrives for him just in time. (photo: Channel Four Television/UK Film Council/EM Media/Optimum Releasing/Warp X/Inflammable Films)
Woody Allen: A Documentary
It says a lot about this presumably “authorized” biographical documentary about America’s most prolific filmmaker that even an Allen-hater would likely find it interesting. Director Robert Weide isn’t stingy with the hero worship, but he’s enough of a mensch himself to know that Allen’s appeal is his contrariness. The stuff about growing up in Brooklyn, complete with the comedian himself giving a tour of his old neighborhood, is worth the ticket price alone, as Weide skillfully illustrates Allen’s rueful reminiscences with clips from his films. And the footage and commentary on Allen’s painfully awkward and very short career as a standup (which he didn’t enjoy) is invaluable. In fact, this kind of anecdotal approach (where’s the Groucho connection?) might have fortified the portions about the work itself. As it stands, we get a few too many adoring comments from famous collaborators and actors that keep going over the same ground, not to mention broken record reminders of the subject’s eternal feelings of insufficiency. But it’s nice to see Mia Farrow get as much love as Diane Keaton. (photo: B Plus Productions)