Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the March 2011 issue of EL Magazine. The films are being released in Tokyo between the end of February and the middle of March.
Old-fashioned in its determination to provide enlightening history along with its hammy British acting and florid storytelling, Michael Apted’s explication of William Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish slavery in Britain in the late 18th century gets more things wrong than right, but the things it gets right are so right as to make it worth it. Wilberforce’s friendship with William Pitt, who became not only the youngest but also the longest-ruling prime minister in English history, illustrates in a clear-headed fashion the limits to progressive thought as it’s applied to the political process. Having seen the light, Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) takes abolition as a sacred mission, and though Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the man who set him on the path, once in office Pitt has to demonstrate loyalty to the king. Wilberforce’s’s zeal is dramatized in ways that often seem unnecessary–the romantic side story has no traction–and many of the peripheral characters are rendered as stock figures suitable for framing as Classic Comics characters. But I learned something and left the theater a better person for it. (photo Bristol Bay Prod.)
Lars von Trier is one of those directors who dares to be both pretentious and willfully provocative, a combination that can sometimes result in interesting ideas (Dogville, certain episodes of The Kingdom) but rarely in great movies (The Idiots comes closest). All von Trier’s worst tendencies come to a head in Antichrist, a movie that the director approached as therapy for his depression, though like many of his films it seems more like a means of working out his feelings toward women, which are even less charitable than they’ve been in the past. Fundamentally, von Trier tackles a compelling situation: a couple (as in the other big European art house movie released this month, Certified Copy, the principals are not given names) wracked with guilt over the death of their infant son look deeply into their basest natures and find even more to be sorry about. The sin is obvious: the couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe) are making love when the baby leaves his crib and falls out an open window. Months later the woman is still in a near-catatonic state of self-loathing and the husband, who happens to be some kind of therapist (in any case, he is not a doctor and proud of it), doesn’t believe the medication is helping her and decides to “treat” her himself, against his better judgment. His method involves having her face her greatest fear, which is related to a remote mountain cabin where she once repaired with their son in order to write her thesis about gynocide, or the ritual killing of women during certain periods of history because they were believed to be evil. Though the man thinks they should not have sex, the woman often needs it to allay her feeling of helplessness. The resulting tensions become acute once they settle in to the cabin, and if the connection between death and fornication (more precisely, women’s fornication) was implied before, it becomes distressingly literal in the woods: a disemboweled fox that talks, a deer with a dead fawn hanging out of her uterus, savage acts of genital mutilation (both genders), confessions of child abuse. Von Trier isn’t satisfied with simply exploring a woman’s post-partum resentment of her child and the man responsible for giving it to her, maybe because it feels like something out of a soap opera. He has to give it some sort of metaphysical twist, and in doing so he reveals his hand: women are evil, or, at least, those who can’t control their sexual proclivities are. In the beginning, the man, with his over-intellectualized solutions and masculine command of the situation, was the one to hate, but in the end he’s simply a fool. It is she who can’t control her terrible nature, and she pays for it. (photo Zentropa Entertainment)
Au Revoir, Taipei
Purposely or not, Arvin Chen turns Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? into a conventional romantic comedy. However, the conceit of having one side of the relationship in Paris is used only as a plot device in Chen’s film. Ineffectual Kai (Jack Yao) studies French by treating his local Taipei bookstore as a library while his girlfriend does same with real French people in the City of Light. When GF dumps him long-distance, bookstore clerk Susie (Amber Kuo), who’s formed a crush on Kai, makes her move, but not before Kai decides to go directly to Paris to patch things up. The bulk of the movie takes place during the night before Kai is to fly out with a mysterious package a local realtor and possible gangster wants him to deliver in France, and which becomes an object of interest to both a harried undercover cop and the realtor’s ambitious, jealous nephew, who sees himself as a budding gang boss. Chen’s sense of humor scans toward the cute. Even the nephew’s orange-jacketed crew is adorable. (photo Atom Cinema/Greenskyfilm)
This is Abbas Kiorastami’s fourth movie in which a good portion takes place in a moving vehicle as the protagonists, one of whom is driving, converse. That this is also his first movie made outside of Iran and not in Persian is significant in that he has chosen not to alter anything with regard to his signature style and yet has adapted it fully to a European sensibility without betraying that sensibility. The title says it all: What is life and what is imitation life? In the film this question is transposed onto the subject of art. A scholar (William Shimell) gives a lecture in Tuscany on the subject of his new book, which is about “copies” and their relation to “originals.” In the front row is a French woman (Juliette Binoche) who has some sort of stake in the talk, though she’s distracted by her young son, who comments sourly on the attention she gives to the scholar, as if found it unseemly. It turns out she has invited the scholar to her local antique shop, where she sells both originals and copies. They go for a drive to see the sights and along the way discuss the meaning of fakery. She is passionate about her opinions while he is fastidious in his convictions, which he dispenses in a patronizing manner. “There’s nothing simple about being simple,” he remarks when she marvels at how her sister is as happy with a copy as she is with an original. “That’s all good for books,” she says, her facade of admiring solicitude cracking ever so slightly. “Sounds familiar,” he says. In a village they take in some art and have coffee in a shop, at which point Kiarostami does something so subtle and yet so startling that you may wish the projectionist could back up the reel a bit. By then the narrative vector has changed decisively and you have to adjust the way you are processing the film. What had seemed like a stimulating though academic study of the way art impacts life has suddenly turned into a domestic drama of genuine force, even though the two principals have not changed in their attitudes or personalities, only in their relationship. We now see them in a stark, unsettling light: He’s even more pompous and self-centered than we thought, lashing out at a helpless waiter, while she betrays an emotional immaturity that helps you understand her son’s earlier comment. Some viewers will not be comfortable with this change, and Kiarostami obviously doesn’t mean for us to take it literally. But copy or original, it feels like life, especially as reproduced by Binoche, who embraces the woman’s conflicting desires so tightly you fear for her soul. (photo Laurent Thurin-Nal/MK2)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Having been dropped by Disney, presumably because it wasn’t returning the kind of moolah it expected, this franchise hits the heart of the beloved C.S. Lewis series with a new studio and new director, and what appears to be waning interest. That may explain the decision to go 3-D, though these days the only decision for any sort of CGI-intensive movie is not to go 3-D. At this point in the saga, England controls the war in the air, and the two older Pevensie children have been trundled off to America, leaving the younger siblings, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) still in the suburbs of London, longing to be reunited with their friends in Narnia since they’re stuck with an aunt whose son, the instinctively antagonistic Eustace (Will Poulter, who played the scamp in Son of Rambow), is making their lives miserable. Edmund even tries to enlist, not to escape Eustace’s withering pout but because he misses the life of a warrior, which he enjoyed in Narnia. They get their wish and are summoned back, with Eustace accidentally along for the ride, to join the crew of the Dawn Treader on its way to the end of the world. On board is Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) and the hero-mouse Reepicheep (Simon Pegg) who need the swashbuckling assistance of the Pevensies to secure seven swords in order to destroy some sort of evil force that is gobbling up seafaring Narnians, a plot device that was apparently invented by the screenwriters. As spectacle the movie improves on its predecessors, whose action scenes seemed filched from the Braveheart playbook but purged of gore. And because the Dawn Treader has to visit seven different islands in its quest, there’s more variety of situation with which to exercise the production department’s skills with effects, though, in truth, the 3-D adds nothing special. Nevertheless, the story often seems arbitrary, and while arbitrariness is one of the sins fantasy stories can get away with, some of the points Lewis wanted to make get lost in the confusion. When Lucy succumbs to envy of her older sister’s beauty, the moral weight of the episode is diluted in the wash of the larger action prerogatives. Likewise, the ending, when Aslan finally makes his entrance thus clarifying the religious allegory, feels tacked-on, obligatory. The surest sign of the filmmakers’ lack of concentration is that while Eustace is transformed into a dragon the film misses his contrary attitude, not because he’s particularly funny but because he provides at least a recognizable constant. When he returns at the end, he’s already been converted into a believer. That’s a rather cheap way of selling Christianity. (photo Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media)
The last thing we need is another zombie movie, but this offering from England deserves attention, and not because it cost only 45 pounds to make, but because it’s dramatic appeal transcends those qualities usually associated with the zombie genre. The titular hero (Alastair Kirton) is already infected when we meet him, bloody hammer in hand, but still human. After disposing of an attacker in the cramped spaces of a dingy kitchenette, he undergoes the transformation himself, and then stumbles into the street where the mayhem typical of zombie stories is being played out. But while Colin has his unholy need for human flesh, his hunger seems to have a more spiritual dimension, and as he wanders through this suburban town, it’s clear he’s looking for something. Director Marc Price incorporates the kind of gory feeding orgies and vigilante reprisals common to the genre into the journey, but we observe it all mainly from Colin’s POV, and in the final frames come to understand that he is motivated by longing not appetite. Pretty good for 45 pounds.
Enlightening without being practically instructive or even entertaining, this broad, sentimental comedy confronts the Zeitgeist, or, at least, as the Zeitgeist as it impacts Japanese suburbia. An ineffectual salaryman named Tokita (Junji Takada) retires and happily takes up a life of leisure in his two-family house in a distant suburb of Tokyo, where he hopes his only son will deign to remain after he gets married, since it’s Tokita’s dream to spend his twilight years in the bosom “of a big family.” The son balks, since the community is neither a city nor a “hometown.” It’s a place invented in the 1970s to sell homes to boomers, without history or local culture “or even a movie theater.” As Tokita soon learns, it’s filled with isolated old people, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a community, and for the rest of the movie’s running time Tokita and his new friends quickly turn Nijigaoka into a real hometown boasting an annual festival where everybody gets to demonstrate their latent “talents,” a relative term if ever there was one. In Japanese. (photo Homecoming Seisaku Iinkai)
The King’s Speech
General movie audiences, even those who normally disdain indie dramas, seem to be suckers for anything that humanizes royalty. The Queen may not have made tons of money, but it won love from the hoi polloi and made Helen Mirren recognizable to folks outside the big metropolitan areas. It would be cynical to claim that The King’s Speech was devised chiefly with Oscars in mind, but as soon as it was released that’s how people looked at it, simply because of the pedigree: Weinsteins, England, true story, Colin Firth (due for a statue), Geoffrey Rush (already got one). But even without all that, the core plot device is irresistible: King George VI’s stammer, which renders the reluctant monarch totally sympathetic, even to the most recalcitrant republican. We first see Bertie (as he was called by everyone), played by Firth, trying to give his first short speech using the new medium of radio and botching it, his tongue-tied deficiencies broadcast to the entire empire. We are given to believe that this speech impediment is psychosomatic (common wisdom today; not so in the 1920s), stemming from a persecution complex administered by his father, the overbearing King George V (Michael Gambon), and condescending brother, the future Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). Though licensed, vetted “experts” are brought in to help Bertie with his “mechanics” by filling his mouth with marbles and drilling him on tongue twisters, the problem only becomes worse, and on the advice of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he solicits the help of Lionel Logue (Rush), a failed Australian Shakespearean actor turned freelance speech therapist who treats Bertie as he would any client and thus raises the hackles of the notoriously priggish Duke of York, his title at the time. In some very funny and well-paced episodes that take place in Logue’s basement studio, the two men feint over methodology and propriety (Logue insists on first names), but once it becomes clear–after his father’s death but before Edward’s abdication owing to his scandalous relationship with a divorced American woman–that Bertie is going to become king, the requisite psychology takes over, with Logue turning into a therapist of quite another stripe. At one point, when Logue’s analysis of Bertie’s daddy issues becomes too penetrating, he’s dismissed. Years later they are reunited when Bertie’s first real test as a leader, Britain’s declaration of war in 1939, requires him to address the nation. It turns out that Logue’s personable administrations, best represented by an earlier vinyl recording that the Aussie made of the prince’s unbroken recitation while listening to music on headphones, made a strong impression after all, and a stirring, triumpant climax is promised for all. Those who heard it report that the king’s speech helped galvanize the nation, so who are we to say the ending is corny. (photo See-Saw Films)
This comedy, directed by Roger Michell, will only appeal to people who actually believe that a job in television is the greatest thing that could ever happen to you. For Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) it’s the only thing standing between her and insignificance, and when she loses her producer’s position on a morning news show at a small New Jersey station her life is over…until she lands a similar post with the lowest-rated morning show on network TV, a job characterized as hell on earth but which Becky, with her preternatural ability to multitask, takes to like a duck to Percoset. She is charged by her new boss (Jeff Goldblum) to increase ratings while shifting a veteran journalist (Harrison Ford) from anchor of the evening news to sidekick of a former beauty queen (Diane Keaton). The antagonism between these two prima donnas provides the movie with its requisite sour humor, but Ford’s one-note grouchiness is unpleasant and gives Keaton nothing to work with. Though McAdams holds her own, she’s stuck with a romantic subplot that’s amounts to a pointless distraction. (photo Paramount Pictures)
Of Gods and Men
Sober and serious, this award-winning French film, based on a true story, posits an armload of moral quandaries that take on special significance in the post 9-11 world. Set in the 1990s at a Christian monastery in the mountains of Algeria, Xavier Beauvois’ movie provides little room to contemplate anything except the demands of faith, but given the juxtaposition of Christian charity exemplified by the monks and the fanatical fundamentalism practiced by a group of Muslim terrorists, that’s a lot to contemplate. The terrorists are butchering foreigners and despite an interlude of understanding between the leader of the killing brigade and the leader of the monastery (Lambert Wilson), it’s understood that if the brothers, all of whom are French, remain they will be killed as well. The pull of self-preservation is strong, but the brothers have a duty to the community they live in, where moderate Muslims who have no problem with Christianity rely on the monks for medical care. It’s one of the few films of recent memory whose liberal conscience feels carefully worked out. In French and Arabic. (photo Armada Film-Why Not Prod.-France 3 Cinema)
Titled Tangled in the U.S., supposedly in order to appeal to a wider audience it never reached, the 50th Disney animated feature is being released elsewhere with a more recognizable title, Rapunzel, which suits its purposes better. For sure, the Disney animation team, now under the supervision of former Pixar wiz John Lasseter, goes the post-modern route by taking the classic fairy tale and adding psychological nuances that will appeal to girls who think they’re too hip for Andersen or Grimm in the raw. What they don’t do is inject the story with the kind of winking pop culture references that have become de rigueur in Pixar and Dreamworks cartoons, and it makes all the difference in the world; though the movie doesn’t really start out encouragingly. Smarmy voiceover from Flynn Rider (voice by Zachary Levi), a cynical bandit, relates the backstory of how an old woman guarded a magic flower of youth for herself until a nearby queen gives birth to a sickly princess. The king’s men pilfer the flower, which brings the baby princess back to life, so the old woman in turn pilfers the princess and locks her in a tower, since the girl’s hair has inherited the magic flower’s youth-giving properties. What this means two decades later is that Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) has spent her entire life in the tower believing the old woman, Gothel (Donna Murphy), is her mother, and mother has her convinced that the world is too evil and frightening; but every year on her birthday Rapunzel sees the sky filled with lanterns, which the king releases in memory of his lost daughter, and though she doesn’t understand their purpose, she longs to see them close up. Her savior comes in the form of Rider, who has stolen the missing princess’s crown and attempts to hide out from the king’s guards in the tower. Rapunzel blackmails him into taking her to see the lanterns while her “mother” is away on an errand. Her locks are as long as they’re famous for being (if they’re cut they lose their power), but the main plot device is the girl’s shut-in existence and what it’s done to her psyche. Her co-dependency is exploited by the evil Gothel, who plays passive-aggressive games better than a Woody Allen heroine. In fact, she even sings about it, which points up another of the movie’s strengths: It has the best songs (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater) of any Disney movie since Beauty and the Beast, real Broadway show tunes that, in the hands of a pro like Murphy, bring the story to life with humor and terror. If they don’t make a stage musical out of this they’ve wasted even more of a good thing. (photo Disney Enterprises)
Republic of Korea 1%
Gender politics get a mild workover in this wannabe topical movie about the first woman to be accepted in South Korea’s Special Forces, a group of marines so select only 1 percent of the soldiers who apply are taken. Staff Sgt. Lee (Lee Ah-lee) seems to gain admission simply through force of will, and once she’s in she becomes the object of derision of everybody except a senior non-com who admires her gumption. Lee’s main nemesis is a fellow sergeant, Jong (Lim Won-hee), who at first can’t keep his eyes off her butt. However, the two become rivals as team leaders, with Jong pulling some underhanded stunts that place Lee in an awkward position. Adversity only makes her stronger, but it’s difficult to work up any admiration when the men under he command are such empty-headed jerks. The climactic confrontation with a boatload of North Korean soldiers is less notable for its gunplay than for its depiction of ROK Special Forces as being totally unprepared for real combat. If this is the top 1 percent, I’d hate to see the other 99. In Korean.
The Runaways crystallized an important moment in rock history, when commercial prerogatives had overtaken those unique creative impulses that gave the 60s its character. The teenage girls who formed the group under the bullying tutelage of skanky producer Kim Fowley genuinely wanted an outlet for their nascent adolescent yearnings, and Fowley exploited that desire so as to present them as jailbait “with cocks.” Floria Sigismondi’s biopic of the group takes it for granted that they were rebel artists as significant as any hard rock band of the mid-70s, though only two members, lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and guitarist-songwriter Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), are given any substantial screen attention. Both came from nominally broken homes, but while Currie self-deceptively idealized the middle class American dream, Jett discarded it with relish, which explains why her music is so fierce and unexceptional. Sigismondi nails the look of the 70s, and Fanning, Stewart and Michael Shannon as Fowley chew the scenery entertainingly, but the movie only works anecdotally. It conveys a time and mood without telling a coherent story. (photo Apparition LLC)
A Serious Man
If the whole point of the Coen Brothers’ often sick sense of humor is that they’re only reflecting the great cosmic attitude, then A Serious Man may be their most definitive film. God is the big comedian in this tale with roots in the Coens’ 1960s childhood in Minnesota. The protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a college math teacher whose comfortable middle class life suddenly stalls. His wife (Sari Lennick) says she’s leaving him for an older man, an Asian student tries to bribe him for a better grade, his delusional, suicidal brother is camped on the couch, and his job is up for review. Seeking spiritual help from his rabbi only brings him more confusion and his redneck neighbor is very obviously an anti-Semite. There’s little rhyme or reason to the Coens’ fable, which is the point: the randomness of the universe means the jokes just keep on coming, mainly in the form of sudden heart attacks, tornados, and other everyday disasters that some will call karma but the Coens prefer to call life. (photo Focus Films)
It won’t do to deny two of the biggest movie stars any pleasure they might derive from this sort of low-to-middlebrow entertainment. Strutting her assets effortlessly in expensive gowns, Angelina Jolie recalls European sex goddesses of the 60s who tarted up for big-budget globe-trotting flicks with aging studio idols, while Johnny Depp, a bit jowlier than usual, attempts to impart his quirky form of character comedy into the stock role of an American innocent abroad. If the lines were funnier and the plot a little more comprehensible, the movie might not have to rely so much on the principals’ star power to keep a viewer engaged, but they aren’t and it isn’t, and in the process of watching Angie and Johnny meet cute in a railroad dining car or dance a waltz at a black tie affair the viewer, it turns out, has time to contemplate other things, like the snores of the person sitting next to him. In any event, they used to do this sort of preposterous international romantic intrigue better forty years ago. As a woman of mystery and unimpeachable taste who is being tailed by Scotland Yard on the continent, Jolie is mainly required to be cagey and elegant. She ingeniously shakes her Interpol pursuers in Paris and per instructions from the lover whom the dogged Brit functionary (Paul Bettany) is really after, she boards a train to Venice, where she chats up Depp as a Midwestern math teacher (see A Serious Man, elsewhere in the issue, for another example of this species), in order to string him along as a kind of decoy. He forms a crush on this stunner in accordance with her plans, but Depp, who doesn’t look anything like a Midwestern math teacher, conveys this attraction tentatively. Within the confines of the twisty plot, his peculiar behavior eventually becomes justifiable, but as it’s happening it just seems loopy. The lady invites the tourist to a first class hotel and then makes him camp out on the couch, leaving him sexually frustrated and a sitting duck for a bunch of heavies in the employ of a gangster (Steven Berkoff) who was ripped off by the lady’s unseen paramour. Racing over Venetian rooftops, barefoot and in his pajamas, with these Russian baddies in pursuit, Depp can finally stretch, and his conversation with an Italian policeman who dislikes American tourists constitutionally is the only comedy bit that registers. The lady, realizing she may have gone too far, tries to get rid of the tourist, but he won’t be dumped. Despite a veritable artists colony of screenwriters, nobody seemed capable of providing the math teacher with demonstrable motivation for hanging around. Apparently, it’s supposed to be “love,” but when you finally get the truth in the end, it raises more questions than answers. Low-to-middlebrow entertainment shouldn’t be this difficult to fathom.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes winner is the most relaxed movie ever made about death, but the tone has less to do with the mystical traditions of Thailand than with the director’s own laid-back aesthetic. The title character is dying of a kidney ailment and returns to his birth house, where he communes with the ghosts of his dead wife and a son who vanished some years earlier and now haunts the jungle as a kind of ape hybrid. Though a ghost story, the movie doesn’t present the afterlife as a scary place. As Boonmee slowly makes his way there the audience accepts Weerasethakul’s premise that it doesn’t mean anything to distinguish between one plane of existence and another. The idea might be more compelling if the director were a more aggressive filmmaker, but he’d be nothing without his confounding digressions, like the interlude with a princess being sexually serviced by a catfish. Weerasethakul doesn’t recommend you take it all literally, but rather soak it up, and the nighttime cinematography and tactile sound design make Boonmee an enveloping experience. In Thai.
We Feed the World
The global food business gets another workover in this earnest if tedious Austrian documentary. Director Erwin Wagenhofer sets down in Brittany, Spain, Brazil, Romania, and Switzerland to show how multinationals are destroying the livelihoods of independent farmers and fishermen, not to mention the economies of developing countries, especially those in Africa, which are forced to buy a lot of European produce. Though Wagenhofer often gets better visuals than those secured for the more thought-provoking though non-polemical doc Our Daily Bread, the interviews are clumsily edited and mostly cover the same points over and over again. In a clear bid to provide objectivity, he even manages an interview with Peter Brabeck, the CEO of Nestle, the bete noire of his thesis, and, of course, Brabeck counters Wagenhofer’s argument that hybrids and industrialization are creating less tasty and healthy products. There is certainly plenty of grist for the mill, so to speak, especially when the movie addresses the issue of food waste, but without taking consumer needs into consideration it fails to provide a complete picture of the problem. In German, French & Portuguese. (photo Allegrofilm)