Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the April 2011 issue of EL Magazine, covering films released in Tokyo from late March to mid-April. Two of the movies printed in the magazine, Battle: Los Angeles and Countdown to Zero, had their release dates postponed after the issue went to the printer, both for reasons having to do with the earthquake/tsunami/nuke accident. Battle: Los Angeles I can sort of understand. Given the trauma of the last three weeks, no one will probably want to see a movie in which Southern California is decimated, even if it’s by extraterrestrials. Countdown to Zero, however, is a different story. Presumably it was pulled because of its nuclear theme, but it’s about atomic weapons, not atomic energy. In any case, Uplink is actually moving up the release of its doc Into Eternity, which is about atomic energy.
Away We Go
“No one’s in love like us,” sweet-hearted Burt (John Krasinski) says to his pregnant girlfriend Verona (Maya Rudolph) as they set out across North America to find a community that will have them after Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara) impulsively decide to move to Belgium on the eve of the baby’s birth. Dave Eggers’ and Vendela Vida’s script is a series of sitcom-ready tableaux infused with the kind of off-kilter humor Eggers is famous for. In Arizona they visit an old colleague (Allison Janney) whose middle class existence has turned her into a raging cynic. A cousin of Burt’s in Wisconsin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is so attuned to her cosmic earth mother lifestyle that she’s become a fascist. As it turns out, there is no one in love quite like Burt and Verona, which ultimately makes for a pointless movie, even one as funny as this occasionally is. Sam Mendes again proves he has a fine eye for the niceties of the American landscape, but he can’t do much with the stop-and-go quality of the screenplay. (Photo: Focus Features LLC)
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Officially “directed” by the emperor of so-called street art, Banksy, this documentary is literally self-reflexive. The subject is Thierry Guetta, a French expat in L.A. and obsessive videographer who fell in with some street artists. Eventually, this led him to Banksy and they became friends. The reclusive graffitist encouraged him to take his thousands of hours of tape and make a doc about street art, but the result was crap; so the two changed places: Banksy attempted to make a film out of the footage while Guetta became a street artist, overnight. The last portion of the documentary is Guetta’s successful makeover into Mr. Brainwash, whose art is a garbagey mix of Warhol and every other street artist he’s known. He’s a huge success, much to Banksy’s dismay. While very entertaining, the movie almost demands you take it with a fistful of salt. Banksy, hooded, with voice electrically altered, is his own talking head; and Guetta is like a bad stereotype of a legal alien in America. As one artist puts it, “Who’s this joke on?” (Photo: Paranoid Pictures Film Co.)
Fantastic Mr. Fox
True Grit isn’t the only well-matched book-director combo this month. Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated version of Roald Dahl’s famous children’s story takes advantage of the director’s quirky juvenile sensibility in ways that make it more satisfying than what we usually get in his own scripts. The title character, voiced by George Clooney, is a paterfamilias with charm and appetites that make him unfit as head-of-household. He’s a genuine fox who not only does what foxes are famous for–kill chickens for food–but does it exceptionally well. However, his wife (Meryl Streep) has made him switch “occupations” to journalism, a line he’s also good at. But a fox has got to do what a fox has got to do. The local henhouses are owned by a conglomerate that employs a rather sophisticated security system, and Mr. Fox, accompanied by an oppossum named Kyle (Wally Wolodarsky), outwits this system and in the process puts both his own family and the lives of his animal neighbors in jeopardy. Where Anderson’s story (co-written by Noah Baumbach) diverges from Dahl’s is in the way the director delves into Mr. Fox’s domestic situation. His son, Ash (Jason Schwartman), a typically insecure adolescent, suffers an identity crisis with the arrival of cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), who is athletic, good-looking, and deep. If this sounds as if Fantastic Mr. Fox will leave most children in the dust, no one actually claims that this movie version of a beloved kids story is, in fact, aimed at kids. Clooney brings his warped sense of entitlement to the role with such eager aplomb that he hardly needs the pointed jokes to make you giggle at Fox’s arrogance. Children may not completely understand the black humor, but they probably need to know that foxes are carnivores and kill their food, even anthropomorphized ones. What they won’t get is Fox’s appeal as a character, which speaks to a post-adolescent male’s need to be occasionally reckless (and hide that recklessness from his wife). What they will definitely enjoy is the visual component. Older kids may find the animation a bit quaint, but Anderson and his team have ably imparted the director’s sense of the absurd to these woodland critters, who have a hilarious habit of staring at the camera in expressionless puzzlement. And with Bill Murray as a badger lawyer, Willem Dafoe as a guard rat, Owen Wilson as a fox coach, and Michael Gambon as the imperious head of the farm conglomerate, you get more “subtext” (a term Mr. Fox likes to use) than you do in your annual Pixar feature. The only concession Anderson makes to the pre-teen demographic is substituting the word “cuss” for any four-letter word that would normally come out of these creatures’ snouts. Kids will see right through it. (Photo: Fox and its related entities)
Though Christan Bale and Melissa Leo walked away with the Oscar acting honors in this true story of the welterweight boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, it’s clearly Mark Wahlberg’s movie. The Boston working class hero has been itching to play the Lowell, Massachusetts, pugilist for years, and the form and feel of the film seems more like his idea than director David O. Russell’s. Russell, who directed Wahlberg twice before, is famous for twisty black comedies, and this is a straightforward “little people” melodrama. It’s hard to know if the real Micky Ward is as sweet and ethically upright as Wahlberg portrays him, but such attributes seem hard-wired into Wahlberg’s own persona. The main conflict is not between Micky and the world or even Micky and himself. It’s between Micky and his large, over-extended family. His older half-brother, Dicky (Bale), was once a contender himself, and continually relives one fight where he supposedly knocked Sugar Ray Leonard to the mats (many claim Leonard slipped). Now he’s Micky’s trainer, except that he’s also a crack head, which means he’s always late for training sessions; and when an HBO film crew asks if he can be the subject of their documentary on the ravages of drugs, he thinks they want to cover his comeback. Bale plays Dicky as the opposite of Micky: twitchy, vainglorious, passive-aggressive, but mostly sneaky. Many people will find the performance overbearing, but Dicky needs to be a first-class asshole for the movie to work on the level it’s presented. Micky knows Dicky’s intuition in the ring is flawless, but in everything else he’s a disaster. To make matters worse, Micky is managed by his mother (Leo), a hen so protective of her brood of seven-count-em-seven daughters and older son that she takes Micky’s gripes about their mishandling of his career as a form of treason. Micky is marketed as a “stepping stone,” a fighter who makes money by taking bouts with people who are really on their way up. Consequently, when he hires another trainer and takes up with a barmaid (Amy Adams) who’s as frank and salty as mom, he forces a rift that can’t be easily repaired. The dramatic arc of The Fighter follows Micky’s road to a chance at the title while addressing the domestic strife he’s caused: He just wants everyone to get along, but one thing about the working classes, they sure like to take offense. The movie has more going for it technically than dramatically. The script by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy does a good job of explicating the business of boxing, but the storyline can’t help but feel predetermined, even if it is based on a true story. Despite the two monsters in the cast, it’s a generic feel-good movie. (photo: Relativity Media)
No one is going to expect a movie of Gulliver’s Travels starring Jack Black to be anything like Jonathan Swift’s original book, but one could make an argument that it was a missed opportunity to not make such a movie. Black’s hyper-self aware style of comedy might have freshened up Swift’s satire of the different species of political expediency. What we get, however, is what you expect. Black’s Lemuel Gulliver is the head of the mail room at a New York newspaper, a guy who’s beginning to wonder if his lack of ambition is the real reason behind his loneliness. He tries to win over his crush (Amanda Peet), the head of the travel department, with a story he cherry picks from various websites and she’s so impressed she gives him an assignment in the Bermuda Triangle, where he promptly gets lost and washes up on the shore of a mysterious island filled with people the size of his thumb. This Lilliput is a strangely multiracial kingdom whose main power tripper is General Edward (Chris O’Dowd), a supercilious egomaniac who has dibs on the king’s fetching daughter (Emily Blunt) and thus has jailed her lowly suitor, Horatio (Jason Segel). At first, Gulliver is demonized, but when he puts out a fire in a most unconventional but perfectly Jack Blackian way, he becomes a hero, a role Gulliver takes to like Jack Black to Guitar Hero, which receives substantial product placements in the movie along with Coca-Cola. Soon he has the populace believing he’s the president of the country from whence he came and doing production numbers to Prince songs. He further bonds with the good Liliputians when he vanquishes the navy of their enemy, a deed that leads to his supplanting Edward as the head of the military. Since Gulliver’s success is a function of his pride and vanity, his fall is imminent and far, resulting in the most gratuitous wedgie in film history. More lessons will be learned before the movie is over, which is pretty soon considering how quickly director Rob Letterman dispenses with the development. The film seems to have a pressing urge to get to the next Jack Black joke as fast as possible, and anything that might draw out the humor more fully or give some meaning to the asinine plot is deemed superfluous. Even Segel, a more subtle comedian than Black but one who can nevertheless stand up to him, has nothing to do but try and act like a hero-swain, a part he definitely wasn’t made for. And as for giving Gulliver the stuff to be ambitious, the movie not only ignores Swift’s thesis, it contradicts it. Good thing the guy is dead. (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)
Animator Sylvain Chomet, who made the daffy Triplets of Belleville, follows up with a famously discarded script by Jacques Tati about a small-time illusionist during the twilight of the European vaudeville tradition in the late 50s. Because Chomet is limited to the gentle slapstick Tati was famous for, the movie isn’t nearly as funny as Belleville, but it’s every bit as visually arresting. The titular entertainer leaves the continent with his suitcase and pugnacious rabbit for a tour of the Scottish hinterland, where a servant girl forms an attachment and then follows him to Edinbugh. They fall into a father-daughter relationship, but as the girl grows in sophistication the illusionist becomes a relic of a show biz standard being eclipsed by fey rock’n rollers. Chomet’s sense of the absurd is more acute than Tati’s was, but the jokes, even the black ones about suicidal clowns and rabbit stew, only add velocity to the vector of nostalgic longing that Chomet presents as the movie’s core theme. By the end, the feeling that something valuable has gone is palpable. (Photo: Django Films Illustionist Ltd/Cine B/France 3 Cinema)
Definitely for people who like to know what they’re getting, the newest Jackass movie doesn’t benefit much from the 3D format. In terms of vivifying its content, slow-motion is a more effective technique than 3D, and slow-mo has been an integral facet of the series since it started on MTV; which is to say that within its own rarefied genre, Jackass was already perfect. Though a few of the new stunts show imagination, in particular the tether-ball game with the beehive and the bungee-propelled Port-O-San (lots of bungees this time), there’s nothing as totally hideous as the paper-cut contest in Jackass 2, though the tooth-removal-by-sports-car comes close. Even the cameraman who’s guaranteed to hurl while observing the various pranks involving bodily fluids (“sweatsuit cocktail”) has become old hat. In fact, the opening and closing sequences of sado-masochism done in a kind of tracking, diorama style adds just the right touch of originality to the proceedings. No one comes to Jackass for art, but you have to do something to make all that pain and humiliation seem fresh. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)
The Killer Inside Me
Everybody involved with this production gets a stab at tour de force. The famous pulp novel by Jim Thompson on which it’s based was a tour de force in itself, though it may not have been recognized as such when it was pubished in 1952. Thompson’s reputation as a hardboiled writer who later passed as a man of letters was even more latent than Chandler’s, but Chandler was never this dark; nor was James Cain. Director Michael Winterbottom obviously looks upon the material as a challenge (it’s been done before) in that the story is told in the first person by a psychopathic killer. His problem, however, isn’t that the narrator is unreliable, it’s that Thompson’s knotty story requires more explication than Winterbottom is prepared to offer. His most useful resource is Casey Affleck, who gives Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in a West Texas town, the proper balance of Southern gentlity and nervous tension. Throughout the heated development we see glimpses of Ford’s sordid upbringing, involving willing houseservants and the ravishing of little girls, that explain his behavior a little too graphically. Asked by his boss to tell a prostitute (Jessica Alba) to be out of town by sundown, Ford instead ends up sleeping with her–but only after batting her around, which she seems to enjoy. It turns out she’s also having a fling with the son of the town partiarch (Ned Beatty), the person who asked the sheriff to get rid of her. Ford, who blames the patriarch for the death of his older brother, a union worker killed on the job, devises a scheme to get rid of the son, something the patriarch “will have to live with the rest of his life.” Things go according to plan and then they don’t, but since we’re saddled with Ford’s point of view it’s difficult to tell what’s really happening. It’s also difficult to figure out what Winterbottom sees in it. Thompson saw a story about a very sick man who considered himself as being above his neighbors, but while Affleck plays that guy, Winterbottom seems only concerned with how repugnant he can make Ford’s actions. The result is: very. But Thompson also implicated others in this town, showing how everyday venality creates a specimen like Ford, and it’s his find-tuned plot that brings this aspect out without the need for explanation. By the time you reach Winterbottom’s overheated climax, you may wonder where the plot went, and why all the principals have ended up in the same room, as if Thompson were writing some stuffy drawing-room mystery. Though rightly infamous for its unflinching view of violence, The Killer Inside Me chickens out where it counts. (Photo: KIM Productions LLC)
The Milk of Sorrow
Claudia Llosa’s Golden Bear-winner opens with one of the most extraordinary scenes in 21st century film: An old woman, dying, relates her life in song, including a horrific rape at the hands of Peruvian revolutionaries. The rest of the movie focuses on the woman’s daughter, Fausta (Magaly Solier), who has internalized her mother’s woes so completely that she has implanted a potato in her vagina to fend of sexual attacks. Preternaturally shy to begin with, she takes a job as maid to a noted woman musician in Lima in order to earn enough money to have her mother buried. The film isn’t always coherent–the play between poignancy and black comedy may only have meaning to Peruvians–but the imagery is so crisp and startling that you can’t help but take away a sense of a people who are just beginning to regain their bearing after decades of pain and immobility. And even if you find the allegory impenetrable, the scenes of village life have an anthropological richness that’s absorbing. It’s more than just a sensitive study of inherited sexual trauma.
Never Let Me Go
Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s bestselling novel stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield as childhood friends who grow up in a special English boarding school where the students are cultivated to fulfill preordained and disturbing destinies in a society that looks like ours but is different in one fundamental way. Romanek doesn’t have to prettify the story to leech it of its latent horror since Ishiguro has already done that, but he nevertheless makes sure no one leaves the theater feeling anything more than sad. As a mentor-like character played by Charlotte Rampling points out near the end of the film, once society has decided on a course that vanquishes disease, it’s impossible to go back, regardless of how monstrously the decision affects some people. But that isn’t the issue, it’s only a plot device. The issue is how people deal with loss, which is as painful for those who die at 35 as it is for those who die at 85. Though beautifully presented and movingly acted, the movie’s premise is just too far-fetched to make for genuine melodrama. (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)
It’s been 40 years since The Exorcist redefined the horror genre, and those looking for something similar but with more meat or soul will find The Rite disappointing. The requisite skeptic is a young man named Michael (Collin O’Donoghue) who leaves his widowed undertaker father for the seminary, where he fails to acquire enough faith to make the final plunge, so a helpful priest recommends he go to Rome and learn about exorcism, which, it turns out, is a growth industry. There, Michael hooks up with the borderline retrobate Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), who addresses the demons that possess his “patients” as if they were surly teenagers. “What were you expecting,” the old codger asks Michael, “spinning heads and pea soup?” Spinning heads and pea soup might have improved the energy level. The Rite aims to be a drama about belief and director Mikael Hafstrom purposely dials down the occult elements in favor of the psychological ones, but it’s two-bit psychology that deals in stuff we’re already tired of: daddy issues and the fear of death. (Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)
After being dragged across the coals for presuming to have something to say about Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola returns to the world she knows best: Celebrity. Like Bill Murray’s over-the-hill movie star in Lost in Translation, Stephen Dorff’s still-in-his-prime action stud has abandoned any illusions of glamor he once held for his profession. Johnny Marco hangs out in Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont where he hires pole dancers, beds anyone he wants, and chain smokes himself silly while nursing a wrist that was broken off-the-job. When his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), comes to stay for a few days, Johnny is forced to temper his irresponsible behavior, but he’s so far gone into it that Cleo understands the woman she has to share breakfast with isn’t her dad’s publicist. Coppola doesn’t have to make much effort to show how empty Johnny’s life is, but her attempts to imbue Johnny’s acknowledgement of that emptiness with poignancy fail to make an impression. What we learn from Somewhere is that the life of a star may not be interesting, but it sure is easy. (Photo: Somewhere LLC)
Since it’s not only an adaptation of a bestseller but also a remake of an already famous film, the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit has been characterized as slightly off the brothers’ beaten path. In truth, Charles Portis’s novel was misrepresented by the 1969 Henry Hathaway vehicle for John Wayne, who won his only Oscar as the antihero Rooster Cogburn. That movie was so obsessed with providing Wayne with cred during the 60s that it lost sight of its center–14-year-old Mattie Ross, who comes to the frontier town of Fort Smith to collect the body of her father, killed by a drunken hired hand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She also means to avenge the murder, and endeavors to hire Marshall Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to do the job. The marshall is first seen giving testimony in a trial where he might as well be the accused, since the defense lawyers make much of his itchy trigger finger. Mattie interprets this quality as indicating “true grit,” and she won’t take no for an answer. Though Mattie’s sassy, schoolmarmish demeanor is easy to parody and the Coens seem perfectly willing to do so, Hallie Steinfeld, who was also 14 when she played the part, plays it with a deadly seriousness that’s as disarming to us as it is to Cogburn, who would prefer the girl stay in Fort Smith while he rides into Indian country to catch Chaney. But she insists on “seeing the thing done” herself and tags along. With a self-impressed Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) also looking to wrangle Chaney for a different murder, the duo becomes a trio, a complement that Hathaway weighted in favor of the clowning Wayne. The Coens, however, place the movie on Steinfeld’s shoulders, and with her Judy Garland diction and perpetual pout she carries it. Bridges wisely doesn’t try to mimic Wayne (as if anybody would care), and probably couldn’t have even if he tried since the Coens have lifted Portis’s somewhat over-literary dialogue verbatim. Wayne didn’t do literary, and if Bridges manages to make the convoluted sentences sing, it’s mostly because he mangles them so hilariously. His Rooster isn’t just an over-the-hill, dissipated lawman who finds redemption in a little girl’s quest. He’s a rounded human being whose talents are hard-earned and whose irascibility is not just a stereotype. The Coens not only respect the characters, they revere the landscape that created them. It’s been a long time since a movie made such elemental use of the American West, and whatever reservations you have about the Coens’ usual shock tactics, here they place them in a context that honors the sudden deaths, amputated fingers, and cavalier attitude toward violence. The ending can’t help but be corn because of the way Portis wrote it, but it’s the bitterest corn you’ve ever tasted. (photo: Paramount Pictures)
Hey, did you know Maya Rudolph’s mum was Minnie Riperton?
Yes, as a matter of fact, I did know that; but because I live one step removed from American pop culture (she used to be a regular on…what? Saturday Night Live?) it didn’t make the sort of impression it would if I had been watching her for years and then somebody told me that.
Only found out yesterday for the first time! Boy, am I out of touch.