May 2011 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the May 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which came out in Tokyo last Monday. These movies are being released in Tokyo from late April to mid-May.

Black Swan
Though Darren Aronofsky’s newest outrage seems like a 180-degree turn away from the earthy style and subject matter of his last film, The Wrestler, the two movies have at least two things in common: The ritual fetishism of the professional, and a penchant for sleazy story-telling. Like Mickey Rourke’s over-the-hill fighter, Natalie Portman’s ballet ingenue Nina Sayers has no other life than the one she’s dedicated to her craft. The difference is that Rourke’s lack of choices was based on economic certainty, while for Nina it’s obsession pure and simple. Driven by a mother (Barbara Hershey) whose own dreams of dance greatness were preempted by pregnancy and preternaturally paranoid to begin with, Nina is anxious, delusional, repressed, and acutely masochistic. The intensity required to pull off such a character is what won Portman an Oscar over Annette Bening’s more movingly human portrait of a suburban breadwinner in crisis mode, and for what it’s worth it’s a literally stunning performance, regardless of whether or not Portman did her own dancing. However, Nina is only one extreme character in a movie that’s filled with them. In addition to Hershey’s mother, who is made up to look like one of Tim Burton’s scarier cartoon creations, there is Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the imperious, conceited French director of the New York-based ballet company where Nina slaves, hoping to land ballet’s big double whammy, the lead role in Swan Lake, where she would play both the virginal white swan and the evil black swan. This split personality theme allows Aronofsky to dust off his DVD copy of Repulsion and adapt all of Polanski’s genre-creating horror ideas for his own use. Nina is stalked by doppelgangers, tortured by an itching compulsion that leaves her nails bleeding, and subject to hallucinations involving a rival (Mina Kunis) who is infinitely more outgoing, both sexually and socially, than she is. And when Nina does land the part with a hilariously outrageous gambit worthy of the poison pen of Gore Vidal her psychological state only worsens, as does Aronofsky’s command of the material. As he proved in Requiem for a Dream, nobody does drug experiences like Aronofsky, but while Nina’s indulgence with ecstasy is fun (for the audience) while it lasts, the rest of her waking fever dreams are pure Grand Guignol and thus more appropriate to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber than that of Tchaikovsky, whose familiar strains are strained to the breaking point by Clint Mansell’s score. Nothing is done by halfs here, and as the movie reaches its climax during the actual performance of the ballet you can be forgiven for laughing at the wacky horror of it all. The weird thing is, Aronofsky would probably be flattered. (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

Blue Valentine
Director Derek Cianfrance has structured his hard-bitten autopsy of a doomed romance in such a way that we see the prelude and the coda at the same time, and he’s careful enough so that it doesn’t come off as a gimmick. But minus the middle portion of this couple’s story–the actual marriage–the movie demands a lot of filling in. The dissolution is occasioned in a particularly portentous way. When Cindy (Michelle Williams), a nurse, discovers the family dog’s body on a stretch of road, she and her husband, house-painter Dean (Ryan Gosling), decide to shield the tragedy from their 6-year-old daughter until they can bury the pet, and after they trundle her off to Cindy’s father’s Dean suggests they take advantage of a night by themselves to “go get drunk and make love.” Bad idea, and as the movie progresses we get to see not only how the years together have chipped away at the couple’s confidence in their love for each other but also how that trust was built on sand. The strength of Cianfrance’s script is its unflinching look at how the economic circumstances of this couple’s working class existence undermine both their idealism and their happiness. Cindy comes from a home where violence was always in the air, and for reasons never satisfactorily addressed she is something of a slut, despite existing in a milieu where every male seems to be a potential threat. She studies pre-med in a Pennsylvania college and dates a jock whose preferred form of intercourse is brutal and swift. Through a chance meeting at a nursing home where Cindy’s grandmother is staying, Dean falls in love with her at first sight and pursues her with determination, suffering a horrible beating at the hands of the jock and his pals in the process. Their love is born from pain, and when Cindy finds herself pregnant, Dean proposes, knowing the child isn’t his. The lack of originality in this story arc is mitigated by Cianfrance’s gritty neorealism in the Cassavettes style, which becomes even grittier in the coda sections as the couple’s night at a trashy love hotel brings out the worst in both; specifically her disappointment in all the things he never became, and his rage at the realization that love can’t conquer all. The audience saw that clueless guy in the pre-marriage sections, a man whose moral center is stronger than his self-confidence, a man who can actually serenade his girlfriend with a ukulele (singing, of all songs, “You Only Hurt the One You Love”) but nevertheless amount to nothing more than a blue collar chain-smoker with a drinking problem. Blue Valentine is a brave film that nevertheless fails to get beyond its surface melodrama. We know these people only because we know the stereotypes all too well. (photo: Hamilton Film Prod.)

The Hoax
Many people who were alive in 1971 may have forgotten the Clifford Irving scandal, and The Hoax, which attempts to recreate it based on the hero’s own memoir, blows it up to proportions it doesn’t really deserve, especially the part about how it was responsible for Watergate. Irving, a minor novelist who convinced a major American publisher that he was working with the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes on the latter’s autobiography, is halfway championed as a man of limitless intellectual resources, and in the capable hands of Richard Gere the character almost makes you believe this malarkey. The first half, in which Irving and his trusty researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), construct the hoax is entertaining in the way it sets up the stuffy publishing industry, which pretends to honor certain values but nevertheless can’t resist the money they know they’ll make on such a book. However, the movie eventually hits a wall when it tries to explain Irving’s psychological motivations with fantasy sequences and then makes a weak case that Hughes himself was in on the manipulation. (photo: Hoax Dist. LLC)

The Kids Are All Right
The title of Lisa Cholodenko’s latest indie crowd-pleaser is negatively descriptive of its content; as in, “The Grownups are Definitely Not All Right.” And it says something about Cholodenko’s dramatic strengths that she can make the audience forget that they’re watching a movie about two lesbians, which should go without saying but even indie movies remain stuck in a world where queer is still a literal term. Nic (Annette Bening), an alcoholic control-freak obstetrician, and Jules (Julianne Moore), an indecisive homemaker, have been together long enough that they need outside stimulation to get them in the mood for sex–in their case it’s gay men’s porno. It’s a somewhat unorthodox solution to an entirely commonplace suburban problem. Another suburban problem that taxes the couple’s patience is their son Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who they fear is hanging out with the wrong element. As it turns out, they’re right, but Laser proves to be more sensible about these things than even his “two moms” can comprehend, which is why he’s also deep enough to ask his older sister, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), to find out the name of the sperm donor that made his life possible, since she’s just turned 18 and can legally do that without her parents’ permission. Joni couldn’t care less but does the deed as a sort of last favor to Laser before she leaves for college. The siblings start undercover visits to the donor, a macho restauranteur named Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who is both disarmed and charmed by his newly found progeny. Paul’s sudden presence in this family’s life is disconcerting for reasons that have less to do with his DNA and more to do with a conflict that arises between him and the two moms over his place in the order of things. The kids accept him as…well, not a father, but a person with a stake in their well-being, something that Nic doesn’t buy since she believes that “family” is something you work for over time. Jules is less doctrinnaire, and falls under Paul’s laid-back spell in ways that complicate the situation. The wonder of Cholodenko’s movie is that she actually thinks of comedy in terms of how revealing it can be. There are scenes in The Kids Are All Right that are both hilarious and appalling, and by the time Jules gives her big, tearful speech about the meaning of marriage you may have exhausted your capacity to laugh at these characters’ own capacity to lie to themselves. One can feel sorry for Paul’s outcome while also being offended at his sense of entitlement. Mothers don’t always know best, but they’ll forever receive the benefit of the doubt when the sanctity of the home is threatened, especially by a guy who jerked off into a cup. (photo: TKA Allright LLC)

Mars Needs Moms
The main complaint about the latest Disney animated feature is one that was easy to predict. Mars Needs Moms utilizes Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture technology, which was used on The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol to animate human figures to less-than-spectacular effect. The technique still doesn’t recreate human facial expressions very well, but there’s enough visual ingenuity in this retelling of Berkeley Breathed’s children’s story to overcome such reservations. The shortcoming that’s more difficult to pass over is the Disneyfication of Breathed’s idea. Mars needs moms, specifically earth’s, because a long time ago the females banished males, who apparently like to party too much, to the netherworld where they are eternally consigned to taking out the garbage, as it were. Babies are not “born” so much as incubated in the soil, out of which they pop every 25 years. So once every quarter century the Martians send a ship to earth to kidnap a particularly adept mother and bring her back to download her talents into robot-nannies. It’s difficult to understand why they picked this particular American (natch!) mother (voice and features courtesy of Joan Cusack), whose conscientiousness is admirable but wholly ineffective. Her 11-year-old son, Milo (Seth Green, with his voice sped up slightly), just won’t do as he’s told, and while brooding in his room after being sent there as punishment, his mother is abducted, but not before he manages to slip on board. Basically, the movie is a rescue adventure, and since Mars is totally alien to Milo’s way of thinking, he requires a guide, another kid whose mother was abducted and who tried to save her, but that was 25 years ago and the still-kid Gribble (Dan Fogler, the poor man’s Jack Black) spends time playing video games in his subterranean “lair,” hoping that Milo will give up on saving his mother so that he can be Gribble’s best bud. There’s also a Martian female named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) who’s this society’s rebel/bad egg, an “interpreter” who absorbed a bit too much American culture and talks in Ebonic-hippie dialect while tagging the walls with day-glo graffiti. Though even kids will likely pick up on the antifeminist direction of the storyline (who needs men?) they’ll likely be baffled by most of the dialogue (“Mars needs botox!”), which seems designed for the kind of high school boys who will probably prefer spending their money on Sucker Punch. Younger kids may also find the action climax alarming to the point of disturbing. Obviously, the moral of the story is to respect your mother, but driving that moral home with a situation this fraught with danger may be a bit too much. (photo: Disney Enterprises)

Mary and Max
Like much of the animated product we’ve seen lately, Adam Elliot’s debut claymation feature is stuffed with compelling detail, much of which may perplex non-Australians. However, despite its carefully controlled humor, it’s a darker work than anything you could compare it to recently. The titular characters are pen-pals, one a lonely young woman (Toni Collette) from Down Under, the other an obese, elderly New York Jewish man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with Asperger’s. Elliot chronicles their correspondence over 20 years with parallel storylines that are distinct in terms of color palette and general mood. However, the theme is uniform: The world is not a place for the innocent. Taken in isolation, the plot points sound hilarious (chocolate addictions, figurine fetishism) but Elliott also throws in suicide and alcoholism and, most disturbing, Max’s total lack of empathy despite the good will of people who want to look out for him. The push-and-pull between the dramatic elements and the ridiculous ones may be too much for some viewers, but in the end Mary and Max is a unique film, and something of a masterpiece. (photo: Screen Australia, SBS, Melodrama Pictures and Film Victoria)

Mr. Nobody
A movie of staggering ambition and little substance, Belgian filmmaker Jaco van Dormael’s first English language feature is the story of “the last mortal” on earth, a 112-year-old man named Nemo. This curious framing device seems to have little purpose except to indulge the director’s desire to play around with science fiction, but the meat of the movie is Nemo’s biography told in frantic, serrated flashback. The child of a melodramatically broken home who was forced to choose which parent to live with, Nemo (Jared Leto) goes on to fitful relationships with three different women (Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham) who each exists on a different physical plane. Some will be impressed by Van Dormael’s mix-and-match audio-visual style, which is certainly interesting but nevertheless only works to make an incomprehensible story even more confusing. The film’s exceptional length has less to do with a surfeit of ideas than with Van Dormael’s habit of repeating plot points, as if he were fairly sure we didn’t get it the first time. He’s right in that regard. (photo: Pan-Europeenne-Mr. Nobody Deutschland-6515291 Canada-Toto&Co Film-France 2 Cinema-France 3 Cinema)

No Strings Attached
Because it’s directed by comedy trailblazer Ivan Reitman, stars two attractive actors who make an effort to produce so-called chemistry, and is refreshingly low-concept for a romantic comedy these days, it would be easy to make too much of the merits of No Strings Attached. Basically, it is little more than an episode of Grey’s Anatomy with dirty words thrown in. One has to buy the script’s premise that the concept of “friends with benefits,” i.e., relationships based only on casual sex, is a fairly accepted lifestyle choice these days, and then reject that model because this is a romantic comedy and thus must fulfill the genre’s mandate by having its two principals fall in love. Consequently, the premise is dead in the water right from the beginning. In this case, it’s the female half who prefers her sex a la carte. Emma (Natalie Portman) is an intern at a Los Angeles hospital who has a problem with the prospect of getting her feelings hurt, and while it’s sporting of scenarist Elizabeth Meriwether to not explain this as a phobia, one wonders what made Emma so dogmatic about it. The man she chooses as her sex friend, Adam (Ashton Kutcher), works as a TV production assistant but wants to be a writer. He assumes that love is the eventual destination but goes along with the sex plan simply because he’s a guy. His own emotional issues are tied in with his father, a famous sitcom actor (Kevin Kline) who sets Adam off when he starts sleeping with his former girlfriend. All of this connubial fun is played against the usual rom-com backdrop of luscious real estate, jobs that seem so secure people can actually spend all their time thinking about their relationships, and friends so tight that once somebody in their midst has sex, everybody else knows it within the hour. Even more than other recent rom-coms, No Strings Attached invites envy because for once the two main characters seem actually made for each other. Adam proves his mettle as a friend more than a lover by dropping by Emma’s apartment when she and her two female roommates are experiencing their periods at the same time, and not only brings along cupcakes, but also a special menstrual cycle mix CD. It’s a clever idea floating in a sea of mostly unmotivated humor. Since Kutcher has more experience with this sort of thing, Adam has an easier time gaining our trust; while Portman gets by with her scratchy voice and emotional neediness. That these two very different acting styles can fit together so seamlessly is something of a tragedy given that the whole concept is such a bad idea in the first place. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
As clever as Edgar Wright’s film version of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel is, it exists in that realm of creative enterprise that has more to do with referencing other works in the same realm than with making a statement of its own. The titular hero, played by Michael Cera as if Cera were preordained at birth by God’s casting agent, is basically a concentrated dose of the post-adolescent geek who has become a staple of American comedy since the mid-80s, meaning less self-confident but more knowing than any one else in the movie he happens to be in. These people don’t necessarily exist in real life, and that’s the point of Wright’s version. Scott Pilgrim and his Toronto friends are glib and cynical, and since they either don’t have jobs or work at ones they don’t think much of, all of their intellectual energy is spent on figuring out how the world impacts them and vice versa. In Scott’s case it comes down to romance. At the start of the film he’s dating a high school girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a development that, since Scott is 22, amuses his clique of slacker brains, two of whom are in his punk band Sex Bob-Omb. The audience is meant to be amused, too, because a taste for younger flesh, as it were, pegs Scott as locked in high school himself. But then he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), “the girl from my dreams,” and is determined to have her. Flowers isn’t the opposite of Chau. She’s more like an older, improved version specially designed for boys with Scott’s sort of semi-serious temperament. She’s from New York and has a back story to kill for; and in order for Scott to win her he has to do exactly that: Destroy her “seven evil ex-boyfriends” in a series of death matches patterned after the sort of computer games Scott and his ilk are better at than they are at real life. Wright, whose manic comedy style and intimate understanding of contemporary pop culture found its perfect outlet in Hot Fuzz, rises to the visual challenge by incorporating video game graphics without making them seem snarky or gratuitous. And since the comic itself was endlessly referential (mostly about life in Toronto and computer games), Wright’s injection of circular inside jokes adds distracting context to a theme that’s as old as the hills: Boy fights for the girl he really wants. In the end, Scott Pilgrim is as funny as you want it to be, but not quite as soulful as it thinks it is. (photo: Universal Studios)

Tears of April
Context is important to this earnest Finnish production about the 1918 civil war among newly independent Finns between the lefist Reds and the conservative Whites. Miina (Pihla Viitala) is the leader of an all-women squad from the losing Red side. The squad is captured, raped, and summarily slaughtered, but Miina escapes with the help of a White soldier, Aaro (Samuli Vauramo), whose sense of Old World honor can’t countenance such savagery. However, he is still a soldier with orders and so eventually deposits Miina with the aristocratic aesthete, Emil (Eero Aho), who tries prisoners in a supposedly fairer way. The drama hinges on the emotional ties between these three unusual people, and as the relationships become more tangled the movie loses sight of the historical view, leaving those of us who know nothing of the Finnish civil war without much reason to care why they see so much in one another. Nevertheless, it’s a stunningly crafted film whose visual acuity is ultimately lessened by the broadly romantic turns that the story takes in the end.

Time to Die
Dorota Kedzierzawska’s tribute to actress Danuta Szaflarska in the form of a one-woman performance piece uses silvery black-and-white photography that highlights all the lines in the the 91-year-old’s face while capturing every nuance in closeup. The result is a film whose stylizations mask its simplistic sentimental core; a movie about death with dignity, or death without much pain, you take your pick. Aniela lives in a superannuated villa alone with her dog, Philadelphia, spying on the neighbors through her opera glass. Her memories are made more precious by the fact that her son has turned into a plump middle-aged opportunist and her granddaughter a spoiled, bored brat. A neighbor seems to be conspiring with the son to sieze her land after she dies, so she comes up with a plan to foil them. There’s more spite in her scheme than heroics, and while Szaflarska creates a very real person the framing plot seems more or less gratuitous. The best bits involve her conversations with her dog, an amazingly expressive mutt and by far the best actor in the film.

Unknown
One of cinema’s favorite plot elements, the amnesiac, is trundled out yet again for this intermittently engaging international thriller. Liam Neeson plays an American biotech scientist who is in Berlin to attend a conference when his cab has an accident and plunges into a river. He wakes up after three days in a coma with only part of his memory, though he does remember his name and that his wife (January Jones) is waiting for him at their hotel; but when he confronts her she says she’s never met him before. Even worse, she has a husband (Aidan Quinn) with the same name and profession. Director Jaume Collet-Serra initially plays this premise for Hitchcockian uncertainty and gets the most from Neeson’s POV, but as the character’s search for an identity leads him first to an illegal alien cab driver (Diane Kruger) and then a former Stasi official-turned-private eye (Bruno Ganz), the requisite action movie prerogatives take over, and while Unknown contains a better car chase than I’ve seen in a while the movie’s velocity into the realm of the ludicrous is truly alarming. (photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

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