June 2011 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the June 2011 issue of EL Magazine, which came out yesterday in Tokyo. These films are being released in Japan from late May to mid-June.

127 Hours
The story of Aron Ralston, the American rock climber who cut off his arm after he was pinned by a boulder in a Colorado canyon, doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would interest Danny Boyle, a director whose signature kinetic style made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire rock like a Jay-Z video. This is basically a movie about one man who is trapped at the bottom of a crevice for the titular length of time while pondering his life and the universe. Nevertheless, Boyle gives it all he’s got, opening the film with a split-screen montage showing, on the one hand, the rat race of the world at large (stock exchanges, urban commuters), and on the other, Ralston’s hyperactive preparations for his solitary hike, all scored to A.R. Rahman’s pounding dance music. We get the point, though it isn’t hard to form the idea that Boyle is simply thinking up some way to jazz up the material, and inadvertently shortchanges James Franco’s contribution, which is as central to the film’s effectiveness as Boyle’s direction. This is, after all, essentially a one-man show, and by the evidence on the screen Franco could have carried it by himself if Boyle hadn’t felt the need to open up the drama with all this manic visual business. Obviously, it’s vital to understand Ralston’s peculiar personality in order to also understand how he could have done what he did, and the director and the actor compete with each other to convey what’s going on in the young man’s head. Prior to the accident, he’s leaping and running over gorgeous, sun-drenched rocky terrain and meets up with a pair of female hikers whom he talks into exploring an underground lake. This sequence sets up Ralston as a carefree loner who picks up on the girls’ natural attraction to him but seems too locked up in his own head to care; a trait that’s transmitted better by Franco’s silly smiles than Boyle’s careful camera angles. Later, after Ralston falls down the crevice and the rock pins his arm against the wall, he realizes that it’s this self-absorption–he didn’t tell anyone where he was going this weekend–that may spell his doom; but Doyle’s impressionistic flashbacks are less convincing than Franco’s blackly comic asides and sudden eruptions of despair. “Don’t lose it,” he keeps saying, and once we comprehend that Ralston has a background in engineering, his choices make more sense. If Boyle’s own choices seem more distracting than enlightening some may find that welcome. As Ralston runs out of water and starts drinking his own urine, and then almost impulsively decides he can do without the arm, the impressionistic stuff becomes so graphic–like the drug-taking scenes in Trainspotting–that it almost makes you laugh. Almost. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

Usually when it comes to beefy action stars the silenter the better. Though Schwarzenegger’s fame is mainly based on those tasty bon mots from Terminator and the like, they were tasty because they were so isolated. Dwayne Johnson, formerly known by his nom de puroresu The Rock, confounds this credo. His accentless enunciation and clear high tones fall on the ears effortlessly and allow him to express the sort of nuances of meaning that normally have no place in action movies. It’s probably the reason why Richard Kelly chose him for the lead in his weird sci-fi movie Southland Tales–that and the cognitive dissonance of seeing someone like Johnson take on existential angst. It’s therefore something of a dissapointment that George Tillman Jr. doesn’t tap this advantage in Faster. Johnson plays a character called Driver who is let out of prison after ten years for a bank robbery. Driver’s scowling reticence is a function of his vengeful bloodlust. The first thing he does after his release is get a car, a gun, and a list of names. He then drives straight to a telemarketing firm and puts a bullet in the brain of one of the employees. In the course of this introductory passage he says maybe one complete sentence. It turns out Driver is after the men who murdered his half-brother after the bank heist. Though the plot has been done to death, Tillman’s efficient if somewhat showy exposition style makes good use of the mystery elements surrounding another single-monikered character called Cop (Billy Bob Thornton), a junkie detective who is near retirement but seems to have a special interest in Driver’s rampage across the California-Nevada desert. The one grating addition is Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a tech-savvy assassin who lives in a million-dollar house with his super-model girlfriend and spends most of the movie pondering his nihilistic outlook; something Driver only contemplates near the end when he’s confronted with a target who has obviously repented for what he did in a very clear fashion. This confusion of intent indicates that Tillman doesn’t know what he’s got. Johnson may not be Olivier, but he’s the only muscle-bound actor who might have brought some real personality to the role. Instead, Tillman relies on “context”: a meeting between Driver and his mother where she explains his miserable childhood, and Cop’s sordid role in Driver’s downfall. So when he’s not engaged in another destructive car chase or gunfight in a dingy apartment building or casino, Johnson is forced to react to events, and in that regard he looks downright amateurish beside Thornton. Though Cop is an awful role, Thornton embodies it with all the misanthropic weariness the actor is famous for. Even in neutral, he makes something worthwhile of his time on screen.

More a promotional device for Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s bestseller about the economics of everyday existence than a stand-alone documentary, Freakonomics offers food for thought but isn’t as wonky as you hope it will be. The authors gave four ideas to four different filmmakers. Morgan Spurlock tackled the issue of whether or not the name one receives at birth determines one’s destiny (no, but it may indicate how you will be raised); Alex Gibney looked into corruption by way of sumo and the 2008 financial meltdown; Eugene Jarecki illustrated Levitt’s theory that the drop in U.S. crime in the 90s had something to do with the legalization of abortion in 1973; and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady chronicle an experiment where ninth graders were offered cash incentives to keep their grades up. Of the four, only Jarecki’s offers the sort of “economics” the book is famous for. The rest are subjective sociological studies, and are no less fascinating for being sociological studies. But they hardly say anything really new or startling. (photo: Freakonomics Movie LLC)

Inside Job
It seems a little late, not to say redundant, to go through another history and analysis of the global financial meltdown of 2008. We know the culprits, and even if we still don’t understand the mechanics of what went down, it’s clear that venality and greed were at the bottom of it all so screw them. Charles Ferguson, however, believes that’s not enough. If these men (and they’re almost all men) deserve our animosity then we need to know exactly what they did and why they did it. In the end, understanding those details permits us to resent them even more, because our convictions are more justifiable. The ultimate question is: Does it make a difference? Ferguson’s explication is the most lucid I’ve seen so far. With access to a bigger budget than most doc fillmakers have these days, Ferguson uses his slick graphics and superior production values to make cogent what was often merely confounding on the page, in particular the world of derivatives that acted as the locomotive to the end of the world. He walks us through the Reagan-era orgy of deregulation and the subsequent “securitization food chain” that rendered all possible financial transactions as tradeable securities, most prominently home mortgages. The housing bubble was basically a function of securitization, since banking firms made more money from the mortgages they bought, thus spurring lenders to lend more, even to people who obviously couldn’t afford it. The lynch pin in this scheme was that the “customers” for the securities were insured, which meant there was theoretically no risk and therefore no reason to put on the brakes. Ferguson matter-of-factly posits this scenario as greedy business as usual, and thus places the bulk of the blame on federal regulators, who, since they were the products of this culture themselves, didn’t regulate at all. By the time the bottom fell out of the housing market, it was too late. Where Ferguson’s approach proves invaluable is in his quest for accountability. The usual subjects, unsurprisingly, opt to not talk to him, but a lot of people do, and not just those who predicted the mess many years ago. Though narrated by Matt Damon with admirable restraint, Ferguson himself conducts the on-camera interviews, sitting off-camera but making sure his questions, replete with sarcasm and withering queries (“Do you actually believe that?”), are heard on the soundtrack. His main targets of derision are the academics, like Harvard’s John Campbell, who whored out their reputations as celebrity economists in support of the financial industry’s larcenous policies. Watching them squirm or lash out defensively, however, provides cold comfort since, as Ferguson so undelicately points out, they’re doing it again. If the doc’s final minutes feel a bit sentimental about the death of the American dream, it doesn’t make it any less true.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Both the Disney executive and the director who made the first Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy such a success are no longer with the franchise, but Johnny Depp is, which is all that matters. Thankfully, the producers of what promises to be a new trilogy have jettisoned the requisite romantic pairing of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, who added nothing interesting to the first three movies. They have wisely decided to retain Geoffrey Rush, probably the best character actor in the English-speaking world. His Hector Barbossa is presented as the stereotypical pirate, all “yars” and bad teeth, but Rush infused the caricature with passion and personality. As a foil to Depp’s more idiosyncratic Jack Sparrow he’s indispensable. Even better, the producers bring on, for a one-shot, Ian McShane as Blackbeard, a more cartoonish but no less bloodthirsty version of McShane’s greatest creation, the ruthless town boss Al Swearington in the TV series Deadwood. The movie-watching experience doesn’t get any better than McShane and Rush growling at each other in campy high dudgeon. If the rest of On Stranger Tides doesn’t hold up it’s mainly because the reboot process feels so tedious. The main intrigue here is the search for the fabled Fountain of Youth. The Spanish have received intelligence of its location and are on their way to the Americas to secure it. Naturally, the English king, not to be outdone, wants to get there first, and hearing that Capt. Jack Sparrow has a map he has Barbossa, who has given up his pirate ways for a royal commission and a wig, capture him, but the wily Jack escapes only to be Shanghaied by Blackbeard, who wants the fountain for his own nefarious purposes. As it turns out his daughter, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), was once romantically involved with Jack, a situation that is played up too forcefully since one of Jack’s salient traits in the first trilogy was his total disregard for sexual involvement. The three-way race to the fountain is hindered by mutinies, an attack of mermaids, and lots of double-crossing. Director Rob Marshall has said that one of his missions is to bring the series back to zero, and for all its slick CG and fitful violence, the story is easier to follow than it’s been since the first movie, perhaps owing to the fact that it’s actually based on a novel. Nevertheless, Marshall can’t help throwing in needlessly lengthy non sequiturs such as Sparrow’s impersonation of a judge and the romantic subplot between a clergyman (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) that seems thankfully limited to this story. Keith Richards returns for a brief, totally gratuitous cameo as Jack’s dad. Depp doesn’t need the help, but the character is no longer surprising, which means the series isn’t either. (photo: Disney Enterprises)

Red Riding Hood
Though based on that scary Grimms fairy tale, Catherine Hardwicke’s movie version is strangely bloodless. Comparisons to the Twilight series are apt, and not just because Hardwicke directed the first and so far best installment. Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, the prettiest girl in this mountain village, which is terrorized every full moon by a wolf that has to be satisfied with a sacrificial head of livestock. However, one full moon it is Valerie’s sister who is killed, and the menfolk track the monster down and kill it. According to Father Solomon (Gary Oldman, the only person among the Yank accents who sounds remotely Germanic), the pup they kill is not the “werewolf,” who likely lives among them in human form. Despite Solomon’s Rumsfeldian sense of purpose, the movie feels sluggish, bogged down by the adolescent love triangle between Valerie and two suitors, a poor woodsman (Shiloh Fernandez) and a landed blacksmith (Max Irons). In fact, the most stimulating lines in the movie are the ones lifted from the fairy tale: big eyes, big ears, big teeth, all that creepy stuff. (photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Son of Babylon
For obvious reasons, there haven’t been many Iraqi movies in recent years, and for even more obvious reasons this popular festival feature by Mohamed Al-Daradji deals frankly with the average Iraqi’s situation in the aftermath of the American invasion. A Kurdish woman and her 12-year-old grandson, hearing that the invasion has occasioned the release of political prisoners, trek hundreds of kilometers to the prison in Nasriyah to see if the woman’s son–the boy’s father–is now free. Along the way they meet other Iraqis with their own agendas who are caught up in the chaos of the war. One of these is an ex-Republican Guard, the type of functionary who likely killed Kurds at the behest of Saddam and jailed the woman’s son. He endeavors to make up for his past by helping the pair with their mission, which becomes increasingly fruitless, leading them from the prison to one mass grave after another. The film’s desparing tone is either deepened or alleviated by the storybook sentimentality: People are basically good, Al-Daradji wants to say, which explains why they have to suffer so much. In Arabic & Kurdish. (photo: Human film, Iraq Al-Rafdain, UK Film Council)

The Tempest
It’s understandable why Julie Taymor, the director who brought The Lion King to Broadway, would be attracted to Shakespeare’s last, most allegorical play. Taymor is all about the visual details, and the fantasy aspects of The Tempest are right up her alley. It’s got storms, a desert island, sprites, monsters, sorcerors. On stage these elements were left to the imagination, a situation the playwright took seriously when he addressed his audience; in fact, at the end of the play, when Prospero relinquishes his magical powers, he basically thanks the people in the theater for having provided them, because without their indulgence he couldn’t work miracles. Taymor cuts this part of the speech, not because Prospero isn’t standing on a stage, but because Taymor leaves nothing to the imagination. Her use of computer graphics is alarmingly amateurish, a throwback to the “wow, man” aesthetic of the 70s, which complements the hard rock score and the Jethro Tull costumes. The details are so distracting that you almost forget Taymor has changed Prospero into a woman, Prospera (Helen Mirren), which alters the main dynamic considerably. The primary relationship in the play is between the wizard and his daughter, whom he uses to get back at the villains who usurped his position as the Duke of Milan and effected his banishment to the desert island. By making Prospero a woman, the exploitation of a daughter seems both more cynical and more desperate. The Tempest is a play full of deus ex machina moments, from the opening scene when Prospera causes the ship carrying the men who exiled her to crash on the shores or her island, to her use of the slave-sprite Ariel (Ben Whishaw, androgynized in the extreme) to manipulate the emotions of the various players in the story, including her own daughter, whom she makes fall in love with the son of her usurper. In Taymor’s version, these moments seem even more contrived, and by the time the three plot threads weave together in the end you may wonder how each one connects to the other. Unlike the historical plays, The Tempest doesn’t require much supplemental study to “get.” Its plot is straightforward, which means the allegory is easier to understand, but Taymor seems to think of it as an alternate version of Star Wars, which may explain the casting. Russell Brand plays up the anachronisms with his bad boy take on the wayward servant Trinculo, while Djimon Housou’s Caliban makes flesh the interpretation that The Tempest is a play about colonialism. In odd couple terms, Alan Cumming and Chris Cooper do well as the scheming noblemen, Sebastian and Antonio, and provide better chemistry than do the two young lovers. Mirren, as always, is great to watch, though in this case more for her weathered features than her acting. (photo: Touchstone Pictures)

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