July 2011 movies

Here are the reviews I wrote for the July issue of EL Magazine of movies that are being released in Tokyo from late June to mid-July.

The American
Back in the day, smart European directors paid tribute to American noir by not trying to copy it slavishly. Antonioni with The Passenger and Wenders with The American Friend downplayed the more sensational qualities of the genre and dialed up the existential angst. The American attempts something similar. George Clooney plays a shadowy assassin-for-hire who bolts his Swedish hideout when an attempt is made on his life and holes up in rural Italy, where his taciturn contact (Johan Leysen) finds him a job fashioning a special weapon for a fellow assassin (Thekla Reuten). Clooney’s man of few words who is good at his job fits the stereotype of the lonely hit man, but the plot device of having him fall in love with a hooker (Violante Placido) smacks of desperation. Anton Corbjin, directing his second feature film, understands the moody undercurrents that Rowan Joffe’s screenplay emphasizes, but the movie wears its European pedigree like a hair shirt and Martin Booth, who wrote the novel on which it’s based, is no Le Carre. (photo: Focus Features LLC)

Biutiful
Though Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has pointedly abandoned the multi-layered narrative approach that characterized his earlier films, such as Babel and Amores Perros, he still can’t quite stick to one thing. Sure, he focuses on one character–the poor underworld factotum Uxbal (Javier Bardem, nominated for an Oscar)–and makes do with a single plot vector–Uxbal’s desperate attempt to get his affairs in order after he learns he has terminal prostate cancer; but the movie remains a restless hodgepodge of irresistible forces meeting immovable objects. Set in the worst sections of Barcelona, Biutiful treats its misbegotten title as less an irony than a challenge: If you can find anything beautiful in this movie, you win a prize. It’s as ugly as sin, and if we’re meant to extract some sense of humanity from Uxbal’s good intentions, the way those intentions are treated by God (read: Gonzalez Inarritu) makes you wish the guy would just die and get it over with. The fact that the main source of his troubles is his bipolar, alcoholic wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), just goes to show that the director still doesn’t quite think women are worthy of men like Uxbal. During the course of the movie, the couple and their two children move so often from one dingy tenement to another that you wonder about Barcelona’s real estate situation: Is it that easy to find an apartment, even dumps like these? More baffling is the work that Uxbal does for a shady operator who has his fingers in a variety of rackets, most of which involve illegal immigrants. In one scene, Uxbal is fruitlessly alerting African street sellers of the arrival of the police; in the next he’s delivering gas heaters to a Chinese sweatshop that keeps its charges locked in a room at night. Because of his own outsider status–Uxbal’s father fled Franco’s goons shortly after he was born and died in Cuba–his identification with the exploited newcomers is acute, so why does he work for this chump? Gonzalez Inarritu gives no background that might indicate how Uxbal has fallen this low, since there are indications that he and Marambra were fairly well off when their kids were born. Every tribulation thus has a purpose–to test Uxbal’s faith, but faith in what? The director’s realistic style gives the peripheral business an immediacy that’s sometimes astonishing, especially during the streetsellers’ raid. And his handling of Uxbal’s illness and the way Spanish hospitals deal with patients make you wish he had concentrated solely on the cancer, as potentially mawkish as that might be in the hands of a director like Gonzalez Inarritu. Biutiful should be powerful, but it’s mostly just frustrating. (photo: Menage Atroz S. de R.L. de C.V., Mod Producciones, S.L. and Ikiru Films SL)

The Hangover 2
Having only been released in Japan last year–almost two years after it was first released in the United States–this guy comedy may strike locals as a bit lazy, which it very definitely is. What made the movie a worldwide hit had less to do with the adolescent humor, which was hit-and-miss, than with the clever structure: Three friends wake up after a drunken bachelor party without any memory of what happened the night before and the groom missing. They have to retrace their debauchery in order to relocate their comrade. The producers know this, which is why the sequel adheres to that structure to an almost anal degree. The trick is to set it all up without drawing attention to the fact. This time, it’s Stu (Ed Helms) who’s getting married. In the first movie the uptight dentist was living with a castrating bitch, which somehow explained his thing for hookers. In the meantime, he has obviously met his soulmate, a Thai woman (Jamie Chung) from a rich Bangkok family. It’s a plot point that allows the production to move to Thailand and thus work up the movie’s international appeal. It also allows them to exercise their own stereotypes about Asian family values and the seamy side of Bangkok, which is where Stu, carefree frat boy Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Asperger’s-addled Alan (Zack Galifianakis) wake up this time, despite Stu’s care in keeping away from any liquid that might contain “roofies.” This time the missing component is Stu’s soon-to-be brother-in-law, a 16-year-old destined for Stanford Medical School. Instead of a missing tooth, Stu is plagued by a tattoo, and instead of a baby there’s a chain-smoking monkey. And there are two McGuffins: a severed finger and Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), the effeminate gangster who was so unceremoniously stuffed naked into his own car trunk in the first movie. Moreover, instead of abusive police, we get abusive silent monks. There is the same hostage-exchange gambit, the same get-me-to-the-church-on-time desperation, and the same regard for hackneyed male fallibility (“Forget? That’s what we do”). One could go out on a limb and say the danger factor was jacked up, but once you realize it’s the same movie as The Hangover you know it will end up the exact same way. The only difference is Mike Tyson’s involvement this time (as a pop culture signpost he doesn’t come off as badly as Billy Joel) and an extended cameo by Paul Giamatti who seems to be the only participant actually having fun. Even Galifianakis, whose comedic distinction is totally a function of his characters’ mental shortcomings, seems less vital in this one, though the morning-after hairstyle may be the only certifiably funny touch in the whole film.(Legendary Pictures & Warner Bros. Entertainment)

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
Already derided as the most repulsive movie ever made, Tom Six’s deliberately confrontational shocker arrives in Japan without a lot of the controversy. Here, it’s merely a bizarrely inventive horror tale, and taken as such it’s actually quite conventional. A creepy man sits in a car on a side road weeping over a picture showing three dogs. A trucker parks just ahead of him and gets out to relieve himself. The creepy man sneaks up behind him with a gun. This M.O. is elaborated on with the story of two typically giddy female American tourists (Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie) who are in Germany looking to crash a party they’ve heard about. Naturally, they get lost in the darkest forest in Europe during a rain storm and, spooked by a pervert who pulls up beside them and pretends (or not) to jerk off, they wander through the woods until they come upon a house and knock on the door. Who should live there but the creepy guy, who turns out to be Dr. Heiter, a surgeon once renowned for separating conjoined twins, though since retiring he’s found a new calling. The girls meet the same fate as the trucker, which wasn’t death but sedation, and when they wake up they’re tied to hospital beds in the basement, where the doctor explains what will happen to them. They scream until they pass out. By this point, what with the sequel, The Human Millipede (Final Sequence), already out in Europe, there’s no point in hiding what this operation entails, but in any case the idea is more horrifying than what Six delivers in the way of visuals. The horror is literally of a fate worse than death, even if the Dutch director and his frightfully effective lead actor demonstrate a streak of macabre humor a mile wide. When the “match” proves useless in the case of the trucker, he’s dispatched summarily and replaced with another tourist, this one of Japanese origin who speaks nothing but his native language. After the operation is finished, and the doctor’s new “pet” is “complete,” the Japanese tourist is the only victim who can verbalize his anger and frustration, while the two American women can only whimper impotently. Six obviously means to have fun with national stereotypes, in particularly the Mengele-like disregard for human suffering exhibited by the German doctor (“I hate human beings”), but despite the frightfully grotesque imagination on display, the cliches keep coming. A pair of cops show up at the doctor’s door asking about the missing Americans and they get suspicious. Mayhem ensues, resulting in a predictable ending to the story but a totally unpredictable fate for the “pet.” Six just can’t help giving the knife an extra turn. Roger Ebert famously refused to give a rating to The Human Centipede, calling it so disturbing that it made it impossible to judge, but as a pure film it’s dramatically coherent and visually impressive.

Let’s Spend the Night Together
A movie guaranteed to make you feel ancient, this concert “documentary” of two performances from the Stones’ 1981 American tour, directed with little apparent interest by Hal Ashby, is lively enough but even in 1981 Mick, Keith, Ronnie, Charlie, and Bill were already being dismissed as way too old for rock’n roll. The fact that they would go on doing this for 30-plus years proves nothing except that if you’ve seen one Stones concert film you’ve seen them all. This one is heavily fraught with their post-Exile material, and while “Start Me Up” remains as indelible as ever, “Little T&A” and “Twenty Flight Rock” warrant the fast-forward treatment. Ashby throws in gratuitous news footage (starving children, Cambodian beheadings) for no apparent reason. There’s nary a dark number here, no “Sympathy” or “Street Fighting Man” to counteract the happy hedonism. And even if the sound and visuals are ace (20 cameras!), the movie celebrates theatricalism (there’s a fast-motion montage of the crew constructing the enormous stage) more than art. It’s definitely Super Bowl rock. (photo: Promotour, BVA)

The Red Shoes
It’s tempting to say that this rerelease of Michael Powell’s 1948 masterpiece is being trotted out to take advantage of The Black Swan. The ultimate backstage movie, it ends with Moira Shearer–a real ballet dancer who could act, as opposed to a real actor who could dance–performing a 17-minute solo based on the titular Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale about a pair of slippers that drive their wearer to dance herself to death. Even Darren Aronofsky can’t beat that as a metaphor. Shearer’s Vicky Page is begrudgingly admitted into an exclusive ballet company where she falls in love with a young composer (Marius Goring) who is as artistically obsessed as she is. Still, they aren’t as obsessed as Powell, whose garish Technicolor production seems to have been utilized to emphasize Shearer’s flaming red tresses. His camera work in the dance scenes is so daringly subjective that no one has even attempted to copy it. And it wasn’t just showing off. Powell meant to show how Vicky’s internal conflict was a function of her position as a woman. (photo: Carlton Film Dist. Ltd.)

Super 8
A spirited collaboration between director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg that obviously references the latter’s work in the late 70/early 80s–when Abrams himself was the age of his protagonist here–Super 8 offers nothing new under the sci-fi sun but offers it in a much better package than anything since Spielberg’s own homage, The War of the Worlds. Set in a rusting Ohio industrial town in 1979, the movie centers on a group of 14-year-old pals who are making a zombie movie that will be entered in a local cinema contest. Like little Spielbergs and Abramses, they know about makeup and special effects and framing and even “motivation.” While filming illicitly at a derelict train station one night, they witness a pickup truck deliberately drive down the tracks toward an oncoming train that derails rather spectacularly as a result. Whatever was in the train is scattered all over the place, and the U.S. Air Force immediately arrives to clean it all up, but not before one of the boys, Joe (Joel Courtney), takes home an oddly shaped cube from the wreck. As in Cloverfield, a movie Abrams produced but didn’t direct, the significance of the mayhem isn’t clearly explained, but there’s much more at stake here than a monster on the loose, even if, in the end, that’s what the action comes down to. Joe has recently lost his mother in a factory accident, and his deputy sherriff father (Kyle Chandler) isn’t up to raising the boy by himself, and even tries to send him off the camp so he doesn’t have to think about him. The central strory has more to do with the making of the zombie film and how it brings Joe together with Alice (Elle Fanning), another motherless child and one whose alcoholic father (Ron Eldard) seems to be holding a grudge against Joe’s dad. The agony of young love set against familial tensions is calibrated in such a way that the sci-fi text necessarily falls to the background, even as all hell breaks loose and the Air Force shuts down the town. Spielberg showed in E.T. how sci-fi spectacle could be enhanced by soap opera dramatics, especially when acted out by children. Abrams is slightly more cynical, but he learned his lessons well, and by the closing thirty minutes, when the action becomes almost too intense for words, he’s made you care about these youngsters, even if their behavior buggers the imagination. He may, in fact, have done too good a job, because the corny explanation for all these mysterious terrors can’t possibly live up to the excruciatingly sure-handed buildup that Abrams carries out. And while it may sound like nitpicking to point out that kids in 1979 didn’t pepper their speech with “totallys” and “awesomes,” it’s a cinch Spielberg wouldn’t have let those little details slip by. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Thor
To those of us who grew up believing that Marvel kicked DC’s ass when it came to story and character, Thor the movie isn’t as bad as might be expected. Stone Marvel adherents mostly dismissed the God of Thunder as a pompous jerk, a Norse God with all the arrogance and entitlement such a moniker suggests, rather than a mortal-turned-superhero with all the self-doubt and existential angst that Marvel could bring to it. Though Kenneth Branagh appears to be distracted by the fine print on his director’s contract, he understands this aspect of the character, whose manifestation on the big screen is a function of nothing more than the fact that Marvel is running out of heroes to cinematize. And, of course, Thor was one of the Avengers, who are due for their own filmic journey. Consequently, as played by hunky Australian actor Chris Hemsworty, Thor is cosmically full of himself and while I don’t remember the origin story, the one produced by the three hacks hired to write it turns on Thor’s sense of privilege. Set to inherit the throne of his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins, a bit too magisterial), Thor expects to be king, and when the succession ceremony is interrupted by a home invasion of Frost Giants, the Norsemen’s traditional enemies, Thor is determined to break the long-held truce his father brokered and against Odin’s will he and his merry band of warriors light out for their lair. As it turns out, someone is manipulating matters so as to restart the two kingdoms’ war, and because of his trespass Odin banishes Thor to earth and falls into a self-imposed coma. Among the humans–or, more exactly, the Americans–Thor’s sense of entitlement is treated as a joke. After all, the battle between Asgard and the Frost Giants has the potential to destroy the universe, whereas Thor’s falling to earth only upsets the research of a hot, young cosmologist (Natalie Portman), who because her equipment “witnessed” Thor’s arrival, it is confiscated by S.H.I.E.L.D., whose significance won’t really be explained until the Avengers movie. Branagh’s problems with the pedestrian story start on the ground: Though Hemsworth proves himself an able comedian, there’s too much of a disconnect between Thor’s quest to earn his way back into Asgard and his developing romantic interest in the mortal cosmologist. Even more confusing, his half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is scheming against him, remains barely a sketch. Thor’s need to find humility is presented as determining the fate of the universe, which seems a bit much, even for a stick-in-the-mud like Odin. Viewers are required to enjoy the well-staged action scenes without really understanding what’s at stake. It’s why I didn’t like the comic book in the first place. (photo: Marvel and MVLF FLLC)

Under the Hawthorn Tree
It would be normal to think that Zhang Yimou is one of the few directors in China who can do anything he wants, and based on hints he’s dropped in interviews he somehow felt “compelled” to adapt Ai Mi’s popular internet for the screen. Since it is set during the Cultural Revolution, this sentimental tale might seem a natural for Zhang, but he’s been there so many times already that it’s also difficult to imagine he has anything more to say about it. And as for the theme of young, chaste love, he wrote the manual for that with The Road Home. As with Zhang Ziyi, whom the director “discovered” for that film, Under the Hawthorn Tree debuts a young female actress, Zhou Dongyu, who plays Jing, the daughter of a political prisoner jailed for counterrevolutionary thought, meaning he’s an intellectual. Jing and her long-suffering mother are thus careful about what they say and whom they associate with, since any black mark would hurt Jing’s chances of becoming a teacher, a position her mother held until recently. During a mandatory stint in the countryside for her curriculum, Jing meets Sun (Dou Xiao), a geologist doing a survey, and they embark on a tentative, chaste romance that endures even after Jing returns home and her mother balks at the boy’s attentions, no matter how pure and polite they seem. Any risk to Jing’s future, and with it the future of her mother and two siblings who will rely on her income, is impossible to tolerate. And yet their love persists, with the risks becoming more desperate, so much so that when Jing sees Sun after an absence of many weeks and he is found in a hospital, it takes her a while to realize what has happened in the meantime. Because the story offers nothing out of the ordinary and its sentiments are so up front, small quirks, like the suggestions of sex, may seem more significant than they really are. At any event, Zhang is less interested in the emotional contours of the story than in the way the romance reflects the times. Innocence here isn’t merely a literary device; it’s a didactic means of measuring the distance that China has come. Some will grouse that Zhang once again refuses to engage the authorities by conveying the meaningless of the Cultural Revolution, but the coping mechanisms on display say more than any rhetoric could. It’s also perhaps his loveliest film since The Road Home, an aspect that some will mistake for nostalgia. Still, the movie lacks anything that could be mistaken for engagement. Like the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, Under the Hawthorn Tree is simply a job well done, about a topic that Zhou knows too well. (photo: Beijing New Picture Film Co. Ltd. and Film Partner)

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