November 2011 movies

Here are the reviews I wrote for the November issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Nov. 25. The movies open in Tokyo from late October to mid-November.

Another Year
Much has been made of Mike Leigh’s peculiar method of filmmaking, which has more to do with theater than the movies; especially the way he has his actors develop their characters organically over many months while writing dialogue that suits those characters. Whatever this method produces in terms of “realism” it mostly has the effect of preventing Leigh’s characters from turning into symbols. In his newest movie, the central couple, Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen), have been happily married for almost fifty years. They are fulfilled in their work–he as a geologist, she as a therapist–have raised a well-adjusted son who loves them, and spend their leisure time tending to a vegetable garden allotment in London. There is no conflict in their lives, and the movie is formally episodic, so the dramatic thrust is provided by the people they know, people whose lives of desperation stand in stark contrast to theirs. Of these lonely people, who fans of Leigh’s will realize are something of an obsession with the director, Mary (Leslie Manville) stands out. Mary has worked with Gerri for years, and remains unattached as she enters middle age. She drinks too much and then frets in a dramatic fashion, and Tom and Gerri, who often entertain her at their home, listen and commiserate, sometimes at cross purposes. Some will find the couple patronizing, while others will simply conclude it’s all you can do with someone like Mary. While we may envy the happiness that Tom and Gerri enjoy, we don’t always like them. One of the only real plot lines in the movie, which spans an entire year, is Mary’s crush on Joe, the couple’s lawyer son, who looks upon Mary more as an aunt. When Joe brings home a steady girlfriend whom Tom and Gerri immediately adore, Mary, who happens to have dropped in unannounced, is devastated, though it’s only the audience that realizes this. The couple takes no notice of their friend’s pain, and later, when Gerri finds out about those feelings, she shuts Mary out, though Leigh doesn’t fully explain what actually triggered this resentment. The stilted “compassion” Gerri expresses can’t hide the sudden contempt she feels toward her colleague, and it’s as disturbing to the viewer as it is to Mary. To say this scene gives rise to complex emotions is an understatement: Mary, though sympathetic, is also insufferable. Though Leigh’s process has given rise to criticism that it makes for over-cooked performances–Manville is often just painful to watch–the main difficulty of his films is that they provide too much that’s familiar. If we don’t like his movies or his characters, it’s probably because we recognize in them what it is that we don’t like about ourselves. (photo: Untitled 09 Ltd., UK Film Council, Channel Four TV Corp.)

Cowboys & Aliens
Apparently, this isn’t the first Hollywood movie in which characters in a classic Western setting meet up with and battle extraterrestrials. The first one was produced back in the 1920s, when sci-fi was first starting to make its mark as a pop culture fixture; so don’t get any ideas that there’s something fresh or clever about this comic book adaptation. About the only adventurous thing is the casting: James Bond as a rootin’ tootin’ gunslinger? Daniel Craig holds his own, but the cognitive dissonance gets deafening after a while, even if the accent holds. The cliches come fast and hard after Craig wakes up in the middle of nowhere with his memory barely there and a large, glowing metal bracelet on his wrist. Sooner than you can say “James Arnett” some filthy bounty hunters show up, bloody scalps dangling from their saddles, and, believing the fuzzy-headed stranger an outlaw, attempt to take him prisoner. Wielding the kind of skills you’d expect from Supercowboy, the mute lost soul kills all the scum handily, takes their clothes and guns and horses, and sets off for the nearest town, which happens to be lorded over by a vicious cattle baron named Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). After preventing Dolarhyde’s petulant, spoiled son (Paul Dano) from terrorizing the town, the stranger is recognized by Dolarhyde as being Jake Lonergan, the notorious leader of an outlaw gang, but before they can send him off for a trial and a swift hanging the town is invaded by flying saucers that pluck random people off the ground, and Jake finally learns what the bracelet is for. If one wanted to be charitable, one could say that aliens replace Indians as the nemesis of the white man here, and, in fact, when the action gets down to brass tacks, the Indians and white men work together. That’s about as far as the concept goes here, because director Jon Favreau demonstrates absolutely no affinity for the Western genre. Having directed more than one sci-fi movie, he’s obviously more comfortable with the ugly insectoid aliens and their huge undergound spaceship lair. The main trouble isn’t the lack of play between the two genres but rather the feeling that no one knows why they have to be in the same film, except to justify a title some might find intriguing. When Olivia Wilde shows up as a woman who knows way too much about the alien invasion, she automatically becomes Craig’s romantic foil, a development that’s so gratuitous it makes you wince. Except for good old-fashioned self-preservation, there’s no credible motivation and the action scenes feel as if they’d been figured out on the spot. If it’s good for anything, Cowboys & Aliens could kill off the alien invasion movie. (photo: Universal Pictures, Dreamworks, Paramount)

Fair Game
At this late date and with the recent publication of Dick Cheney’s unrepentant memoirs, you won’t hear any grousing from this corner about this intentionally Manichean treatment of the Valerie Plame affair. Though the separation of the antagonists into hiss-inducing villains and noble victims grates against a more refined cinema-going sensibility, it’s a tale worth telling and given what the Bush administration caused to happen, worth telling in this way. Director Doug Liman brings the breathless kineticism of the first Bourne movie to the material, and while Plame’s (Naomi Watts) activities as a covert CIA operative are more down-to-earth than Jason Bourne’s, Liman conveys the right blend of suspense and workaday professionalism. In fact the movie might have been more relevant if background into Plame’s training was provided. As it is, all we get is one quickly revealed anecdote about a mock interrogation. It might also have been interesting to know how she met her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), former ambassador to Gabon and a diplomat with firsthand knowledge of Baghdad. Liman doesn’t clarify exactly what his “business” is, though it’s obviously run out of the couple’s Washington home, allowing Wilson to take care of the couple’s toddler twins during the day. In the runup to the invasion of Iraq the CIA is told by the vice president’s office to look into rumored purchases of nuclear materials by Iraq through Niger, and Plame’s boss asks her if Wilson could fly over and use his connections to check them out. Wilson does so (gratis) and finds nothing, but after the invasion one of the reasons the administration gives for believing Saddam had WMD is the Niger intelligence. Wilson, a hothead with a clear conscience, reacts strongly to this lie and writes an op-ed piece for the New York Times revealing himself as the “source” for this intelligence and that he found no evidence of nuclear materials. The vice president’s office, in the personage of slimy factotum Scooter Libby (David Andrews), then leaks to sympathetic journalists that Wilson’s wife is a covert CIA operative, thus blowing her cover and placing her field contacts in danger, including an Iraqi scientist who risked his life to explain that there hasn’t been a nuclear weapons program in his country since 1991. At this point, the movie’s polemics become emotional ones, as Plame and Wilson are tagged as traitors by the media and their personal and professional lives go into the toilet. It never quite recovers its equilibrium, probably because the need for dramatic clarity makes the remaining story feel more contrived; that and Sean Penn, whose own hotheaded public behavior precedes his portrayal of Wilson. He seems to be acting out a private political agenda. (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)

Genius Within
Though not the first documentary about the celebrated Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, this may be the most conventional. In addition to being one of the most stylistically controversial musicians of the 20th century–Leonard Bernstein famously made a disclaimer before conducting a concerto with Gould–he was a noted eccentric, famous for his little chair and heavy coats. Talking heads reveal that much of this eccentricity was put on or at least exaggerated for the purpose of publicity, which Gould himself encouraged. And contrary to the belief that he was ascetic and asexual, he had love affairs, including a long one with the wife of his favorite modern composer, Lukas Foss. And while the movie is fascinating about Gould’s work methods and infamous attention to detail, whether he was “pulling apart a Bach fugue” or pulling together one of his curious radio broadcasts, it never quite puts across its suggestion that he was a lonely genius. He seems happy, and certainly must have felt fulfilled. He did everything he wanted to do, including abandoning the concert stage at the height of his fame. (photo: Jock Carroll)

The closer French movies get to Hollywood the more French they seem. Heartbreaker takes a run at frothy rom-com with a premise so contrived it’s reportedly already been picked up for an American remake. Con man Alex (Romain Duris) hires himself out to people who want to break up relationships by seducing the female half into leaving her BF/fiancee. Alex has principles–he never gets as far as sex, and won’t come between two people he judges are truly in love–but those principles are compromised after a debt is called due by some gangsters and he’s hired by a rich industrialist to interfere with his daughter’s plans to marry an Englishman. With the help of his resourceful sister and her tech-savvy husband, Alex takes on this challenge (Vanessa Paradis), who resists his advances with icey determination. No prizes for guessing where all this will go, but despite the determined attempts at Steve Martin-like slapstick and some pretty wonderful scenery courtesy of Monaco it makes even less sense than the last three Sandra Bullock vehicles. Duris has fun, though. (photo: Yume-Quad Films/Script Associes/Universal/Chaocorp)

Love & Other Drugs
More compelling than those other sex-with-no-consequences Hollywood rom-coms that opened this year, Love and Other Drugs doesn’t tip its hand until after it establishes itself in the mind of the viewer as an entirely different sort of comedy. Jale Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a pre-med college dropout who parlays his appetite for hustling into a gig as a regional sales rep for Pfizer around the time they came out with Viagra. Edward Zwick gets mileage from the satirical aspects of doctors chasing easy dough by naming names, and one can’t help but wonder how Pfizer feels about Jamie dumping his rival’s stash of Prozac in the dumpster in order to replace it with Zoloft. These intentions are sapped with the arrival of Maggie (Anne Hathaway), who, while as saucy as Jamie is irresponsible, has Parkinson’s disease. They start a zipless relationship because he gets sex whenever he wants and she gets sex without pity, but the other shoe drops even sooner than you’d expect. Hathaway holds up her end of the bargain, but the movie turns into a jumble of contradictory emotional signifiers. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox, Monarchy Enterprises and Dune Entertainment)

They said it couldn’t be done–making a good movie out of Michael Lewis’s wonky bestseller–so at least half the satisfaction one derives from Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is in the knowledge that the most problematic aspects of the book were made not only understandable but entertaining. For people with no knowledge of the book the film may be a head-scratcher. As a “sports movie” it struggles with the requisite dramatic arc and in the end can’t come up with anything that approximates the kind of closure sports movies are famous for. But it’s got a great beginning. Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) never attends or even listens to the games his team plays, and he sits in the empty stands of the Oakland stadium switching the radio on and off as his team loses a 2001 playoff berth back in New York. That isn’t the end of Beane’s misery, though. Almost immediately, his three best players are scooped up by richer teams, which always happens since Oakland is in a “secondary market,” as the owner keeps telling Billy whenever he asks for more money. With a third of the salary budget that the Yankees have at their disposal, Billy believes he’s stuck in a rut for eternity. Meanwhile, his staff of veteran scouts go about their business as usual, touting players to “fill the holes” left by those who went on to greener fields of dreams. Then he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics grad who has internalized a formula for choosing winning teams: The only statistic that really matters is how often a player gets on base. Billy hires him and takes the philosophy to heart, but his scouts, resentful of being replaced by “computers,” and his field manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who already has a bone to pick because he’s still stuck in a one-year contract, won’t go along with the plan. Billy proceeds to assemble his misfit team anyway, and his stubbornness is explained in less-than-convincing fashion via flashbacks that show Billy himself was once a “five-tool” high school superstar who, for reasons nobody could ever figure out, didn’t make it in “the show.” Constitutionally skeptical of the traditional scouting process, he agrees with Brand’s credo that “baseball thinking is medieval.” It’s to Miller’s credit, as well as screenwriters Steve Zallian’s and Aaron Sorkin’s, that the reliability of the moneyball system is never really proven during the course of the movie. After a miserable start, Billy finally gets the team he wants and starts winning in impressive ways; and for a while it’s a classic underdog story, but since it’s also true it has to stick with the arc its given, and in this case truth is less stimulating that fiction.

Rabbit Hole
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and sounding like it, Rabbit Hole features Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a married couple living in a dream house in Yonkers and grieving the death of their young son, which happened eight months before the movie’s action begins. Becca (Kidman) sees no possibility of getting back to the kind of “normal” that Howie (Eckhart) is patiently steering her towards, and she quits their group therapy sessions as a declaration of realness. Meanwhile, she stalks the 17-year-old boy (Miles Teller) who was driving the car that killed their son as Howie flirts with one of the women (Sandra Oh) from the group therapy sessions, which he now attends alone. Director John Cameron Mitchell respects the grief process a bit too much, and even the difficult scenes of Becca and Howie erupting in violent tantrums display a tasteful empathy that smooths the rough edges. The acting is appropriately intense without being particularly revealing of the characters’ real feelings; which may be the point, but if it is then why make the movie? (photo: OP EVE 2 LLC)

The Stool Pigeon
In the latest crime thriller by Dante Lam, a police detective (Nick Cheung), hamstringed by the loss of an informer, endeavors to find another one in order to infiltrate a gang of jewel thieves. He callously exploits a recently released street racer (Nicholas Tse) who needs cash to buy off his prostitute sister’s debt. The racer becomes the driver for the jewel robbers and in the process falls in love with a female member (Kwai Lunmei). As usual, Lam seems not to care that his formulaic plot wanders in all directions, nor that much of the motivation strains belief. A student of the late-80s John Woo school of divine payback, he sets everything up for a violent, complex finale, which here involves a chase through a crowded market into an abandoned school where every species of sharp instrument, including machetes, are wielded against piles of desks and chairs. Since no one comes out well in a Lam film, the mayhem adds to the overall feeling of pointlessness; but as frustrating as the movie is dramatically, viscerally it’s a tour de force. (photo: Emperor Classic Films, Huayi Bros. Media Corp.)

The Three Musketeers
Paul W.S. Anderson of the Resident Evil series brings his talent for CG-fueled action filmmaking, not to mention his wife and main muse Milla Jovovich, to the oft-adapted Dumas classic. The knockabout silliness of the Richard Lester series is replaced by over-leveraged action set pieces that seem better designed for a superhero movie. What humor the movie offers is reserved for the characterizations. D’Artagnan is still the earnest country bumpkin but Logan Lerman adds an air of arrogance that works against the jokes, especially since the musketeers (Matthew Macfadyen, Luke Evans, Ray Stevenson) already possess arrogance to burn. Jovovich, as the double spy Milady, is wasted on dialogue she can’t get her mouth around; Mads Mikkelsen is reduced to snarling; and Christoph Waltz as Richeliu has become imprisoned by his cartoon villain typecasting. The only actor worth watching is Orlando Bloom as the fashion-plate Brit aristocrat Buckingham, who camps to high heaven. Everyone tries so damn hard to have fun that the effort undercuts whatever entertainment value the movie offers. It’s to action-comedy what Keanu Reeves is to acting. (photo: Constantin Film, NEF Prod., SAS and New Legacy Film)

Under Control
The title of this German documentary is meant to be ironic, even if the director, Volker Sattel, keeps his distance from the subject. Sattel conducts a tour, without third-person narration, of various nuclear power facilities in Germany and Austria, including the IAEA, a repository for waste, and research centers. The beauty of the carefully framed scenes of mammoth reactors humming along as workers (all men, it should be pointed out) mosey about in protective gear is undermined by a mounting sense of dread as the safety countermeasures are explained and shown, the unspoken implication being that, despite huge resources expended to guarantee safety, there is no guarantee because humans are responsible. In any event, the final minutes show what dismantling a reactor entails, and it’s quite a job. Now, multiply that work, much of it obviously dangerous, by many times in your mind now that Germany has decided to abandon nukes. The point isn’t that Germany should keep nukes, but that they shouldn’t have been built in the first place. Props to Image Forum for booking this so quickly. (photo: credo film & WDR and Arte)

Winter’s Bone
Ree Dolly is an archetype, the teenage girl who, thanks to an innate intelligence she takes for granted, tends to know more about life than adults do. In this bizarre, wholly original tale, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is at the mercy of her intelligence, which drives her toward a truth she supposedly has no business knowing. The problem is that, in the end, only that truth will save her. Fated by a clear sense of responsibility and economic hardship, Ree raises her brother and sister and takes care of her catatonic mother in the mountains of Missouri. One day some lawmen stop by and tell her that her absent father, Jessup, skipped bail on a drug charge, and unless he turns up or Ree can prove he’s dead, they’ll take away the house, which Jessup put up as bond. Ree has to find him, and though many of her neighbors are “kin” in one way or another, she finds not only that they don’t want to talk about Jessup’s whereabouts but that they resent her for bringing it up. The fascination of Debra Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel is in the way she keeps the anthropology of this backwoods Ozark community murky. Ree knows why the neighbors are so antagonistic to her inquiries–cooking and dealing meth is a cottage industry in these parts–but the audience doesn’t. We have to work for it, so when one family takes special offense at Ree’s dogged attempt to secure intelligence of her father’s situation, the matriarch of the clan has her thrown in a barn and worked over. “Are you going to kill me?” Ree says, bloodied but not bowed. “That was something we talked about,” the woman says without feeling. What’s chilling about this scene isn’t so much the threat of more violence, but the absence of a motive the audience can get behind. This community defies explanation, but instead of condescending to some stereotype of nbred hicks, Granik implies they follow a code you’re never going to understand. What’s more important is Ree’s will to justice: She’s fighting for her survival and that of her family, but she’s also got her pride, and in the end the wills of other, in particular her bullheaded uncle’s (John Hawkes), bend to the realization that, whatever her demerits as a pain in the ass she’s right to do what she’s doing. As a mystery, Winter’s Bone is too circular, but as a portrait of a way-of-life it draws the viewer in with surprising emotional power. At one point Ree contemplates escape into the army and even discusses the possibility with a recruiter, but the discussion only makes her see more clearly what her family means to her. Epiphanies don’t get any more moving. (photo: Winter’s Bone Prod. LLC)

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