Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the Dec. issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Nov. 25. The movies open in Japan between late Nov. and mid-Dec.
The Adventures of Tintin
Herge’s boyish Belgian reporter-adventurer and his terrier Snowy are brought to animated 3D life by Steven Spielberg, who looks to be making another Indy Jones franchise. The difference is worth noting. Whereas Jones was a completely original character, albeit one cobbled together from numerous pulp models, Tintin is somebody else’s creation, a comic book hero beloved by millions the world over since 1929. Not being a fan, I have no problem with Spielberg’s rendition, and while I doubt that followers will begrudge the changeover to English, will they tolerate the alteration of names that goes with it? The bumbling twin police detectives are no longer named Dupont but rather Thompson. More significantly, the script by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish inserts jokes that seem concoted for English accents and the Anglo behaviorisms attached to them. Consequently, the whole enterprise comes off as a generic action movie—a very well made action movie, but missing the bold eccentricity that made the Indy series special. What registers is that Tintin, voiced by Jamie Bell, is earnest and cocky, but nevertheless without his dog he’d be dead meat before the first reel is finished. In this presumably first installment, subtitled “The Secret of the Unicorn,” Tintin’s purchase of a model ship pulls him into a scheme by the evil Sakharine (Daniel Craig), whose ancestor, it seems, was the nemesis of the ancestor of alcoholic seafarer Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis). The model contains a clue to the whereabouts of a sunken treasure that the two forebears fought over. Tintin and Haddock join forces in chasing Sakharine to several exotic locations, which was the main purpose of the Tintin stories during those days when overseas travel was impossible for most people. Except for the exaggerated noses, the CG/performance-capture figures look too much like real people to make the sort of funny impression the comic books are famous for, but Spielberg knows his action grammar, and with Peter Jackson lending production assistance this is certainly the best use of the technology for purely action purposes. Chase scenes on land, sea, and in the air are dialed up for maximum peril and drawn out with ridiculously outrageous detail. As a result, all the characters except Haddock seem that much smaller. Tintin could be any plucky kid, and Sakharine any snarling bad guy. Serkis, who’s had more experience with performance-capture than anyone, has learned how to dominate the pixels, and Haddock is such a believable drunk you hope the kids who lap this stuff up don’t get the wrong idea. The ending leaves matters open to a sequel (the story is based on three Tintin volumes), which will supposedly be directed by Jackson. He tends to have a better grasp of source material. (photo: Paramount Pictures)
This big budget biopic of the 5th century B.C. philosopher whom the Chinese call the “sage of the ages” (and insist that you do, too, in a brief epilogue) finds enough room for teary-eyed proverb-spouting and big, bloody battle scenes. Confucius’s (Chow Yun Fat) ideals of civil behavior, which stress respect for experience and empathy with the weak, attract the attention of the local king who bucks his court and elevates the philosopher, a commoner, to a ministerial position. Though not above a bit of clever subterfuge when dealing with pugnacious neighbors (too numerous to keep track of), Confucius can’t quite overcome his fellow ministers, who eventually force him out, and with disciples in tow he wanders the land for years, his reputation for fairness and common sense growing all the time. Predictably hagiographic, the movie needs more background to make the teachings meaningful to a modern audience, and while it’s assumed that many Chinese have that background, the presentation gives the impression that this is meant to be didactic and for foreigners. I still had to check Wikipedia afterwards.(photo: Dadi Century Beijing Ltd.)
The first sound you hear in this movie is a cough. It’s a small, potent device whose short, sharp aural quality resonates throughout the film, which moves as fast as the fictional virus it chronicles. The cough belongs to Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a business woman who is traveling from Hong Kong to her home in Minneapolis, but who decides to visit an old boyfriend in Chicago unbeknownst to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon). Though in any other movie, Beth’s indiscretion would be used for all sorts of dramatic reasons, here it has a very prosaic purpose: Beth is the initial carrier of this killer bug and her get-laid layover hurts more than just her family. However, Beth isn’t identified as Case #1 until well into the movie, at which point she’s already dead along with hundreds of other people in various places. Airplane travel will do that, especially since this particular virus is transmitted on surfaces. “We all touch our faces at least three times a minute,” says CDC specialist Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is dispatched to the Midwest to track the deadly illnesses trail to its source. She uncovers the extramarital fling and breaks the miserable news to Mitch, who in the space of 24 hours has lost not only his wife but his young son. However, by this point all paranoia is justified, and one can hardly blame Mitch when he decides to lock up his teenage daughter until the all-clear. It’s Soderbergh’s solemn, some might say dogged duty to imagine just how society and its various overseeing institutions respond to such a situation, and while he keeps things real (CDC personnel and other experts were on hand during filming to make sure) he doesn’t need a lot of Irwin Allen-like pyrotechnics to bring the horror. When the virus is going full blazes and the CDC is still struggling to identify the genome, scenes of streets filled with garbage and people rioting at pharmacies are enough to get the stomach churning. Though similar in style to his earlier star-studded social issue movie Traffic, this one doesn’t feel contrived. The problem is so huge and the “villain” so amorphous that the plot seems to drive itself, and the farther it goes the faster it moves; so fast that you don’t realize how silly Jude Law’s snaggle-toothed blogger is until the movie is over and you have time to think about it. If anything, the journalist’s inherent unreliability as a scourge to the powers-that-be has the effect of boosting the reliability of the authorities. That’s another sop to reality, and one that doesn’t really need an adversary to make it acceptable to reflexive anti-authority types. (photo: Warner Bros Inc.)
Wang Bing is China’s most probing filmmaker and remains mostly unknown since his work can’t receive approval from the authorities. Such an obstacle hasn’t prevented other Chinese directors from reaching a wider audience, even in China (Jia Zhangke’s early films were widely seen on bootleg DVDs), but Wang’s documentaries are challenging in other ways. His first film was a nine-hour study of the Tie Xi Qu industrial complex, built by the Japanese and appropriated by the Communists as an engine of postwar progress. Wang painstakingly showed the factories winding down and dismantled, the people who worked there rendered redundant. The Ditch is Wang’s first feature film, though it retains a documentary feel, which is necessary since this is a true story. In the late 50s the Chinese government arrested intellectuals for their perceived counter-revolutionary thinking. They were shipped to the Gobi Desert to dig a huge ditch and in the process undergo worker re-education, but in the end, when the entire country was beset by a food shortage owing to mismanaged agricultural policies, the prisoners could not be fed. And without food they could not work, so they were simply allowed to starve. Thousands perished, and Wang’s intention is to imagine exactly what that was like on a personal level, albeit using documentary techniques, in particular the long, unbroken tracking shot that he perfected with Tie Xi Qu. Though the film’s narrative is episodic, there is a sweep to the movie that resembles a story, and in the face of such unfathomable suffering the mind grasps for characters to sympathize with. Much of film takes place in one so-called dormitory, essentially a hole in the ground covered by an earthen roof—i.e., a grave—where the men lie on cots under mounds of blankets trying to conserve their energy until the next morsel of food (weeds, rats, even human flesh) becomes available. Survivors pull the dead out in the morning to be carted off by camp guards, who don’t bother patrolling because where would these skeletons go? Through letters recited and small bits of conversation we learn of these men’s previous lives back in the cities, but Wang has no use for politics; but while his methods eschew sentimentality, he is not above melodrama when it presents itself. The wife of one prisoner comes from Shanghai to see him only to learn he has died, and then becomes hysterical trying to find his body in the huge mass grave that is the Gobi Desert. There is no pit. There is only the vast expanse of shifting soil and sand, under which are thousands of remains, simply left there because there’s nothing else anyone can do. (photo: WIL Productions Les Flims de l’Etranger and Entre Chien et Loup)
Cancer comedies are nothing new but as a sub-genre they remain problematic. Though 50/50 is funnier than a lot of its ilk it’s overly cautious in balancing the satirical with the morbid. Then there’s Seth Rogen, one of the producers, whose unique comic style has a marauding effect. Regardless of the tenor of the scene or who he’s sharing screen space with, whenever Rogen’s on hand it’s a Rogen moment, complete with self-effacing sex jokes and sometimes impenetrable pop culture references. In that regard it might have been more interesting had Rogen played the cancer patient. As it is he’s portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose rep as a sensitive leading man gives the character, a 27-year-old public broadcasting documentary producer, pre-digested cred as someone who will be bearable to watch while wasting away. Adam is the kind of well-bred young man who doesn’t have a driver’s license on principle (and never jay-walks) and who doesn’t lose it when his doctor coldly informs him that he has a rare spinal tumor. Adam dutifully undergoes the chemo regimen, bonding with a small group of elderly cancer patients who snack on pot-laced macaroons; and obediently goes to counseling with a novice therapist named Katie (Anna Kendrick). Certainly the most gratifying aspect of 50/50 is the way Adam’s illness frees him from his offensive graciousness. He frankly tells Katie that he holds no real stock in her methods, since he thinks of himself as being emotionally grounded and only flighty people need outside help in dealing with a potentially fatal disease. Nevertheless, Katie’s own frankness and “objectivity” impress him, much more than the artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) he eventually dumps after he finds that she’s cheated on him. Though the script by Will Reiser, supposedly based on his own experience, does well with the sickness components, the polot devices are trite and maybe a little too easy. In fact the various sexual relationships can’t hold a candle to the friendship between Adam and Kyle (Rogen), who goes the extra mile to understand what his pal-since-childhood is going through, but that doesn’t prevent him from using Adam as a babe magnet (“girls like to have sex with cancer guys”). Kyle’s mixture of solicitousness and exploitation doesn’t work, however, and one can imagine Rogen dominating script conferences; and since he’s the biggest name in the credits he obviously guaranteed that the film would be made, so who’s going to argue about another Lord of the Rings joke that no one except a handful of people will understand? Certainly not Angelica Huston, who plays Adam’s mother with her own kind of solicitousness. That she seems a wimp compared to Kyle indicates where the movie’s priorities really lie. (photo: IWC Productions LLC)
Brethren in tone to 50/50, Gus Van Sant’s ode to doomed puppy love doesn’t beg for laughs but it does ask for your indulgence. It’s difficult to imagine teenagers, the only demographic who might be intrigued by the movie’s premise, buying the implication that dying young is kinda, sorta beautiful. If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed that the script was adapted from some sparkly Japanese indie of recent vintage. It makes the same sort of romantic false assumptions about young love, utilizing the same measure of quirky cuteness. Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) is a sullen youth who rarely attends school and likes to crash funerals. During one memorial service he’s collared by a mortician and then saved by a young woman who pretends he’s a relative of the deceased. Her name is Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), and as the two embark on a tentative friendship they start letting down their respective guard, whose erection is understandable. Enoch is still recovering from the death of his parents in a car accident that almost killed him as well; while Annabel is slowly succumbing to a brain tumor. Anyone who has seen Harold and Maude will understand the dichotomy of the survivor longing for death and the doomed person living life to the fullest. H&M garnered eternal cult cred by being a real comedy and making its polar protagonists even more different by situating them at opposite ends of the human life span. Here the couple is stuck in immaturity, but rather than explore the special meaning death has for people who normally think of themselves as being invincible, Van Sant—who’s usually incisive about young people’s real feelings and problems—plays up the innocence to such a degree that the drama never achieves traction. Enoch’s trauma has brought forth an imaginary friend, the ghost of a young tokkotai “kamikaze” pilot (Ryo Kase) whose purpose in the film is never really clear except maybe to show how divorced Enoch is from reality; though in terms of humor, the pilot has the best lines and the strongest streak of common sense. Annabel seems to have no such fantasy life, grounded as she by her disease in a reality she can’t shake. Nevertheless, her acceptance of her fate never rings true, either; and is presented as a challenge to Enoch’s pessimism, but in any case most of the scenes involve these two budding lovers regressing into childhood—throwing rocks at trains, playing board games, memorizing names of birds, buying toys for each other. As usual, Van Sant’s visuals are soft and inviting and the soundtrack is filled with appealing pop songs, but for once that stuff intensifies the juvenile themes instead of commenting on them.
Chen Kaige recovers the storytelling mojo that made Farewell My Concubine an international hit. In this historical tale, based on a play, a nefarious general (Wang Zue Qi) carries out a complex scheme to destroy the entire clan of a rival general, including his newborn son. The doctor (Ge You) who delivers the child is asked by the mother to protect him and in the end the doctor sacrifices his own son to save the heir. He then concocts his own scheme of revenge, installing himself in the general’s household along with the heir, who the general believes is the doctor’s own child and grows attached to him. Though Chen provides some thrilling fight scenes, the heart of the film is the psychological development that sees the doctor losing his moral bearings as the general reveals himself to be a man of honor and affection. The weakest component in this Shakespearean tale is the boy, whose development is handled clumsily. It’s never really clear how the doctor expects this flighty youth to become his instrument of retribution. (photo: Shanghai Film Group, Shanghai Studio/TIK Films/Stellar Mega Films/21 Century Shanghai Film)
The difficulties of incorporating a true Holocaust-related story into a work of fiction, no matter how well intentioned and enlightening, are perfectly obvious in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film version of Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel about an American journalist (Kristin Scott-Thomas) who uncovers the uncomfortable facts about her future French in-laws’ complicity in the deportation of a Jewish family from Paris during the infamous Velodrome d’Hiv roundup of 1942. Though the respective trajectories of the parallel past-present storylines are mapped well enough and the period touches are adept, the movie becomes another journey of self-discovery (the journalist’s) at the expense of a more interesting and certainly more dramatic tale (Sarah’s). Consequently, the mystery at the heart of the movie feels like exploitation, especially when it serves to highlight the journalist’s own sense of moral righteousness. Basically, the Holocaust is used as a lesson in personal fulfillment, but the situations are so contrived and the emotional payoffs so over-determined that in the end, when it all fails to move you, it’s impossible not to feel jaded and a little cheap. (photo: Hugo Prod. – Studio 37 – TFI Droits Audiovisuel – France2 Cinema)
30 Minutes or Less
These days subtext is everything in American comedy, and when this movie was released in the US some months ago the producers had to put up a front by saying that it was not based on a real life incident involving a pizza delivery man who was forced to wear a bomb and hold up a bank. That subtext was rather dire since the poor guy actually died, but it might have made quite a movie. Here the same basic storyline is used to exploit current socioeconomic realities for comic effect. The pizza delivery boy, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), is good at what he does. Compelled to break traffic laws in order to get his pizzas to their destinations in less than a half hour—or the customer pays nothing and Nick has to cover it out of his wages—he is also compelled to be cleverer than the smartasses who invoke the 30-minute rule. Nick is used to it, and manages to get his money through subterfuge. That doesn’t change the fact that pizza delivery is a shitty job, and that Nick isn’t very ambitious, a fact brought home by his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari), who has recently been promoted from substitute teacher to real teacher, despite a dude mentality not much different from Nick’s. Still, these two guys got nothing on Dwayne (Danny McBride), the son of a ball-busting retired U.S. Marine officer (Fred Ward) who has won the lottery. Dwayne hates the way his father ridicules his lazy ways, and with his more pliant pal Travis (Nick Swardson) plans to hire a hit man (Michael Pena) to off the old man and take his inheritance. In order to secure the $100,000 hit fee he comes up with the idea of strapping a time bomb to Nick and forcing him to rob a bank. If that sounds like a lot of plot to go through for a stupid slacker comedy, director Ruben Fleischer deserves credit for presenting it in a relatively smooth fashion, but the jokes rely almost entirely on the presentation, since on paper they were probably lame. Certainly, no one took the premise—or what it leads to here—with anything approaching seriousness since the story becomes ever more twisted in its aim to force the subtext toward meaning. As a result there are some witty stand-alone sketches, including a bit in a dollar store where the boys’ purchase of standard-issue bank robbery gear prompts the female clerk to suppose they are about to “go rape”; and a few bits by standup star Ansari which are obviously spontaneous. Much less satisfying is the love interest Nick is saddled with and Dwayne and Travis’s stilted are-they-or-aren’t-they gay routines. In balance it’s above-standard yucks, but the standard is lower than it used to be.
An unabashed exercise in style, this cheapo production by so-called “street culture” director Kensaku Kakimoto feels as if it were made up on the spot. It’s never clear what the title means, though it could describe how Paris comes off in Kakimoto’s hands. A disaffected photographer (Yosuke Kubozuka) arrives in the City of Light to deliver a cat and track down his half-brother, who he learns has died mysteriously. Wanting answers, he starts hanging out with his brother’s old roommate (Stephan Coulon), a trumpeter who recruits him as a factotum in some extra-legal commerce. In the meantime he carries on a sex-fling with another Japanese expat (Akiko Monou). The point seems to be that the photographer doesn’t have much connection to life until he’s forced to make one through these two hyper-emotional relationships, but the movie fails to establish a credible reality. Moreover, the actors never rise above their mannerisms, and the story, if that’s what it’s supposed to be, makes no sense, though it all ends in a flood of tears and blood. (photo: Ugly Film Partners)