February 2012 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the Feb. issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

Beginners
Personality crises are notoriously difficult to depict on film, which is why older directors didn’t bother to do it and younger directors use indirection. This reportedly autobiographical work by Mike Mills uses a lot of shorthand tricks to convey its protagonist’s self-professed inability to love the way he thinks he should, including talking dogs, speech deprivation, and impersonations of Sigmund Freud, all of which come across as cute before they make their respective points felt. However, the cutest trick of all is apparently the truest: the protagonist’s father declares he’s gay in his mid-70s, just several years before he dies of lung cancer. The son, a graphic artist named Oliver (Ewan McGregor), can’t quite process this news, which may not be entirely unexpected, but in any case Mills translates Oliver’s confusion with voiceover narration describing how the world used to be (people smoke cigarettes freely) and comparing it to the way it is now. It’s incomprehensible to him that things which used to be taken for granted no longer apply, though it was also obvious that when he was a child his father and mother had little meaningful interaction. What’s more disconcerting is that the father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), finds such unmediated satisfaction in coming out, taking up with a much younger lover (Goran Visnjic), and being part of a community. Oliver isn’t bothered by homosexuality as much as he is by the suggestion he doesn’t know himself as well and may not until he’s near death, too. Mills dispenses with linearity, alternating episodes of Oliver’s life after Hal’s death with episodes leading up to it. Coming to terms means taking possession of Hal’s uncharacteristically laid-back Jack Russell terrier (“You’re supposed to be hyperactive, you know”) and cleaning up Hal’s sunny apartment, which stands as an affront to his murky, unfulfilled existence. So when he meets a pretty young woman, Anna (Melanie Laurent), at a costume party who’s mute with laryngitis, he takes a chance. Oliver isn’t a virgin, but it’s implied his serial monogamy is characterized by large lacunae due to his belief that since things will likely go bad it’s best not to go there. This is a very definite diagnosis for what ails Oliver, but non-commitment is such a trite theme so Mills dresses it up in memory games and adorable scenes that show Oliver’s vulnerability and Anna’s compassion and understanding. The result is a life that feels like a movie rather than a movie that feels like a life. But, of course, we go to movies to see movies, and Mills gets his points across with humor and a light touch. He doesn’t take Oliver’s tribulations that seriously. I only wish my life were this perplexing—and cute. (photo: Beginners Movie LLC)

Carnage
If Roman Polanski’s most indelible film remains Repulsion it’s because in that movie he really captured emotional volatility in contained spaces. The horror of Rosemary’s Baby was Mia Farrow’s inability to escape from her posh Upper West Side apartment, and the most dramatic scenes in Chinatown were those that took place in small rooms. The best thing about Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s international prize-winner, God of Carnage, is the way he’s taken advantage of the play’s limited setting. All the action, as it were, takes place in the living room of an upper middle class Brooklyn apartment where the only refuge from the violence implied in the title is the bathroom. The combatants are two couples who have met to discuss an altercation between their nine-year-old sons, one of whom hit the other with a stick in a playground and knocked out two teeth. Unlike in the play, Polanski shows us this altercation in longshot in the movie’s opening minutes, but since we can’t hear what’s going on the particulars of what led to the fight are unknown. And, of course, they remain unknown to the parents who throughout the increasingly contentious conversation have to surmise what actually took place, since boys will be boys and usually don’t divulge such particulars to adults. Reza establishes the dramatic parameters quickly. Penelope (Jodie Foster), the mother of the victim, quickly occupies a position of entitlement, which she bolsters with liberal dogma (she’s a writer putting together a book about Darfur). Her husband, Michael (John C. Reilly), a household goods wholesaler, is a bluff conciliator who barely conceals his contempt for his spouse’s position and doesn’t seem to feel the fight merits much attention. Penelope’s opposite number, Nancy (Kate Winslet), is an anxious “money manager” with nice clothes and a more primal reaction to her son’s predicamant. The ringer, though, is Nancy’s husband Alan (Christoph Waltz), a lawyer with a lawyer’s cynical approach to contretemps. His first symbolic act is to ask Penelope to remove the word “armed” from the statement of purpose about on the incident. A writer to the end, she agrees: “What can we say, ‘carrying’ a stick?” However, Alan’s most provocative behavioral tic is his insistence on taking every cell phone call he gets, annoying everyone in the room (he can’t, realistically, take it “outside”) and providing Penelope and Michael with ammunition, since Alan is advising a pharmaceutical client on how to preempt a lawsuit related to a drug’s unfortunate side effects. “It’s a funny line of work,” Michael says, setting up a showdown that incorporates class distinctions without really exploiting them. As the gloves comes off and the booze flows, Carnage can be pretty entertaining, but while it’s development is predictable it never really gets anywhere. Reza’s premise is we know these people, so why say anything new about them?

Chantrapas
At his age 78-year-old Georgian director Otar Iosseliani can be granted the dispensation of making his movie about movie-making, and Chantrapas is better than most of that ilk. The first half is set in what looks like Soviet-era Georgia, where pugnacious young director Nicolas (Dato Tarielshvili) resists cutting his work to satisfy the authorities, who are portrayed as bumbling rather than dictatorial. He has the print smuggled out of the country, and the cultural minister eventually allows him to emigrate to France, mainly as a show of how open-minded he is. Free at last to follow his muse, Nicolas finds that the capitalist filmmaking model is no more acceptable to him, even for art house films, though the viewer has come to the conclusion that maybe Nicolas is just a crappy director. Iosseliani’s dry humor and his amateur thesps’ disaffected acting style are acquired tastes, and there are too many digressions. The conventional wisdom about Iosseliani’s movies is that if you like one you’ll like them all. This one might actually appeal to a slightly larger subset. (photo: Pierre Grise Prod.)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Stephen Daldry turns his literary eye to the sophomore novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, about a nine-year-old boy desperately clinging to the memory of his father who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. It’s clear from the start that Oscar (Thomas Horn) is developmentally different—either hyperactive or Aspergers-addled (he admits at one point he was “tested, but the results were inconclusive”)—and his father (Tom Hanks), a jeweler, challenged him with games to help him overcome his fear of the outside world. Shattered at his lost, Oscar pushes away his mother (Sandra Bullock) and devotes himself to a treasure hunt involving a mysterious key his father left behind. Foer’s idea is simple enough—the treasure hunt brings Oscar out of his mourning and reveals to him a world of equally troubled souls—but Daldry’s stylized treatment overcomplicates it, especially the tangential matter of the old mute man (Max Von Sydow) who accompanies Oscar on his search throughout New York City, an endeavor whose logistics just seem impossible, even for a mensch like Oscar. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

In Time
Andrew Niccol is Hollywood’s most imaginative creator of dystopian futures, and In Time may be his cleverest gimmick yet. As with Gattaca, the theme is eugenics, though the economics are more pronounced and determinative. Humans are genetically programmed to stop aging at 25, after which they live only as long as the time they have “earned,” the way we normally think capital is earned. Niccol translates this tricky concept in a neat way. Every person has a time code on his/her arm that indicates how much time is left before extinction. The time code goes down when a “payment” is debited and goes up with payment credited. The upshot is crystal clear: the rich live longer than the poor. Justin Timberlake plays Will, a blue collar drudge who is trying to help his mother (Olivia Wilde, looking like Timberlake’s sister) pay off a debt. When she misses the payment by seconds Will is left bereft and even more of a landlord-hater than you or me. By chance he meets a wealthy guy slumming it in the bad part of town and acquires the guy’s time, much to the consternation of a local hood (Alex Pettyfer) whose M.O. is stealing poor slobs’ time for himself. Will uses his new “fortune” to sneak into the upscale sector where he invites himself to a cocktail party being thrown by a banker (Vincent Kartheiser) for his daughter (Amanda Seyfried), who is typically rebellious. When Will is fingered by a time cop (Cillian Murphy) for the death of the rich guy, he takes the daughter hostage and shows her how the other half lives. Her eyes now opened, she joins him in a string of bank robberies where they liberate “time” for the masses. By this point, the originality of the time-is-money conceit has worn off through familiarity and Niccol has to cruise on pure movie mayhem, which is fortified by his doctrinnaire approach to characters, all of whom are hackneyed types impervious to whatever nuance of feeling the actors try to bring to them. Nevertheless, one aspect never wears off: the youthful appearance of everyone on the screen. Unlike the Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates, In Time doesn’t try to make the youthfulness seem artificial, so you really do feel disconcerted when Amanda Seyfried calls Vincent Kartheiser, who’s only six years older, “father.” Since there’s no elaborate backstory, the only purpose to this genetic technology is to keep the working classes completely under the thumb of their betters, and that’s a useful idea for as long as the formula lasts, which isn’t very long. Even if the car chases and gun battles were better staged, the fact that they’re here in such abundance proves that the producers think of the revolutionary subtext as nothing more than fantasy fulfillment, which means the audience will, too. (photo: Fox and its related entities)

J. Edgar
People of a certain political persuasion probably see no point in adapting the life of FBI founder and American law enforcement god J. Edgar Hoover as a Hollywood biopic. The man’s contempt for human failings and his self-aggrandizing agenda make him one of the most reviled public figures in U.S. history. The idea that Hoover’s over-reaching as both a government functionary and famous person was absurd is not something that needs to be explored, since any such study could only result in yet another sympathetic portrait of a flawed man. Certainly, Clint Eastwood’s movie, based on a script by Dustin Lance Black, whose other famous biopic was of a very different kind of megalomaniac, Harvey Milk, isn’t going to satisfy the adherents of this political persuasion, which is their loss. They aren’t going to learn anything new about Hoover, but they might still have a good time. Having come of age during a period when Hoover could do no wrong, Eastwood has to contend with the early heroic aspect of his legacy right away, and as history J. Edgar is better than it has a right to be. While investigating an anarchist bombing, the young Dept. of Justice employee latches onto the theory of prosecuting “intent,” in addition to investigating crimes already committed. This new idea, which rightly scares his colleagues with its suggestion of ignoring due process, appeals to Hoover’s Manichean mindset, expressed in his obsession with propriety (after he forms the FBI he fires anyone with an unconventional fashion sense) and his love of scientific means (he developed the fingerprint as a standard forensic tool). What Eastwood brings to these “facts” is a supposition about the psychology behind it that is almost camp in its screen manifestation. He doesn’t have to trot out the dodgy rumors about Hoover’s cross-dressing. As it’s presented here, his lifelong relationship with his aide de camp, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), could have been thought up by Tennessee Williams; and his habit of tape recording the sexual encounters of powerful men is presented not so much as a means of safeguarding his position through blackmail but as a genuine fetish. Understanding that the aforementioned political persuasion is looking for it, the director tones down his usual sentimentality while amping the melodrama. Hoover’s encounters with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) are a hoot-and-a-half, so even if his bizarre behavior after her death is hypothetical it’s nonetheless dramatically effective. Leonardo DiCaprio, who has become the go-to actor for portraying “greatest generation” types, gets carried away with the bulldog scowl and period vocal inflections, but in the end these calculations work to thicken the movie’s atmosphere of unreality, and that’s the only way you could tell the story of a person like Hoover. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Melancholia
Whatever your disagreements with Lars Von Trier over his themes and ideas, you have to give him props as a technician. Even his habitual detractors have been swooning over the opening of his latest feature, which basically provides a precis in slow motion tableaux of the main events of the story that follows. Is there a purpose to this spoiler orgy except to maintain Von Trier’s reputation as a guy who will do anything to make his audience question his sense? Compared to the painterly drama of these images, what follows can’t help but be anticlimactic, and you know you’re in for something challenging with the first scene of a bride and groom laughing drunkenly as their limo gets stuck on the way to the wedding reception. As usual Von Trier pulls no punches in asserting that this marriage has no future. In fact, it’s over even before they get to the marriage bed, sabotaged not only by the bride’s mother’s (Charlotte Rampling) outburst regarding her objection to marriage as an institution, but the bride’s boss’s (Stellan Sarsgaard) insistence that her replacement drill her for the secrets to her success in PR. As it turns out, he drills her for even more. By this point we’ve already got the message that the bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), is a typical Von Trier damaged soul, seemingly manic-depressive, and a starkly contrasting figure with her obsessive-compulsive older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose rich husband (Kiefer Sutherland) is throwing this bash at his huge golf course estate. The night ends with the groom (Alexander Skarsgaard) sleeping alone and leaving in the morning. The end of the marriage presages the end of the world, which is the concern of the second half of the movie. Now it’s Claire’s turn to despair, not over the dissolution of her happiness, but of the extinction of everything. Whatever metaphorical meanings Von Trier wants to evoke with this juxtaposition, Claire has more of an obvious point to her depression than Justine does. Few events are as existentially devastating as the end of the world, and as the planet Melancholia looms larger in the sky, heading for its cataclysmic rendezvous with earth—which Claire’s amateur astrologer husband insists will not take place—the audience will very definitely feel her pain. Everyone knows that the director makes much of the pointlessness of life, and Justine’s placid acceptance of the inevitable could be construed as a mirror of Von Trier’s own fatalism (“It looks friendly”). Since there’s nothing that can be done, what’s there to get depressed about? Meanwhile, Claire wanders around the magnificant castle contemplating suicide while Justine lies naked by a river looking up at the sky. Just because it’s the end of the world doesn’t mean the pretty pictures have to stop. (photo: Zentropa Entertainments)

Poetry
The great theme of Korean cinema, or, at least Korean cinema of the past decade-and-a-half, is male violence, which may sound too broad, but any Korean film of worth, even the sex comedies of Hong Sang-soo, wrestles with society’s acceptance of male volatility, both emotional and physical. Lee Chang-dong’s best movies feature a female protagonist addressing that violence in ways that don’t often sit right with audiences. It’s not exactly accommodation, though, and Poetry may be his fullest, most realized contemplation of this theme. Here the woman, Mija (Yun Jeong-hee), is older, and we learn right away that she is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. A widow who lives with her truculent grandson in a small apartment, Mija still thinks of herself as an attractive woman, maintaining her outdated sense of fashion, uncomprehending of people’s general ambivalence toward her opinions and outlook. She enrolls in a poetry writing class at a community center, and seriously tries to carry out the instructor’s suggestions. Lee presents her as a typically dull middle class woman on the verge of total insignificance, but these appearances mask a decency that’s troubling in the way it’s challenged by social norms. As Mija slowly comes to realize, her junior high school age grandson, Wook (Lee Da-wit), who has been deposited in her care by a daughter pursuing a job in another city, is involved in what appears to be the gang rape of a schoolmate who subsequently commited suicide. The fathers of Wook’s confederates are trying to keep the matter quiet and the police out of it by paying off the mother of the dead girl. They enlist Mija, the only available guardian for Wook, in their scheme, and she is so shocked by encounters with these men, who approach the problem as if it were an unfortunate business transaction, that she feels compelled to put herself in the dead girl’s position. The poem that Mija struggles to write for her assignment thus becomes her means of coming to grips with whatever it was the girl must have felt, and since Mija herself is slowly entering into darkness, the task is all the more meaningful as a summation of her own life. Though the importance of Lee’s own task is no less weighty, his means are subtler, and the beauty of his accomplishment is in the slow accumulation of plot points. Mija’s caretaking relationship with her bedridden employer reflects her realization that men are capable of anything. Her inability to stand up to the fathers and their patronizing attitude speaks to her life of demure acceptance. And yet she never compromises her love for a boy who hardly acknowledges her. Mija proves that love in an unexpected way, while paying tribute to the memory of her grandson’s victim. (photo: UniKorea Culture & Art Investment Co. Ltd. and Pinehouse Film)

The Revelation of the Pyramids
Though he doesn’t claim that extraterrestrials built the Great Pyramids of Egypt, French author Jacques Grimault’s theory about the seventh wonder of the world will likely meet with skepticism and confusion from any but the most receptive revisionist history fans. Because he makes so much of what is unexplained about the pyramids—the ahead-of-its-time engineering, the mathematical complexities, the resemblance in structure to pyramids in other parts of the world—Grimault is able to draw the viewer in very quickly, only to leave him frustrated by the sheer volume of information. Part of the blame should be borne by director Patrice Pooyard, who has a tough time translating Grimault’s book-bound hypotheses into a linear, coherent argument, despite the participation of numerous scholars. Considering how often he backtracks, it seems obvious he wasn’t too sure, either. Add to this the English narration, spoken by a woman with a thick French accent and written for the eye not the ear, and the documentary comes off as amateurish, Grimault’s theory about ancient civilizations reduced to adolescent hyperventilating.

Tower Heist
Props to Brett Ratner for the informative title, which tells us everything we need to know about his star-studded action comedy: It’s a heist flick and takes place in a high-rise building. Ratner obviously believes the premise is enough to sustain interest and fashions a plot (with four other guys) that beggars way too much belief, probably because he has to give all the big names enough to do. Ben Stiller, as a luxury NYC condo manager plotting revenge on his richest tenant (Alan Alda), an investment banker who has squandered the condo staff’s pension fund, is no action star, though he’s called upon to be one up to a point. Eddie Murphy, as the klutzy career thief who is brought in as a kind of consultant by Stiller and his partners in crime (Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena), does what he wants to do and gets more laughs than anyone else. Even the subtext of working stiffs putting it to the 1% doesn’t connect satisfactorily since the entire enterprise is too far gone into slapstick fantasyland. (photo: Universal Pictures)

The Turin Horse
Nobody sets a scene like Bela Tarr. The opening shot of what he’s said may be his last film is viscerally compelling: a horse-drawn cart driven by a bearded old man rushing through a cold, foggy, gray landscape, the camera (operated by Fred Keleman) pulling steadily along to capture the exertions of the massive animal in closeup. Since this bravura one-take sequence follows a title card explaining how the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche once came upon a driver mercilessly whipping his horse that had stopped doing its master’s bidding, one can’t help but identify with the brute, but as it turns out, the life this man and his daughter lead is brutish enough. They live in a kind of no man’s land, out of time, embedded in daily routines that are presented with stunning austerity. The horse is the first being to give up, refusing to budge one day and to eat the next. If life is only a chore, is there much point to it, especially when it’s centered around fetching water and eating boiled potatoes with your bare hands?

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