March 2012 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the March 2012 issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo yesterday.

From 1996 to 2008 Kim Ki-duk was the Woody Allen of Korean cinema, putting out a movie every year (sometimes two) like clockwork. Kim could do that because he produced himself and was appreciated overseas for his original if somewhat eccentric vision. His reputation in Korea was a bit more erratic, and after he suffered a breakdown on the set of his 2008 movie, Dream, he went into self-imposed exile in a mountain shack. Arirang is a glimpse of that life but don’t call it a documentary. Kim takes on all the cinematic chores, and orchestrates the “action” as if a crew were recording his every move, which mostly involves eating food out of pots and drinking espresso brewed with a machine he made himself. He also engages in staged “interviews” where he gets drunk and rails against the Korean cinematic establishment as well as his own manufactured image. When he says “no one wants to work with me,” you understand why. Kim’s self-disgust comes across as self-regard, but for what it’s worth the emotions are real. It’s quite a performance. (photo: Kim Ki-duk Film Prod.)

This Shakespeare play couldn’t be more appropriate for our combative age. A general who measures patriotism by battle scars is boosted as a political figure but undone by his disdain for “the people.” It’s understandable why Ralph Fiennes, who plays the general and also directs, would want to update it to a modern setting, complete with the trappings of 21st century warfare and filmed in the style of The Hurt Locker. His strategy helps us understand how the general’s valor is dependent on his blood lust, but it also comes across as a gimmick since it’s difficult to appreciate iambic pentameter when it’s being interrupted by mortar fire. Fortunately, these scenes constitute a small portion of the film’s drama, which focuses on the general’s relationship to his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), whose ambitions for her son are thwarted by the same uncompromising sense of superiority. Even when he goes over to the enemy (Gerard Butler) to attack his own homeland, he can’t help but snicker at the unworthiness of his new allies. Is that a man, or what? (photo: Coriolanus Films Ltd.)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Director David Fincher has said he didn’t pay any attention to Niels Arden Oplev’s previous, Swedish language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller but concentrated instead on the book, and more power to him for that, even if it should go without saying. It also goes without saying that Fincher’s version is better than Oplev’s in almost every technical way, not because he had more money but because David Fincher is one of the best directors in the world and has a special affinity for this sort of lurid material. As for Rooney Mara reconfiguring the indelible hacker Lisbeth Salander, she improves on Noomi Rapace’s portrayal by adding an almost invisible layer of vulnerability. Mara’s more opaque performance highlights those brief moments when Lisbeth’s humanity peeks through the tough, cynical shell. One could even make a credible case that Fincher and his scenarist, Steven Zaillian, turn a well-paced but basically trashy novel into something compelling. After all, the basic story of an elderly industrialist (Christopher Plummer) hiring a recently disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig), to solve a decades-old mystery involving the disappearance of his beloved niece already requires a measure of suspension of disbelief, and once Lisbeth joins Blomqvist as his research assistance, we take her superhuman hacking skills at face value because our enjoyment of the atrociously misogynist epic she uncovers depends on it. Much of Zaillian’s elisions have to do with the subplots—Lisbeth’s relation with the bureaucratic jerk who administers her money in exchange for ugly sex is toned down slightly, while Mikael’s domestic arrangements are skimmed over. If these changes charge the sexual electricity between Lisbeth and Blomqvist, so much the better. Such decisions also help us focus on the mystery, though they necessarily subtract from our appreciation of the setting, which is more important than most people think. Though Fincher gets the cold and the light right, Sweden remains at arm’s length if only because the whole thing is in English. Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander TV series covers the same geographical and thematic territory but benefits from a rounder consideration of how someone like the besieged detective makes do in a culture like Sweden. All of these characters, since many are played by recognizable actors, feel as if they’d been airlifted in, and the special quality that gives Swedish crime dramas their undercurrent of disgust is curiously missing. One thing you had to say about Oplev’s movie is that, despite its sloppy narrative development, it delivered that disgust, and without that quality, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is simply an Agatha Christie story with piercings and rough sex. But, then again, that may be the secret to its unbelievable worldwide appeal.

The excitement over Martin Scorsese’s latest film is about firsts: It’s his first children’s film and his first work in 3D. However, the real meaning of Hugo has more to do with a classic movie trope Scorsese never tackled before. It is the story of an orphan, and as such provides the director with an opportunity to explore emotional elements common to films when he was a child. The title character, played by Asa Butterfield, lives in a Paris train station, tending to the station clock. He was the ward of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), the station timekeeper, until he died. In order to keep the French equivalent of child services from dragging him to an orphanage, Hugo has to make sure no one notices he is alone and keeps the clock running himself, while at the same time trying to find parts to a clockwork automaton his father (Jude Law), another man obsessed with timepieces, had found and endeavored to repair. That is, until he died. This melodrama was written in book form by Brian Selznick, who happens to be a relation of the great Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, and one can sense in its exaggerated melancholy and childhood distress the sorts of stories that brought tears to the eyes of millions of moviegoers in the years before the war and which were picked up by the Italian neo-realists. Scorsese endeavors to return to that rarefied past but through technology. His mostly computer-generated recreation of the train station renders it huge, the way a boy like Hugo would see it, and Hugo’s scamperings to steal parts needed to complete the automaton from a grouchy old toy salesman (Ben Kingsley) or to flee from the baton and Doberman of the station’s bumbling inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) take him through mazes within mazes that the director films as literally as he can, which is where the 3D comes in. Rather than use the technology to draw attention to physical objects, he uses it to remold space. The result is a heightened artificiality that emphasizes the cinematic quality of the experience. One never forgets that this is a movie. On the contrary, the experience is meant to recall what movies used to feel like. Scorsese doesn’t do it for nostalgia’s sake, but because this is a movie about movies; the origin of movies, as a matter of fact. Hugo’s quest to repair the automaton as a means of reconnecting to his beloved father leads him instead to the man who had more to do with making cinema the entertainment medium of the 20th century than anyone else. Scorsese thus exploits the latest advances in order to honor his predecessors and return to his roots as a movie enthusiast. It’s a thrill to accompany him there. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

The Iron Lady
Following Clint Eastwood’s purposely campy rendition of the life of J. Edgar Hoover, here we have another biopic of a controversial 20th century public figure. Cinematically and dramatically, Hoover’s story is more interesting than that of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but Leonardo DiCaprio was defeated by the man he played. Meryl Streep, on the other hand, absolutely slays ol’ Maggie. Movie purists, not to mention the legion of Streep haters, have cringed at the impersonation for reasons that are mostly reflexive, but the beauty of the performance has less to do with nailing Thatcher’s vocal inflections and tics than with bringing to life a complex personality we discover we didn’t know that much about. As some—not all of them Streep haters—have already pointed out, The Iron Lady doesn’t make a case for or against its subject, whom history still hasn’t judged definitively. Since Thatcher is still alive, people who liked her conservative politics hate the movie because they think she’s being short-changed, while those who resented her libertarian free market principles also hate it because they think it makes her sympathetic. It can’t help but do that, since the framing device of dwelling with her in her dotage, as she imagines her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) is still around and browbeats her staff and even her daughter for not treating her with the authority deserving of a former head of state, gives us the chance to sample her foibles, even if they’re characterized by diminished cognitive function. The flashback structure fills in the details by showing us in perfunctory fashion how the young Margaret Roberts distilled the small business philosophy of her father into a political ambition that turned into lifelong national service. It’s natural that director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan would make a big deal of her being a woman in a very male milieu because it was a big deal, but once the point is made it doesn’t need to be hammered home. If anything, Thatcher’s continued insistence that she was at “war every day of my life” because she was a woman becomes a shrill sound bite, especially when it’s used to illustrate her dedication to the Falklands War. This is the movie’s most obvious shortfall, its focus on Thatcher’s personal triumph at the expense of a clear understanding of what she really did during those eleven years of steering Great Britain. If Lloyd and Morgan wanted to avoid offending people with political axes to grind on either side of the controversy, they obviously didn’t succeed and probably couldn’t have. Better to lay it all out and let the griping commence. Moreover, they failed Streep, who gave them exactly what they asked for. (photo: Pathe Prod. Ltd., Channel Four TV Corp., British Film Institute)

The most striking aspect of a performance by Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal is its overwhelming atmosphere of unreality. People don’t move like that in everyday life—if anything, the dancers stress clumsiness—though the viewer understands exactly what Bausch is getting at. As a choreographer, she was more interested in evincing emotion than telling stories, and in his tribute to his old friend, who died in 2009, Wim Wenders enforces the unreality by filming the dances in 3D, and for once the technology works cinematically. Structured around three of Bausch’s most famous works, cut up into “scenes,” and voiceover reminscences by many of her long-time dancers in their own languages—thus providing the film with a rich cosmopolitan tone—Pina ably conveys the visceral impact of the performances in ways other dance movies usually don’t, not so much because of the 3D but rather due to Wenders’ instinctive understanding of where our eyes go when we watch dance on the stage. It’s a genuine tribute in that the director knew exactly what made his friend’s work so exciting. (photo: Neue Road Movies, Eurowide Film Prod.)

Puss in Boots
Like the Shrek films, or at least the first one, this spin-off gets more mileage out of its marginal jokiness than from anything that passes for story. The aim is to stuff as many Mother Goose and fairy tale references into the mix as possible while seasoning with a healthy dose of pop culture gags and Zorro identifications. Thanks to the lead, this one also comes with a full complement of feline humor, which makes the central friendship between the Spanish outlaw Puss (Antonio Banderas) and Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) extraneous. It would have been better to stress the romantic intrigue between Puss and Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), whose smart-alecky banter takes the kibble (“That’s a lot of heel for a guy,” she says, eyeing his iconic footwear). The adventure, which involves stealing magic beans from hillbillies Jack and Jill, and then climbing the beanstalk to pilfer some golden eggs, isn’t worth the cocktail napkin is was written on, and certainly doesn’t justify the 3D, though the animation is sharp and colorful enough to satisfy on its own. (photo: Dreamworks Animation LLC)

One’s appreciation of Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort is enhanced if the viewer hasn’t seen his debut, Hunger, about Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike. The physical consequences of that very political act were rendered in such shocking, relentless detail that the subject of Shame, so-called sex addiction, seems inadequate to McQueen’s considerable dramatic ambitions. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) has it all materially—a high-paying job, a cool Manhattan apartment, good looks. However, his obsession makes it difficult for him to lead a normal life, one that would make his friendships viable and his relation to his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), as deep as she would like it to be. The only real “plot” that McQueen and his co-screenwriter, Abi Morgan, offer is Sissy’s decision to crash at Brandon’s apartment, thus making it difficult for him to indulge in his almost hourly sessions of masturbation and occasional assignations with women, either bought or persuaded. And while the title of McQueen’s first movie was as literal as you could get, we never really feel Brandon’s shame—embarrassment, yes, frustration, most certainly. (photo: New Amsterdam Film, Channel Four Television, British Film Institute)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
Be careful what you wish for. Until now, Bella (Kristen Stewart), the mortal heroine of the film version of Stephanie Meyer’s romantic teen vampire series, has lobbied to join her BF, Edward (Robert Pattinson), in the underworld, and it wasn’t until the end of the previous installment that he seemed willing to “turn” her. This first part of the final installment is basically an extended riff on the theme of losing of one’s virginity. Bella and Edward wed in a perfect forest setting, jet off to a lush private island off the coast of Brazil, and struggle with the issue of how to pop Bella’s cherry without Edward going all Neanderthal on her delicate, lily-white ass. Director Bill Condon’s own challenge is how to transition from Harlequin romance to Rosemary’s Baby, and the effort to stretch this material into a two-hour prologue to the big finale is obvious: The werewolf gang, headed by rival hunk Jacob (Taylor Lautner), is wedged into the plot against its will. Granted, the last shot is great, but it doesn’t justify such a gratuitously extended buildup. (photo: Summit entertainment LLC)

Underworld: Awakening
It says a lot about the significance of this movie as a movie, not to mention its inexplicable resilience as a series, that almost none of the reviews so far mention the pair of Swedish directors who likely helmed the thing over Skype from their bedrooms in Gothenburg. Formulaic would be too generous a description of the Mad Lib style of screenwriting on display, not to mention the perfunctory approach to story development. It opens with a requisite precis of the series’ theme, which is that vampires and werewolves—here called lycans—have been battling each other since the beginning of time but for several centuries existed in a sort of truce until humans discovered them in their midst and launched a systematic campaign of bloody eradication. All of this is presented in newsreel form, albeit with the kind of newsreels that wouldn’t be shown on CNN, considering how gory they are. The history is narrated by our hero, Selene, the leather-clad vampiress killing machine who anchors the series, though the woman who plays her, Kate Beckinsale, was absent from the previous installment. As they say, times are tough, even for formidably beautiful female action stars. Seline’s disappearance is incorporated into the through-tale, as if anyone really cared. It appears she’s been in some sort of suspended animation since being shot with her lover, a hybrid, while trying to escape. A team of scientists headed by the lugubrious Dr. Lane (Stephen Rea) have somehow cloned the DNA of these two specimens and created a sub-hybrid, a lycan-vampire mix who is impervious to silver (the only thing that kills werewolves) and can stand the light of day. Selene gets all jiggy with her heretofore unrealized maternal instinct and vows to protect the unimaginatively named Eve (India Eisley) from her vampire cohort, which is barely surviving in the sewers and thinks the girl will attract not only stray lycans but, even worse, the humans. And of course they’re right. Since the script never generates anything close to sympathy for either of these oppressed but nevertheless bloodthirsty species, the audience invests zero emotional capital in anything regarding their welfare, including Selene’s quest to save her daughter. The bloody battle scenes are thus reduced to the sum of their various CG miscalculations—the 3D is worse that botched, you forget about it as soon as the movie starts, and the lycans, hot-bodied humanoids with dog heads, project absolutely no substance as animate beings. Guns remain the preferred tool of mayhem, probably because they shoot the all-important silver bullets, but Selene’s machine pistols elevate super powers to a new, ridiculous plateau: how could those little things hold so many bullets? Reloading is so early 90s.

War Horse
As a companion piece to The Adventures of Tintin, the other Steven Spielberg movie released before Christmas, War Horse feels like a corrective. Though Tintin returned to the popcorn movie pleasures the director revivified with the Indiana Jones franchise, War Horse allows him the luxury of spending big on a prestige project, one that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Though it takes place during World War I, and in the trenches, no less, there are no bloody battle scenes. The challenge is to make war as repellant as it was in Saving Private Ryan but without grossing anyone out. He does that by trying to make an animal movie, but unlike Martin Scorsese, whose Hugo also experimented with a subset of children’s melodrama, the orphan movie, Spielberg’s gets the tone but misses the emotional payoff. He starts out strong, though, in the English countryside where teenage Albert (Jeremy Irvine) falls in love with a colt being raised on a neighboring farm. His father (Peter Mullan), a ne’er-do-well tenant farmer with a chip on his shoulder, buys the thoroughbred at auction for more than he’s worth to spite a rich man. The purchase delights his son, but distresses his long-suffering wife (Emily Watson) and amuses his landlord, since a thoroughbred is useless for plowing. But Albert takes charge and makes Joey, which is what he names the steed, a real work horse. And then war breaks out and Joey is sold to the army. Up until this point, the tale of a boy and his horse was enough, and Spielberg brought his considerable dramatic talents to bear on that sort of love story, but Joey’s odyssey through the blood and mud of war, as he changes owners from the English army to the German artillery to a French farmer and then back to the Germans, never gains traction until Albert, at last old enough to fight, reenters the movie as a soldier in the English infantry. Spielberg keeps the movie rolling, but he can’t quite imbue Joey with the kind of talismanic power he envisions, and we’re left with characters who are in awe of the animal for reasons that are never shared by the audience. During the French interlude, when the old farmer (Niels Arestrup) hides the horse for the benefit of his granddaughter, Spielberg doesn’t even seem interested. It’s simply a passage point for Joey on the way to the extraordinary climax he has in store, and if the climax is indeed impressive—Joey galloping through no man’s land as bullets fly and bombs explode—it doesn’t make up for the previous hour. Maybe the problem is Joey. He just isn’t that good an actor. (photo: DreamWorks II Dist. Co. LLC)

Water for Elephants
Robert Pattinson gets to cash in some of the romantic scrip he’s accumulated with the dreamboat bloodsucker thing as a veterinary student during the Depression who is forced to drop out of college and, literally, join the circus. The Big Top that Jacob accidentally falls into is run by a tyrant named August (Christoph Waltz), who takes to the boy with a mixture of parental possessiveness and aggressive envy, the latter aggravated by the obvious attraction Jacob feels toward his wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the show’s top attraction. The feeling turns out to be mutual and director Francis Lawrence has obviously been charged with making this forbidden love story the movie’s centerpiece, though, as the title may indicate, the original novel was centered on an elephant that joins the circus mid-movie. This pachyderm provides the tale with its most powerfully emotional symbol, not to mention its most potent plot device, but because she is under-utilized the romance feels generic and over-determined. Does that qualify as cruelty to animals or just to the audience? (photo: Twentieth Century Fox & Dune Entertainment)

Young Adult                                            Mavis Gary is a riskier character for Charlize Theron than the one that won her that Oscar. An attractive woman in her 30s who writes young adult novels, Mavis thinks she knows where she stands in the world, or at least in Minneapolis, which in her mind is the center of the universe. The problem with Mavis is that her over-valued self-image is based on a stunted, caustic view of humanity. Screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who you will recall previously joined forces on Juno, have a lot of fun with this concept, presenting divorced Mavis as a hopeless alcoholic who binges on junk food but knows exactly how to apply makeup to bring out her sensual charms. When she learns her high school beau (Patrick Wilson) is getting married back in their hometown, she decides to re-seduce him, and for a long time the viewer can’t quite get the meaning of this desperation. Is Mavis trying to prove something to herself or to those hicks she left behind? In any case, the movie becomes increasingly difficult to watch as Mavis exercises her right to act the asshole among relatively content people. In fact, it’s their contentedness with their lot in life among the strip malls and fast food eateries and sports bars that gets her goat. She looks down on all of them without realizing how disagreeable she comes across, and Reitman takes particularly cruel pleasure in giving us everyone’s withering opinion of Mavis while she is out of earshot. Some will say this is not playing fair, especially once Mavis’s insecurities are made clear in scenes that may have you wishing you could take a bathroom break. This odyssey is hallmarked by Mavis’s encounters with two males, one the object of her quest, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who is totally oblivious to her real intentions, and Matt (Patton Oswalt), the bullied kid who has grown up into a lonely nerd with a carapace of cynicism that seems bullet-proof but isn’t. He knows exactly what Mavis is after and can’t help but use it against her while at the same time becoming her only confidante (not to mention drinking pal) as she maps out her strategy of conquest. The measure of Mavis’s cluelessness, or, at least, her refusal to acknowledge that she isn’t in high school any more, is that she still feels more pity for herself than for Matt, who was actually crippled back in the day by a jock who thought he was gay. Cody, Reitman, and Theron have created quite a monster, which, of course, was the title of the movie the latter won the Oscar for, but that wasn’t a comedy. This one very definitely is, and it will often make you feel bad for laughing, but you will anyway. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

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