April 2012 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the April issue of EL Magazine, which will be distributed in Tokyo tomorrow.

The Artist
The general opinion about this Oscar-winning, French-produced homage to Hollywood is that it gets by on sincerity. Having barely survived the post-modern era of all-irony-all-the-time, the folks in Tinseltown were more than ready to embrace an entertainment that not only paid tribute to all those values they had forgotten, but did it in a way that didn’t make them feel cheap or put-upon. All this implies that The Artist has no substance, and while it’s true that everything it has to offer is on the surface, it’s a pretty crowded surface, especially when you’ve got a lead like Jean Dujardin, whose mugging as a Bond manque in director Michel Hazanavicius’s previous spy parodies turned out to be perfect training for his turn as silent movie star George Valentin, who wakes up every morning in his Beverly Hills mansion with a smile on his face, a spring in his step, and a nod of thanks to the huge portrait of himself in the hallway. Valentin’s self-regard isn’t offensive, though. He knows he’s lucky, but his talent is also apparent—the title is even less ironic than the movie. Dujardin plays this affable fellow with all the melodrama Valentin brings to his adventure films, and Berenice Bejo does the same as the chorus girl Peppy, whom Valentin impulsively kisses as she waits along the red carpet at one of his premieres, getting her picture in the paper. The next day, as she’s trying out for a job as an extra on Valentin’s new movie, he recognizes her, and they do a delightful dance that not only makes the scene but explicates the entertainer ethos of the day. Hazanavicius elaborates on this idea as he shows Valentin and Peppy doing multiple takes of a scene, each one unique, and instrumental in not only demonstrating the methodology of silent filmmaking, but developing the relationship between the two central characters. To make a long story short, when talkies arrive, Valentin can’t adapt and Peppy becomes a star in her own right. The actor’s downfall is not presented as his just desserts. He’s proud, but not heartless, and as he falls into destitution and depression, the melodrama is no less effective for being melodramatic—and silent. If only everybody else involved were as dedicated to the form as Dujardin and Bejo. The Americans—Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin’s icy wife, John Goodman as the practical-minded studio head, James Cromwell as Valentin’s faithful chauffeur—don’t go far enough with the caricature, and seem out-of-sync when they share the screen with the two French actors, or for that matter with Valentin’s hyperactive terrier. The hallmark of silent film technique was the way it exaggerated real life to make up for the lack of spoken dialogue, and when Dujardin flashes that incredible smile, you know he understands exactly what’s needed. (photo: La Petite Reine, Studio 37, La Classe Americaine, JD Prod., France 3 Cinema, Jurour Prod.)

The techno soundtrack is a giveaway and a dodge. Nicolas Winding Refn’s L.A.-set Cannes-winner is a pleasing throwback to mush-mouthed 70s action films but paced for a more narcotic age. For 20 minutes he calibrates this fusion superbly as our nameless hero (Ryan Gosling) drives the getaway car for a pair of burglars and eludes a quickly assembled police dragnet. But Refn is more interested in the driver’s soul than his freelance talents, and when he makes friends with the mother next door (Carey Mulligan), his reticent facade comes under attack, even after the woman’s husband gets out of jail and requires help staving off some goons who have his number. Then there’s the mobster (Albert Brooks) who wants to bankroll him as a race driver but turns out to want a piece of that soul, too. Some have accused Refn of false advertising, and I have to agree. More driving, less plot gymnastics would have made for a better film, even though Refn’s stylistic flourishes are always interesting and Gosling’s silent, two-dimensional portrait is amusing. Everybody else just talks too damn much. (photo: Drive Film Holdings LLC)

The Eagle
Kevin Macdonald’s adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s 1954 boys-own adventure novel manages to maintain a rugged verisimilitude without resorting to the sort of grisly antics that would have placed it beyond the reach of adolescents, who are the natural audience. Revolving around the quest of a young Roman officer, Marcus (Channing Tatum), to retake the titular golden standard that his general father lost while leading the Ninth Legion into the mysterious wilds of northern Britain, the script gets a bit too heavy with the point-of-honor details, especially with regards to Marcus’s relationship to the locally captured slave Esca (Jamie Bell), whom he saves from certain death. Esca becomes his confidante by necessity as the two travel north of Hadrian’s Wall and encounter all sorts of native savagery, and while the action and intrigue are compelling, the movitations seem automatic. Too much could be made of parallels with our modern world, but the fact remains that Macdonald cast Americans (or, in the case of Mark Strong, Brits with American accents) as the Romans and non-Americans as everyone else. (photo: Focus Features LLC)

The Help
Any filmmaker who addresses the march of progress has to contend with hindsight, which can make any sort of historical treatment ring false. In this earnest but sparkly adaptation of the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett set in the American South during the early 60s, a budding writer named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) launches a secret project to record the stories of the black maids who work for middle and upper class white families. The project is secret because her community is deep in the heart of Jim Crow country, and any effort that is seen to be sympathetic to the burgeoning civil rights cause might endanger the lives of the maids who lend their voices to the book. As a narrative idea, this is good, but fleshing it out with characters who don’t fall into the trap of stereotypical Southern behavior is more of a chore than director Tate Taylor can handle. Conceived as a “woman’s picture,” The Help moves between the privileged world of white women who are enjoying the fruits of the American century and the more constrained milieu of their female servants, all of whom also have families but who have to contend with the indignities of segregation, both racial and sexual, as represented by the most pointed object of distinction, the toilet. At the instigation of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the head of the local women’s auxiliary, some housewives are building separate toilets for their maids. After all, they have to use separate rest rooms in public, why not in their homes? When Skeeter secures a job (rather than a husband) at the local newspaper, Hilly implores her to get her editorial on the toilet issue published, and Skeeter tries to put it off, caught between her love for her own black nanny (Cicely Tyson) and her lifelong friendships with many of the women who employ maids. Looking for a topic to launch her literary career, she hits on the oral history scheme, but has trouble recruiting witnesses. The first to sign up is the normally reticent middle-aged Aibileen (Viola Davis), who, like many of the maids, forms strong bonds with the white babies she raises on behalf of her employers. She’s eventually joined by the sassier Minny (Octavia Spencer, winner of this year’s supporting actress Oscar), who sees the project as the only opportunity she’ll ever have to get back at these white women, though later she gets back at her ex-employer Hilly in a suitably scatological way. Because all the white characters are plot devices on two legs, hindsight rears its ugly head in their eventual comeuppance, which is really what the book project is all about, and the audience can feel good about itself. The emotions are real enough, but the movie seems like a product of today, not the past. The intentions are fine, but nobody is fooling anyone about verisimilitude. (photo: Dreamworks II Distribution Co.)

The Ides of March
Adapted from a play by director/star George Clooney and the playwright Beau Willimon, this political thriller might have been more involving if The West Wing hadn’t already coopted most of its better ideas. Though corruption of the soul is its predictable theme, its view of everyday political expedience relies too much on personalities we’ve been pre-programmed to believe in: the ambitious young operative (Ryan Gosling) and his cynical, canny mentors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti); the idealistic campaign worker (Evan Rachel Wood) whose world-view, if not her whole life, is destroyed by her proximity to power; the opportunistic and ruthless reporter (Marisa Tomei); and the candidate (Clooney), whose intentions are purer than pure but whose tactics are engineered to turn those intentions into realities. Gosling is the focus, not Clooney, since anyone over the age of 40 here is automatically damaged goods. The dialogue is as catchy as anything Sorkin could write (“It doesn’t make any difference to the average fucker”), but the situations are old, even creaky. The Good Wife is less sophisticated but ten times more original. (photo: Ides Film Holdings LLC)

John Carter
It’s not clear why Disney named this movie John Carter. Of course, it’s the main character’s name, but who but stone pulp classic nuts will recognize it as the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Mars” novels? If they called it The Princess of Mars, which is the title of the book the screenplay was based on, then people would get the idea. It’s not like they’re afraid of insulting Burroughs’ legacy. They even incorporate him into the story by making him Carter’s nephew, who is called to his rich uncle’s house when he dies unexpectedly. The story comes out of his diary, thus requiring some tortured exposition. Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran (Confederate) who has some sort of beef with the U.S. cavalry out in the southwest during the Indian wars. He escapes from jail and ends up in a cave that the Indians avoid and which contains a vein of gold, a swirly thing on the wall, and a medallion. The next thing you know, he’s on Mars, where, due to the difference in gravity, he can leap tall buildings in a single bound, except that there aren’t any tall buildings, just a lot of desert and rocky outcrops. In fact, it looks a lot like Arizona, except yellower. He’s captured by natives, a race of tall, four-armed warriors called Tharks, whom he impresses by kicking the asses of their humanoid oppressors. The humans, however, are having their own civil war, and the titular princess (Lynn Collins) is refusing to marry the prince or duke or whatever from the other side. Carter throws a monkey wrench into the whole proceedings just by showing up, though it’s implied that his presence isn’t entirely accidental and may have been engineered by a race of bald supermen wearing what looks like Issey Miyake’s next spring collection. Because the director is Andrew Stanton, who is responsible for one of the best fantasy movies of the last several decades, Wall-E, you cut the movie some slack, but at this point there’s just way to many sides to choose and not enough motivation on anyone’s part to make you care that you don’t understand everything. Some people think it’s a Christ story (one explanation for the title), but these days anything can be. Maybe it will all be explained in the inevitable sequel, but that depends on whether or not this one makes a lot of money, and considering how much the thing cost, I’m not sure it’s a cinch. Of course, most people will go for the action and special effects, which is what cost so much, but the competition is pretty stiff these days. In the end, the movie is just as nondescript as its title. (photo: Disney Enterprises)

The Kid With a Bike
Following the narrative experiments of Lorna’s Silence, the Dardenne brothers return to marginalized Belgian youth, and The Kid With a Bike could be called their most characteristic work. As always, the camera follows the protagonist, in this case an 11-year-old boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret), closely. He’s constantly in motion, but it’s motion with a purpose, which at the start of the movie is to find the father (Jeremie Renier) who has abandoned him to an orphanage. Despite all evidence to the contrary Cyril refuses to believe his father gave him up of his own free will, and when he finally confronts him in the kitchen of the restaurant where he works, Samantha (Cecile De France), the woman who has taken Cyril’s cause to heart, makes the dissolute father tell Cyril to his face that he doesn’t want him. Predictably, Cyril acts out, and he fortunately has a champion in Samantha, who gives up her weekends and, ultimately, her boyfriend to help him regain his equilibrium. The Dardennes don’t make her job easy, but the rewards for the viewer are, as always, worth it. (photo: Christine Plenus)

My Week With Marilyn
Michelle Williams’ nuanced impersonation hardly justifies this slice-of-biopic about Marilyn Monroe’s participation in The Prince and the Showgirl. We know way too much about Monroe already and while it’s entertaining to see Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) hyperventilate, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) fade into the wallpaper, and Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) suck on his pipe, Monroe is, as she always was, the center of attention and director Simon Curtis doesn’t really have the wherewithal to look beyond the dramatic reductionism. Partly this has to do with the source material, a memoir by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), son of Sir Kenneth, who bridled at the prospect of his respectable future as a British blueblood and ran away to join the movies. Marilyn, over-medicated, under-estimated, and spooked by the responsibility, latches on to go-fer Colin and he responds with a formidable crush. Everybody finds this amusing but helpful, and Colin manages to get the sex goddess through the shoot. Since everything is seen through his misty eyes, there isn’t anything new to learn. Everyone was misty about Marilyn. (photo: The Weinstein Co. LLC)

Oranges and Sunshine
Advocacy filmmaking and dramatic calculation find satisfying common ground in this study of a 1980s scandal that revealed how the British and Australian governments over several decades conspired to ship tens of thousands of children from the former country to the latter. Emily Watson plays social worker Margaret Humphreys, who dedicates her life to righting these wrongs to the extent that she has to leave her family in England to help the now middle aged children in Australia understand why they were taken from single mothers and poor households in order to work as servants or even slaves. In his directorial debut, Jim Loach does his father Ken proud by allowing the melodramatic elements to speak for themselves. Perhaps too much emphasis is put on Humpreys’ sacrifice—in Australia she’s constantly targeted as a busybody, especially by Catholics who think they’ve being demonized—at the expense of the victims’ stories, but the ones we see are wrenching enough, and the spectrum of reaction, from Hugo Weaving’s sullen depression to David Wenham’s defiant adjustment to the situation, feels about right. (photo: Sixteen Midlands/See-Saw Pty Ltd/See-Saw Films/Screen Autralia/Screen NSW/Sount Australian Film Corp.)

Effective almost to a fault, this giant killer croc movie won’t waste your time with elaborate character development we already know. In fact, the appearance of familiar faces isn’t as distracting as it might be since the action is so finely tuned that you tend to absorb marginal considerations while focusing your attention on the next big scare. In Northern Australia an American travel writer (Michael Vartan) joins a river cruise that is forced to go aground on an island after the boat springs a leak. As night approaches and the tide comes in, the tourists and their young guide (Radha Mitchell) come to realize that the surrounding water is the domain of a huge salt water crocodile that is collecting food to store in its underground lair. Director Greg McLean emphasizes the beauty of this particular stretch of the outback, providing a stunning contrast to the horrors it contains. Sam Worthington for once seems totally in his element as a loutish lad forced to reach down into his better nature when danger strikes. (photo: The Weinstein Co. and Big Croc Pty Ltd.)

A Separation
Director Asghar Farhadi’s previous film, About Elly, clarified the relationship between men and women in Iran. Though it would be misguided to derive too much cultural significance from the story, a non-Iranian viewer could easily understand the peculiar niceties that make the relationship different from those in his own country. In his latest, which won the Oscar for Foreign Language Film, Asghar takes the next step, as if he were following a treatise. A married couple argues in front of a judge. The wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), a doctor, has secured an exit visa for the couple and their 10-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), a bank officer, has decided not to go, because his father’s Alzheimer’s has worsened and he feels he has to take care of him. If Simin is to leave and, more importantly, take Termeh with her, she needs permission from Nader that he isn’t willing to give, so she’s suing for divorce. The judge decides that Simin’s “problem” isn’t very important, and refuses to grant the divorce. Simin leaves Nader and moves back in with her parents. With his wife gone, Nader hires a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of his father while he’s at work. Unbeknownst to Nader, Razieh has taken the job to support her own family, since her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), has just been laid off. Razieh is devout, and struggles with questions of propriety: can she wash the old man when he soils himself? Farhadi presents this development in snatches. His selective presentation emphasizes emotional extremes. We usually see characters in the midst of difficulties. This intensity peaks when Nader and Termeh return home one day to find the father tied to the bed and Razieh out. When she returns he confronts her and pushes her out the door. Later, he learns Razieh is in the hospital, that she apparently fell down the stairs and her husband files a complaint against Nader. As it turns out, Razieh was pregnant and lost her baby, which means Nader could be guilty of murder. This is a lot to absorb, especially when viewers with no prior experience of Iran have to pick up the legal details as they go along. The lacunae in the development has a dramatic purpose, since it is in those unseen moments that the truth lies, specifically who knew what when. A Separation is a detective story, though one with so many variables regarding religion, class, personal motives, and gender roles that the “solution” seems trivial. It’s a rare movie that provides such a rich lesson in the social parameters of a particular culture. That probably wasn’t the purpose, but it’s a gift nonetheless. (photo: Asghar Farhadi)

Take Shelter
Michael Shannon has accumulated an enviable CV lately, with roles that some might say typecast him as a nutjob. His most famous part was as the emotionally challenged brother of the real estate agent in Revolution Road, for which he earned an Oscar nomination, though his most sustained creepout is as the religiously fanatic federal agent on Boardwalk Empire. As Curtis, a loving and simple working class family man living in the flatlands of Ohio, Shannon is still being asked to recreate a psyche on the edge of normality, except this time the psyche is a sympathetic one. Curtis eyes the sky all the time, sensitive to the changes in air pressure and humidity, certain a storm is coming that will destroy the life he’s so carefully built for himself and his family. It’s not a big life, but anyone who watches Take Shelter now can’t help but think of the socioeconomic situation prevalent throughout America, and the world. Director Jeff Nichols doesn’t make a big deal out of this analogy because he doesn’t have to. If Curtis is afraid, it’s easy to be afraid with him, even if those fears don’t seem to be rooted in reality. Curtis’s peculiar situation is that he understands this—his own mother, whom he visits at one point in a nursing home, had an irreversible mental breakdown when he was a boy—and yet his fearful nature gets the best of him. “You need to drop the attitude,” his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), tells him after he banishes their dog to the backyard, afraid the animal will attack him. Samantha is not privy to Curtis’s paranoia because he won’t admit to it, but she isn’t being cold. She has their deaf daughter to think about, and when an opportunity comes through for an operation that may restore the girl’s hearing, it takes precedent over anything else, thus adding one more layer of strain to Curtis’s life. Terror visits him during the night when he sleeps and even during his waking hours. His desperation impels him to make a rash decision that threatens his family’s short-term well-being, but he makes it anyway because the alternative, to him, is certain death when the storm comes. As Curtis’s anxieties get the better of him, he loses the trust of friends and family, though he doesn’t change as a person. The brilliance of Shannon’s performance is in the tension he conveys so palpably during Curtis’s quieter moments, a tension that pays off spectacularly during a community event, when he lashes out at everyone, still not sure if his visions are true or hallucinations, but how can he take that chance? All we can do is take him at his word, because we all have something to lose. (photo: Grove Hill Prod. LLC)

This Means War
High concept continues to rule, especially in the realm of comedy, romantic and otherwise. This high-budget romp combines current rom-com essentials with the sort of espionage parodies that have become overbearing since the Austin Powers films exhausted them all right away. It makes no difference that the two CIA agents on view are dedicated post-80s hunk types. Any spy movie not taken from a source written by LeCarre owes everything to James Bond, which is the only excuse I can find for making one of these agents a Brit—either that or Tom Hardy just couldn’t be bothered to assume an American accent. But that’s really the most glaring problem with This Means War: its obvious cavalier attitude toward expediency. The high concept isn’t even that high. Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) is a product tester in Los Angeles whose breakup with her long-time boyfriend prompts her married best friend (Chelsea Handler) to post her profile on a dating site, which attracts the attention of divorced CIA operative Tuck (Hardy), who we’ve already seen in action with his partner, the more sexually active FDR (Chris Pine) as they attempt, unsucessfully, to capture some German bad guy (Til Schweiger) at a casino in Macau. Tuck and Lauren hit it off, but right after their initial date FDR, unaware that she’s the woman Tuck hooked up with online, attempts to pick her up in a video store, and though she’s wise to his come-on, she’s frisky enough to accept it, especially when her best friend urges her to take on two lovers “for the sake of the women of the world.” Eventually, the two guys realize they are dating the same woman and make a pissing contest out of it, utilizing CIA resources to spy on Lauren and each other in order to shore up their respective positions as her favorite. Tuck’s main weapon, however, turns out to be his son, while FDR’s is his big loving (and obviously rich) family. In other words, while sex is being talked about with disarming frankness—especially by Handler who, in keeping with the script’s lazy methodology, basically performs segments of her raunchy standup routine whenever she’s on screen—domesticity and the promise of matrimony down the line are the only serious considerations for Lauren. Some commentators have given the film points for its tongue-in-cheek use of action movie cliches, but even an avowed hack like Brett Ratner pulled off this sort of thing better in the Rush Hour movies. The director here, McG, is supposed to be a visionary in this department, but it’s all second unit stuff, wedged into the storyline with a crowbar. If I were a CIA agent, I’d be offended. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John LeCarre makes filmmakers’ jobs easy. His stories about the workaday but no less dangerous lives of British spies are assembled with such impeccable skill that one hardly needs to adapt them. Tomas Alfredson, who demonstrated his own impeccable skills with Let the Right One In, knows how to make overcast skies and ill-lit corridors thrum with foreboding. In the early 70s George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is summarily downsized at British intelligence after his supervisor (John Hurt) is humiliated by the death of an operative in Vienna. The “cabal” that takes over say they have a conduit to Soviet military intelligence, but the minister is suspicious and calls Smiley back in to spy on the spies, so to speak. As any old hand knows, paranoia is both the friend and the nemesis of the intelligence agent. Smiley and his accomplices, some of whom were also shown the door, understand exactly how to adjust fear in the minds of those they want to probe. Sex is a good tool, too, and something that Smiley, one of literature’s most indelible cuckolds, knows something about. (photo: Karla Films, Paradis Films and Kinowelt Filmproduktion)

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