May 2012 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which is being distributed in Tokyo today.

Bad Teacher
The similarities between this poor-taste comedy and the more recent Young Adult are mostly circumstantial: glamorous box office star dares to play a disgusting character, son of famous comedy director directs, schlubby comic actor comes off more endearingly than nominally hot but clueless male lead. The Charlize Theron movie, however, leavened its black humor with some seriously trenchant character exploration, while Cameron Diaz’s turn as the titular junior high school educator, Elizabeth, doesn’t get much deeper than Glee. In order to land a presumably rich substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake) as a husband, Elizabeth stoops to everything, including blackmail, text-rigging, breast implants, and dirty tricks, but since no one except the unsexy phys ed teacher (Jason Segel) is anywhere near being a standup human, the audience hardly cares. Everyone deserves what they get. So in the end when Elizabeth receives her own requisite comeuppance its limp rectitude doesn’t even register. The protagonist in Young Adult was seriously disturbed, while Elizabeth is nothing more than a golddigger. Sorry, but we passed that point of credulousness long ago. (photo: Columbia Pictures)

The Ballad of Mott the Hoople
Though not as odd as this documentary would like you to believe, Mott the Hoople was the most interesting English band to emerge from the glam rock craze of the early 70s, mainly because they were so unsuited to the genre. Brought together by iconoclastic producer Guy Stevens in 1968 as a Stones/Dylan hybrid, the band never understood its mission and, on recordings at least, jumped from one half-hearted style to the next. However, in concert they were legendary roughnecks, plying a fierce, ramshackle pastiche of 50s R&R that got them banned from many an auditorium. But it didn’t work. As Stevens freaked out on drugs, their record company thought of ways to dump them until David Bowie, who liked what he saw, gave them “All the Young Dudes,” making them stars and inspiring leader Ian Hunter (who was hired by Stevens for his looks and attitude) to greater artistic ambitions. The movie chronicles the band’s fitful career ably and, considering the dodgy quality of the film clips, appropriately. Shaggy dog outfits require shaggy dog technique. (photo: A Start Prod. Film)

This year’s pugnacious-aliens-vs-American-military blockbuster comes a little earlier than usual and broadens the roster of good guys to include…Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces? Talk about suspending disbelief. The malignant ETs apparently trace back one of those “Is anyone out there?” messages that hopeful scientists send out into the void. These bring their own sea fortresses, complete with steel-cutting orbs that decimate Hong Kong in the time it takes to say “real estate bubble.” Based on the board game, the movie makes room for more than a few promo opportunities, though certainly the most risible is bringing the USS Missouri out of mothballs, complete with elderly crew, to fight alongside the very Japanese navy that sunk it the first time. Taylor Kitsch, who is now on the adjoining screen in the multiplex hamming it up as John Carter, finds his element, so check-cashers like Tadanobu Asano, Liam Neeson, and Alexander Skarsgard don’t have to. As for Rihanna, she finally gets to be the tough bitch with the big gun. I hope she likes her uniform. (photo: Universal Studios)

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
Disconcerting to a certain extent, this compendium of Swedish newsreels nevertheless offers a welcome complement to the familiar narrative the American media supplied during the heady black power era of the late 60s and early 70s. More justifiably objective in their coverage of the movement, the Swedish reporters offer humanity behind the rhetoric, personality to offset the dramatic caricature. Stokely Carmichael interviews his own mother and you understand the bitterness behind his fiery pronouncements. Angela Davis takes apart an interviewer who suggests that violence has compromised the message of her peers and almost breaks down in the process. “This country can’t stand the truth,” somebody says, and one assumes from this film’s tone that Europeans can, especially with regard to the movement’s resolute socialist aims. The director, Goran Hugo Olsson, provides younger voices (?uestlove, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, John Forte) as well as later reflections from some of the original participants (Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Abiodun Oyewole) to provide context, and the great question comes into focus: Is Barack Obama the realization of Black Power’s purposes? (photo: Story AB, Sveriges Television AB, Louverture Films)

A comedy of their own, so to speak, Bridesmaids maintains its gynocentric rigor not through any refusal to cop to the male need for raunch—it has plenty of that—but rather with a canny strategy of marginalizing all the penis-wielding characters. Except for the requisite romantic lead, the men here are as one-dimensional as are the female characters who tend to yuk it up in Judd Apatow’s guy comedies, and guess what? Apatow also oversaw this. In fact, one of his guys, Paul Fieg, directed, thus ensuring that the jokes are at least presented in a suitably off-putting fashion. Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay, stars as Annie, a rudderless single woman whose job and love prospects are compromised by forces seemingly beyond her control. Her BFF, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), is getting married to a co-worker, and she asks Annie to be her maid of honor, a task that Annie is wholly unsuited for. With each failed attempt to adhere to bridal protocol, Annie’s position is gradually usurped by Helen (Rose Byrne), the savvier, more well-to-do wife of Lillian’s boss. Thus the opposite-sex jealousies that fuel conventional romantic comedies are here carried over to same-sex relationships that will probably have greater resonance with female moviegoers. For sure, it has greater resonance than the ostensible romantic relationship between Annie and a good-natured highway patrolman (Chris O’Dowd), whose main plot purpose is to show how underachiever Annie’s penchant for failure is self-determined. But while the character development is richer than it is in most romantic comedies, Wiig and her co-writer, Annie Mumolo, are basically skit comics (Wiig made her name on Saturday Night Live) and the laughs come in fitful bursts. Less redolent of Apatow’s patented colloquial verbal humor than Ricky Gervais’s squirmy comedy of embarrassment, the set pieces gain traction not through irony or association but through pain. One laughs to dispel the feeling of disgust as Annie melts down in a public place or Lillian succumbs to diarrhea cramps in the middle of a street. Wiig shows her smarts to best effect in her scenes with Jon Hamm, who plays her callous sex friend, a beefy stud who doesn’t even have to ask her to leave in the morning before he gets up. And while she makes good sport of the whole facile farce surrounding a big wedding, in the end she accepts it as something worthy of emotional investment. The movie’s non sequitur structure is best represented by Oscar-nominee Melissa McCarthy as the plus-sized bridesmaid Megan, who is less a character than a comic device inserted at random. Bridesmaids is one for the gals that nevertheless bends a little too far over to please their knuckleheaded boyfriends. (photo: Universal Studios)

The Descendants
This reportedly faithful adaptation of a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings provides a perfect meeting place for two of Hollywood’s great popular iconoclasts, George Clooney and Alexander Payne, even if the trajectories of their respective careers are moving in opposite directions. With The Descendants, Clooney finally gets a role that doesn’t take advantage of his charm or good looks but in fact confounds them; while Payne gets a property that doesn’t take advantage of his capacity for edginess. Though he wrote the script, and won an Oscar for it, the source material is soft and contains no characters who might complicate the viewer’s feelings; except maybe the wife of Clooney’s Matt King, but she spends the entire movie in a coma. The accident that caused it occurred before the movie’s action takes place, so when we meet real estate lawyer Matt he’s already morose and in voiceover tries to dispel the viewer’s knee-jerk reaction to the beauty of the setting, which is Hawaii, a state of mind that offers no comfort to Matt. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he says—to us rather than to himself. The reality of his wife’s condition brings home the parallel reality that Matt has not had enough parental involvement in his two daughters’ lives, and as he tries to assert his paternal authority he finds out that his wife was having an affair before the accident. Compounding the humiliation is the realization that his difficult teenage daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), knew of this affair and fought with her mother over it; which doesn’t mean she sympathizes with her father. If anything, she resents him even more for being a chump, and it’s Matt’s prevailing over his chump-ness that constitutes the movie’s dramatic development: confronting the lover, coming to terms with his own domestic inadequacies, and, in the end, deciding on his legacy, because while all this melodrama is taking place his many relatives are assembling to liquidate the family’s vast and valuable land holdings, of which Matt is the trustee. Payne’s strong suit is the liberal dispensation of comic elements throughout this often painful story, in particular Alexandra’s slacker pal Sid (Nick Krause), who tags along on even the most traumatic errand, delivering inane bits of wisdom and inducing fights with only his laid-back attitude. But even Sid eventually toes the tonal line and makes a little speech about his dysfunctional background, because in a movie like this everyone has to hurt. Clooney deports himself admirably in his big emotional scene and gets us rooting for Matt, though he’s too rich (by implication) and comfortable to evoke genuine sympathy. Maybe that’s a class-ist way to look at the situation, but Payne would not have let such a huge subtextual consideration slide in the past.(photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

Endhiran the Robot
The latest blockbuster featuring Superstar Rajinikanth is reportedly the most expensive movie ever made in India, but don’t believe the hype that claims the special effects give Hollywood a run for its money. The CGI subtracts some of the charm inherent in a Rajinikanth vehicle. Though past 60, he still looks great and can shake a leg; in fact, I wish there were more musical numbers (maybe there were—the Japanese version is 30 minutes shorter than the original). The Superstar plays a scientist who develops a robot that goes through several evolutions on its way to becoming a rival for the heart of its creator’s fiancee (Aiswarya Rai), a situation that causes him to destroy his creation, which is rebuilt by a competing scientist who turns it into a killing machine. When the robot is beating up thugs on a crowded train, the action is fast, funny, and ridiculous, but the final reel, in which an entire army of robots—all resembling Rajinikanth—takes on the Indian military, is Transformers lite. Still, seeing Rajinikanth play a villain is a trip. (photo: Sun Pictures)

Le Havre
The titular French port town, situated on the English Channel, is the setting for Aki Kaurasmaki’s latest film, which, while not in his native Finnish or set in Helsinki, marks a return to form in the most basic way. Kaurasmaki’s affection for classic narrative cliches has been subverted over time by his need to remain fresh, and his last few movies are forgettably half-baked. Le Havre is so pure in structure and purpose it seems almost avant garde. The port is presented as a working class utopia, where even the aging shoeshine boy Marcel (Andre Wilms), beset by the proliferation of athletic footwear, can make a marginal but decent living. An almost preternaturally optimistic type, Marcel even sees the silver lining when a shady customer bolts before the polish is done and is killed by a rival spy. “At least I got paid first,” he says to his sidekick, whose Vietnamese pedigree attests to the community’s sense of egalitarian competition. However, Marcel’s true philanthropic implulses aren’t tested until he spies a young Senagalese boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who has been separated from his fellow illegal immigrants, and offers to help him gain passage to London, where his mother lives. The local authorities, represented by the black-trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing police inspector, Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), have captured Idrissa’s compatriots and are desperately searching for him. Monet suspects that Marcel is hiding him and much of the movie’s intrigue is given over to the psychological cat-and-mouse game they play. However, the meat of the movie is the sentimental interrelationships that inform the neighborhood of low-rise, ramshackle apartments lining the waterfront. It’s not as if Marcel doesn’t have problems of his own. His beloved wife, Arletty (Kaurasmaki muse Kati Outinen), is slowly succumbing to an unnamed terminal malady; a circumstance that doesn’t prevent his small-minded neighbor (Jean-Pierre Leaud) from trying to catch Marcel in the act of harboring a fugitive. But the neighbor is a convenient exception. Everyone else, from the cheapskate greengrocer to the heart-of-gold saloon proprietress, conspire to help Marcel help Idrissa, culminating in the usual Kaurasmaki set piece: an impromptu rock’n roll show (performed by real French rock’n roller Little Bob) to raise money for the boy’s passage to England. The advocacy of the boy’s right to fulfill his dreams cannot simply be attributed to affection for the underdog. It has more to do with making a story wherein the right people do the right thing, and such prerogatives don’t preclude the use of miracles, at least two of which figure prominently in the story. Kaurasmaki’s dry delivery has lately been utilized to lighten the load of his mild misanthropy, but there are no misanthropes here. La Havre is a great place to live, you just could never imagine visiting there. (photo: Sputnik Oy)

I’m Still Here
When this mock documentary opened in the U.S. more than a year ago, its subject, Joaquin Phoenix, was more than a year into his “retirement from acting.” At that time, the lengthening time period since Phoenix’s last movie, the romantic drama Two Lovers, was the only indication of the sincerity of Phoenix’s claim, and yet most critics assumed the movie was a hoax, or at least mostly staged. Rapping was the ostensible vocation he was pursuing at the time his brother-in-law, actor Casey Affleck, started filming this descent into humiliation. As Phoenix says in one of the movie’s many rambling, incoherent rants, he’s become so tired of hearing himself described as “emotional, intense, and complicated” that he can’t decide if those attributes are real or the result of hearing them all the time; so whether or not the film is as fraudulent as the “acting career” he purports to despise, it advances the idea that he really does want out, otherwise why even go through the trouble of documenting his meltdown? This seems to be one surefire way of burning your bridges behind you. Where the movie gets difficult to believe and even more difficult to watch is in those moments when Phoenix—bloated, shaggy, glassy-eyed—acts out all the worst stereotypes of the self-deluded Hollywood celebrity: drugs by the handful, prostitutes, pulling star rank for favors, and, worst of all, abusing friends and colleagues. That Affleck occasionally wanders into the frame to give enabling support to this asshole only makes the eyebrows inch further upward, but one has to say, if it’s a performance it’s one of Phoenix’s best. Still, to what end? Though that’s always going to be the main question about this movie, the collateral result is a total revelation of the bogus nature of celebrity. Though no one comes off as badly as Phoenix, the other famous people who appear are diminished simply because they make a living being the same thing Phoenix is so desperate to escape. Sean Combs can barely hide his pain listening to Phoenix’s feeble hip-hop demos because he’s allowed his feeling for a fellow star to rule his decision, and when he asks Phoenix how much money he has to spend on production, he sounds as mercenary as his haters always charged. From James Edward Olmos’s new age lecture to Jamie Foxx’s embarrassing cameo at a Miami night club, the wages of fame turn out to be shit. I’d like to think that was the point Phoenix and Affleck were making. (photo: Flemmy Productions)

The Journals of Musan
Director-star Park Jung-bum learned the particulars of filmmaking as assistant director on the films of Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Poetry), and while Park’s debut feature doesn’t demonstrate the substantial and intricate plotting that Lee, originally a novelist, is famous for, there’s a similar sense of the everyday tragic that feels specific to a certain stratum of Korean life. Park’s protagonist is an easy person to sympathize with but a difficult one to like. Seung-chul (Park) is a North Korean defector just trying to get by on the fringes of Seoul’s already marginalized immigrant community. Even the neighborhood where this contingent lives—a moonscape of demolished buildings and half-finished public works—feels permanently transient. Seung-chul is relentlessly bullied by his equally put-upon peers, not just because of his accent, which outs him as a refugee from the Hermit Kingdom, but because of his general feeble attitude and appearance. He earns a living putting up posters for a local sex entrepreneur and thus has to contend with rivals who are also looking for premium vertical surfaces. His best friend is a fellow defector who has the opposite of Seung-chul’s tentative temperament. Kyung-chul (Jin Yong-uk) is a hustler and a smoothie who works with various ethnic underworld types. He’s the ultimate capitalist convert, able to handle both gangsters and police. Seung-chul can’t handle anyone, except Kyung-chul who, despite his coarse surface, can only trust a fellow defector. However, Seung-chul’s inherent moral sense tends to get him in trouble, not only with Kyung-chul, who will use his friend if it suits him, but with a young evengelical Christian woman, Sook-young (Kang Eun-jin), whom he meets at church, a place he frequents for a sense of connection rather than spiritual succor. Seung-chul’s attraction to Sook-young seems at first to be little more than a plot device, something that gives the main character a sense of purpose, but Seung-chul’s lack of social skills turns out to be totally personal. Musan actually has less to do with the immigrant experience than with the particular neuroses of a kind of Korean man. Tellingly, Park gives Seung-chul a white puppy that is every bit the victim that he is, and the viewer thus has to worry about two innocent souls being brutalized. If the various indignities eventually seem overdetermined, it’s Seung-chul’s total isolation as an ethical being in response to such indignities that makes an impression. Though he can be childish and irrational, he only betrays his scruples once, and when he does it cuts through you like a knife. By no means as trenchant and accomplished as Lee’s films, Musan nevertheless is relentlessly absorbing and thought-provoking. Its narrative confusions and technical flaws only heighten its evocation of desperation. (photo: Secondwind Film)

The Muppets
Transparently put together to reposition Jim Henson’s beloved stock company of cloth beings as a Disney property, this generically titled reboot movie benefits from a certain generational alignment. The actors and filmmakers involved all grew up when the Muppets were the adolescent equivalent of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, and thus this is more than just an exercise in nostalgia, it’s an effort of enthusiasm. Jason Segel, who co-wrote the script, is one such fan, and he stars as Gary, a nice, pastel-wearing functionary living in Smalltown USA with his brother Walter, who looks suspiciously like a Muppet and, in fact, grew up adoring the iconic TV show. When Gary and his well-scrubbed fiancee, Mary (Amy Adams), go on vacation to Los Angeles, Walter comes along to visit the studio where his favorite show was produced, but it’s now a broken-down tourist attraction. Even worse, a greedy tycoon named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning on buying the property to get at the oil that is supposedly underneath it, so Walter, Gary, and Mary conspire to contact the old Muppet crew to save the studio by, you guessed it, putting on a show to raise enough money to buy it back. This entails locating all the principals and persuading them to come out of retirement. Kermit is holed up, Sunset Boulevard-style, in his moldering Bel Air mansion by himself. Miss Piggy is running French Vogue. Fozzy the Beat heads a Muppet cover band in Vegas. And Gonzo runs a plumbing supply company. Segel nails the mix of childish obviousness and adult themes that made the original show’s humor so indelible, and the fourth-wall-breaking jokes never become as tiresome as you think they might. But the real joy of the movie is something unexpected: the songs by Bret McKenzie, which range all over the pop spectrum and never fail to use their tropes to hilarious effect. When Cooper raps through “Let’s Talk About Me” or Segal and Walter duet on the faux-poignant “Man or Muppet,” the movie enters the realm of the delightfully absurd without losing its balance. One almost wished Jack Black had gotten a number, since his special cameo as himself—kidnapped to provide a star for the telethon—is surprisingly listless. It’s impossible to do all the Muppets justice, even in a full-length feature, but it feels strange to leave the theater without one Miss Piggy line lodged in the memory. And Adams seems to have been cast simply for her capacity to be bubbly and not for her considerable comedic skills. It’s as if Segel were afraid the humans would upstage the puppets. He may be a good and loyal fan, but he underestimates his heroes. (photo: Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Standing Army
Documentarians Thomas Fazi and Enrico Parlati tackle a pretty huge topic: the unchecked growth of the American military industrial complex as illustrated by the spread of bases throughout the world. There’s no way a 75-minute film can possibly do justice to such a central facet of international relations, and most of the stuff they go over is freely and widely available elsewhere; which isn’t to say it’s not worth your time. The expected talking heads and animated illustrations of statistical information support the idea that militarism is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, and they concentrate on three of the 700+ American bases to prove their point: one in Okinawa, one in Italy, and a third in Diego Garcia, an Indian Ocean island whose entire population was evicted to make way for an installation. The Okinawan footage is the reason the movie is being distributed here, and though the local protest leaders and environmentalists say everything you expect them to, they make a point that needs to be stressed more: Americans themselves would never tolerate this situation, so why should Okinawans? (photo: Effendemfilm and Takae Films)

A huge, up-from-indie-nowhere box office hit in Korea last year, Sunny displays some admirable craft in the service of a story that only a princess could love. When 40-something housewife Na-Mi dutifully visits her mother-in-law in the hospital one day she learns that her old high school friend is in an adjoining room, slowly succumbing to cancer. They reminisce about the 80s when both were in a female gang called Sunny and Na-Mi decides to find out about the others and spark a reunion before her friend dies. Thanks to some clever editing, director Kang Hyeong-cheol navigates the two time periods and two sets of characters with unusual skill, but the acting is invariably hammy and the plot lines are designed to make the starkest of impressions with the bluntest of force. Of course, no one has ended up where they pictured themselves in high school, and of course everyone eventually reconciles themselves to their fate. With seven characters, though, it’s difficult to feel anything intense for any one of them. It’s just one thing after another. (photo: CJ E&M Corp.)

Wu Xia
The operative adjective these days for Chinese-language martial arts movies is “Shakespearean,” which goes double for Peter Chan’s ambitious detective story, set in 1917 Yunnan. An unassuming papermaker, Liu Jinxi, stumbles on a robbery and ends up killing the two criminals. A visiting detective, Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), investigates the case and figures out that Liu is not what he appears to be, which is hardly surprising since he’s played by Donnie Yen, whom no one hires to act innocent and gentle. Getting to the explanation is half the fun, and along the way we not only learn of Liu’s troubled past as an assassin, but watch as Xu literally turns himself inside out trying to suss the forensic clues. In fact, true wuxia fans may feel cheated by the title, since the battles, though inventive and often hilarious, come at the beginning and the end, with the long middle portion taken up by sometimes laborious exposition that seems mostly an end in itself. The story it elaborates isn’t really that different from other kung fu revenge tales. (photo: We Pictures Ltd. Stellar Mega Films Co. Ltd.)

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