June 2012 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on May 25.

Attack the Block
If you have to see only one alien invasion movie this summer, see Attack the Block. Though not a masterpiece, it’s a movie that juxtaposes gritty social realism with farfetched horror-science fiction in a way that satisfies both sides of the entertainment divide. The opening scene may initially repel viewers, since it presents the ostensible heroes of the story in a frightfully bad light. A young woman walks from a tube station to her apartment in a poor South London neighborhood at night and is soon surrounded by hoodie-wearing teens who threaten her with knives and take her purse. It’s a scary sequence, but rather than follow the viewer’s sympathies and stick with the woman, director Joe Cornish follows the gang members as they roll off on their bikes and are themselves attacked by a streaking ball of flame. Considering what we’ve witnessed it’s as close to a purely visual non sequitur as you’re likely to get in a movie; but in a way it isn’t, because Cornish dives right into the sci-fi story without changing gears or losing the urban tone he’s established. When the flame disgorges a disgusting creature, ringleader Moses (John Boyega) snuffs the slimy ET and, puffed up with victory, carries it around like a trophy. That act of bravado will soon come back to bite the gang in their collective ass and lay waste to the dank, graffiti-covered public housing estate where they live with whatever family members haven’t succumbed to drugs or fled their responsibilities. As we get to know the gang, we see their predicament and the dead-end lives they lead, and even when the young woman, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), reappears with police in tow to arrest her muggers, they save her from the aliens; which doesn’t redeem them in her eyes but does force her to consider their circumstances a little more closely. This is all running subtext, because on the surface Attack the Block is a fast-moving, suspenseful monster movie of the stalk-and-grab type, and the grimy, shadowy housing block provides the perfect setting for an invasion of aliens who are as inky black as a starless night (only their nasty teeth are visible). Along the way, we meet other denizens of the neighborhood, including its top gangsta (Jumayn Hunter), whose face-to-face encounter with the aliens doesn’t make him any less tolerant of these upstart punks; a loser white pothead (Luke Treadaway) whose book-learning comes in handy; and the estate’s local drug dealer (Nick Frost). But it’s Moses’s crew of barely adolescents who steal the movie, an Our Gang collection of wiseacre brats whose unavoidable immersion in pop culture has prepared them for this apocalypse without their knowing it. (photo: Studio Canal/UK Film Council/Channel Four TV Corp.)

Bellflower
Whether you accept Evan Glodell’s super-saturated indie nightmare fantasy as a violent boys-with-toys B-movie or a cautionary tale of young love gone terribly wrong, you will likely spend the greater part of its running time waiting for the other shoe to drop. Glodell plays Woodrow, a geeky mechanic who, with his BFF Aiden (Tyler Dawson), has moved to Southern California to build the perfect muscle car AND the perfect flame-thrower. The purposes of these two goals is never made clear, though the pair’s alcohol-soaked reveries on Mad Max tell you where they originated. Along the way to his destructo ideal, Woodrow falls for Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a damaged young woman whose fickle emotions in the long run give him reason to act out these pent-up impulses, though as the film gets seriously weird it becomes difficult to separate the narrative’s “reality” from whatever it is Glodell wants to show off in terms of his cinematic capabilities. In the end, there isn’t enough pyrotechnical spectacle to satisfy genuine gearheads, and their girlfriends will immediately call bullshit on the love story. (photo: Bellflowerthemovie LLC)

Dark Shadows
Though Dark Shadows is considered the ultimate cult-camp TV series, the subset of humanity that had firsthand exposure to it when it was originally broadcast in the late 60s and early 70s has to be tiny; or tiny relative to the budget approved for this parody movie version and the subsequent interest generated. The combo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp guaranteed the money and exposure, but won’t do the same for the box office. DS will stand or fall on its word-of-mouth, and my guess is that few people will get the jokes, much less the whole premise. Even I, who watched the series for a while semi-religiously, recognize nothing story-wise. Barnabas Collins (Depp), the heir to a successful family fishing business transplanted in the late 18th century from Liverpool to the coast of Maine, is cursed by a witch-lover (Eva Green) after she discovers his real affections for a more demure cousin (Bella Heathcote). The curse turns Barnabas into a vampire who is entombed in a coffin that’s eventually unearthed during roadwork in 1972, a plot point that allows Burton to unleash a full arsenal of Me Generation humor, starting with drug-addled hippies in VW buses and ending with Alice Cooper, playing himself, in concert at the Collinwood estate, which has fallen on hard times in the ensuing centuries thanks to business competition from Angelique Bouchard, the same witch who turned Barnabas into a bloodsucker. Depp’s fey, florid vampire is more cartoonish that the late Jonathan Frid’s, which suits Burton’s purposes but further distances the movie from the TV show and, as a result, confounds the parody appeal, for whatever that’s worth. It’s better to ignore the weak confluence and concentrate on the little things, like Michelle Pfeiffer as the affectless materfamilias of the household, Elizabeth Stoddard, who is made hep to Barnabas’s condition right away and doesn’t, pardon the expression, bat an eyelid; or Helena Bonham Carter as the resident, flame-haired, alcoholic psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman, whose crush on Barnabas is frightening and hilarious. Green proves herself adept at comedy when she isn’t being pulled this way and that by the computer graphics wonks, and Heathcote, who plays the lost love of Baranabas reincarnated as the Collinwood governess, is stiffer than a corpse. I couldn’t get a bead on Chloe Grace Moretz’s adolescent killjoy, Carolyn, who appears to be not what she seems but too late for that to have a difference in terms of humor. Depp makes the most of his characteristically intense identification with weirdos, pushing Baranabas’s anachronistic elegance over the proverbial top. “This is a stupid play,” he hisses in disgust while watching Scooby Doo. Now that’s critical perspective. (photo: Village Roadshow Films Ltd.)

Faust
The previous installments in Aleksandr Sokurov’s Tetralogy of Power were about real-life national leaders, men whose hold on a particular nationalism could be explained as pacts with the Devil, so it’s only natural he concludes the series with the work that codified the metaphor. It’s a fairly literal recreation of Goethe’s tragedy, and though Sokurov’s distinctive visual style is utilized throughout, the content makes as much of an impression as the form. As our hero (Johannes Zeiler) ponders the existence of the soul, searching in the entrails of a corpse or at a drunken public house, he and his Mephistopheles (Anton Adasinsky) bat existential questions back-and-forth in a parody of the Socratic method. The money moment when the good doctor signs his contract doesn’t arrive until the movie is nearly over, so the reason for his commitment, the love of the ghostly beauty Margherita (Isolda Dychauk), seems short-changed, even when that love is consummated. As always with Sokurov, the density of images, sounds, and ideas may prove impenetrable to some, but it’s also one of his funniest, liveliest films. In German. (photo: Proline-Film Stiftung fur Film-und Medienforderugn, St. Petersburg Filmforderung, Russland Alle Rechte sind geschutzt)

Frontier of Dawn
As pretentious as its title, this 2008 film by Philippe Garrel is exactly what you might expect from someone who just missed the French New Wave and means to make up for it. Shot in black-and-white and moving at the pace of snail, it’s a story that demands full attention. The filmmaker’s son, Louis, stars as Francois, a callow photographer who falls in love with a semi-famous screen actress named Carole (Laura Smet). Their affair is intense without being particularly passionate owing to Carole’s marriage to a man on the other side of the world and her need for the kind of reassurances that a person of Francois’ weak temperament can’t provide. Carole has serious emotional problems and when his attention falters she ends up in a mental institution, spooking him into the arms of a more stable lover, but the ghost of Carole lingers. Garrel’s elliptical style can be frustrating but it’s perfect for a love story this committed. We’re not meant to make sense of it. We’re meant to feel it, and it cuts like a knife. In French. (photo: Rectangle Prod./StudioUrania)

Hesomori
This low-budget, locally produced fantasy can’t quite square its didactic commercial purposes with its need to entertain. A family of traditional papermakers in rural Fukui Prefecture guards a forest passage to a warren of tunnels, each of which connects to a different era in the past, but when an underhanded developer gets wind of the power spot he wonders how to exploit it. We wonder, too, since his nefarious scheming doesn’t have a logical end; it’s just nefarious for the sake of being nefarious. The writing is strictly grade school, involving time-slipping samurai, paper swatches with magical restorative powers, and a confusing flashback structure that borrows from Stand By Me and countless anime. It’s obvious that the producers want to promote the charms of the region, but the history of the Fukui Clan and the explanation of local crafts are sketchy. Most of the budget probably went to the recognizable cast and the bit of CG that highlights the big finish. Wouldn’t a nice documentary about either of these aspects been more effective, not to mention cheaper? In Japanese. (photo: Hesomori Seisaku Iinkai)

John Cassavetes Retrospective
The six titles chosen for this revival of the work of the man who invented Amerindie are considered his best works, though actually they’re his “least commercial” ones: no Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, or his one box office “hit,” Gloria. This is the Cassavetes of the long, meandering conversations and shaky handheld camerawork, of self-conscious psychological catharsis and acting that seems improvised but is mostly controlled chaos. It usually works because the feelings seem so rare in American movies. But when it works completely on its own terms, as it does in Cassavetes’ masterpiece, A Woman Under the Influence, it can be devastating. A study of the relationship between a clueless but loving working class husband (Peter Falk) and a seriously confused full-time mother-homemaker (Gena Rowlands), Woman is the most brutally frank explication of a marriage ever dedicated to American celluloid, and if its power is mostly accidental, then you can only feel sorry for the people who had to endure its production. Also: Shadows, Faces, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, and Love Streams. New prints. (photo: Faces International Films Inc.)

Men in Black 3
The third installment in the extraterrestrial babysitting franchise is structured around necessity. Tommy Lee Jones, as much of a curmudgeon in real life as his character, Agent K, is in the movie, apparently wasn’t keen on reprising the role again but eventually relented. In order to cause as little friction as possible, the movie was built around Will Smith’s Agent J, who is forced to travel back in time to save his partner’s younger self as played by Josh Brolin. So while one misses Jones’s languid Texan mannerisms, Brolin does a good impersonation, which manages to make up for whatever Jones isn’t able to provide. But while MIB is nothing if not a movie that takes advantage of novelty, it seems to have exhausted its store. An extraterrestrial bad guy named Boris (Jemaine Clement) escapes from an outer space penitentiary with the help of Nicole Scherzinger bearing a cake. Boris was sent up, minus one arm, back in 1969 by Agent K, and he’s out for revenge, though Agents K & J don’t realize he’s loose until they raid a Chinese restaurant full of alien protoplasm who have set a trap. The next day J goes to work and discovers not only that his partner hasn’t shown up, but that no one, including his new boss Agent O (Emma Thompson), has heard of him, though there was a legendary Agent K killed in the line of duty at Cape Canaveral during the Apollo 11 moon launch. J realizes that Boris must have figured a way to go back in time to kill K. As with Dark Shadows much of the humor of MIB3 exploits fashions and fads of an earlier era, a time when a lot of the people working behind the cameras were alive and cognizant. So while J’s dark, skinny tie fits the sartorial temper of the day, his dark, skinny self doesn’t and he’s profiled by the local constabulary; and while K drives a contemporary Ford he listens to that same corny cowboy music that J chides him for loving in the 21st century. Probably the best joke to emerge from the time-shift premise is that Andy Warhol (Bill Harder) is an MIB whose Factory is a meeting place for extraterrestrials. The second best joke is that no one believes J when he says the Mets will win the Series. Etan Cohen’s script has trouble unraveling time travel exigencies and so he inserts a strange character named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is supposed to explain things in a purposely confusing way. I get that joke, too, but it doesn’t make the movie any more memorable. MIB3 is basically the sum of its gags, which, whether due to Jones’s reduced participation or not, suffers diminishing returns. (photo: Sony Pictures Digital Inc.)

Midnight in Paris
It’s easy to grant Woody Allen a pass for his obsessive love of all things pre-70s since his value system is so universal. Even if he can’t stand music written after 1949, his secular humanist world view guarantees that any conservative social impulses attendant to his pop culture preferences are kept in check. Nevertheless, you wish he’d loosen up with the imagination. The hero of his latest nostalgia bath, Gil (Owen Wilson), is a successful Hollywood screenwriter disenchanted with his vocation. He wants to be a full-time novelist, as if the two callings were mutually exclusive. Visiting the City of Light with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her arch-Republican parents, he falls in love with Paris’s history and tradition. The GF and the in-laws, ugly Americans who are there to shop, can’t understand his sentimental attraction to the city. Inez is more comfortable with the pedantic cynicism of her friend Paul (Michael Sheen), a visiting academic who represents the shrill intellectualism Allen enjoys lampooning. A romantic like Gil is adrift in this company, and when he has the chance he breaks away to wander the streets and take it all in. So does Allen, who opens the film with a travelogue’s worth of pretty postcard shots, setting the mood a little too perfectly. (I’ll bet the local film promotion bureau gave itself a hefty bonus.) One night, Gil is strolling when he’s picked up by an old car filled with drunken revelers who take him to a party where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Cole Porter. Somehow he’s slipped through time to the 1920s, when the city was the hotbed of the modernist movement. Hemingway hears that Gil is a novelist and offers to show his work to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who gives him sage advice and, more importantly, introduces him to Adriana (Marion Cotillard), one of those charismatic beauties who seems to be the muse for every creative type she runs into, including Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and Luis Bunuel (Adren de Van). Gil falls in love with this free spirit, who has her own nostalgia prerogatives, namely the fin de siecle Golden Age, when Paris was “really exciting.” The moral is obvious—the past always seems better because it’s the past—and Allen makes a better tale of it than you might expect, but there’s still a lot of laziness: Gil’s book about a “nostalgia shop” sounds dull, and as always in Allen’s later romantic comedies the initital doomed coupling, that between Gil and Inez, is transparently a plot device that’s drawn out too long. If anything saves the movie from abject mediocrity it’s Wilson. Allen has finally found his ideal comic surrogate. (photo: Mediaproduccion, SLU, Versatil Cinema, and Gravier Prod. Inc.)

The Skin I Live In
Though based on a crime novella by somebody else, this latest Pedro Almodovar color wheel is even more jam-packed with classic cinema allusions, and since the story is pulpy to begin with the references are easier to spot than usual. In between, however, there’s not much meat or, more precisely, skin to chew on. Antonio Banderas returns to the Almodovar menagerie as the mad plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who lost his wife to suicide years ago and wants to recreate her in Vera (Elena Anaya), a patient-prisoner at his deluxe, ultra-modern compound. As has been the director’s habit since the mid-90s, most of the plot is told in flashback, but as we slowly learn how Vera came to this place and what she used to be the interest level flags, defeated by the mechanical quality of the storytelling, which flattens out the emotions. Thus the big shocker feels anticlimactic, and the movie literally grinds to a close. There’s more dramatic power in the antiseptic lighting of Ledgard’s stainless steel operating dungeon than in any of the characters’ hopes and dreams. In Spanish. (photo: Jose Haro, El Deseo)

The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Director Robert Guediguian has long championed the working stiffs of Marseilles, and if he’s gotten even more leftistly didactic with age, he’s also become more critical of characters he once portrayed as saints. The hero in his latest is Michel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a shipyard union leader who negotiates a partial layoff with management and offers his own name in the lottery to decide who goes. His name is picked and he’s declared a martyr, much to the amusement of his wife, Marie-Claire (Ariane Ascaride), who works as a caregiver. The 50-year-old Michel’s sudden unemployment is cushioned by 30 years of savings, the knowledge that he owns his home, and the fact that he’ll be receiving a pension before long, but right after his retirement party he suffers a home invasion. The robbers take all the available cash and credit cards. The couple copes with this trauma resolutely, but their eventual act of forgiveness requires a lot more socioeconomic explanation than what Guediguian provides. Michel’s sainthood, as it turns out, is credibly compromised, but the way he redeems it feels rigged. In French. (photo: AGAT Films ‘ Cie, France 3 Cinema)

The Vow
Never mind cell phones. What would contemporary American screenwriting be without the drug-induced coma, which allows characters to be unconscious for unconscionably long periods of time so that other characters can talk about them and all sorts of drawn-out business can take place to advance developments that the sleeping character doesn’t know about? In this romantic drama, Rachel McAdams plays Paige, a Chicago sculptor married to recording studio owner Leo (Channing Tatum). One snowy evening they’re rear-ended by a truck. Leo wakes up in the hospital but Paige doesn’t thanks to the aforementioned medical procedure, carried out to relieve the swelling on her brain. However, when she finally does come to she remembers everything about herself except the previous four years, which just happen to coincide with her marriage. There’s no reason why the screenwriters can’t make something interesting out of this ludicrously specific premise (ludicrous despite the fact that it’s “inspired” by a true story). In fact, the comic potential seems irresistible, but these days conjugal love is treated even more reverently than the pope, so Leo’s mission is to make his wife fall in love with him all over again. The main obstacle to achieving this goal is Paige’s parents (Jessica Lange, Sam Neill), who we know nothing about until they show up in the hospital one day and have their daughter moved up to the VIP wing. We then get it: Paige and Leo’s Bohemian existence—which, by the way, looks pretty deluxe to me—has been a purposeful affront to Paige’s privileged past, which was hallmarked by her corporate lawyer father’s plans to have her go to law school; but she bolted, opting for the Art Institute of Chicago instead, thus bringing about an estrangement. Leo is understandably worried because, as we’ve already seen, the two were married in a loopy ceremony attended only by their loopy Bohemian friends. It’s all a bit of culture shock for him and now that Paige has lost those memories she’s back to where she started before her rebel move—happily in the bosom of her family. It’s thus touching but a bit baffling to watch the earnest Leo do his damnedest to get Paige to remember. He makes things even worse in the process. Meanwhile, Mom, Dad, and Paige’s old lawyer fiance (Scott Speedman) seem to be conspiring to make sure she doesn’t remember. All these various elements could either have been played for broad melodrama or broad comedy, but director Michael Sucsy goes straight down the middle, which is fine for Tatum, whose emotional range is limited, but McAdams seems frustrated, and most of her emotional scenes take place in a vacuum. The Vow is way too nice for its own good.

The Way
A sort of family project, this road movie was written and directed by Emilio Estevez, who also appears in it alongside his father Martin Sheen, whose real name is Ramon Estevez (he’s never legally changed it). Emilio plays, briefly, a 40-year-old man who bucks his ophthamologist father’s wishes to finish his doctorate and embarks on a neverending world trek. Later he is killed in an avalanche in the Pyrenees shortly after starting the famous Camino di Santiago Compostela pilgimage, and when his father, Tom, goes to claim the body Tom decides to finish the pilgrimage for his son. However, he does so grudgingly, and as he makes his way he meets up with other souls whose reasons for walking all that way are also fraught with painful significance. Sheen brings real weight to the role, but his son’s script is more earnest than affecting. The meaningful incidents follow a predictable dramatic arc and the colorful local characters adhere to movie stereotypes if not cultural ones. The beautiful photography, however, will likely inspire you to want to make the pilgrimage yourself. (photo: The Way Productions LLC)

We Bought a Zoo
W.C. Fields famously warned fellow entertainers to never work with dogs or children, presumably because they’ll always upstage you but given Fields’ reputation most likely it was because he thought any entertainer worth his weight in ticket stubs probably hated them as much as he did. One wishes Matt Damon, certainly the most appealing male movie star of his generation, had heeded that advice. Damon plays real-life non-fiction writer Benjamin Mee, whose wife dies leaving him to raise his disaffected teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and preternaturally adorable 6-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) on his own. Rosie is no problem, but Dylan, a budding artist given to drawing macabre portraits that scare his school principal, is more than a handful so Benjamin seeks a change of scenery. Though he has been downsized the way writers tend to be these days, Benjamin somehow has an inheritance that is never satisfactorily explained and while house-hunting stumbles upon a huge estate in the suburbs of Los Angeles that he immediately falls in love with, even though it’s attached to an honest-to-God private zoo, which, according to some municipal law, must be acquired by the person who buys the property. Naturally, everyone thinks he’s crazy, but as he sees it, “it’s simple destiny,” though if this weren’t based on a real story it would seem more like unimaginative screenwriting, and there is plenty of other stronger evidence to that effect. One waits impatiently for director Cameron Crowe’s script to finally confront something that resembles reality, but the cliches and contrivances continue apace; in fact, they accelerate as Benjamin and family endure all the indiginities of trying to make the zoo into a viable commercial enterprise, starting with winning over the crew of eccentrics who take care of the animals full-time, including a drunken Scotsman (Angus Macfadyen), a kid with a monkey perched permanently on his shoulder (Patrick Fugit), and the grumpy, capable and incredibly hot manager, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson). This team’s doubts about their new boss’s capabilities are allayed once they realize how sincere Benjamin is, and the only thing Crowe has going for him in this luckless enterprise is Damon’s natural ability to convey sincerity. One can’t help but wonder, in fact, what such a conscientious soul like Benjamin is doing in the business of imprisoned wild beasts, but the movie shows less concern for the welfare of the animals than with the state of Benjamin’s paternal resilience. Dylan becomes even moodier despite the humiliating puppy-dog attentions of Kelly’s niece (Elle Fanning), and too much emotional currency is spent on father-and-son coming to terms with their feelings for each other. Fields’ advice needs to be amended: never work with kids and Cameron Crowe, at least not in the same movie. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

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