July 2012 movies

Except for The Amazing Spider-Man, here are the movie reviews I wrote for the July issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Monday.

The Amazing Spider-Man
The gratuitousness of rebooting Marvel’s most indiosyncratic character will certainly be discounted by all the money it will make, but those idiosyncrasies were never fully exploited in Sam Raimi’s trilogy so there’s at least that to look forward to. Moreover, Andrew Garfield, with his more hyper take on teenage nerdiness, skews closer to the image I have of Peter Parker than did Tobey Maguire, whose laid-back sensitivity seemed too self-conscious for what was basically a high school soap opera that aspired to grand opera. Marc Webb’s movie delves deeper and more carefully into the source material by centering the plot on Peter’s dead parents. Were Webb more adept at the exigenicies of pulp storytelling he might have made the mystery of Richard Parker’s (Campbell Scott) flight into the night and subsequent fatal accident actually compelling, but the solution, put off too long and with too much business in between, seems secondary to so much other stuff. And Webb’s supposed strong suit, his facility with young-love stories, is undermined by the scriptwriters’ use of the hoariest romantic cliches when mapping out Peter’s crush on and eventually winning of the brainy beauty Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Webb finds his footing in the relationship between Peter and his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Personally, it was Peter’s hormonally charged interactions with adults that made me a fan of the comics way back when; the way his secret superhero status exacerbated the usual pitfalls of adolescence and thus made his suffering all the more poignant. Garfield nails this dramatic counterpoint, alternating the emotional highs attendant to his discovery of his new powers with the self-hatred attendant to his lapses of responsibility. When Spider-Man, full of himself, taunts a petty thief holding a knife, one feels the full impact of stupid, giddy youth that the original comic was so good at conveying. Likewise, when he realizes the pain his erratic behavior is causing his aunt he punishes himself with exaggerated ferocity. The punishment he metes out to the nominal villain, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), isn’t nearly as potent but we have CG for that, and even though Webb has more sophisticated technology at his disposal than Raimi had, the action set pieces don’t cohere. When the big finish wraps up you may wonder what the outcome really is, and then have to contend with the usual wait-til-the-next-installment implications. The fact that Peter Parker is much more interesting than Spider-Man makes The Amazing Spider-Man better than your average superhero blockbuster, but unfortunately Spider-Man is still the main draw. (photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment and Marvel Comics)

The Beaver
Considered a vehicle for Mel Gibson rather than Jodie Foster’s first directing effort in 16 years, The Beaver could be called either the best-timed or worst-timed release of the new millennium. It was about to be unleashed on theaters at about the point Gibson had his second (third?) public meltdown, and the distributor got cold feet. Had it come out when it was supposed to, the contrast between Gibson’s real-life hot-tempered scourge and his depression-addled character Walter Black could have been something worth talking about, but now that it has finally and quietly slipped into public viewing it feels less than the sum of its ambitious parts. Walter’s down moods eventually become too much for his suburban family and his wife, Meredith (Foster), while understanding of his condition, asks him to leave. He moves into a hotel where he tries to hang himself and ends up comically botching it. When he wakes up from his ordeal, a hand puppet he retrieved from a dumpster starts talking to him in a British accent, and Walter hits on a solution to his communication problems: talk through the beaver. It’s a neat idea and one that Gibson, with his affection for mimicry, is perfectly suited to play. In fact, if we still wanted to talk about Gibson the madman, we could insist that the reason he is so convincing in the role is that he himself finds acting through a cloth animal strangely liberating. The beaver articulates Walter’s hopes and fears by essentially working through them. He’s candid and personable, a combination that makes his interlocutors overlook the fact that they’re not talking to Walter directly. When Walter uses his newly found effusiveness in the execution of his job as CEO of a toy company, he comes up with a new product that’s a hit and gets interviewed for TV shows and newsmagazines—he and the beaver, that is. Meanwhile, Meredith, who went along with the beaver because it made her husband at least approachable, is becoming tired of the gimmick, and their teenage son, who also has articulation problems (he makes a tidy living writing other people’s term papers), is falling in love with a girl whose own psychological issues trump his in certain ways. It’s all so very quirky and compassionate toward the spiritually damaged, but feels dishonest about the actual pain that people feel when they’re constantly plagued by disappointments. Because Gibson really does seem to understand the sort of obstacles Walter has to overcome in order to connect, he is the most intriguing and affecting element of the movie. Everyone else’s problems seem designed down to the last teardrop. Sometimes it takes a real-life shocker to give meaning to a movie that otherwise doesn’t offer any. (photo: Summit Entertainment and Participant Media)

The Courier
Jeffrey Dean Morgan has the grizzled features and beefy build required for the title role, a reticent freelance deliveryman whose sales point is that he doesn’t ask questions and can find people who don’t want to be found. In this instance, the recipient is a hit man who everyone assumes died years ago, and the heavy who makes the offer the courier can’t refuse seems more interested in finding the recipient than in making the delivery; but that’s only the first of many incongruities in this listless, confusing thriller. Director Hany Abu-Assad is only interested in set pieces showing how resilient the courier is. He gets beaten up several times, shot at twice, and tortured once. Being a stone loner, his few relationships are tight but amorphous, and it turns out his problem making connections ties into the development of the story, but by the time these points are clarified the viewer probably won’t care. New Orleans plays itself pretty well, but the local color doesn’t make up for the lack of coherent motivation. (photo: Courier Prod.)

Crazy Horse
The Crazy Horse Saloon has been a Paris landmark since 1951 when it started presenting nude dance performances that catered to a higher class of patron. Since then it’s become an international brand and a huge tourist attraction. In an age of ubiquitous Internet porn its attractions are quaint: Naked women performing provocative dances in theme settings for mixed-gender audiences who sip expensive champagne and buy tacky souvenirs. Venerable documentarian Frederick Wiseman, in the third of his series on Paris-based entertainment establishments, follows his usual methodology and films everything about the workings of the cabaret in an unobtrusive fashion. The main difference between his Paris docs and his previous work is the focus on performance. A third of Crazy Horse‘s running time is devoted to the stage show, which, despite its “erotic art” label is earthily salacious. Though the women are skilled dancers and “striptease” is a minor consideration, the movement can be easily described as bumping and grinding, and Wiseman emphasizes this aspect by concentrating on backsides to the exclusion of the rest of the bodies. Whether intentionally or not, he objectifies the dancers by reducing them, literally, to tits and ass, thus mirroring the strategy of the management. During an audition for new dancers, the applicants are told that they will not be judged for their terpsichorean abilities but rather for their “body lines.” The main point isn’t voluptuousness but rather uniformity: ideally the chorus line should have the same petite body shape. Consequently, though we repeatedly see the same dancers throughout the film in various states of undress both on stage and off, we never get to know any of them personally. Human interest is centered on Philippe Decoufle, the choreographer who has been brought back to the Crazy Horse to design a new stage show called “Desir.” Decoufle’s self-appointed mission is to bring the show into the new millennium, which means discarding some classic routines, a plan that upsets his colleagues, including general manager Andree Deissenberg. When Decoufle asks her to close the theater for a week so that he can concentrate fully on rehearsing the ambitious new routines, she balks. “The stockholders would never agree,” she says, her eyes fixed firmly on the bottom line. The plan also causes panic for the costume mistress and the technical crew, though not fidgety art director Ali Mahdavi, whose dedication to the Crazy Horse tradition is obsessive to the point of myopy. He records a new theme song that anyone with an ear will tell you is awful but he just adores. In the end, the viewer may wonder what all the fuss is about because, despite its more abstract touches, “Desir” is the same old bump and grind, and the dancers do it anyway because that’s their job. In French. (photo: Ideale Audience Zipporah Films Inc.)

Un ete brulant
Philippe Garrel’s penchant for the tangential narrative is realized with almost annoying perfection in his latest film, one of his few in color and featuring a bankable movie star. The director’s son Louis is again on hand to play his usual disaffected screen persona, only this time he’s even more emotionally stunted than in past performances. Frederic is a painter who subjects his Italian film actress wife, Angele (Monica Bellucci), to mystifying interludes of artistic petulance that drive her into the arms of a feckless movie director (Vladislav Galard). The title refers to the time frame, a summer in Rome. Frederic and Angele put up another couple (Jerome Robart, Celine Sallette) for the season and we get to compare and contrast different modes of domestic and romantic accommodation. But even if the motivations for the objectionable behavior on display aren’t sufficiently explained, the movie retains its considerable dramatic power through juxtapositions of incidents that disturb and fascinate, often at the same time. The most indelible one follows Bellucci’s prone nude with the aftermath of a car crash. In French. (photo: Rectangle Prod./Wild Bunch/Faro Film/Prince Film)

I Don’t Know How She Does It
The only difference between Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker’s most famous character, and Kate Reddy, the working mom she plays in this cautionary comedy, is the latter’s husband and 2 kids, which may sound like a lot but isn’t given Parker’s lazy idea of what it means to be likably feminine. Director Douglas McGrath frames Kate’s impossible “juggling act,” as she calls it, of perfect middle class urban motherhood and the go-go life attendant to high-tier investment banking with a lot of the same gimmicks Sex and the City codified: relentless voiceovers, impossible conflicts, and a mise en scene that drips of automatic privilege. These days it’s difficult to sympathize with Kate’s predicament when it’s obvious she’s so materially well-off. Husband Greg Kinnear is sweet, patient, and for the most part superfluous. Demanding client and fantasy daddy/love object Pierce Brosnan is earthy and understanding. The elision of financial concerns, both in the main couple’s domestic situation and Kate’s disreputable profession, will reduce any identification for the average female moviegoer. I know exactly how she does it: money. (photo: IDK USA LLC)

Man on a Ledge
A fair indication of the paucity of original ideas in studio-funded thrillers is the increasing importance of the setup, the introductory sequence that pulls viewers into the story and makes them care about the mystery. Writers and directors have become so skillful at the mechanics of the setup that they no longer seem patient enough to sit back and contemplate if the mystery itself stands up to scrutiny. The premise of Man on a Ledge is hardly original, but director Asger Leth carries off the setup with such unimpeachable skill that you pay attention in spite of yourself. Sam Worthington plays a man who checks into a nice hotel in midtown Manhattan and after enjoying an expensive meal and some champagne, walks out on the ledge and threatens to commit suicide. This draws a lot of attention, and as a harried police negotiator (Elizabeth Banks) tries to talk him down we get, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story, which has to do with the ledge-clinger’s incarceration for a crime he claims he didn’t commit, his complicated escape from stir, and a concurrent burglary of a rich real estate magnate’s private vault. Leth’s main mission is to juggle the simultaneous plot vectors so as not to drop any one or allow them to crash into one another prematurely. The fact that he carries out this mission may distract some viewers from the thinness of the mystery and its eventual resolution, but Leth also knows how to ramp up the visceral aspects, so only movie critics will care that none of the eventualities make sense. He’s aided by the script’s cynically stereotypical view of the native New York sensibility. On the ground yahoos scuffle with police as they yell at Worthington to stop wasting their time and jump already. An obnoxious news reporter (Kyra Sedgwick) burns with ambition thinking of ways to make the ongoing story more about her than the guy on the building. A grouchy plain clothes detective (Edward Burns) would prefer Worthington get it over with so he can go back to doing more important things, but Banks’ equally victimized negotiator persuades him through force of personality to take her side over their superiors, who try to get her out of the way once she starts listening to the jumper’s bizarre tale. There’s even a scene where Worthington throws some cash to the crowd in order to buy some more time, allowing Leth to really show how mercenary New Yorkers are. Of course, Dog Day Afternoon set this premise in stone in the mid-70s and ruined it for every subsequent attempt at cooptation, but that doesn’t mean a lot of young Turks aren’t going to try. (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)

Monsieur Lazhar
The title character is an Algerian refugee who applies for an elementary school teaching position in Quebec that suddenly opened due to the death of a teacher, who hanged herself in her own classroom. Her students and the faculty are still reeling, so Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Said Fellag) is accepted in an atmosphere of stunned bewilderment. His colleagues and charges don’t know that Lazhar’s residency application hasn’t been approved yet, or that the reason he’s in Canada is because he offended the powers that be, which killed his wife and child. The audience knows this, and thus the emotional payoff is rigged to a certain extent. Director Lauren Cantat is careful not to underplay his protagonist’s complications. Lazhar isn’t going to burden these already stressed kids with his own troubles, yet he can’t very well leave them behind, and they emerge in his teaching methods and his rapport with the students, which doesn’t sit well with his superiors. The movie advocates for openness by showing how pain festers when people can’t express their fear, especially when those people are kids. In French. (photo: micro-scope inc.)

One Day
The high-concept behind this British-made love story is that we see the development of a relationship through the pinhole of the same anniversary for twenty years. July 15 was the day Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dex (Jim Sturgess) almost had sex after graduating from university and getting drunk in celebration. They remain friends as the former struggles to get her writing career going and the latter rises and falls as a presenter on a vulgar TV show. Director Lone Scherfig plays down the time-line conceit so effectively that the viewer may not realize the date is always July 15. The years tick by without drawing attention to themselves and as our two protagonists reach the predictable realization that they are and always have been in love it seems less calculated than it could have been. It’s also less interesting, owing to elements that can’t shake the curse of romantic convention. Though the two leads are distinctive, the peripheral characters, especially Emma’s comedian-wannabe husband and Dex’s rich parents, are dull stereotypes. Moreover, scriptwriter David Nicholls’ idea of tragedy is trite. (photo: Focus Features LLC)

The Prey
It’s tough to decide if this French action thriller is better than expected because French action thrillers are getting better or American action thrillers are getting worse. Imprisoned holdup guy Franck (Albert Dupontel) won’t tell his former partner or his wife where he stashed the loot, but he lets slip a revealing remark to his seemingly milquetoast cellmate, Maurel (Stephane Debac), who is released after his molestation conviction is overturned. Later, an ex-cop (Sergi Lopez) visits Franck to interview him about Maurel, whom the cop suspects of being a serial killer. Clued in that Maurel may be after his family and his nest egg, Franck escapes from the joint, so while he’s pursuing Maurel, a dogged police detective (Alice Taglioni) is pursuing Franck. Director Eric Valette does a fine job of keeping these two chase vectors distinct yet parallel, and if Franck’s ability to withstand gunshots, beatings, and leaps from moving cars seems superhuman, Dupontel, with his huge, bulging eyes and preternaturally mean scowl, gives a convincing portrait of someone who is not of this world. In French. (photo: Brio Films-Studiocanal-TF1 Films Prod.)

Snow White and the Huntsman
Revisionism works as well as can be expected in this reimagining of the Snow White fairy tale, whose original Grimm storyline has basically been Disneyfied for the vast majority of earthlings since 1937. Fledgling director Rupert Sanders reconstitutes the basic elements into something that will appeal to young people who think Lord of the Rings was actually written by Peter Jackson. A huge amount of time and money went into creating the unnamed fantasy kingdom that provides the indelible setting. Sanders addresses the macro and the micro with equal dedication, and for every scene of up-close medieval squalor there’s a sweeping helicopter shot of impossibly lush forests and rolling hills. The theme of vanity-vs-goodness remains in tact. Charlize Theron camps it up as Ravenna, the evil temptress who is given a gratuitously tragic backstory to explain her nefarious designs. Possessed of magic powers bestowed on her by her betrayed witch of a mother, she gains entrance to the palace with the help of a shadow army and seduces the king, whom she quickly kills, banishing his daughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart), to the watch tower, where she slowly grows in a lovely young woman as Ravenna retains her youthful beauty by sucking same out of orphaned girls. But Sanders’ movie is an actioner, which is where the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) comes in. Charged by the queen to find the fugitive princess after a daring escape, the lower class drudge does so only because of a false promise made by the usurper queen to let him see his beloved dead wife once again, and the movie’s only real interesting addendum to the original story is the Hunstman’s chaste love for the courageous young maiden once he comes into actual contact with her. Rather than make her savior the handsome Prince William (Sam Claflin), as has been the tradition, it is the hunstman who becomes not only Snow White’s protector, but soulmate. It’s a predictably anti-elite take on the story, but in fact the movie might have been more compelling as a revision if this line of thought had been pursued more aggressively. However, Sanders is more attentive to Ravenna’s retrograde ravings and the misguided idea of turning Snow White into a Christ-like warrior of liberation. And while he was obviously required to somehow insert the dwarves into the mix, the gesture is made more than tolerable by the casting: some great actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones) are digitally reduced in size and given the best dialogue. Sanders has yet to acquire the vision to see all these potentially interesting elements working together organically. As it stands, the movie never quite gets going. (photo: Universal Studios)

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay’s frighteningly garish adaptation of a novel by Lionel Shriver is like a mashup of the most significant issue movies of recent years: the curse (rather than the blessing) of motherhood, adolescent violence, the unforgiving nature of community. Any one of these themes can be too much by themselves, and We Need to Talk About Kevin seems almost relentless in its determination to be the last word on all of them. We are introduced to our martyr, Miranda (Tilda Swinton), vacationing in wholly hedonistic fashion in Spain, a sequence we are meant to understand is representative of her freewheeling youth as a travel writer. This comes to an end when she meets a photographer (John C. Reilly) in New York City who knocks her up. Before you can say “Costco” she’s married with child and ensconced in a huge house in the suburbs, a fate not quite worse than death but one that predictably scans as soul-killing in all the usual ways. Ramsay, however, doesn’t present this as something that overwhelms Miranda. The plot structure is non-linear, so we receive portents of something horrible coming as we jump from one stage in her nightmare domestic development to another, the only real constant being her son Kevin’s sociopathy. Chucky is Little Boy Blue compared to Kevin (Ezra Miller), who refuses to be potty trained until he’s almost six. As a young child he’s constantly challenging his mother while sucking up to his clueless father; and the least likable of many unlikable touches that Ramsay pushes is the husband’s utter incapability of seeing through the child’s manipulations, an attribute exacerbated by the casting of Reilly, who, thanks to his comedy movies, conveys dumb insensitivity without even trying. Miranda is thus not only doubly cursed by her demon seed and a stupid spouse, but is made to look even more like a fool for having gotten herself into this predicament. Kevin’s pathology is so all-encompassing it seems like a birth defect, but the film insists that Miranda is to blame, either because she can’t quite square her fears with her acceptance of her maternal responsibility, or because she secretly nurtures hatred for a life she could have opted out of. It’s supposedly this hatred that Kevin instinctually picks up on and internalizes into murderous calculation. The grotesqueries just keep accumulating until the inevitable purging, but thanks to the fractured structure we already know how Miranda pays for her sins. What is she a martyr to, motherhood or her sense of independence? The reason it’s difficult to tell is because Ramsay, who’s Scottish, has no feel for American suburban rhythms. Miranda might as well be living in her head, because the place where she resides has no semblance of a reality. It’s antiseptic hell. (photo: UK Film Council/BBC/Independent Film Prod.)

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