August 2012 movies

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

The Avengers
With Joss Whedon at the wheel and 7-count-em-7 heroes, this extrapolation of Marvel’s super group promises to be all payoff all the time, and as it turns out two hours and 24 minutes is barely enough to contain all of Whedon’s ideas. The spunky writer-director made his reputation in television, where ideas are given plenty of room to develop, and many of the ones in The Avengers were already developed in the prequels that focused on the individual heroes, so if you didn’t see them you may need a scorecard before sitting down and trying to enjoy the main event. For instance, you have to know what the tesseract is (from Captain America), and you need to understand why the Norse demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is such a threat to the universe (from Thor). It helps to know that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a stuck-up playboy genius (the two Iron Man movies). But with all this careful preparation, the movie may still feel overextended, perhaps because you have to make room in your mind for the Hulk, whose previous two movies provide little preparation since he’s being played by Mark Ruffalo, who didn’t appear in either; and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who seems to have been shoehorned into the script. Oh, and did I forget to mention Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who sorta kinda appeared in Iron Man 2? Never mind. Loki, disgraced in the Thor movie, plans to recapitulate his evil credentials by stealing the tesseract from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the scoutmaster who aims to make all these unruly superheroes into a combined force to protect earth from whatever. Loki, with the help of some brainwashed principals from the earlier movies, forces the issue and Fury has to work fast, not to mention loose, since his main difficulty when recruiting the super ones is not their busy schedules but their egos. This is where familiarity with the prequels is essential, because we need to know why Captain America (Chris Evans) is open to ridicule for being so out-of-touch, or why Thor (Chris Hemsworth) comes off like some hippie reject from a production of The Tempest, or why Tony Stark just won’t listen to anyone. The clash of personalities is more fun than the actual clash of power rays and fists and armor but it doesn’t exactly get the movie anywhere. By the time Loki’s troops are pouring out of a wormhole in the sky above Manhattan, you might actually be relieved that you no longer have to suss out motivations and can just sit back and absorb the mayhem, which, apropos the combined super-powers on display, is pretty fierce. I have even more respect for New York City now. Those people can take anything. (photo: MVLFFLLC & Marvel)

One of the reasons Pixar is the greatest American animation house is its reimagining of the tradition of anthropomorphizing animals and inanimate objects. While it tends to do well with people, too (The Incredibles, Up), it can’t render humans any differently from what they are, except make them look funny; which is why Brave feels like a step back, a retreat into the Disney comfort zone of princesses and long-ago-and-far-away. It means nothing special that the princess in question, a red-haired Scottish lass named Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald), eschews the demure stereotypes of her station, preferring to ride her white stallion at full speed through the forest, picking off targets with her trusty bow and arrow. Pluck and individuality are practically hard-wired into all Disney heroes, whether male or female. What makes Pixar heroes different is something else, something unique, like Wall-E’s unabashed sentimentality, or Remy’s intuitive use of spices. These aspects aren’t just filagree, they define the characters in new and interesting ways. Merida is defined by what she’s not. She’s not a girl who wants to get married and live happily ever after with her Prince Charming, which is why she bridles at her mother Queen Elinor’s (Emma Thompson) efforts to make her a desirable match for a royal scion. Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), like so many other fictional fathers, doesn’t really care about those things, only that his daughter is happy. But he also wants his wife to be happy, which means he prods Merida down the primrose path to matrimony, and when three clan princes are offered for her choice, she rebels by choosing none of them, enraging her mother and causing chaos in the realm. Fortunately, chaos is something Pixar is quite good at, and the roustabout action, whether it’s the naughty mischief carried out by Merida’s triplet brothers, or the dumb confusion set off by the three clueless princes and their hilariously drawn fathers, is the kind of surreal slapstick the movie could use some more of, but the story will have its moral and its life lesson and there isn’t much the writers can do to make it fresh. Merida solicits the services of a witch to change her mother so that she’ll accept Merida as she is, and the witch obliges, though it’s not exactly the change Merida envisioned. As mother and daughter struggle to reverse the spell they come to appreciate each other’s positions in ways they never thought deeply about before, but of course you know the queen will give up much more than the princess. I like the idea that Merida could spend her life as a rip-tootin’ spinster, but it’s hardly a resolution that will reinforce Pixar’s rep as show biz’s most original story-spinners. “Brave” has nothing to do with it. (photo: Disney/Pixar)

Dirty Hearts
At the end of World War II, thousands of Japanese immigrants in Brazil refused to believe that Japan had lost, setting off a deadly internecine ideological struggle between die-hard nationalists and those Japanese who were attempting to assimilate into Brazilian society. Vicente Amorim’s depiction of this episode necessarily focuses on one small community, but he never widens his lens to take in the larger Brazilian background except to show how natives discriminated against Japanese immigrants. Keeping his eye on the photographer Takahashi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and his wife Miyuki (Takako Tokiwa), he tries to make the story poignant by showing how Takahashi’s blinkered passion for the emperor, inflamed by former Imperial Army officer Watanabe (Eiji Okuda), destroys his marriage. Even casual viewers are probably more interested in knowing what would spur a nominally caring individual to commit brutal murders on behalf of a regime that basically rejected him. The total insanity on display is taken for granted, and too much time is eaten up by dramatic gestures that don’t advance the story, which is overstretched to begin with. In Japanese and Portuguese. (photo: Mixer)

Based on a novel that was itself based on a real-life case of child abuse at a school for hearing-impaired children, Dogani caused a sensation when it opened last year in South Korea, which is saying something given that no national cinema is as self-lacerating as Korea’s. The bad guys are so clearly delineated that is does seem strange no effort is made to understand what sort of culture or environment created these monsters. Maybe Koreans understand that aspect of the story too well already. As it stands, you won’t find a more forthright protagonist than Ho (Gong Yoo), a widowed father who takes a job as an art teacher at a school for the deaf in a remote town. As if to prepare us for the obfuscation to come, the town seems perpetually enshrouded in fog, and one of the first persons Ho meets, accidentally, is Yu-jin (Jung Yu-mi), a social worker. Whatever visions of doing good Ho has entertained are dissipated when the twins who run the school (both played by Jang Gwang) asks him to “donate” 50 million won, implying it’s the price he has to pay for his position. But the twins’ mercenary designs become less pressing as Ho gets to know his charges and notices that corporal punishment is the norm. At first he tolerates the violence since he desperately needs money to pay for his daughter’s hospital bills, but after saving a student from one of the teachers he contacts Yu-jin for advice and together they gradually come to realize that the abuse is not only systemic, but often sexual in nature. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk is quite graphic about the abuse, but doesn’t interrogate the reasons for it except to say it’s the privilege of the powerful over the powerless. As it turns out the parents of these children freely abandoned them, and their status as discards stigmatizes them even more than their disabilities do. The locals, even the evangelical Christians, don’t care, and since the twins are considered important members of the community who provide jobs, that community, including the police, acts defensively when Ho and Yu-jin bring charges. The entire second half of the film presents the trial, where the children’s testimony is mostly dismissed as the whining of adolescents who need extra discipline in order to overcome their disabilities. Clearly, the coverup is just as systemic as the abuse itself, and Ho and Yu-jin have to contend with a social order corrupted by its own need to keep certain uncomfortable truths hidden. Dramatically, Hwang takes some liberties himself, and some of the plot points seem contrived to extract that extra measure of self-righteous horror. It’s hardly necessary. The core story is horrifying enough. In Korean. (photo: CJ E&M Corp.)
Noel Clarke’s reputation as the hippest writer-director in the biz has yet to make it out of the UK, but based on this frivolous crime comedy he could conceivably supplant Guy Ritchie as the token Tarantino cognate in Britain. Woven around a diamond heist, the plot stitches together the separate adventures of four female pals (Emma Roberts, Tamsin Egerton, Ophelia Lovibond, Shanika Warren-Markland) in two cities over the course of a weekend. The abundant sex and violence is undercut by a playful attitude that assumes the viewer is as cavalier about this sort of thing as the girls are, and yet the sentimental domestic component—each girl has family problems—doesn’t feel as hackneyed as it might despite the hackneyed characterizations. And for once the hyperactive visual style deepens the storytelling, cleverly drawing on each woman’s distinctive personality. Males come off badly for the most part, a strategy obviously meant to appeal to a certain demographic. For those who think Ritchie sucks up to lad culture, makes for an entertaining antidote. (photo: Distribution)

God Bless America
Bobcat Goldthwait’s forthrightly hateful black comedy about America’s media-propelled descent into incivility is like a long, carefully written editorial occasionally interrupted by ludicrous effusions, but Goldthwait is either too angry or too impatient to make the ludicrousness funny. Granted, it’s difficult to make cold-blooded murder humorous in any context. After divorced loser Frank (Joel Murray) is fired for “harassment” and receives a fateful medical diagnosis he contemplates suicide but decides instead to kill a stuck-up teenage reality TV star. The act impresses another teenage girl, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who tags along on what turns out to be a killing spree against the rude and the crude. Victims include a caustic right-wing TV presenter, a bunch of youngsters who talk during a movie screening, a hypocritical Christian evangelist, and a guy who takes up two parking spaces and won’t apologize. Goldthwait’s complaints are specific, as are the things he likes: hot cars, documentaries, fast food, Alice Cooper. In fact, I’m surprised he has it in for Diablo Cody. They share a similar brand of misanthropy. (photo: Darko Entertainment)

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
Speaking of anthropomorphizing animals, what’s always bothered me about the exiled characters of DreamWorks’ Madagascar series is their desire to be back in the Central Park Zoo where they were stars. Though I don’t expect animated wildlife to adhere to the instinctual prerogatives of their respective species, I do think writers could at least take it into consideration. After all, lion Alex (Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer), and hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) originally wanted to get back to veldt and then discovered they weren’t cut out for it. Alex even had to fight his urge to chase and kill his food. Their indecisiveness has become the series’ running joke, and at the beginning of the third installment homesickness and the desire to be back in da cage spurs our furry quartet, along with the hangers on that have made the franchise genuinely funny (Sacha Baron Cohen’s lemur, those penguins and those monkeys), to try and find a way back to the Big Apple, which takes them first to Monte Carlo, where the penguins plan to make some money at the roulette tables by dressing one of the monkeys as a high roller. The previous two Madagascars, not to mention most of DreamWorks Animation product, were short on plot and long on gags, many of which fizzled on the screen but due to their sheer volume and the law of averages the movies proved funny on balance. Madagascar 3 simply intensifies this strategy, and while it won’t make you forget Duck Soup it displays the same comic velocity. Quickly pursued by a relentlessly dogged and insufferably French animal control officer named Chantal Dubois (Frances McDormand), the menagerie takes it on the lam and ends up hiding out with a traveling circus that may or may not be going to New York. Though the circus performers, headed by a proud Siberian tiger named Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), at first doubt the bona fides of these pretenders, their imagination and enthusiasm breathes new life into the troupe and its fortunes are revived, even while Dubois is hot on their trail. Along the way, European stereotypes are fried and fricasseed and pop culture canards speared with sloppy aplomb—how many Canadians will get the Cirque du Soleil references? Even when the verbal zingers aren’t zinging, the three directors whip up a visual bouillabaisse so chock full of split second detail that you won’t have to time to process most of it, so the reaction is more visceral than intellectual. But as hard as you may be laughing, inevitably you have to face up to the realization that a circus is even more antithetical to a wild animal’s nature than a zoo, since it has to perform. I’ll just assume that in Madagascar 4, our heroes will long once again for the veldt. It’s their destiny. (photo: DreamWorks Animation LLC)

Hong Kong crime thrillers have become more psychologically nuanced over the past decade, so the relative lack of action in this feature by Johnnie To acolyte Law Wing-cheong is hardly a surprise, though it feels strange that there isn’t a cop in sight. Anthony Wong plays a ruthless real estate developer whose spoiled, drug-addicted daughter (Janice Man) is kidnapped for ransom. Law presents the narrative out of its natural time sequence, so we learn right away that the kidnappers kill the daughter after receiving the money. The thrust of the plot is Wong’s determination for revenge and his right-hand man Chor’s (Rickie Ren) equal determination to carry out the boss’s wish. In the process we learn the source of these two men’s violent predilections, and that it is they who are being “punished.” Wong deserves his comeuppance more than Chor, an ex-con who would like to be a decent man but understands where his loyalties lie. Law lacks his mentor’s talent for blocking action scenes, but he draws out better performances than you usually get in this kind of movie. In Cantonese. (photo: Media Asia Films (BVI) Ltd.)

7 Days in Havana
This omnibus feature of seven short films by seven different directors follows the conceit of a full week in the Cuban capital. The first two focus on movie people: Benicio Del Toro’s slight comedy about a young American actor (Josh Hutcherson) struggling with culture shock and Pablo Trapero’s even slighter slice-of-earthy-life about a drunk European director (Emir Kusturica, playing himself) ditching an awards ceremony to hang out with his trumpet-playing limo driver. Julio Medem and Juan Carlos Tabio deliver compact telenovelas with at least one overlapping character, while Laurent Cantet gets some amateurs together to show us how “authentic” Havanans really are. Gaspar Noe’s impressionistic and disconcerting documentation of a voodoo purification ritual has a certain amount of gripping power as it unfolds but quickly vanishes from memory. Only Elia Sulieman’s absurdist travelogue makes a lasting impression even if the basic idea feels undercooked. One wonders if the production crews were given enough time to work out the logistics. Even the music, which each director presents as something integral to Cuban life, gets shortchanged. In Spanish and English. (photo: FullHouse/MorenaFilms)

Starship Troopers: Invasion
Starship Troopers (1997) proved a bonanza among hardcore sci-fi buffs, generating two sequels that made a lot of money even though they went straight to DVD in most markets. The fourth installment has been handed to animator Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed) with a plot that begins where the first movie ended. The “bugs” attack a distant Federation outpost where survivors of the original attack have been evacuated. Obviously, Aramaki has been charged with simply gearing up the franchise’s central appeal: American-style military action prosecuted against grotesque creatures nobody cares about, and the fascist subtext of Paul Verhoeven’s original is subsumed in the unironic gung-ho tone (“Up for a little bug killing?”). The story’s weak dramatic points are overwhelmed by the non-stop carnage, which, being rendered completely in CGI, has no appreciable impact. For one thing, the humans’ body armor is so elaborate that when they’re torn apart by the invaders you get no feeling that flesh and bone are involved. Moreover, the visuals are uniformly murky, making it difficult to get grossed out by the bugs or tell one character from another. (photo: Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Inc.)

Take This Waltz
One of the more difficult feats to pull off in fiction is making the reader/viewer sympathize with a character who deliberately embarks on objectionable behavior. Normally this is done by providing an underlying reason for the objectionable behavior, which automatically makes the whole enterprise suspect. Humans tend to go with their hearts. Reasoning has less to do with it than we think it does. Margot (Michelle Williams), the protagonist of Sarah Polley’s sophomore directing effort and the first film she wrote from her own original story, is a tough nut to crack. Early on we see her being wheeled from one gate to another in a Canadian airport, and when her neighbor on the flight, a young man she’s already met named Daniel (Luke Kirby), asks her bluntly what her disability is, she lies and then backtracks, admitting that she’s just “not good with connections.” The metaphor is blunt, as well, but the seed it plants in our mind, that Margot is way too self-conscious, grows as we get to know her. As it turns out, Daniel lives across the street from her in Toronto, a fact she wasn’t aware of and probably wouldn’t be expected to know given her circumstances: she’s married to fledgling cookbook writer Lou (Seth Rogen) and even under normal conditions doesn’t seem to notice much outside her immediate sphere, which includes Lou’s large family. Single Daniel, however, is fascinated by Margot and obviously senses something in her that he can cultivate to his advantage. During encounters that begin not entirely by chance they get to know each other better, and the feeling appears to be mutual though Margot’s understandable trepidation manifests itself in strange and frustrating ways. With Lou she’s fallen into sexual-affectionate routines—baby talk, mock aggressive game-playing—that provide the sort of continuity she needs, but she’s obviously lacking something essential and isn’t sure if Daniel can give it to her. What comes across as selfishness in the context of conventional romantic interaction turns out to be Margot owning up to her true feelings about her future, and the movie would be more convincing in its candor if Polley were also less idiosyncratic about the way people live. Lou’s cookbook project can’t help but come across as quirky, especially with Rogen in the part; and Daniel’s rickshaw business and vocation of “non-professional” art-making distract from his sexual gamesmanship. Why can’t any of these people have regular jobs and live in spaces that don’t look art directed to the nines? There’s too much dissonance between the characters’ material and emotional situations. The only peripheral component that adds to Polley’s theme of self-abnegation is Margot’s sister-in-law (Sarah Silverman), a recovering alcoholic who addresses her sickness with an appropriately sick sense of humor. (photo: Joe’s Daughter Inc.)

Since coming out of retirement about ten years ago, Francis Ford Coppola has hoed his own row, so to speak, not only ignoring studios or well-heeled indie production companies but eschewing the sort of obsessive integrity that was the hallmark of his greatest work. Though there’s craft aplenty in this curious bit of gothic camp, it’s at the service of nothing significant, which could be a point worth savoring if Twixt were scary, transgressive, or funny. Val Kilmer enters reluctantly into the movie’s spirit of who-gives-a-shit with a batty performance as Hall Baltimore, an earnest writer of occult potboilers desperately trying to come up with an idea for his next novel as he half-heartedly embarks on a book tour for his current one. In one small town he hears about a murder that occurred years ago and decides it may be grist for the pulp mill. The story involves a girl, Virginia (Elle Fanning), who became a vampire and appears to Baltimore in alcohol-fueled dreams, helping him to solve the mystery. Also on hand to lend his expertise is the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin), who is treated with such reverence you’d think he was some sort of religious icon. The idea that Baltimore is using the mystery to work through his unexamined feelings about his own daughter, who died in an accident, is handled with greater sensitivity by Kilmer than by Coppola, who doesn’t betray much faith in his ability to make anything compelling out of the story. (Second thoughts? Coppola’s own son died under similar circumstances) When shown at overseas festivals Twixt included some perfunctory 3D sequences that have since been removed, thus implying that the director was making it up as he went along. Previous reviewers have ventured that he might have intended the movie to be an homage to his first mentor, Roger Corman, but only the scenes with Bruce Dern’s opportunistic town sheriff convey the sort of hyperbolic storytelling that was so central to the American International Pictures style. However, there are enough wacky asides, most of them involving demented children, to keep the movie entertaining if not exactly enthralling. For it to draw the viewer in it would need to stick to at least one of its storylines with a measure of conviction. Only Kilmer seems wrapped up the movie, as if he felt the role might actually have substance if he dug deep enough into its contradictions. It might be interesting to see what Coppola left out of this mongrel movie; meaning it may be salvageable at some point in the future. I haven’t forgotten that Apocalypse Now was also mostly incoherent when it was first released. (photo: Zoetrope Corp.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins play a young couple who, facing a life-determining choice, toss a coin and end up in two very different movies, one a thriller, the other a family drama. The writer-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel alternate between the two stories, showing how their respective developments are determined by character, both individually and interactively. If the family drama, which takes place in Brooklyn, is more effective it’s only because the thriller, which takes place in Manhattan, seems so contrived in contrast. That may be the point, but if it is it only points up the self-reflexive nature of the entire enterprise. The two actors work well together, but it’s difficult to appreciate how carefully and successfully they shape their characters when you’re constantly reminded that the movie is more or less an exercise, albeit a skillfully executed one. New York hasn’t looked this much like New York in a film since the 70s, and the intercutting between the two tales is so smooth you have to register the clothing to know which one you’re in. (photo: Uncertain Partners LLC)

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