September 2012 movies

Here are the movies I reviewed for the Sept. issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last weekend.

Carlos
In one of his numerous trite pronouncements, the internationally famous terrorist born Ilich Ramirez Sanchez in Venezuela who later dubbed himself Carlos tells a female interlocutor, “It’s time for action, not words,” which is only partially true. Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) is very definitely a man of action, and in this sprawling, immaculately detailed 5-and-a-half-hour biopic (originally shown on French TV in three parts) those actions are depicted with all the compelling urgency they deserve. But Carlos is also a man of words, of endless bullshit that not only justifies his murderous deeds but helps him seduce everyone, from potential female bedmates to the media. The fact that director Olivier Assayas calls him on this isn’t surprising, though the obsessive nature of the dramatic interrogation can get obvious and redundant. Following an early solo bank bombing for the Palestinian Popular Front, a liberation organization that despised Arafat’s peace overtures, Carlos stands naked in front of a mirror and admires his body. It’s a great moment and one that clarifies Carlos’s agenda for the rest of the movie, but Assayas keeps making the same point. A little while later, he is showing some guns to a female Peruvian student he’s sleeping with. “They’re like an extension of my body.” OK, we get it. Where Carlos justifies its monumental running time is in the set pieces, which recall another breathless movie about terrorists, Battle of Algiers. The suspense is excruciating during the incident that made Carlos a star, when he gunned down three unarmed French policemen and the local PLFP agent who fingered him in a small apartment. The meticulous staging of his first major operation, the kidnapping of OPEC ministers in Vienna on behalf of Saddam Hussein, reveals both the mechanics of the incident and the minute-to-minute compromises that Carlos had to make as the project leader. It was a turning point in international terrorism in more ways than one. Though the world was supposed to see it as yet another blow struck for Palestinian liberation, the real motive was to jack up the price of oil so that Saddam could earn enough money to prosecute a war with Iran. Saddam, of course, was one of the PLFP’s chief sponsors. In the end it all came down to money, and rather than martyr himself for the cause, Carlos bargains for cash and his life—and still gets away with it within the international terrorist community, which is as enamored of his celebrity as the media are. From there it’s all downhill, as Carlos lasts another 20 years, ostensibly in the service of oppressed people all over the world but actually to shore up his own brand. In that regard, as flawed as Carlos sometimes is, it’s a fitting tribute to his legacy and the terrorist mindset. In French, English, Spanish, Arabic and German. (photo: Film en Stock/Canal+/Jean-Claude Moireau)

Colombiana
Luc Besson isn’t getting any better at writing the violent, female-focused revenge fantasies he’s so fond of, but they’re improving nonetheless. This one, about a 9-year-old Colombian girl who witnesses the slaughter of her parents by a drug kingpin and grows up to become a freelance assassin, was directed by Olivier Megaton, who has already toiled for Besson and seems to understand his peculiarities very well. Though the super-saturated colors and handheld camera work have become de rigeuer for this sort of action flick, Megaton pays special attention to the plot mechanics, making some of Besson’s more ridiculous conceits not only watchable but thrilling. A jail break-in is handled with uncommon skill and restraint: you follow the assassin’s pinpoint plan effortlessly, so even if it strains credibility it comes across as plausible in its own context, which is important since not much else is. Zoe Saldana is a fetching and emotionally affecting heroine, perfectly underplaying the assassin’s obsessive streak; but everyone else looks keyed in, sporting accents they have no business even trying on. (photo: Eurocorp – TFI Films Prod. – Grive Prod.)

The Dark Knight Rises
It’s been a full season for superheroes, one fraught with meaning since the two heroes who speak most directly to the conundrum of vigilantism, Spider-Man and Batman, made return appearances, the first formally in a new reboot, the second thematically. If Peter Parker’s self-doubt is informed mainly by hormones, Bruce Wayne’s spiritual crisis is almost totally philosophical. When last we left “the batman” (Christian Bale) he had rigged a situation that presented an arch enemy as the savior of Gotham City and himself as its potential destructor. The purpose of the subterfuge was twofold: to brainwash a populace into keeping order despite itself, and to force himself into retirement, not only from the bone-crunching violence, but from all that existential suffering. The villain that brings him back to the surface is named Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking, wheezing figure whose determination to forge complacency into chaos isn’t explained until the very end in a wrapup that feels as desperate as the mumbo-jumbo that elevated Batman Begins from the realm of mindless action. Encased in metal and leather, including an apparatus that covers his face, Bane moves toward revolution the old-fashioned way, from the underground, so by the time Batman/Wayne gets the picture, Bane has already opened the prisons and sicked the 99% on their betters. Reactionary? You bet, because director Christopher Nolan can’t be bothered unless there’s a challenge involved, so while a lot of people will wince at the 911-redolent explosions that riddle Gotham’s infrastructure, more will take comfort in Anne Hathaway’s cat burglar, Selina Kyle, who really does steal from the rich to give to the poor, and for comparatively noble purposes. Saner critics have seen the roundelay between Wayne the victim and Selina the victimizer as just deserts disguised as romantic-comic relief, since the just deserts Bane doles out are anything but comforting, but Hathaway’s character never clicks into place, coming off as something inserted early on in the scripwriting process that later couldn’t be removed without a great deal of effort. For all the intricate plotting and careful incorporation of vestigial characters who will prove essential to the story—like Marion Cotillard’s CEO-with-a-conscience and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cop with a canny understanding of Batman’s identity—The Dark Knight Rises proves to be as muddled in its schematics as is Wayne’s process of reemerging as Batman. I still can’t figure out the temporal angle. How long did it take him to get back into fighting trim? Weeks? Months? A year? These are the sort of details that need to be addressed before we talk about the nature of mob rule and the ineluctable appeal of evil. Spider-Man may be an emotional mess, but at least he isn’t hung up on theory. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment and Legendary Pictures)

The Dictator
Sacha Baron Cohen can no longer make the interventionist comedies he pioneered when he was unknown to American audiences. His latest follows the same structure but is necessarily a more conventional work of fiction, and as such it doesn’t engage with anything that might be considered controversial. Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, the president of a fictional Middle Eastern country who combines all the worst traits of the world’s dictators, as well as all their most blatant self-regarding attributes. Aladeen’s casually murderous proclivities are balanced by his striking naivete—his aide de camp (Ben Kingsley) plots to coopt the country’s oil wealth by having him replaced by a body double during a trip to the U.N. Aladeen is thus reduced to penury and, even worse, anonymity as an average immigrant, and is taken under wing by a feminist vegetarian socialist (Ana Faris). The jokes are funny despite their obviousness, and the toilet humor is as pungent as ever even if the cultural jabs fall short on up-to-the-minute topicality. Madagascar 3 is actually better in that department. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

Dogtooth
Not much in the way of back story or even social context is provided in Yorgos Lanthimos’s bizarre, antiseptically filmed comedy, and while certain aspects of the lives depicted coincide with modern middle class existence they are skewed at such sharp tangents to reality that it takes a good measure of readjustment to follow what purports to be a plot until the end. A family of five lives in what looks like an expensive residential compound. The father (Christos Sterioglou) goes to work every day at some factory management job, but the rest of the family—the mother (Michelle Valley), a twenty-something son (Christos Passalis), and two daughters (Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni) in their late teens—are housebound, prisoners of their own ignorance, which has been hoisted upon them by a paterfamilias who teaches them a uselessly secret language and forces them to wear blindfolds under certain conditions. Occasionally, things happen that fall outside their conditioning, thus leading to horror-comic episodes such as an encounter with a stray kitten that has to be quickly destroyed since the father has said cats are all maneaters. Of course, the only destroyer within vision is the father, who often strikes his children without much of a reason because there’s nothing in their world to make them think they don’t deserve it, though such cavalier violence does have its consequences. One daughter appears out of nowhere and slashes her brother with a knife. An eruption of anger or simply a style of play? Father understands hormones have to be dealt with and hires a female security guard from his workplace to visit the house once a week to have sex with the son. It’s a predictably mechanical exercise, though that doesn’t make it any less difficult to watch. Naturally, incest becomes a possibility to minds that have nothing to measure their urges against. The reasoning behind this unsentimental education is easy to parse: the world outside is so perilous that the children can’t hope to navigate it, and are told that they will only be ready when their canine teeth fall out, which gives you some hint as to where this is all leading. Freedom of thought is helped along by means of consumer impulses, sexual exploration, and, most perversely, American pop culture in the form of contraband movies, which the girls mimic in a fashion both hilarious and subliminally chilling. Though it all takes place in Greece, don’t think this is a parable of the Euro crisis. It was made well before that shit hit the fan. Dogtooth is about something more primal and less culturally fixed, and it will haunt your thoughts for days. In Greek. (photo: XXIV)

Facing Ali
No athlete of the media age has been picked over and analyzed as much as Muhammed Ali, and this documentary, featuring interviews with ten of his ring opponents, is dilute and redundant. We know the champ’s hyperbole sometimes got the better of his common sense and that his fellow Black Muslims fixed matches and harrassed other boxers, but having such details explicated by men who were the target of these attacks is sobering. Ali’s reputation for invincibility ends up slightly diminished. The late Joe Frazier, whom Ali taunted so mercilessly that even some of his black supporters felt uncomfortable, admits he “wanted to bury Ali,” and he did. So did Larry Holmes and Leon Spinks, who frankly report that Ali was and remains their idol even if they resented his public pronouncements. The fact that director Pete McCormack has to add subtitles to some of the verbal testimony shows how rough a boxer’s life is, though the anecdotes of prison, poverty, drug addiction, and suicide that run through these men’s stories drive the point home with even more force. (photo: MMIX Network Films Inc.)

A Gang Story
Former cop Olivier Marchal takes Edmond “Momon” Vidal’s memoir and tries to turn it into a truncated Godfather-life epic. Momon (Gerard Lanvin) is from Roma stock, and as a youth was defended by the stalwart Serge (Tcheky Karyo). Their friendship blossomed into a career of crime. They became the leaders of a gang of armed robbers out of Lyon. As their fortunes rose, however, Serge wanted to move into the more lucrative field of drugs, which Momon, a sentimental family man, rejected. Fate intervened, and both were arrested and spent some years in jail. Momon went straight upon release, while Serge disappeared, until some years later when he reenters Momon’s life in need of help. Marchal structures the story as a series of flashbacks within flashbacks, showing the bond these two forged as youths and how that bond compels Momon to get back into crime to save his old friend, who is now involved in some kind of turf war. The violence is real enough but the romanticization of the criminal’s code of honor beggars belief. In French. (photo: LGM Films Gaumont France 2 Cinema Hatalom Rhone-Alpes Cinema)

Howling
Song Kang-ho has played violent, sexist cops before. He practically invented the archetype as far as Korean cinema goes, but Cho Sang-gil offers a challenge. A typical lone wolf police detective discouraged by his failure to secure a promotion he thinks he deserves, Cho bridles when his superior teams him with a female rookie. Eun-yeong (Lee Na-young) is ambitious and smart, which is enough to make Cho resent her. Even worse, she insists on doing things by the book, which means calling for backup when they get in over their heads, something Cho refuses to do since he won’t share credit with any of the other neanderthals on the force. As the pair work on a series of murders involving attacks by a wolf-like animal, Eun-yeong receives atrocious treatment from her male coworkers. Predictably, her tenacity and resourcefulness show them up, though only Cho comes around to her side. Director Yoo Ha, working from a script based on a Japanese novel, has better luck with this human drama than he does with the mystery, which just gets in the way. In Korean. (photo: CJ E&M Corp. & United Pictures)

Like Someone in Love
As with most of his films, but especially his last one, the playful and exquisite hall of mirrors Certified Copy, Abbas Kiorastami aims to stay one step ahead of the viewer with Like Someone in Love. Making the most of his Tokyo setting, the Iranian director exploits whatever cultural misunderstandings the audience brings to the movie, though the plot and dramatic intentions are simpler than they tend to be with Kiarostami. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a student part-timing as an escort. During a carefully choreographed opening scene in a Tokyo bar she is caught between three impetuous forces, a lover on the phone who sounds angry, a grandmother from the sticks who has announced, also on the phone, that she is making a sudden visit to the city to bring her back home, and her “employer” (Denden), who has the advantage in that he happens to actually be in the room, so his claim has the biggest impact: a customer is waiting out in the suburbs. Resistance is useless, and Akiko is bundled into a cab and dispatched to her task. It’s the first of several long scenes that take place in an automobile, a setting that has become a Kiarostami signature, and he succumbs to a rare contrivance by having the cab swing by the station where Akiko’s grandmother is supposedly waiting just so that we can see her hunched figure standing in the shadows. It’s difficult to understand what this is supposed to accomplish except to lead into the main narrative thread involving the client, a retired, widowed professor who is old enough to be Akiko’s grandfather. Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno) has prepared dinner and little in the way of involving conversation. It’s not entirely clear what he expects from the encounter. By the look of his cozy, Western-appointed bachelor pad, Watanabe is more worldly than his courtly, shy manner would indicate, but in any case propriety prevails owing to neither party being able to predict accurately what the other was going to be like. As the title indicates, each character isn’t sure what to do under the circumstances and thus is forced to act like something else, including Akiko’s hot-headed boyfriend, Noriake (Ryo Kase), who we meet the next day when Watanabe drops her off at school. Noriake doesn’t know how Akiko makes money and jumps to the conclusion that Watanabe is her grandfather, a masquerade the old man is happy to assume since he obviously doesn’t like Noriake’s overly familiar attitude. From there the film follows its carefully calibrated indirections to a somewhat unusual but hardly unexpected conclusion. Kiarostami’s interests are parochial, and he gets to heart of the matter with startling facility: No mask can stay in place forever, even in mask-obsessed Japan. In Japanese. (photo: mk2/eurospace)

Prometheus
The main promotional hook for Prometheus is that it’s a prequel to Alien. More to the point, it’s the first science fiction movie Ridley Scott has directed since Blade Runner. In my world Alien is the better film, but prequels are sticky affairs and anyone expecting Prometheus to deliver on that account will be perplexed. It has more in common with 2001. Opening with a beautiful, cryptic passage that hints at more than Scott can deliver, the movie posits a team of archaeologist-lovers, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), who, sometime in the future, have connected a series of cave paintings at various locations throughout the world. All contain the same image of a human figure pointing to a constellation. These images are enough to convince a dying billionaire (Guy Pearce) to subsidize an intergalactic probe to find out if man is descended from an extra-terrestrial race. The problematic literalness of this premise is dissipated with the movie’s most effective—and Kubrickian—montage, which shows David (Michael Fassbender), an android, bulking himself up intellectually and physically while his human companions sleep away the two-year journey. It’s a masterful sequence characterized by the sort of imaginative humor that has been lost on science fiction films for the last 20 years. But the particulars—the repeat viewings of Lawrence of Arabia, the basketball by means of bmx bike— also set up the notion that David is more than merely a servant, that he has a role to fill. Scott also has a role to fill due to that premise, and as soon as everyone wakes up he has to go about the work of getting our diverse crew in contact with the “engineers” who supposedly jump started the human race with some carefully deposited DNA. He’s too good a director not to know what he’s up against, and in terms of craft pulls it off, getting from points A to B and C with the least amount of narrative drag, thanks to a roster of supporting characters—a plainspoken skipper (Idris Elba), a calculating corporate envoy (Charlize Theron)—who are colorful but don’t monopolize our sympathies, which have to be focused on Elizabeth. Rapace does an admirable job, especially in the movie’s scariest scene when she discovers an alien creature in her body. If she isn’t Ripley, it’s only because Prometheus isn’t Alien, and doesn’t even try to be. The few scenes of gore aren’t attached to an excruciatingly mounting dread, and the stakes are so amorphously mystical that the suspense doesn’t warrant our involvement. Horror movies, done well, are totally involving. This one wants to engage our intellect, but it leaves too many questions unanswered. Besides, that’s not what we came for. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

Safe House
If it’s permissible to judge current action films by how effectively they tie together the individual violent set pieces then Safe House is sublime product. Director Daniel Espinosa creates viscerally immediate tableaux in each of the requisite component ingredients: the car chase through crowded urban streets (in this case Cape Town), the siege of a seemingly impenetrable facility (the CIA safe house of the title), the pursuit through a densely populated public space (a soccer stadium), the chaotic gunfight, and the climactic one-on-one battle to the death using fists and sharp objects. The scrappy hero is Matt (Ryan Reynolds, flexing), a young operative charged with protecting the life of a traitorous former agent (Denzel Washington, coasting) who has come in from the cold after a deal involving the sale of secret data goes awry. As with the Bourne series, the emotional investment demanded by Safe House involves a basic belief in the betrayal principle that supports all spy fiction, which means the ride is a lot more fun than the destination, which you could have written yourself. (photo: Universal Studios)

Total Recall
Since the first Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is itself still fondly recalled by fanboys who weren’t even born when it was originally released, the new one needs to distinguish itself with more than just improved effects. Plot-wise it follows the same general vector but makes a fairly significant change by replacing the whole Mars thing with a more dire setting on earth, which has been almost completely destroyed after a war featuring chemical weapons. The only two habitable places are Great Britain, where the elite live, and Australia, where the workers reside in relative squalor. The best thing about Lew Wiseman’s reimagining of Verhoeven’s own reimagining of Philip K. Dick’s story is the way this social stratification is maintained. Everyday the workers “commute” to Great Britain on a huge subterranean elevator called “The Fall,” which rockets through the center of the earth. Our hero is worker bee Quaid (Colin Farrell), who does the commute to a factory job where he produces the robots that make up the police force and military. He’s been having weird dreams, however, and decides to patronize a service called Total Recall that promises to implant any sort of memory he wants as a form of recreation, but after he’s strapped into the gizmo alarms go off and something in Quaid snaps. Guys with guns arrive and he dispatches them with more facility than Jason Bourne. Soon he’s a wanted man, though he doesn’t know what for, and when he returns home to his loving wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), he finds she’s not so loving any more. In fact, she tries to kill him. Though not as funny or relentlessly violent as the Verhoeven version, Wiseman’s movie nevertheless forces the viewer to stay alert for every piece of intelligence that might explain what Quaid used to be, and this is where the difference becomes important to anyone who did see the earlier film. We were never really sure if what Schwarzenegger was remembering could be trusted, but the whole intrigue of Wiseman’s movie is predicated on a subterranean rebel movement that demands sympathy, and in the end Quaid’s status as a pawn becomes secondary to whether or not the forces of evil, represented by the overlord Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), will be defeated. Moreover, the ringer, an action-romantic figure (Jessica Biel) just as physically imposing as Lori but aligned with the good guys, doesn’t scan as a figment of Quaid’s imagination, even if the two actresses seem to have been cast for their close resemblance. As sci-fi movies go, you could do worse than this version of Total Recall, but you’ll still probably enjoy the first one better if only because of the camp component. Farrell’s a believable badass, but how could he possibly compare to Arnold?

Win Win
Despite a gratifyingly honest look at the current state of the American middle class, Tom McCarthy’s latest indie heartwarmer fails to transcend its multiple plot contrivances. Paul Giamatti sticks irresolutely to type as Mike, a New Jersey lawyer whose business is going under, so he unethically becomes the guardian to a senile client (Burt Young) in order to receive a stipend after a half-hearted search for relatives proves fruitless. A week later the old guy’s bleached blonde grandson (Alex Shaffer) shows up, having run away from his drug-addled mother in Ohio. What at first seems a liability turns into the justification for the title: the kid’s a wrestling prodigy, just the thing to turn around the fortunes of the local high school team, which Mike coaches in his spare time. Inevitably, karma rears its ugly head, juicing McCarthy’s bittersweet comedic tone with a big dose of moral comeuppance. Subtle in its depiction of how economic realities trump emotional certitudes and well researched, Win Win nevertheless feels slighter than it could have been. McCarthy likes people too much. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox, Everest Entertainment, Dune Entertainment)

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