October 2012 movies

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

The Bourne Legacy
Tony Gilroy was a very capable scriptwriter before he was a director, and his addition to this lucrative spy franchise makes a neat transition out of the Jason Bourne saga by using the agency freakout occasioned by the previous film’s disclosure of the secret assassin program as an excuse to shut down all its secret programs, one of which involves Adam Cross (Jeremy Renner), another super-agent but one whose powers are fortified by pharmaceuticals. When the CIA terminates his training and, in the process, tries to terminate him, he escapes and locates one of the physicians (Rachel Weisz) who tested him for his reaction to the medication. He needs more of the drug so that he can stay clear of his own hit men. Gilroy expertly weaves the patented Bourne kickass action style into this complex but quite credible story, which moves fluidly from Alaska to suburban Chicago to Manila, and if there seems to be one set piece too many at the end, it’s probably because it relies too much on motor vehicles. Doesn’t Gilroy know that stuff goes in the middle? (photo: Universal Studios)

A followup to a TV series of live-action adaptations of classic stories written during the Showa Era, these two theatrical omnibuses comprise six tales that will probably be well-known to Japanese people. Kenji Miyazawa’s fairy tale, “The Restaurant of Many Orders,” substitutes a couple cheating on their respective spouses for the two “plump” citified male hunters for no understandable purpose except to satisfy the movie’s love story theme. Tetsuo Miura’s “The Breast” looks at an adolescent’s complex feelings toward an older woman who has lost her husband. Kafu Nagai’s “Married Woman” addresses the same dynamic but from a more humorous standpoint. Kanoko Okamoto’s tearjerker “Sushi” reverses the age difference, while Ango Sakaguchi’s “The Grasped Hand” adds a third wheel to its romantic intrigue. Masaaki Taniguchi’s “Beyond Happiness” questions a woman’s compliance to an arranged marriage. Except for the Miyazawa, the stories retain their literary integrity if you overlook the mostly non-naturalistic acting of the mostly too-young cast. The exception is Lily Franky in “Sushi,” who is a novelist and knows the story doesn’t need acting. In Japanese. (photo: Bungo Sasayakana Yokubo Seisaku Iinkai)

The City of Your Final Destination
We won’t have Merchant Ivory to kick around much longer, and this adaptation of Peter Cameron’s 2002 novel won’t inspire anyone to clamor for more of the team’s (director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; producer Ismail Merchant died in 2005) refined work. A weak-willed Ph.D. candidate (Omar Metwally) arrives at a remote Uruguayan compound to beg the residents to let him write an authorized biography of novelist Jules Gund, who committed suicide several years earlier. The residents include Gund’s icy, 40-something wife (Laura Linney), his fluttery 28-year-old mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and his patrician older brother (Anthony Hopkins), who lives with a much younger Japanese companion (Hiroyuki Sanada). The mistress and brother are all for a biography, but the wife isn’t, presumably because she doesn’t want the family laundry aired. It’s a well-developed story that covers up its lapses in credibility with beautiful photography of idyllic settings. Love complicates the various interpersonal dynamics in predictable ways, reducing a compelling look at the prison of nostalgia to a neat and hackneyed romantic heartwarmer. (photo: St. Pancras Inc.)

Steven Soderbergh neither embarrasses himself nor elevates a trash premise with this errant actioner built as a vehicle to turn mixed martial arts star Gina Carano into a movie fixture, maybe even a franchise. Mallory Kane is one of those super-efficient secret agent fighting machines we’ve become used to since the Bourne movies made spy thrillers more interesting. She becomes the patsy in a Barcelona rescue operation and goes on the lam, the target of several other operatives played for maximum topicality by A-list actors: Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor. Michael Douglas shows up as the Gordon Gecko of international espionage and Bill Paxton as Kane’s father, who, of course, taught her everything she knows. Soderbergh personalizes this rote double-cross tale by making the fight scenes as “realistic” as possible, meaning the violence is not only doubly painful to watch but doubly disturbing since it always involve a man beating the shit out of a woman. I suppose that’s progress, and Carano handles the action well, but even Jason Bourne gets to use his brains once in a while. (photo: Five Continents Imports)

The Hunger Games
As a novel series aimed at young adults, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has pointed prescient appeal, since it envisions a future that adolescents can extrapolate easily from our own society. For anyone older, however, its appeal is limited by the obvious calculation that went into it. Here’s an America that, following an uprising of the have-nots, has been divided into sectors of graded affluence and usefulness to the Capitol, which is where all the victorious, garishly dressed haves (or, as George W. Bush called them, the “have-mores”) live and prosper at the expense of everyone else. In order to remind everyone of the way things are, each district has to offer up, by lottery, two children to participate in the annual Hunger Games, in which contestants are unleashed in a recreated wild and expected to kill one another off until only one is left. This is for the entertainment and edification of everyone. Even in our age of the 99-vs-1 percent, it’s a trite premise, and director Gary Ross’s already popular movie adaptation of volume 1 makes sure its sites never rises above the teen demographic. Though it’s a violent film it’s relatively bloodless. Even the sexual intrigue is cowed into submission by the survival instinct. Jennifer Lawrence basically recreates the character that won her an Oscar nomination in Winter Bone. Katniss Everdeen is a resourceful mountain girl who keeps her family together, and when her scared little sister is picked to be her district’s “tribute,” she volunteers for the competition in her place. This makes her a hero, not just to her neighbors but to the entire TV audience, which watches every development in the Games with rapt glee. In the Capitol, where she’s groomed for the Games, Katniss meets her opponents and draws closer to the other contestant from her district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has always had a secret crush on her. Katniss’s personal trainer is a debauched past winner (Woody Harrelson) who, at first, won’t invest any emotional currency in his charge because the odds are she’ll die, but Katniss’s intelligence and contrary spirit (during her interview with the jaded judges she fires an arrow straight at them) win him over. These are all sentimental gambits designed to prepare us emotionally for the Game itself, which, however sloppily it’s presented, can’t help but capture the imagination: Two dozen teens desperately trying to murder one another. In the end the movie’s appeal has less to do with its piquant commentary on reality TV and the sort of mindset that finds it entertaining than with the way Collins wriggles her way out of an extremely tight plot predicament. The melodrama of The Hunger Games is perfectly suited to adolescent sensibilities and won’t say much to adults, but it ends with an irresistible hook. (photo: Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.)

The Lorax
The Grinch notwithstanding, one of the reasons it took so long for Hollywood to get to Dr. Seuss is the impregnability of his form. Seuss’s creatures and objects and even motivations are so weird and idiosyncratic that they lose their charm when separated from the clever rhymes and drafting style. Real life adaptations won’t do at all, but even animation may be too literal. Chris Renaud’s The Lorax, which takes on one of Seuss’s later, more plot-dependent books, is better than most because it doesn’t try to recreate the original story’s unique sensibility. Seuss diehards will probably be insulted, but if they give it a chance they also might find it entertaining on its own terms. Even more socially charged than Horton Hears a Who!, The Lorax is plain about its ecological, anti-laissez faire message. Thneedville is a totally artificial town whose appeal is brilliantly set forth in the opening discofied song. The de facto leader is O’Hare (Rob Riggle), a short, bowl-cut-sporting entrepreneur who keeps the populace in thrall by selling it air, as if it were a consumer product on the order of Coke. Our hero is young Ted (Zac Efron), who has a crush on the artistically minded Audrey (Taylor Swift). When Audrey tells him she would fall in love with the first boy who showed her a real tree, which no one in town except the elderly has seen, he starts asking around and, aided by his grandmother (Betty White), manages to break through the town’s border wall to the outside, which is barren and bleak. There he seeks out the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a shadowy, grumpy hermit whose personal tale occupies the bulk of the movie’s running time. An entrepreneur himself as a young man, the Once-ler left the sticks to make his mark as the inventor of the thneed, a piece of fabric with a hundred purposes and the perfect embodiment of capitalist enterprise. The fluff-topped truffula trees provide the material, and the Once-ler starts chopping them down unjudiciously, much to the annoyance of the guardian of the forest, the Lorax (Danny DeVito), who can’t convince the Once-ler of the error of his ways. Indeed, eventually all the trees are gone and no one is interested in buying thneeds any more, thus leaving an opening for O’Hare and his bottled air. Though the moral is cautionary, the story is told with such zest and humor (the Once-ler’s theme song, “How Bad Can I Be,” is hilarious) that when it’s over and Ted has to save the last known truffula seed, the movie turns relatively ordinary, if even more manic. Seuss didn’t need car chases and aerial shots, but apparently there are some cinematic conventions we can’t do without. (photo: Universal Studios)

Mirror Mirror
With each movie the director originally called Tarsem adds a new name and loses his unique facility for CG. The Cell and The Fall were interior movies, while The Immortals was his attempt, as Tarsem Singh, to bring his aesthetic to the blockbuster, which didn’t need it. This comic take on “Snow White,” with Julia Roberts as a wisecracking evil queen, could use more of Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s old visual flair because the story and jokes are so flat. Roberts is in it, so the queen is the main character, with Snow White (Lily Collins), whose eyebrows are a special effect unto themselves, simply adding virtuous ballast. In the middle is an outlander prince (Armie Hammer) whom the queen wishes to bag in order to solve her cash flow problems. He is rendered as a dog to foil SW’s own romantic designs, and the 7 dwarfs provide further humorous stimulation with “short” gags. It’s far from a Grimm tale but it isn’t that different in tone from late Disney—more Aladdin than SN&7D, but not nearly as funny. (photo: Relativity Media LLC)

Le petit poucet
This crude adaptation of the French version of the Tom Thumb fairy tale isn’t meant for children, though the sensibility is certainly childish. A poor woodcutter lives in the forest with his wife and five sons, barely surviving on roots they claw up with their bare hands. The youngest, Poucet (Ilian Calaber), is also the most sensitive. He resents the slaughter of animals, even though their meat keeps his family alive. His father decides to abandon the boys in the woods, and it is only Poucet’s resourcefulness that saves them from man-eating wolves. They happen upon a large house where the madame (Valerie Dashwood) gives them some milk, but she is married to a man-eating ogre (Denis Lavant) who sniffs them out and decides to serve them to his five daughters. Director Marina de Van’s grotesque sense of humor reveals itself in the ogre’s dream sequence, where he dines on the flesh of all nationalities and genetic types. The only moral you take away from this weird movie is that vegetarianism is the safest bet. In French. (photo: Flach Film Prod.-Arte France)

The Raven
One doesn’t want to begrudge director James McTeigue or his scenarists Ben Livingstone and Hannah Shakespeare for trying to reimagine the ill-fated American author Edgar Allen Poe as an action hero, but one would hope they’d display at least half the imagination of their subject. As portrayed by John Cusack, the bard of Baltimore is a stuck-up, self-aggrandizing, alcoholic, opium-addicted loser whose works of horror and mystery are being coopted by a serial killer who uses Poe’s best scenes as models for his grisly murders. Poe’s only saving grace is the love of the beautiful heiress Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), whose kidnapping ups the ante and forces Poe to actually write a story overnight in order to satisfy the demands of the unknown villain. Eventually, the whole sordid mess is supposed to resolve into Poe being found on a park bench babbling incoherently about evil forces—which is what happened shortly before the author’s death. No one has solved that real-life mystery and this story doesn’t qualify as a reasonable theory. It hardly even qualifies as entertainment. (photo: Amontillado Prod./Poe Producionnes)

Rock of Ages
Revisionism is supposed to be fun in Adam Shankman’s adaptation of the hit Broadway musical about the development of hair metal on L.A.’s Sunset Strip in the 80s. As purposely crap entertainment goes, it has the requisite elements: Two talented bumpkins come to California to realize their rock star dreams and end up working as grunt help at the Bourbon Room, which has birthed all the major rock acts of the age, including Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), the most dissipated of them all. It should have been a gas watching Cruise play drunk and macho, but you’re so aware it’s him that you can’t focus on what he’s trying to accomplish. Alec Baldwin as the aging hipster club owner and Russell Brand as his bromantic assistant are more appealingly self-mocking; and Catherine Zeta-Jones has the best time as a rock-hating puritan housewife. A bigger problem is the music, all famous hard rock songs from the day. The producers advance them as standards, old news to anyone who watches professional sports on TV. Clueless doesn’t begin to describe the movie’s ambitions. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

It takes a good third of this 90-minute thriller to get everything straight: the little Chinese girl (Catherine Chan) whom competing New York gangs of Chinese and Russians seem desperate to gain possession of turns out to be a math wiz spirited out of the mainland to keep the former’s books—in her head; and the cage fighter (Jason Statham) who doesn’t throw a match and thus is marked for death by the latter turns out to be a disgraced and fired NYPD undercover superguy whom his former colleagues go out of their way to humiliate. How the ex-cop, Luke, runs into the kid, Mei, and sends the two mobs and the police into a collision course with all sorts of deadly mayhem is worthy of your attention though not your intelligence. This is, after all, a Jason Statham joint, and director Boaz Yakin is right not to let the plot convolutions, which include the annoying last-minute insertion of a master villain, destroy the purity of Statham’s brutal set pieces, or the movie’s need to show Luke’s human side. (photo: Safe Productions LLC)

A Simple Life
In Asia, Andy Lau is an idol, a star whose elaborately produced concerts are events on the order of U2’s. At 51 he’s still youthful and exotic-looking enough to play romantic leads and action heroes, but as evidenced by his strange performance as an aging movie producer in this domestic melodrama, it’s obvious his talents aren’t being fully exploited. Roger (Lau) is a tough cookie, bamboozling backers into spending more money and putting the touch on unscrupulous bankers, but he doesn’t look the part. Dressed like a student and sporting a black daypack, he’s often mistaken for custodial help in the high-rise Hong Kong office buildings he visits on business. He’s also mysteriously single, oblivious to sex regardless of the gender. He lives with the elderly maid who took care of his family and raised him. The family is now living in California, and Roger and Ah Tao (Deanie Yip, who won the Best Actress award at Venice) reside together in Roger’s cramped, old apartment, until Ah Tao suffers a stroke. Understanding her station, she insists on moving to a nursing home when Roger offers to hire a maid for her while she gets better, and, respecting her decision, he relents. Most of Ann Hui’s surprisingly subdued film takes place in the home, a rundown, urban fire trap, where many of the residents have been dumped by their families. Rather than present this circumstance as a social tragedy, Hui stresses its inevitability. Even Ah Tao’s reluctance to reveal her true relationship with Roger, who visits regularly, isn’t emphasized. It’s simply more convenient to say he’s her godson. Perhaps because A Simple Life is based on a true story, Hui is less inclined to sentimentalize the relationship, and Lau conveys Roger’s solicitude mostly through indirection. The very fact that he pays for Ah Tao’s care but doesn’t intrude on her life speaks of his consideration for her feelings, a plot point that is at first confusing. Though Roger seems to have many friends (famous ones, too; there are lots of cameos by HK movie folk), he is a loner who only comes alive when he’s working or when he’s with Ah Tao. After we meet his imperious mother and extroverted sister, we understand his childhood was sheltered, probably by Ah Tao (“You were always her favorite,” his sister tells him without rancor), and while the protection stunted him socially, it left him with a cool understanding of his limitations and the limitations of others. He won’t allow himself to be hurt, and so as Ah Tao, the only woman who has meant anything in his life, slowly fades away, he takes it in stride. But just because Roger doesn’t shed a tear, it doesn’t mean you won’t. In Cantonese. (photo: Bona Entertainment Co., Ltd.)

This Is Not a Film
Whether or not this exercise in futility/rebellion qualifies as a film, its existence as a statement of purpose and, more significantly, a commercial product attests to its maker’s unshakable position in the international cinematic community. When he actually shot the video in his Tehran apartment, Jafar Panahi was under house arrest for “producing propaganda” considered damaging to the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though whatever the director’s pronouncements on the most recent and highly contentious Iranian election, Panahi had already established himself with films like The Circle, Crimson Gold, and Offside as an artist who clearly wasn’t going to let a repressive system stop him from candidly interrogating his country’s social and political situation. Sitting in his well-appointed apartment, occasionally taking calls from his lawyer, whose news becomes increasingly dire (Panahi has since been imprisoned for six years and banned from making films for 20), and making jokes at the expense of his pet iguana, he actually addresses his inability to create by trying to get around the letter of the restrictions imposed by the government. How does he do it? By describing what his next film was going to be about, scene-by-scene. As already mentioned, it’s a futile, heartbreaking undertaking, but also a thrilling one, since it lays open his methodology, using scenes from past films to illustrate how he arrives at an idea. As he points out so forcefully, much of his success as a storyteller can be credited to accident, which is why he prefers using non-professional actors: They can always be counted on to not do what you expect them to do. This is the only route to truth, and in a sense This Is Not a Film clarifies his credo, since, in the end, he gives up trying to recreate his unfilmed work, thus making it clear that it cannot exist as anything except a film. Panahi and his co-director Mjtaba Mirtahmasb (who was also subsequently jailed, but not for this) then pass an iPhone camera back-and-forth as they discuss whether or not what they are doing is illegal, playing with semantics but not necessarily having fun with it. It’s this atmosphere of remote oppression that gives the exercise its sense of drama, which is only lightened when Panahi has a conversation in his building elevator with a young man who is taking out the garbage and recognizes the director. Panahi is obviously flattered by this celebrity interruption and lets down his guard. It’s then that you realize what he’s losing: not just his capacity to make films, but his right to not be paranoid about talking to a stranger in an elevator. Then again, maybe that was something he always had to contend with. In Persian. (photo: Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)

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