December 2012 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the Dec. issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last weekend.

Ai no yukue
The “tentatively” titled Where Does Love Go? is extrapolated from a story that Japanese viewers will remember from headline news earlier this year. Others will pick up the meaning without the associated real-life significance, but in some ways the movie may work better for them. Filmed in dimly lit black-and-white, the movie takes place in a shabby Tokyo apartment inhabited by a middle aged couple. She works and he spends all day indoors. We pass one evening with them as she cooks curry and they talk about their life together. Director Bunyo Kimura, working from a screenplay he wrote with Asako Maekawa, who plays the woman, is careful not to overplay the drama. These two are resigned to ending their affair, and the tone of the conversation, not to mention the body language, conveys weariness: While they love each other it would be best to just get it over with. When he does finally leave the apartment and walks into the harsh light of day, it’s as if he were entering a different world. In Japanese. (photo: Team Judas)

Dream House
Daniel Craig is miscast as a family man going through a psychological breakdown without benefit of an American accent in the suburbs of Connecticut. Will Atenton quits his publishing job to spend all his time with his wife (Rachel Weisz) and two small daughters in the house they’ve just bought and where he plans to write novels. As in The Shining, it turns out that the writer’s abode was the setting of a murder, and the man who is believed to have killed his family there may have just been released from a psychiatric facility. Things are not what they seem, however—at least to the audience—what with Naomi Watts hanging around the margins looking at Atenton in funny ways and the locals treating him like irradiated topsoil. Craig has to split his personality for the role, and leaves the heavy lifting to his hair—unflatteringly floppy for his sympathetic side, combed back for his bugged-out moments. Director Jim Sheridan occasionally flashes signs of creative life, but the script is even more schizophrenic than Will is. (photo: Morgan Creek)

Frankenweenie
Though described by the criterati as an easy slam-dunk since it recycles (or, as one clever reviewer put it, “reanimates”) his first short subject, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie at least gives as good as it takes. The rehashings of old horror and science-fiction movies is copious to the point of arrogance, but this stop-action animated feature nevertheless has a soul. The young Frankenstein, Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), is, like Burton once was himself, a burgeoning filmmaker growing up in a sixties subdivision. An excellent student as long as he’s in science class, Victor loves two things: his dog Sparky and anything that allows him to create. His parents understandably want him to develop more fully, and when he asks for permission to participate in the upcoming science fair, his father insists he balance the brainy with the physical by joining the local little league, a scheme that ends in tragedy when Sparky, chasing an errant baseball, gets hit by a car. Inconsolable, Victor can hardly function, and so when his substitute science teacher, the aggressively secular Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, channeling Vincent Price to excellent effect), goes on and on about the life-giving properties of electricity, Victor hatches an idea for bringing Sparky back to life, and if you’ve seen the original Frankenstein you know how he pulls it off. The problem is that 1960s American suburbia was just as averse to Promethean hubris, regardless of intentions, as were 19th century Carpathian villagers, and Victor has to somehow hide the resurrected Sparky from the folks and his peers. Dogs being dogs, he doesn’t succeed, and classmates with less virtuous aims blackmail him into revealing his methodology and then set about reanimating their own dead pets, from turtles to goldfish to sea monkeys. As usual in the universe of cinematic childhood, it takes the adults longer to catch on and by the time they do the Frankenmenagerie is wreaking havoc on the town in the style of any creature feature from the 50s you’d care to Google. Though overflowing with movie references both familiar and arcane, this is the least interesting part of the film in that it’s the most formulaic for the sake of justifying it as product worthy of the Disney imprimatur, and the ending feels like a concession, especially for a filmmaker whose iconoclastic self-image is (or was?) as strong as Burton’s. Corpse Bride may be less entertaining, but it was also truer to its vision. Frankenweenie works best in terms of its witty detail, from the luminous black-and-white photography—actually enhanced by 3D—to the peculiar anatomical logic that dictates the shapes of his various characters, with their huge round eyes and spindly legs. You’ve seen it before, but that doesn’t mean it’s gotten old. (photo: Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Hick
Intensifying the fetishization of teen actress Chloe Grace Moretz, whose foul-mouthed breakout in Kick Ass allowed dispensation for a wide range of salacious analysis, Hick might have been genuinely quease-inducing in the hands of a real pervert. As it stands she was 14 when she played Luli McMullen, the 13-year-old daughter of a pair of alcoholic losers who dreams of leaving her Nebraska dumb-hole for the bright lights of Las Vegas. Director Derick Martini punched up this archetypal tale by bringing what tends to be only suggested in such stories to the fore. Having grown up in a house where her mother (Juliette Lewis) sleeps with whoever might help her get through the month, Luli understands what female wiles can accomplish, and before setting out on the road alone she stands in her panties in front of a bedroom mirror pointing a revolver (a birthday present) at her reflection reciting lines from Hollywood movies. Neither mom nor dad notices when Luli struts out the door in her hotpants (it’s not entirely clear what year the film is set in) and starts thumbing rides. Nebraska, as it turns out, is still Charlie Starkweather country because the first person to stop is an ex-rodeo cowboy named Eddie (Eddie Redmayne) who not only puts the moves on Luli but makes threatening insinuations that point to psychosis down the road. Luli bails and ends up in the car of another colorful character, Glenda (Blake Lively), a con artist and part-time concubine who immediately enlists Luli in a convenience store robbery that results in the elderly black proprietor having a heart attack. These two eventually fall into a big-sister-little-sister-edging-toward-mother-daughter relationship, which sounds dramatically intriguing but in Martini’s hands simply indicates a lack of coherent development. Various other colorful characters enter the story, like Rory Culkin’s card sharp and Alec Baldwin’s mysterious but helpful motel owner, but they all have a similar sense of wayward pointlessness, as if Martini has done them a favor by talking the screenwriter, Andrea Portes, into creating roles for them. Likewise, the creeping pedophilia never gets truly disturbing, even after a scene that suggests Eddie may have raped Luli, because it’s all so uniformly outrageous without being at all realistic. Denizens of the Great Plains will not be insulted by the negative portrayal of their milieu because nothing smacks of verisimilitude. The big skies and flat farmland and cheesy strip malls might as well be painted sets for all the familiar American feelings they fail to evoke. And since Luli doesn’t learn anything from all these bad examples and traumatic experiences she doesn’t exit the movie as anyone’s hero. At least a pervert would have made you feel something. (photo: Hick Picture Co. LLC)

Lockout
Sometime in the not-too-distant future convicted criminals are sent to orbiting penitentiaries where they sleep in extended deep freeze. Lockout involves an infiltration, an unthawing, and an uprising that take place just as the U.S. president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) is carrying out an inspection, and she’s taken hostage. The only man who can save her is Snow (Guy Pearce), a disgraced federal agent who himself is on his way to the Big House in the sky, and he’s “persuaded” to undertake the suicidal extraction mission. If this sounds like a Luc Besson joint to you, Bingo! The direction and writing beggar the imagination by basically ripping off every Bruce Willis actioner you’ve ever seen, but if the movie is at all worth seeing it’s for Pearce, who even out-Willises Willis with the wisecracks, the regressive chain-smoking, and the overall fuck-me-now demeanor. The cartoon psychopaths, a pair of Scots-accented brothers, are no match for Snow in any category, which seems unfair. Even Grace is outgunned. Couldn’t Besson have given them at least a few good witty comebacks? (photo: Eurocorp)

Rebellion
In 1988, a group of barely organized native Kanaks stormed a French police station in New Caledonia, killing four and taking two dozen officers hostage. This rebel group, led by an educated but naive young man named Alphonse, was seeking independence from France. Matthieu Kassovitz’s highly dramatic reenactment of the incident doesn’t so much take the rebel’s side as condemn the French authorities’ cynicism. Kassovitz himself plays Captain Philippe Legorjus, a negotiator for the French police who, along with his team, are airlifted to the island to free the hostages, but the incident takes place during the week prior to the presidential election and the incumbent, Francois Mitterand, has sent in the army to fend off his opponent’s accusations of weakness. Legorjus painstakingly engages with Alphonse and makes a deal that the local magistrate, beholden to greater powers, mostly ignores. Though the movie is redundant and talky, it’s also involving in the way political thrillers often are, except that this one results in a tragedy that is even more difficult to shake off considering how avoidable it was. In French.

Ruby Sparks
Fictional stories about writers, even those conceived as films, always invite a certain degree of skepticism. It’s the idea of “writing what you know” taken to its easiest conclusion. The script for this whimsical indie was written by actress Zoe Kazan, so the credo may not apply in the strictest sense, but it adheres to the same sort of sensibility that informs novels-about-novelists, namely a willingness to see writers as prisoners of their own imaginations. Paul Dano plays Calvin, a Salinger-like genius whose first book, written when he was barely out of his teens, is described as the hallmark of a generation. Calvin still hasn’t gotten over the success and spends all his waking hours in his super-white, architecturally correct L.A. home trying in vain to write an acceptable sophomore work. His only meaningful contact with the outside world is his avuncular therapist (Elliott Gould) and his more down-to-earth family-man brother, Harry (Chris Messina), who insists that all of Calvin’s problems boil down to not getting laid. As it happens, Calvin is still pining over a long-term girlfriend who left for reasons he’s still pondering. He has any number of groupies to choose from if he wants sex, but he doesn’t, and eventually the psychic pressure becomes too much and he wakes up one morning with the titular character, played by Kazan herself, making breakfast in the kitchen. Though this development temporarily allows for some hyperactive romantic comedy moments, it turns out that she’s a product of his writerly imagination, literally the girl of his dreams come to life. How this plot device differs from past cinematic manifestations of hallucinatory figures, like Harvey, is that others see Ruby as well. In fact, Harry is brought into the intrigue directly. But if Ruby is custom-made for Calvin’s needs, she’s also her own woman, so to speak, and as love intensifies and the two become a real couple, the kind that spends the weekend with mom (Annette Bening as an unlapsed hippie) and her sculptor boyfriend (Antonio Banderas), Calvin gives in to the same bad impluses that ruined his last love affair, mainly the desire for more emotional space. But since Ruby is completely his creation, he can alter her behavior by simply retiring to his typewriter (yes, Calvin is the type of anal retentive Luddite who still uses a typewriter) and rewriting her; and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris get a lot of thematic mileage out of closeup images of keys imprinting ink on paper, each strike a blow to reason. As a romantic comedy, Ruby Sparks is endlessly inventive and untypically probing, but only if you buy its central fantasy conceit all the way to the end. I couldn’t. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

Skyfall
As the longest-running movie series anyone cares about, the 007 franchise has turned into something more than the sum of its component parts, including whoever happens to be playing the British secret agent at the moment. Though much is made of Daniel Craig’s revitalization of the series following Pierce Brosnan’s junk Bond phase, Craig has less impact on heightened expectations than do the cultural ambitions of producer Barbara Broccoli, who, like the scion of a European fashion house, aims to extend her father’s legacy as the founder of the series into the realm of art. The fans insist on formula and Broccoli provides it, but the Bond that reemerged in Casino Royale was a complex character who enriched the rote spy story he inhabited. This dynamic got away from Broccoli in Quantum of Solace because it was structured as a sequel with its own requirements. It’s difficult to watch Skyfall without being distracted by the meta-story: M (Judi Dench), Bond’s long-suffering boss at MI6, is the forceful center and every plot point is geared toward yet another reboot—perhaps a new junk Bond phase? The opening action sequence is one of the best ever, with 007 pursuing a man over the rooftops of Istanbul to retrieve a stolen hard drive. As it ends with Bond being the victim of friendly fire, it calls into question M’s own willingness to sacrifice her people for uncertain ends, a theme that forms the backbone of the movie. Here we have a Bond who, despite his undiminished capacity for bedding babes and thinking on his feet, is presented as being too old, physically, for the demands placed on him. As the setting moves from Istanbul to the Caribbean to London to Shanghai, Bond is beset by deadly situations in which he must exercise his license to kill without the benefit of firearms, and he definitely looks winded after each hard-won victory. When confronted by the man causing all this mayhem, a former MI6 agent who wants M to pay for the suffering she caused him, he remarks on Bond’s tolerance for the work. This villain, Silva (Javier Bardem), is fey and articulate, an extreme extension of the metrosexual model that Bond represents and confounds at the same time. As envisioned by Ian Fleming, Bond was the ultimate bureaucratic factotum, and Silva should be admired for having resisted his dehumanization, but loyalty is essential to the formula, because without it Bond makes no sense. Getting to that conviction requires a showdown between Silva’s army and Bond, M, and a cranky old caretaker (Albert Finney) on the grounds of Bond’s ancestral and abandoned estate in the Scottish outback. This seige feels overdetermined, appended, an attempt to bring Bond full circle, though in execution it comes across more like Straw Dogs, or even Wuthering Heights. It’s a weird way to bring the franchise back to square one. (photo: Danjaq LLC, United Artists Corp., Columbia Pictures Ind.)

Trouble With the Curve
Clint Eastwood was supposed to retire as an actor before he retired as a director, and this is the first film since 1993 that he’s starred in and not helmed. Robert Lorenz, the person who did direct, has been Eastwood’s producer for ten years, not to mention his second unit guy, so one could assume Trouble With the Curve is a legacy move, a means for Eastwood to extend his stylistic imprint into perpetuity, and for what it’s worth, the movie is even more of a Hollywood throwback than anything Eastwood himself has directed since True Crime, though it has more to do with Randy Brown’s script than Lorenz’s direction. Eastwood plays the same part he’s played for the last twenty years, the unreconstructed old work horse who won’t admit he’s ready for pasture, an image that’s recreated precisely in the opening scene. Gus Lobel is a veteran scout for the Atlanta Braves, a guy whose relationship to baseball is so instinctive he can tell the type of pitch by the sound the bat makes when it hits the ball. This is a valuable skill since Gus is losing his eyesight and his bosses are impatient to see him retire. They give him one last chance by sending him to North Carolina to check out a young slugger they are anxious to sign in the next draft. His pal in the front office, Pete (John Goodman), talks Gus’s estranged daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), into accompanying him on the assignment and she does so grudgingly, not only because she’s up for a partnership at a major Atlanta law firm, but because she still resents the old man for dumping her off at relatives and boarding schools after her mother died. Gus doesn’t want her there, either, but she turns out to be helpful since she, too, knows more about baseball than most people, including the new Red Sox scout Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a former Gus discovery who blew out his arm. As Johnny hits on Gus for pointers and Mickey for nookie, the three partake of typical rom-com, family-fued dramatics before they all decide they need one another, but not before Gus proves that Moneyball was a lot of hogwash and Mickey discovers the next Fernando Valenzuela in her motel parking lot. Eastwood joints tend to overstep real life, but this one tests the viewer’s capacity to suspend disbelief at every turn, setting up emotional payoffs in the most transparent ways. And for a movie that revels in the delights of professionalism, it never reveals the particulars of the scouting game the way Moneyball did. However, I did derive some inadvertent humor from Brown’s laziest plot-advancing device, which is having Gus talk to the air and the occasional empty chair to explain something we need to know. (photo: Warner Bros. Ent.)

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Woody Allen returns briefly to London with a movie that might have made more sense in New York. The fatalism that permeates these interlocking stories recalls the more thoughtful ideas he brought to Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters, movies that couldn’t have been about anyone except Manhattanites, but seeing Anthony Hopkins leave his wife (Gemma Jones) for a young tart (Lucy Punch) feels anachronistic anyway, as if Allen in his dotage forgot he’s done this plot device too many times to count. Even when the director gets relatively serious he doesn’t pretend to mirror real life, and if YWMATDS is tolerable it’s because it has the feel of broad comedy. Were that it had the jokes to match. When Alfie (Hopkins) leaves Helena, the latter seeks solace in sherry and a fortune teller, which is where the title comes from. The metaphor refers to death, but in any case the mystical subplot never turns into anything usable, except that after each session Helena visits her daughter, art gallery assistant Sally (Naomi Watts), and her novelist husband Roy (Josh Brolin), whose failure to produce a viable followup to his “promising” debut has turned him into a paranoid crank who won’t countenance his mother-in-law’s advice. With Sally developing a crush on her put-upon boss (Antonio Banderas) and Roy making googly eyes at the young thing (Freida Pinto) across the light well from their apartment, Allen may be too much in his element, and as these relationships develop they cancel one another out from sheer exhaustion. The only humor he can squeeze out of the Alfie-Charmaine scenes involves either viagra or Charmaine’s dim cultural asides. As far as drama goes, Allen goes for the throat as he did in Cassandra’s Dream and Match Point by having Roy not only undertake some horrid professional subterfuge but also destroying another family’s well-planned happiness just to ensure his own. Allen’s propensity in his later movies to wreck some of his lesser characters’ lives in order to make a philosophical point has become his most distressing trait, since such devices are no longer compelling the way they were in Crimes, but simply render the relevant characters as cardboard jerks or fools. Brolin and Watts act their asses off but in the end they don’t instill their parts with anything sympathetic, because the audience can’t identify with them. And the neatly tied-up ending to each individual story—all the characters receive their due with a writerly flair that’s so cynical it makes you fear for Soon-Yi—is not satisfying at all. “Everybody makes mistakes,” says the narrator ruefully, a line that never sounded so much like a cop-out. (photo: Mediapro, Versatil Cinema & Gravier Prod.)

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