January 2013 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.

albertknobbsAlbert Nobbs
The title character of this modest period piece is a waiter in a Dublin hotel at around the turn of the 20th century. Albert is stiff, proper, and so focused on his job that he becomes part of the woodwork. The pseudo-genteel establishment has a snarky petit bourgeois clientele and a pretentious mistress (Pauline Collins). Set against the hustle and bustle, Albert’s reserve renders his character almost inert, a necessary impression given that he has a secret: He is really a woman. Glenn Close played the role on stage in the early 80s and has tried to adapt it to film ever since. Gender-wise the transformation is convincing, but Albert looks his age, or, more precisely, he looks Glenn Close’s age, which confounds some of the finer points of the story. Though we learn little about Albert’s past except that as a girl he was sexually abused, the thrust of the plot involves his determination to open a small tobacco shop with the money he has so painstakingly saved. That process is rerouted after he meets Hubert Page, a tradesman hired to paint the hotel. As luck and screenwriting serendipity would have it, Hubert ends up sharing a room with Albert and learns his secret, and it turns out Hubert is also a woman pretending to be a man. However, the circumstances couldn’t be more different. Hubert also fled into transvestism because of male violence, but he’s more comfortably a man in that he not only interacts with the public at large (Albert is just as invisible on the streets as he is in the hotel parlor) but has a real wife whom he loves deeply. Albert is impressed and decides that he, too, will need a wife as a helpmate and front of respectability when he opens his shop, and starts wooing a young maid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who happens to be having a semi-clandestine affair with the hotel handyman, a rough boy named Joe (Aaron Johnson). Determined to migrate to America, Joe has Helen encourage Albert’s attentions so as to exact monetary reward, and while Albert is infinitely more considerate than crude Joe, it’s easy to understand why Helen, at least initially, prefers the latter as a romantic foil. As played by Close, Albert is such a model of two-dimensional propriety that he barely registers as human, much less a woman or a man, and looking like a 50-year-old you wonder what he could offer a young girl. Hubert, by contrast, is so full of the world that, thanks to Janet McTeer’s outsized portrayal, the viewer perks up whenever he enters a scene. Though it would have defeated Close’s purposes, a movie about Hubert’s life would have been much more enlightening about this delicate subject. (photo: Morrison Films)

In 1980 East Germany a pediatrician named Barbara (Nina Hoss) is transferred from Berlin to a children’s hospital in the sticks after she applies for an exit visa. Her sullen demeanor bespeaks a less-than-pliant attitude toward her situation and thus makes her even more suspicious in the eyes of the local Stasi. It also makes her an object of desire to her colleague, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who empathizes with her disappointment even if he isn’t aware that she’s secretly meeting her West German lover in the woods or at a special hotel reserved for “foreigners.” Her frigid exterior melts slightly in the face of real suffering, particularly that of a rebellious teenager who has been sent from a juvenile penal institution to receive treatment for meningitis. Director Christian Petzold lets his story unfold naturally by allowing us to appreciate how people live day-to-day under such circumstances. Barbara maintains a steely front but her coping mechanism turns out to be not so simple, and while the heartbreaking choices she makes are unexpected they also make perfect sense, dramatically and morally. (photo: Schramm Film/ZDF/Arte)

Compared to scene-chewers like Robert De Niro and Forest Whitaker, star Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is a piece of wood. Jackson plays Malo, a Queens street kid and cop’s son whose one bad deed buys him a one-way ticket to the slammer until a bleeding heart liberal gets him and his two-man crew into a police academy program. After graduating, he falls in with Joe (De Niro), his late father’s former partner who supervises the protection racket for drug dealers in the area. Joe sets Malo up with his current right-hand dog, a junkie hot head (Whitaker) with a gangsta streak. The movie’s ensemble work is effective as it reveals the various shades of police corruption and collusion, but due partly to Jackson’s opaque facade and partly to the script’s insistence on dotting every i and crossing every t, it’s difficult to get a bead on where the story is supposed to be going. Sometimes the tone is so diffuse you can’t tell who is supposed to be a bad guy and who is supposed to be a not-so-bad guy. (photo: Georgia Film Fund Three LLC)

HBT-fs-109297.dngThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “prequel” to his Lord of the Rings trilogy is basically a quest tale. Under the supervision of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), a group of dwarves, one of the races that inhabit Tolkien’s Middle Earth, conspires to reclaim their hallowed city of Erebor, which was taken from them by a fire-breathing dragon some sixty years before. The title refers to the diminutive, bare-footed Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), whom Gandalf endeavors to shanghai for purposes that remain vague even at the end of this first of an already completed trilogy of films. The quest angle gives us a reason for continuing on the journey, which will be completed over yearly installments in two years’ time, but is it enough to make the journey interesting? The Rings trilogy had a quest at its heart but it was a complex, novelistic story with many principals, each with his or her own compelling tale and set of conflicts. The Hobbit offers nothing except the quest, and so all storytelling resources are attendant to it, including the long opening sequence explaining how the dragon took over Erebor and why the dwarf race became a diaspora. Bilbo’s trepidation provides a very weak leitmotif until the scene where he encounters Gollum, that cursed member of his own race who has been reduced to anorexic, schizoid paranoia by possession of the infamous ring, but Bilbo doesn’t know any of this and simply deems the encounter a threat. A riddle game they play to decide Bilbo’s fate is the movie’s only instance of dramatic tension owing again to Andy Serkis’s uncanny recreation of the bug-eyed creature, which isn’t to say the movie lacks for interest. The craft is as impressive as ever, and a bit more daring probably because Guillermo Del Toro was initially set to direct and some of his ideas remained. The New Zealand locations were never more breathtaking. The action set pieces have an integral perfection that lingers clearly in the memory. And the CGI is even more seamlessly incorporated than it was in Lord. (I should note that I did not see the already derided 48fps version, which provides images that are a bit too crisp, apparently) If those set pieces feel stranded in a sea of insignificance it’s probably because Jackson has assumed license to draw things out to their breaking points. The riotous meeting of the dwarves at Bilbo’s house is padded with bad jokes and even worse songs; Gandalf’s role, befitting his wizardly capabilities, is as a transparent deus ex machina; and the long sequence in the Elfin kingdom seems to have no purpose except to reintroduce Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving for contractual purposes. The movie is as exactly as long as it feels: You don’t mind the trip, but you’d prefer getting to your destination a little faster. (photo: Warner Brothers Entertainment)

“This time travel shit can really fry your brain,” one character says to another in Rian Johnson’s ambitious sci-fi story, a line that’s given an extra charge of meaning when you realize the character reciting it is talking to a younger version of himself. As a theme, time travel has been worked to death and logic would say that most variations have probably been exhausted by now. Johnson doesn’t try to squeeze in a new one. Instead he throws out the unwritten rule that it all has to make some sort of sense, and in doing so relieves himself of the need to justify every single circumstance and thus spare the viewer a lot of useless cogitation. The title refers to a specific type of hit man who kills in the “present” individuals sent back to him from the “future” by a crime syndicate. Time travel is possible but illegal in the future, and when these contract killers age to the point where they arrive in that time frame, they themselves are sent back for execution, therefore “closing the loop.” It’s a serviceable sci-fi concept as far as it goes, but in any case our looper, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), understands that someday his fate will be the same as that of his victims, but he keeps showing up in the remote Kansas cornfield at the appointed times and blowing the bound, hooded figures away with his “blunderbuss,” collecting the silver and gold strapped to their backs, and then depositing the bodies in an incinerator. But one day the inevitable happens: he’s face-to-face with his future self (Bruce Willis) and blinks. If the movie’s saving grace is the way it moves nimbly in and out of various time-shifting storylines to provide an integrated, progressive narrative, the slyest component of that strategy is the characterization of Joe. Gordon-Levitt has been made up to look like a younger version of Willis, but what’s more central to the idea’s credibility is the way the two Joes connect emotionally. Young Joe is a fatalist by necessity. He knows he is destined to die violently, so he will collect his money and live high on the hog, but real life has a way of confounding even the best laid plans, and older Joe has returned to the past for a specific reason, to murder, Terminator-style, the younger version of the man responsible for killing his wife, and it’s easy to see how young Joe turned into this man. What ensues is a battle between the two Joes over the creepy son of a single self-sufficient mother (Emily Blunt) who will protect that boy with her life. What emerges is a startlingly new way to define the term “hero.”(photo: Looper Dist. LLC)

lateblossomsLate Blossom
Though socially aware, this Korean drama about four elderly Seoul residents aims for the heart not the mind. Man-suk (Lee Soon-jae) is a foul-mouthed delivery-person and Song (Yun So-jeong) an illiterate paper collector. They meet cute one snowy night when Man-suk’s scooter accidentally upsets Song’s cart, and he feels something toward her despite his blustery exterior. The recycling lot where Song sells her collectings is next to a parking lot attended by Goon-bong (Song Jae-ho), a retired taxi driver whose wife (Kim Su-mi) has Alzheimer’s. Through a cleverly plotted series of coincidences, these four form a kind of community, and director Choo Chang-min reveals the fragility of their existence with plainspoken assurance, in particular the story of Song, whose parents were so poor and ignorant they didn’t even give her a first name. The movie’s gentility—Seoul seems to have the most considerate civil servants in the world—easily overflows into mawkishness with the help of a cloying score and a tendency to aestheticize the indignities of old age. But it also effortlessly achieves its sentimental aims. (photo: Next Entertainment World)

LesMiserablesLes Miserables
It’s probably already been pointed out, but Victor Hugo’s massive novel can only be adapted properly as a mini-series. The very popular West End musical version jettisons the first fourth or so, and in a big way, with a choral piece, “Look Down,” that neatly summarizes its thesis. We see prisoners hauling a huge ship into its berth in the snow, while the jailer Javert (Russell Crowe) looks down on them, in particular the thief Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has spent the last 20 years incarcerated for stealing a loaf of bread. The song is majestically hymnal, and thus has a double meaning. Javert, the representative of “the law” and, more significantly, the upper classes who have regained power some 30 years after the French Revolution, condescends without any moral authority, because the only one who can look down is God. Hugo’s story is a sweeping melodrama, and the abridgement loses whole decades as Valjean is released on parole for life, fails to find employment or shelter, steals some silver from a church, and is forgiven by the priest, thus obligating him to a life of charity, his fate always in the hands of God. But mammon has a place, too. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the abandoned mother who works in the factory that the incognito Valjean ends up owning, is the story’s most noble victim, reduced to prostitution to save her daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Hathaway steals the movie with her wrenching performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” and dramatically nothing comes close after that. Jackman has a few stirring solos, but Crowe, with his reedy tenor, is woefully stiff, which may have more to do with the slightness of his character, an archetype like everyone else in the movie but since almost all the dialogue is sung Crowe’s Javert never comes through as anything more than a uniform. The production design is impressive in both scale and detail, but director Tom Hooper has his work cut out for him with the musical numbers. His over-reliance on closeups makes you wonder if he just got sick of making decisions. Of course, one’s enjoyment of the film is dependent on the mousic, which only take hold in a few cases, most winningly in “The Innkeeper’s Song,” a rollicking dancehall number performed by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as a pair of rogues. Everything else sounds like a gloss on Andrew Lloyd Webber—songs peak emotionally and just stay there as the tears stream down the singers’ faces. Love and honor and revolution all have a place in the story, but it’s a tribute to the eternally downtrodden, which the musical suggests are always with us and whose only solace is heaven, where the chorus line is always in tune. (photo: Universal Studios)

Nobuteru Uchida’s melodrama about the effect of 311 on two young Tokyo women is shot through with unimpeachable intentions. The earthquake strikes in the first scene, and almost immediately the husband of housewife and mother Saeko (Kiki Sugino) tells her he’s leaving for another woman. Yukako (Yuki Shinohara), an under-employed freelance food writer, has a stronger marriage, but to an ineffectual salaryman who refuses to take her anxieties seriously. Uchida tells their stories in parallel, a narrative scheme that hides the fact that the two neighbors don’t even know each other until a crisis compels Yukako to break into Saeko’s apartment. Up until that point each protagonist has had to face the various issues that arose in the aftermath of the disaster, in particular the shifting rumors about radiation, and once they become acquainted the movie turns hysterical where it had been effectively chilling before. Uchida’s sympathies are obvious and understandable, but his storytelling is lazy. Except for Saeko and Yukako the characters are shallow and utilitarian, the plot reduced to familiar cliches about how fear inevitably morphs into selfishness. (photo: Odayaka Film Partners)

ookuOoku Eien
The ooku chamber is where all the female inhabitants of Edo Castle dwelled, including maids and concubines. This movie is based on a popular manga in which the roles are reversed. Owing to a mysterious disease that has decimated the male population, the shogun is a woman (Miho Kanno) and the concubines men. The logistical peculiarities of this arrangement, which were explored more fully in earlier TV and movie adaptations, don’t seem to interest director Fuminori Kaneko in his second stab at the story involving a Kyoto nobleman (Masato Sakai) who through subterfuge gets himself installed as the very powerful overseer of the ooku and in doing so alienates the shogun’s husband and father. Without the usual palace intrigues having to do with which progeny will succeed the present leader, the overlapping dramas lack urgency. Simply because the shogun is a woman (albeit one with the sexual appetites of a man) all the intrigues have been rendered romantic ones, and we are forced to wait an eternity for the two main characters to admit their mutual affections. (photo: Danjo Gyakuten Ooku Eien Emonnosuke Tsunayoshi Seisaku Iinkai)

sideSide By Side
The idea of a documentary dedicated to the technical merits and demerits of digital filmmaking as opposed to traditional photochemical filmmaking sounds like a bore for the layman, but thanks to producer Keanu Reeves and his full-on geek fascination with the subject Side By Side turns into a stimulating look at the state of the art. And while it would be easy to presume that the wide range of celebrity talent on display can be credited to Reeves’ own star power, the depth of response, not to mention the intensity of the enthusiasm, demonstrates that these people want nothing more than to talk real shop for a change. On a simplistic level, the opinions cleave neatly down the middle: one side advocating digital mainly for its convenience, economy, and democratic utility, and the other vociferously loyal to film stock for aesthetic reasons but also for practical ones. For one thing, film stock is loaded into magazines, limiting the time of a shot or sequence of shots to ten minutes, and some film actors, including Reeves himself, find the idea of endless takes, which digital allows for, frightening. However, John Malkovich, who trained in the theater, deems it “liberating.” The most convincing argument has to do with the practice of “dailies”—developed film from a particular day’s shoot being shown to everyone concerned 24 hours after the fact. Such an unavoidable tradition extends production time and makes it difficult to know right away if a particular visual idea is working. But since digital allows shots and scenes to be presented in their final form as they happen, dailies are no longer needed. This sounds ideal until director Christopher Nolan, solidly in the photochemical camp, points out that the one-day lag gives a director more room and, in any case, watching a scene on a small TV screen is not the same as watching it projected on a big one. David Fincher also makes the vital point that, despite the vulnerability of film stock over time, digital is no better for archival purposes because digital files not only decay just as quickly, but formats change so frequently as to necessitate troublesome transfers every few years. He mentions that he has digital masters of early films he made that he can’t watch any more because the equipment is no longer avaliable. If the doc doesn’t take a side, it does imply that digital is here to stay and film will likely be used very sparingly. It might have been nice if Reeves had gotten out of Hollywood and interviewed some Europeans (other than Lars Von Treir) and Asians for their take on the issue, but I learned more from Side By Side than I have from any documentary since Inside Job. (photo: Company Films LLC)

sushigirlSushi Girl
When the only member of jewel heist gang who was apprehended is released from prison after serving six years, the leader (Tony Todd) invites him and the other surviving members to a party in an abandoned restaurant where the refreshment is sushi served “in the yakuza style,” meaning on the naked body of a prone woman. High concept? Maybe, but the point of the Japanese motif is never satisfactorily explained except as an obsession of the leader, so we can assume it’s a gimmick; as is Mark Hamill as a whining queen; as are the cheap, pointlessly drawn-out scenes of torture enacted to find out where the missing diamonds from the heist are; as are those guys in the parking lot recording the gorey entertainment to reel-to-reel tape (do those even exist any more?); as is Danny Trejo with a machete. Writer-director Kern Saxton tries for wittily profane dialogue in the Tarantino style and ends up with hamburger. His tritely convoluted joke plot doesn’t work, but the title clues you in on the punch line. (photo: Sushi Girl Films)

taken2-mainTaken 2
The Japanese gremlins who reconfigure the titles of foreign movies to make them more attractive to compatriots obviously had a problem with the sequel to the 2008 Luc Besson action hit Taken, which was retitled 72 Hours for Japan. In that film, ex-CIA operative/defense consultant Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has exactly that amount of time to track down his daughter, who has been kidnapped by a band of Eastern European sexual slavers in Paris. There is no such time-limit plot device in the sequel, Taken 2, but those gremlins still have to make up something that will connect the two, so they retitled this one 96 Hours and then appended the katakana word for “revenge,” so it’s only semi-false advertising. Nevertheless, it does have Neeson again, so you know exactly what to expect: cold, brutal efficiency in service to paternal instinct, though in this case it’s Mills’s ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), who is kidnapped, so paternal is expanded to conjugal. The kidnappers are the families of the Albanian slavers Mills tortured and killed by the dozens in the first film, headed by a village patriarch (Rade Serbedzija) whose motivations are identical to Mills’ in that it’s all about blood, literally and metaphorically. In the brief, reductionist prelude Mills’ fatherly predilictions are reintroduced by showing him “obsess” over his daughter Kim’s (Maggie Grace) driving lessons, and after a mixup causes him to go mildly dark on Kim’s new boyfriend, he finds out that Lenore’s marriage to a rich asshole isn’t going well. Besson the producer exercises his own prerogative as writer to somehow spin this domestic situation into an excuse to have both Lenore and Kim make a surprise visit to Mills during a business trip to Istanbul, a plot conceit so laughably incongruous that you wonder how much money Besson used to pay off co-writer Robert Mark Kamen. In any case, the kidnappers, who are tracking Mills’ movement, can’t believe their luck and try to grab both women, but Kim, having somehow absorbed genetically or through osmosis in the first film her father’s knack for being telephatically one step ahead of his opponents, escapes her abductors. Getting really carried away with the incongruity, Besson focuses many of the early action scenes on her, as if he were planning to make Kim the hero of the next sequel. With not only Lenore but also Mills (who is being held so that he can be killed as painfully as possible back in the aforementioned village) in the clutches of the hairy Albanians, it’s up to Kim to use her nascent driving skills and aptitude with a smart phone to save the day. Her father then saves the movie by destroying as much of Istanbul as the American State Department can explain. The family that blows ’em away together stays together. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

twilight-breaking2The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2
The most popular vampire franchise ever became increasingly dull the further it got from high school, but the final scenes of Breaking Dawn Part 1 were at least visually kinky, with our girl Bella (Kristen Stewart) wasting away after giving birth to a bloodsucker half-breed and then undergoing the “change” herself. Part 2, however, is just one long anticlimax. All that angst over whether or not Bella can handle undeadness was just a con: She’s more gorgeous than ever and takes to vampirism like a champ. Mortality is for plebes, but you still need a conflict, so it’s left to the kid, whom the Volturi, that Council of Foreign Relations for vampires, wants to destroy because child vampires can’t be controlled and thus attract human scrutiny. This sets up a huge showdown in the snow that turns out to be another cop out. You get the bloody battle and lots of beheadings but it turns out to have no consequences at all. Even the werewolves seem to be OK with the bloodsuckers now. What’s the world coming to? (photo: Summit Entertainment LLC)

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