March 2013 movies

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

Michael Haneke’s unsentimental study of the decay of flesh and soul couldn’t be opening at a more appropriate time. In the wake of Taro Aso’s clumsy comment about how old people should “hurry up and die” the subject of expiring with some measure of grace and comfort is suddenly topical. The elderly couple in Haneke’s film, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), are neither poor nor isolated from society. They live in an airy, spacious Paris apartment and have a daughter, Eva (Issabelle Huppert), who, while not as attentive as she should be, is nevertheless there when she’s needed. The couple leads an active intellectual life, taking in concerts and keeping up on literature. Haneke hasn’t always been polite in his depiction of this species of European (Cache) but his purpose in showing Georges and Anne at a piano recital and then, more importantly, taking public transportation is to drive home the point that death and illness strikes everyone—poor and rich, conservative and liberal—pretty much the same way. But this is a personal story, as the title implies, and there are important choices to me made when a loved one starts showing signs of fading. Anne suddenly freezes during breakfast, and then returns as if nothing happened, but, of course, something did. Haneke elides the more graphic elements, and in the next scene Anne has already undergone an operation to remove “an obstruction from her carotid artery” that should have gone well but didn’t. We learn this not from the physician involved but from an almost too casual conversation between Georges and Eva, and only after Eva has dominated the conversation with her own trivial worries. The tension between father and daughter, however, is palpable, because neither wants to face the fact that this is the beginning of the end, and it’s this refusal to confront the inevitable that grounds the drama. Perhaps because she knows what she’s in for, Anne wants to talk about it, but Georges resists, and almost perversely decides that he can take care of Anne, bedridden but still in possession of her faculties, by himself. At first, her deterioration is chronicled in subtle ways—a difficulty in opening a book, an avoidance of mirrors—but soon enough, the descent into incontinence and incomprehensibility accelerates. Georges has to hire a nurse, and then fires her in a stupid fit of bourgeois entitlement. As Anne’s condition worsens, the world seems to retreat, the apartment gets darker, and Georges is isolated in his loneliness, chasing pigeons out a window and seeing ghosts. If Haneke is a master of anything it is the abrupt gesture, and when Georges finally decides to act, his desperation is terrifying, because we can see what’s in store for us, too. In French. (photo: Les Films du Losange-X Filme Creative Pool-Wega Film-France 3 Cinema-Ard Degeto-Bayerischer Rundfunk-Westdeutscher Rundfunk)

To say that Bachelorette is a better movie than Bridesmaids won’t mean much to some people, since both films are predicated on cliches that those people believe aren’t worth tolerating for the sake of a few laughs. But these days you take laughs where you can get them, and while the cliches in Bachelorette are every bit as risible as those in its more successful predecessor, it’s much funnier. Director Leslye Headland adapts her own stage play and understands what sells: pretty, profane young women, lots of time-specific pop culture references, and as many humiliating episodes as she can squeeze into 90 minutes. The first comedown is suffered by Regan (Kirsten Dunst), a control freak events planner who is informed over lunch by her plus-size pal Becky (Rebel Wilson) that she is engaged and wants Regan to be her maid of honor. More horrified than honored, Regan thought she herself, the one who was actually popular in high school and currently dates a med student, would be the first in her clique to tie the knot, not “the ugly friend.” Regan’s distressing candor is no match for the neuroses of the other two members of this far-flung bitches club. Gena (Lizzy Caplan) is the kind of type-A cynic who reveals her blowjob secrets to strangers on airplanes, while Katie (Isla Fisher) is a bubbly party girl who likes cocaine and sex a little too much. If Headland’s characterization of this generation of middle class feminity seems geared to shock, their counterparts on the other side of the gender divide cover an equally gross spectrum of unappetizing traits. Per the sort of structure that works better on stage, the action is limited to the night before the wedding, and involves the three friends desperately attempting to repair Becky’s wedding dress, which has been placed in Regan’s safe keeping and torn by Gena and Katie in an attempt to don it together. The mistake bespeaks resentment toward their larger friend, who is not only getting married before them but getting married to a good-looking, decent man, as well as self-loathing, which Headland never checks and the actresses play to the hilt. “I just want to date a guy with a job,” Katie says while high as a kite, and though she attracts the attention of nerdy, needy Joe (Kyle Bornheimer), she lacks the wherewithal to remember his name. During her own odyssey to daybreak Gena hooks up with her high school flame, Clyde (Adam Scott), who, it turns out, did not turn up for her abortion back in the day. The fact that Headland derives just as many laughs as grimaces from this plot point proves her worth as a storyteller. More power to her. (photo: Strategic Motion Ventures LLC)

belamiBel Ami
Robert Pattinson is a suitably melodramatic late 19th century social striver in this stiff adaptation of the Maupassant novel. We first see Georges Duroy outside looking in at Paris’s better set. He returns to his garrett and despairs of his lowly position before running into an old army buddy who has done well as the editor of a newspaper. He introduces Georges to his politically active wife (Uma Thurman), and she introduces him to the city’s rich women, whom she identifies as the real wielders of power. Georges vows never to be poor again as he gains a position as a gossip columnist (without actually gathering any gossip) and sleeps with anyone who will help him get ahead; though, to be fair, he likes his sex. Pattinson is a credible lover and an even more credible rutter, and in the movie’s best scene, Thurman sexually reads him the riot act by making him come much sooner than he’d like. More of that sort of thing might have given Bel Ami the emotional frisson it so desperately strives for. (photo: Bel Ami Distribution Ltd.)

cabinThe Cabin in the Woods
Meta gets out of hand in Drew Goddard’s coldly efficient rendering of Joss Whedon’s gonzo idea: a bunch of college students adhering to the stereotypes that have populated horror films since the mid-70s take off for a weekend to the titular abode, where mayhem ensues in predictable fashion. In fact, “predictable” is the operative word here since the mayhem is being programmed in an off-site control room filled with suit-and-tie bureaucrats who arrange the ghoulies to attack, but not before betting on the results. It’s an old school “sacrifice” scored to REO Speedwagon and the cackle of popcorn-munching, beer swilling goons who watch these movies at home, except that the suit-and-tie guys preempt all the better jokes with jokes of their own (the best one having to do with Sigourney Weaver). Whedon and Goddard save the film from head-up-the-ass insularity with a turn that is in fact unpredictable, and get to indulge all their slasher nightmare fantasies in one horrifically funny extended set piece. The premise doesn’t hold all the way through, but the entertainment never lets up. (photo: Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.)

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas
Though it comes across as a movie to be discussed rather than watched, this ambitious adaptation of the already ambitious novel by David Mitchell is quite watchable. What it isn’t is particularly understandable or, for that matter, edifying enough to make understanding a priority. Composed of six distinct stories spread out over a long stretch of time and closely edited into a cross-hatch of complementary episodes, Cloud Atlas is a teasing gestalt in search of meaning. The filmmakers divided the writing/directing chores, with the Wachowskis of Matrix fame handling three stories and Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame handling the other three, though tonal consistency is not a problem when you have actors playing multiple roles, sometimes even within the same story. And while freedom as an instinctive human desire ties all the stories together thematically, their differences are more notable. Each has something to say about its particular era, but it also has something to say about the particular cinematic genre it exploits. There’s a marine adventure about a young man who saves a slave during a South Seas voyage in 1849; a British period drama about a homosexual music prodigy who puts up with the brutality of a famous composer in 1936; a political thriller about a reporter in 1973 San Francisco who is targeted for death by a nuclear power company she’s investigating; a madcap comedy about a venal publisher in 2012 imprisoned in an old age home by his resentful brother; a sci-fi allegory about an android waitress who rebels against her certain doom; and a dystopian fantasy about the end of the world as we know it. Several characters, such as the homosexual composer’s physicist lover and the android waitress, appear in more than one story, but continuity isn’t the purpose. Viewers hoping to take away a holistic view of civilization will be disappointed, even when Tom Hanks, playing what could be called the last man on earth and the first earthling emigrant, bookends the movie with implications that all this narrative logorrhea is in his head. Pleasure is more readily derived from incidental, maybe even accidental, confluences, such as Hanks’ cockney-accented book critic pushing an offending novelist out a window at a cocktail party and seeing the writer hit the pavement with an audible splat. Or Jim Broadbent’s wild escape from the old age home in the company of three doddering inmates. Or Hugh Grant’s hilarious American accent as a despicable oil company executive. In fact, the futuristic stuff, which one might expect the Wachowskis to ace, is the least satisfying, mainly because they are the least fresh story-wise. All the cinematic huffing and puffing won’t distract you from the feeling that you’ve seen all these things before in shorter, better forms. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

comerainCome Rain, Come Shine
A good idea for a short film needlessly expanded to feature length, Lee Yoon-ki’s drama about a young couple (based on a short story by Areno Inoue) perversely withholds insight into what makes a marriage break down. The long opening scene is a great short by itself: unnamed husband (Hyun Bin) and wife (Lim Soo-jung) make small talk while driving to the airport, and then the wife tells the husband she’s leaving him for a lover he knew nothing about. The rest of the film chronicles the day she moves out, a plan confounded by a downpour that casts a grayish pall not only on their goodbyes but the movie’s visual effect. She appears to have second thoughts, but he is so demonstratively inert it’s difficult to understand what he feels. The boredom is broken by the arrival of a stray kitten and, in turn, new neighbors who want to make friends, not knowing the real situation. Lee is more interested in what the light does to the interior of their stylish condo and the way the husband cooks pasta. In Korean. (photo: bom Film Prod. Co. Ltd.)

1138856 - Django UnchainedDjango Unchained
There’s little doubt that Inglourious Basterds revived Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking mojo. Though in many ways Death Proof was his most distinctive post-Pulp Fiction film, Inglourious, with its bold rewriting of history, occasioned more earnest discussion, much of it intelligent. Django Unchained means to do the same for slavery as Inglourious did for WWII, but within a genre, the spaghetti Western, that was never associated with its particular historical context. Though critics have already pointed out that slavery was treated gingerly by Hollywood, QT’s choice to present the experience as a semi-comic revenge flick is probably even more problematic than having a squadron of Jews kill Hitler, though the moral questions are distressingly similar. Should Jews have been more aggressive against the Nazis? Should African slaves have risen up against their oppressors? Django (Jamie Foxx), the slave who is liberated by the mercenary but otherwise thoughtful German Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) on the eve of the Civil War in Texas, is an easy hero, a reticent badass black avenger who has the moral weight of the universe on his side. Even more than in Inglourious, the bloodletting is ethically justified and thus more plentiful. Schultz guns down the white men escorting Django and his fellow slaves to the next market, seemingly in cold blood, and the scene reminds you of all those times in old Westerns when the hero blithely killed a bad guy but to much less emotional effect. Schultz, who needs Django to identify three murdering brothers who used to be his overseers so that he can bring them in “dead or alive, preferably the former” for a sizable reward, offers him a deal. If he helps him with his bounty-hunting through the winter, Schultz will help Django free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a Mississippi plantation. Django agrees, since it gives him the license “to kill white folks.” Though comparatively light on the kind of dialogue set pieces that make or break a QT script, the writing is more florid and self-conscious than it’s been in the past. The character who makes the most of this aspect is Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of Candyland, the plantation where Broomhilda resides. Candie is a Francophile who can’t speak French, a fan of phrenology, a resolutely cruel master, and probably incestuous; attributes that add up to a monster of peculiarly cinematic force, and both QT and DiCaprio have a ball with this symbol of Southern gentility. Nevertheless, Candie is a product of his upbringing, whereas his chief house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), is evil by choice, a 76-year-old who makes Uncle Tom look like H. Rap Brown, even though his accommodation to his favored position has made him as much of a badass as Django. In the end, something’s gotta give and you can predict whose bullets splatter whose brains with a fair amount of accuracy. Bad guys were never so comically bad, and context has everything to do with it. (photo: Sony Pictures Digital Inc.)

Whip Whitaker is a ridiculous name, even for an airline pilot as cocky as the one Denzel Washington plays in Robert Zemeckis’s highly accomplished melodrama. We never learn how he earned his nickname, but the ridiculousness is intensified by our first image. He is woken up in a Miami Airport hotel room by a phone call from his ex-wife and tells her he has been “up since the crack of dawn.” Forget about the naked flight attendant or the empty bottles on the bedstand. Whitaker is an alcoholic, a brazen one. On the short flight he captains that morning, he sneaks three mini-bottles of vodka into his orange juice while making his pre-flight announcement. It’s stormy and while the weather doesn’t faze Whitaker, his callow co-pilot is nervous, though later we learn it had as much to do with his colleague’s condition as the rain. But Whitaker’s cockiness is earned. An equipment malfunction sends the vessel into a nosedive, and only Whitaker’s steely reserve and instinctive piloting skills save the plane from total catastrophe. He crash lands it in a field, with only four casualties, including the attendant he slept with. We’re thirty minutes into Flight and it feels like the perfect screenplay, all narrative elements tapering into a conundrum—is Whip Whitaker a hero or a criminal?—that deserves all the desperate attention it receives. Zemeckis has always been more of a technician than a dramatist, but his staging of the crash is so flawless the drama takes care of itself. However, the rest of the movie belongs to Denzel Washington. No one else, even the the junkie (Kelly Reilly) he befriends in the hospital and later takes home and into bed, has anything near the traction on audience attention. This is a story about a man’s coming to terms with his worst nature, which happens to be the central element of his life, alcoholism; and John Gatins’ script doesn’t make it a moral crusade because we can’t tell if Whitaker saved all those people because he was drunk or in spite of the fact. While the media boosts Whitaker as a superman, the pilots union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and their lawyer (Don Cheadle) know that Whitaker was intoxicated and need him to cooperate with their investigation, not just to save his job and keep him out of jail, but to preserve the union’s reputation. It’s why people hate lawyers, but this one doesn’t hide his contempt for Whitaker, who, like all addicts, denies his addiction with bluster and charm. What’s impressive about Washington’s performance is how well he sustains this unforgiving portrait without making Whip into a cartoon asshole or sniveling repentant. There is nothing likable about the man. He’s as ridiculous as his name, but fascinating nonetheless. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

huntThe Hunt
Danish cinema always deals in discomfiting candor, and Thomas Vinterberg’s latest brings a deeper significance to the somewhat hackneyed innocent-man-accused theme. Middle-aged Lukas (Mads Mikkelsen), shell-shocked by a difficult divorce and loss of his teaching job, regains his equilibrium working at a small town kindergarten where he strikes up a romance with a foreign co-worker. One of his pre-school charges develops a crush on him and when he gently rebuffs her she translates her inchoate resentment into a lie that effectively turns Lukas into a monster in the eyes of the community. At first helpless because he doesn’t understand the charge against him or even who made it, he fights back after the persecution turns deadly, albeit by getting drunk and making a scene in church. Some of the drama might seem stagey if not for the natural lighting and free-form direction, and despite the reflexive treatment of small-town small-mindedness the development of the scandal is credibly mapped out, especially when the child in question recants a story even she didn’t fully understand. Kids say the damnedest things. In Danish. (photo: Zentropa Entertainments 19 and Zentropa International Sweden)

marthaMartha Marcy May Marlene
With his tricky title, first-time director Sean Durkin gives the impression that the protagonist of his film, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is some kind of quadrophenic crackpot, and while Martha does exhibit two distinct sensibilities during the course of this creepy film, she’s not that damaged, though you might wonder how she could not be. In the opening scene, she makes a desperate escape from a woody upstate New York enclave that turns out to be a cult compound, where the vigilant and domineering leader (John Hawkes) keeps a harem of young women at his sexual beck and call. Martha’s escape to the lakeside retreat of her older sister (Sarah Paulson) and architect brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy) does not evince the sense of relief one expects. If anything, Martha’s trauma seems to have made her even more suspicious of bourgeois living, and her protectors react with understandable but nevertheless indefensible resentment. Durkin doesn’t explain how these people got this way, and the creepy stuff is mostly inferred, but the emotional payoffs are strong and the film leaves a stain on your psyche. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Corp.)

Sado TempestSado Tempest
Rock retains its transgressive cachet in John Williams’ fanciful reimagining of Shakespeare’s fantasy, set on the island of Sado, which is depicted as the coldest place on earth. Williams localizes the story with a prefatory note describing how Sado was a place of exile and uses images from butoh and noh, but if the themes are universal they have less to do with Shakespeare than with the late 20th century pop attitude embodied by Jun, the snarling rock singer imprisoned on the island by mafia-like authorities who aren’t so much bothered by Jun’s rebellious lyrics as they are intrigued by the possibility of lucrative royalties. Jun’s reflexive resistance to creating art on demand is worn down by the elimination of his bandmates and replaced by the realization that art’s power—”magic,” in Shakespeare’s parlance—is totally determined by the artist. The story ends up being more redolant of The Prisoner than The Tempest, and the various narrative elements don’t always cohere, but it definitely makes an attempt, as one character puts it, to “ponder the big questions.” In Japanese. (photo: 100MeterFilms)

Say this for Oliver Stone: his nostalgia is anything but sentimental. Though his latest “entertainment” is set squarely in the here and now, it betrays a longing for the counter-cultural attitudes of the 60s, especially with regards to marijuana. We’re presented with two producers of a super strain of pot, one a hippie manque with a flair for botany (Aaron Johnson), the other an ex-marine (Taylor Kitsch) with a philosophical bent. Brains and brawn, they share a rich kid dropout (Blake Lively) who loves them equally. When they refuse to make a deal with a Mexican drug lord (Salma Hayek) and her psycho enforcer (Benicio Del Toro), things get hairy, as Robert Stone said in a better, similar story about the heroin trade. John Travolta makes corruption look fun as a sleazy fed who works both sides of the trade, but nothing is meant to be believable, especially with narration by a character who warns you that “just because I’m talking doesn’t mean I’m alive.” Sounds like Sunset Boulevard, nostalgia of an entirely different order…and quality. (photo: Universal Pictures)

sugarmanSearching for Sugar Man
The ultimate “where-are-they-now” documentary has a hook so irresistible it manages to sidestep the inconvenient truth that the story basically ended in the 90s. Detroit, that eternal economic dustbin, is where folk singer Sixto Rodriquez was discovered in 1969 playing songs of Dylanesque expressionism in sleazy dives. He made two albums that wowed the musical cognoscenti but sold zilch and then vanished without a trace—until he became a superstar in the 80s via word-of-mouth in South Africa. Director Malik Bendjelloul spends most of the film there, interviewing critics and fans who credit Rodriguez’s songs with helping foment white backlash against apartheid while constructing a legend on hearsay that ends with the singer’s onstage suicide. Eventually, one fan decides to do the obvious and he finds Rodriguez alive and working construction jobs in Detroit. Humble to a fault, uncaring about the royalties denied him, and genuinely surprised by his latent fame in a country he knows nothing about, the subject turns out to be a different sort of pop hero, one who actually deserves our attention and admiration. (photo: Canfield Pictures/The Documentary Co.)

shadowdancerShadow Dancer
Distraction is the soul of suspense, and James Marsh wields it masterfully in this British thriller. Collette (Andrea Riseborough) is caught trying to plant an IRA bomb in London and given an ultimatum by MI5 man Mac (Clive Owen): be his mole or go to prison. Fearful for her son, she opts for the former, and while Mac promises “no one will die, no one will get hurt,” her household is a powder keg, owing to the death of another sibling during the Troubles. The surviving brothers, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), do the bidding of cell leader Kevin (David Wilmott), who is already suspicious of Collette. Then there’s Collette’s mother (Brid Brennan), who doesn’t like it when Collette leaves her son in her care to fulfill mysterious assignations. The Republicans aren’t the only ones stewing. Mac thinks his supervisor (Gillian Anderson) plans to sacrifice Collette. The movie’s crisp purposefulness is seemingly confounded by its incoherence. Everyone acts according to type, but situations rarely turn out as planned, so you can never trust anyone. (photo: Shadow Dancer/BBC/The British Film Institute/Wild Bunch)

The premise of David O. Russell’s comedy, based on a novel by Matthew Quick, is that mental illness is a subjective call. No one would argue that Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) has anger problems. After beating his ex-wife’s lover within an inch of his life, Pat was diagnosed as bipolar and instead of going to jail was sent to a mental health facility, where he lost weight and embraced the positive outlook his doctors championed. So when he talks his way to a release after eight months, you assume that accomplishment alone indicates an improvement in his demeanor, but, of course, there’s two poles to bipolar disorder. Pat’s problems are put into perspective once you meet his family. His mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), is typically enabling, taking Pat at his word and giving his fellow patient Danny (Chris Tucket) a ride home from the hospital, even though he hasn’t been formally discharged. Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) is self-admittedly obsessive-compulsive, a condition that seems doubly dangerous since he lost his job and took up bookmaking. Dad is convinced that regardless of how wacko Pat Jr. is he’s also good luck when it comes to the Phildelphia Eagles, a team that takes on talismanic power in the world this movie circumscribes. But Pat has no time for Dad or the Eagles, since he’s determined to get his ex-wife back, despite a restraining order. More to the point with regard to Russell’s premise is that Pat is off his meds, a situation that gooses the comic-dramatic dynamic Russell has such an affinity for. Silver Linings Playbook is a manic film, with scenes that teeter on the edge of either silliness or violence, and the only presence that brings the story into focus is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose own emotional problems are harder to pin down. A young widow who stalks Pat and gives him the willies, Tiffany has been branded the neighborhood slut, a label she doesn’t reject. The reason Pat doesn’t completely blow her off is because she’s the only person he meets who has some contact with his ex-wife, and she uses that to keep him on a short leash, though Russell never makes a compelling case as to why Tiffany is so enamored of Pat in the first place. It seems enough to suggest that crazy people are the best subjects for romantic comedies. But Russell has no better plot idea for propelling these two rocket-launched personalities at each except betting—two bets, in fact, which put Pat’s relationship vis-a-vis his family and vis-a-vis his ex-wife (and, by extension, Tiffany) on the line. So it’s not just money that’s at stake, it’s Pat’s sanity and maybe even his freedom. Pardon me if I think Ambien is more effective. (photo: SLPTWC Film LLC)

TW_0494.NEFThe Words
Less anachronistic for its view of publishing economics than for its romantic take on the writing life, this cagey drama overflows with cliches, beginning with the pretentious title. The movie is structured as three narratives. In the outer layer Dennis Quaid is a pompous novelist giving a reading of his latest book about a young aspiring writer (Bradley Cooper) struggling to sell his work and finding a yellowed manuscript in the antique satchel his wife (Zoe Saldana) bought him in Paris. He enters the text into his word processor “just to feel the words go through his fingers” and then matters get away from him. The book is not only a bestseller but a literary event. Naturally, his sin is uncovered by the “old man” (Jeremy Irons) who wrote the thing in the late 40s but lost it when his French wife accidentally left it on a train. His story, the third, most interior level, has something moving to say about personal priorities, but by that point the layering effect has covered it in rancid baloney. (photo: By The Words Movie, LLC)

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