April 2013 movies

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

annakareninaAnna Karenina
Arguably the greatest novel ever written and one of the few whose scope translates easily to the screen, Tolstoy’s love story is treated as a candy-colored melodrama by director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, a movie that is as much about its own capacity to dazzle as it is about the source material. Keira Knightley plays the title character as if she were an idol of St. Petersburg’s smart set. Smartly downplaying the more philosophical Levin storyline, this Karenina comes close to Harlequin territory with its breathy love scenes between Anna and the showy, incautious Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). An indication of the filmmakers’ desire to make this a story that appeals to unsuspecting youth is the counter-typecasting of Jude Law as the cuckolded Karenin and his suitably fuddy-duddy reaction to his wife’s infidelity, which starts the ball rolling toward her famous fate. Though the contrast between the amoral, instinctive Anna-Vronsky affair and the chaste, spiritual Levin-Kitty courtship remains the story’s nexus of contemplation, in this version love is simply a train that runs you over. (photo: Focus Features)

Photography By Myles AronowitzArbitrage
Though director Nicholas Jarecki knows whereof he preaches, his central character, hedge fund manager Robert Miller, has too many dramatic roles to fill, and despite a passionate turn by Richard Gere comes across as neither sympathetic nor sufficiently venal. Without going deep into the financial mechanics forcing Miller to sell his fund before it collapses, Jarecki saddles him with an accidental death whose responsibility Miller has to dodge in order to make the sale happen. The story is so carefully worked out you can hear the gears grind into place. Miller lost his soul years ago, so the only comeuppance the audience derives from his misfortune is the disgust of his wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Brit Marling), neither of whom are sympathetic either. The only character who registers emotionally is Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of Miller’s late driver, whom the financier inadvertently implicates in his crime, but even that outcome disappoints. Jarecki is sensitive about his own exploitation of racial dynamics, as if having amassed all that ill-gotten lucre weren’t enough to condemn Miller. (photo: Arbitrage LLC)

By Jess Pinkham _DSC9526.NEFBeasts of the Southern Wild
The (relative) mainstream success of this left-field indie contradicts its unruly premise, that since nature is unpredictable why should movies be? Made with almost no money and without personalities to sell it, the film relies almost completely on the performance of Quvenzhane Wallis, who was six when it was shot, and while too much has been made of her acting, not enough has been said about how successfully director Benh Zeitlin has conveyed her point-of-view. This is a movie that captures your attention with the vividness of its childlike detail but vanishes immediately from consciousness because it has no purchase on your current experience. It’s completely subjective in that its subject’s purview is all there is. Falling into line with literature’s greatest child characters who, like her, are mostly from the South, Hushpuppy lives with an alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a low-lying corner of New Orleans called the Bathtub, probably because it fills with water practically on cue. Through premonition, Wink sees disaster, which could be his own chronic though unspecified illness or a Katrina-like deluge, but in any case both father and daughter understand that her survival depends on her personality. Though the story is based on a play its development is neither linear nor expository. Hushpuppy’s “adventures” for the most part exist in her head and have no tale to tell, but Zeitlin depicts a very real milieu, a place where poverty and everyday ingenuity combine to startling effect. Wink and Hushpuppy live in separate trailers, and seem to exist on different planes, which is important because the little girl, despite her facility with a blowtorch, will be on her own as Wink gets sicker and the elements become nastier. Representatives of authority move in like an invading army, ready to evacuate the vulnerable from this ad hoc but surprisingly resilient community, and Hushpuppy escapes, alone against the prehistoric beasts that have been unleashed as the polar ice caps melt per Wink’s prediction—or was it hers? “I’m a little piece of a big universe and that makes things right,” she says in the overly literal voiceover that occasionally undermines Zeitlin’s purposeful naturalism. Some critics have taken the director to task for sentimentalizing margin dwellers like the inhabitants of the Bathtub, but the characters are too vividly delineated to fit any sort of preconceived idea of “the poor,” though they definitely are that. If anything, innocence makes poverty a moot point, or at least it does here. Hushpuppy’s interactions with the drunks and layabouts around her teach her responsibility, and in the end when she vows to go out into the world “to find my mama,” you actually think she’ll succeed, not because she can work miracles, but because the world is only conquerable by those who don’t know any better. (photo: Cinereach Prod.)

beyondthehillsBeyond the Hills
Christian Mungiu’s newest provocation is more difficult to peg than his abortion shocker 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Some viewers will react negatively to the Orthodox cloister that provides the setting, and when 20-something Alina (Cristina Flutur) comes to the primitive, ascetic compound, which sits on a remote hilltop overlooking the Romanian town where she was raised as an orphan, you expect her skepticism to rule the movie’s moral tone. She’s there to reclaim her best friend, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), with whom she grew up and formed an attachment that goes beyond comradeship, but Voichita is thinking of taking her vows. At first, the psychological power the convent’s Father (Valeriu Andriuta) has over his brood of nuns seems untoward, and Alina, upset with Voichita’s reluctance to come away with her and work on a cruise ship, suspects him of perversion, but his devoutness is pure whereas Alina’s convictions are erratic and disruptive. Her presence threatens to implode this closed system, and Mungiu’s gradual methodology, all long takes and cumulative dialogue, pulls the viewer into the emotional morass. In Romanian. (photo: Moltra Films-Why Not Productions-Les Films du Fleuve-France 3 Cinema-Mandragora Movies)

From the moment we see and hear Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), the center of the universe in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don Delillo’s novel, we understand him to be not a normal human character but an analogue of the forces that have made the 21st century as alienating as it wants to be. With skin as white and clear as bathroom porcelain, Packer tells his bodyguard (Kevin Durand) in an affectless tone that “we need a haircut,” as if discussing his posse. The bodyguard and the stretch limo parked at the curb tell us Packer may hold sway over a particularly large posse, and as the movie progresses inside that resourceful vehicle we learn that he is one of the richest men in the world, a self-made techno-billionaire whose particular talents have less to do with engineering the physical properties of the cosmos than with manipulating the human dimension of monetary flow. During his drive uptown to the barber he patronized as a little kid, he consults with a computer nerd (Jay Baruchel) in a hoodie, has sex with his “art advisor” (Juliette Binoche) before asking her to buy the famous Rothko Chapel for his penthouse, and interacts in decidedly unconnubial fashion with his newlywed wife (Sarah Gadon), whose complexion is as clear and unyielding as his. The picture is not so much of a rich young man out of his depth, but rather of someone who occupies a position that’s never been occupied before, and the neoligistic nature of the title comes into focus: Packer’s huge fortune is evaporating by the minute, subject to a bad call regarding the yuan, and thus analogous with the entropic nature of the universe, which has always been Delillo’s overarching theme. There are interruptions along the way for lunch, toilet breaks (the limo has a commode under the back seat), traffic jams caused by a coincidental visit by the U.S. president and the attendant public protests (Mathieu Amalric makes a very funny cameo as a “pastry assassin” who lands a pie in Packer’s face), and even a prostate examination during a heated discussion with his chief of finance (Emily Hampshire). These disparate, often absurd narrative elements come to a head not in the penultimate haircut, which feels like a brief respite from the pressures of being an economic black hole, but in the meeting with the ultimate disgruntled ex-employee (Paul Giamatti), whose outlook on the balance of nature is exceedingly material. “You have to die more than others,” he tells his former boss while holding a gun to his head in a dark, dingy apartment. The universe, as it were, will not be denied, and if balance can only be achieved through violence, well, nature doesn’t know from violence in the first place. (photo: Cosmopolis Prod./Alfama Films Prod./France 2 Cinema)

When making movies about real people, directors don’t often pay enough attention to the pitfalls of hindsight. It’s not enough that Anthony Hopkins gets the breathy, strained vocal inflections that Alfred Hitchcock was famous for in this recreation of the making of Psycho, screenwriter John J. McLaughlin has to also address the popular image of the Master of Suspense as being enamored of blondes, profligate with both budgets and menus, an acute alcoholic, and a lovable snob. Though that’s four vivid character traits, they don’t add up to a human being, and the trouble with Hitchcock is that it won’t tell you anything you don’t already know; even less, in fact. It will, however, give you a fair idea of what it was like to be married to the guy, since the real focus of the story is the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, who, according to legend, was as responsible for Hitchcock’s signature style as he was. And it might have been interesting if that’s all it was about, but it’s also about Janet Leigh’s figure (or Scarlett Johansson’s), Vera Miles’ (Jessica Biel) fall from grace as a Hitchcockian object of desire, Anthony Perkins’ (James D’Arcy) identification with his character, Norman Bates, and the general thick-headedness of the movie industry. Director Sacha Gervais, understanding he’s out of his depth, indicates we shouldn’t take it seriously by framing the production as one of Hitch’s TV shows, with the host facing the audience and providing pithy, dry background, in this case about serial killer Ed Gein, on whom Bates was supposedly based. Having recovered from the box office failure of the ambitious Vertigo with the safe, studio-pleasing North by Northwest, Hitchcock decides to cash in his success with something nasty and perverse, but the suits don’t buy it. He figures if he’s going to do Psycho his way he’ll have to pay for it, and whatever drama one derives from Hitchcock is in the undramatic possibility that Hitch and Alma will have to give up their palatial Beverly Hills digs. Then there’s Alma’s unexciting affair with a stuffy, unexciting screenwriter (Danny Huston) who is penning a Hitchcockian script of the old sort and flatters her into helping him out, so amidst all the intrigue on the set with regards to shower scenes and bedrooms and how to get it all past the censors we have Hitch fretting over his connubial situation, and not being credible about it. It isn’t Hopkins’ fault. Though you recognize the actor beneath all those startling layers of latex, he creates something compelling, a portrait of an effete, self-satisfied epicure who likes little dogs and probably was never much of a sexual adventurer or even a film esthete. That sounds more like Alfred Hitchcock than the pathetic figure McLaughlin and Gervasi depict, though, in truth, it isn’t half as compelling as the druid Toby Jones created in the HBO biopic The Girl. Compared to that movie, Hitchcock is hagiography. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

holymotorsHoly Motors
Like Cosmopolis, Leos Carax’s first full-length feature since 1999 is mostly set in a limousine. It’s episodic by design, a series of short subjects that comment on film lore—Carax even references his own work. In fact, Holy Motors has as much to do with its star, Denis Lavant, who has appeared in many of Carax’s films, as it does with its director, who appears in the first scene, getting out of bed and then unlocking a secret door in his room that leads to a darkened movie theater. Lavant appears on the screen as a family man, Mr. Oscar, leaving his luxurious, modernistic house for what appears to be a typical work day. He is picked up by his older chauffeur, Celine (Emily Scob), and while being transported to his first “appointment” gets into character, that of a homeless beggar woman, who is deposited on the Pont-Neuf bridge, the setting for Carax’s most famous film. For the rest of the movie Mr. Oscar is shuttled from one appointment to another, using the limousine as a dressing room where he prepares for the next role, and while Carax never explains who has arranged these appointments and what purpose they serve they are very obviously arranged and purposeful, as indicated by the appearance of Michel Piccoli, who at one point scolds Mr. Oscar for not taking his work seriously enough. This is a joke in itself, since no one takes the job of acting as seriously as Denis Lavant, whose transformations are so complete as to be scary, even when they’re meant to be funny. Recreating the milky-eyed, claw-fingered “gaijin” derelict of Carax’s Godzilla-quoting portion of the 2008 omnibus Tokyo!, he emerges from the sewer in a Parisian graveyard and crashes a fashion shoot, biting off the fingers of a hapless assistant and then spiriting away the model (Eva Mendes) to his underground lair, where he shows her his semi-enthusiastic manhood. She doesn’t seem impressed, which is another joke since the character is one crazy freak. Whether playing a cautious father, a sentimental lover, or a bald, clumsy assassin, Lavant/Oscar earns his salary and brings more entertainment value to Carax’s enterprise than does the script or the visual style, which is impressive without being moving, integrated without being coherent. The pleasures are fleeting, demonstrating care in the details and not the totality, like the haunting love song that Kylie Minogue sings as she wanders through an abandoned department store, or the comical interlude when Mr. Oscar’s limo and another engage in a bout of road rage even though they seem to be the only vehicles in Paris. Make of the title, and the ending, what you will. You’d be a fool to read too much into it. In French and English. (photo: Pierre Grise Productions)

Jack The Giant KillerJack the Giant Slayer
Bryan Singer lets his tech crew have the run of this ultra-mash 3D fantasy based on two-count-em-two fairy tales. There isn’t much to the story or the characters, and the CG is cheesy. The central intrigue is how innocent, good-hearted farmboy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) will win the favor of the the plucky Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who is betrothed to the dastardly court factotum Roderick (Stanley Tucci), who happens to have in his possession the fabled magic beans, which come into Jack’s possession and then out of them. The resulting beanstalk is a thing to behold as it takes Jack’s house and the princess to the land of giants in the sky, thus predicating the need for Jack to slay them. Actually, there’s little bloodshed on view, though a lot of gross antics given that the giants are pigs. And except for the one with two heads, there’s also little imagination at work. If you know the basic story and saw any other fantasy blockbuster in the last six months you could write this review yourself without even seeing it. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

masterThe Master
The title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic confrontation with the American experience refers to the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lancaster Dodd, the head of a pseudo-scientific religious cult that is based in part on the career of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But the movie is actually about a guy named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II vet who drifts from job to job in the late 1940s in a kind of antisocial, alcoholic haze that indicates he’s bipolar, possibly schizophrenic. Obsessed with sex and the inventor of a personal brand of potent, seemingly hallucinogenic moonshine, Quell stows away on a pleasure boat that has been chartered by Dodd for his daughter’s wedding reception, but rather than have Quell put ashore, he engages him in conversation, intrigued by the younger man’s inability to filter his responses to outside stimuli, not to mention the peculiar properties of his “elixir.” In the movie’s most intense scene, Dodd puts Quell through the motions of his patented “process,” a type of psychoanalytical interrogation that means to uncover traumas experienced in a past life. We’ve already seen Quell undergoing psychological testing in a military hospital and his resistance to treatment, but the game that Dodd plays, while arrogantly intrusive, delights Quell and an indescribable bond is forged. “I’m the only one who likes you,” Dodd says in all seriousness at one point, and if the feeling isn’t mutual it at least explains in simple terms why the Master tolerates this volatile cipher. Anderson doesn’t provide much in terms of background to explain Quell’s desperation except rudimentary flashbacks, prompted by Dodd’s therapies, to a relationship with a teenage girl he knew from his hometown, and in the end Dodd has no lasting benefit for Quell. Does that make Dodd a fraud? Hardly, but his reputation as a charlatan is still in development. As his adult son tells Quell in a moment of atypical clarity, “He makes it up as he goes along,” an observation given creedence when a moneyed acolyte (Laura Dern) questions a change in dogma and Dodd responds angrily. It becomes clear that the real power behind the movement is Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams), the embodiment of feminine resolve in the sense that she will do anything to ensure her man succeeds. Eventually, Quell drifts away from this collection of monsters, but not out of disillusionment. He is simply distracted, and one of the most frustrating aspects of Anderson’s method is how difficult it is to distinguish Quell’s waking life from his imagined one. If Dodd and Quell are made for each other it’s because they share a capacity for total self-delusion. Dodd has just managed to turn that capacity into profit. (photo: Western Film Co.)

omshantiomOm Shanti Om
Director Farah Khan calls her 2007 sophomore effort an homage to classic Bollywood rather than a parody, as some people see it, but since we’re talking Bollywood in the first place the distinction would seem to be academic. Utilizing an ingenious two-part structure and a reincarnation tale that reverses the roles of the two romantic leads, Khan gets to not only exploit her love of 1970s musical excess in a witty and heart-pounding way, but send up the whole contemporary culture of the industry that pays her. Each part is highlighted by a production number featuring the biggest Hindi-language stars of their respective eras, with the second, post-millennial breakout lasting a staggering 15 minutes. Superstar Shah Rukh Khan makes fun of his own reputation as a temperamental diva in the second half after camping it up convincingly as a Gene Kelly manque in the first. His opposite number, former model Deepika Padukone, can’t quite work up a discernible personality in her first big screen role, but her smile is a knockout, and that’s all director Khan needs. In Hindi. (photo: Eros International Ltd.)

OZOz the Great and Powerful
As critics have already pointed out, L. Frank Baum’s beloved fantasy series has been adapted numerous times for the screen, but almost all were made before the war. Sam Raimi reportedly had his hands tied with this prequel to the beloved 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz, since the rights to that film and its specific references now belong to Warner and he’s working for Disney. Still, there’s enough dedicated imagery in the material to qualify for collective consciousness status and Raimi doesn’t have to strain to make connections, so it seems like a joke that he frames the Kansas scenes in black-and-while and the Oz scenes in color, just as the Victor Fleming movie did. However, such attention to detail and the feelings of big studios doesn’t explain the inertness of this movie, whose blockbustery exertions seem winded right from the start. James Franco is an inspired choice for the carnival magician Oscar Diggs. The actor has a rep as a con man, and so he doesn’t have to go deep to convince the viewer that his exploitation of country rubes is anything but a natural inclination. It’s his reactionary morality that stirs skepticism, and after he’s transported by a twister to the the Emerald City and its environs, the two sides of his personality are constantly at odds (at Oz?), which should lend the story tension but mostly just makes it confusing. The script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire has a simple enough premise—the origin story of the wizard himself—but in addition to taking the audience’s familiarity with the Oz story for granted it becomes enamored of quirky characters and the need for studio-dictated bombast, thus compounding the confusion. There are three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams), whose various shifting rivalries provide the tale with its requisite conflict. Theodora believes Diggs to be the savior of the land once prophesied, and the rapscallion in the magician goes along with it with the encouragement of his newfound sidekick, a bellhop-bedecked monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff). That all three witches exhibit the hots for Diggs is perhaps another joke but one that feels anemic. Franco lacks the brashness to pull off this sort of acting feat, but the biggest drag on the movie’s entertainment potential is its earnest determination to achieve the sort of critical mass necessary to justify its standing as a prequel. We have to get to that place where all presumed future Oz movies will start—and past Oz movies, too. Warner notwithstanding, Disney’s gambit means nothing without its identification with one of the most beloved movies of all time. This film is brighter, cleaner, and more antic than Fleming’s, but it’s also much less necessary. (photo: Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The subtle charms of this 3D stop-action animated feature may be lost on moviegoers who understandably have had it up to here with horror tropes, regardless of how they’re presented. The hero, a middle school boy who sees dead people, is bullied for his gift and even grounded by his parents when his spooky capability gets out of hand. He lives in a suburban community whose only claim to posterity is being the setting of a colonial era witch trial, and what his neighbors accept as a quaint tradition Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) suffers through as the only mortal being in town who undertands the feelings of one of those witches. This knowledge provides him with an unavoidable mission to prove his courage, but such Disneyfied cliches are fortunately downplayed in favor of a more imaginative kid-group dynamic. In his determination to save Blithe Hollow from a zombie invasion Norman the misfit recruits his vain older sister (Anna Kendrick), a dumb bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and a somewhat compromised jock (Casey Affleck), all winning comic inventions. (photo: Universal Studios)

Maggie Smith continues her breathless end-life run of leading roles as Jean, a proud opera diva who gives in to old age and checks herself into a nursing home, which happens to cater to retired musicians. Based on a play by Ronald Harwood that he adapted himself, Quartet askes the audience to take a great deal for granted—not so much that such an institution exists, but that it has to look like heaven on earth. Who wouldn’t want to die on such a gorgeous English estate? For some reason the place is in financial straits, thus precipitating a “gala” where all the illustrious inmates will perform, and three fellow singers (Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly) try to persuade Jean to join them for a performance of the quartet from Rigoletto. She refuses, horrified that her diminished talents would be exposed for everyone to hear. Harwood’s cardboard themes and hackneyed dramatic devices are treated with all sentimental seriousness by first-time director Dustin Hoffman, who gives new meaning to what one of the characters refers to as “dignified senility.”(photo: Headline Pictures [Quartet] Ltd. and the BBC)

rust&boneRust and Bone
What Jacques Audiard leaves out of his romantic melodrama could fill a book that would probably be a lesser work. As it stands his tale borders on the trite, with Matthias Schoenaerts playing a brutish boxer with a five-year-old son and Marion Cotillard as a marine park animal trainer left handicapped after a worksite accident. Audiard doesn’t push matters. These two meet under the most banal circumstances and nothing happens between them for the longest time, thus allowing the viewer to get to know them as separate forces. Ali channels his inchoate rage into illegal fights and sex on the run, while Stephanie simply takes each day at a time, and when Ali, who has been acting as a helpmate, offers her casual intimacy she accepts, but isn’t prepared for his total lack of guile or emotional demonstration. Set in the blue collar milieu of southern France, the movie’s naturalism is multi-faceted, taking in the social and economic, as well as emotional, situations of these characters without making much of them, and then Audiard drops a bomb. In French. (photo: Why Not Prod.-France 2 Cinema-Les Films du Fleuve-Luranime)

shunliShun Li and the Poet
Zhao Tao, the muse of Jia Zhangke, plays the title character in this debut feature by Andrea Segre. Shun Li is paying off her debt to the Chinese syndicate that paid her way to Italy, where they shuttle her from one shady operation to another. Anxious to make enough money to send for her 8-year-old son, she does as she’s told in the face of callous disregard for her feelings. While working as a waitress in a small bar on the island of Chioggia near Venice, she strikes up a friendship with Bepi (Rade Sherbedgia), an older Yugoslavian fisherman who emigrated to Italy 30 years before. Both share a love of poetry and the melancholy bond of exile, but the Italians and the Chinese see something untoward in the relationship. It’s easy to understand why Shun Li’s Chinese bosses disapprove of the liaison—their status in the community is precarious at best—but the resentment of the Italians seems merely reflexive. Still, the relationship is touchingly geniune, owing mainly to the way Zhao holds her emotions in check. In Italian and Mandarin. (photo: Joliefilm S.r.I.-Aeternam Films S.a.r.I.-ARTE France Cinema)

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