May 2013 movies

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

ekthatigerEk Tha Tiger
Former documentary filmmaker Kabir Khan has become successful in Bollywood with socially charged subjects that don’t necessarily fit the template engineered for the genre. His latest is an espionage thriller. Tiger (Salman Khan) is the Indian intelligence agency’s secret weapon, a killing machine so tireless he has no life outside of work and laments to his superior that he’s never been in love. On assignment in Ireland to keep tabs on an Indian missile scientist who may be trading secrets with Pakistan, Tiger falls in love with the scientist’s student assistant, Zoya (Katrina Kaif), who turns out to be a Pakistani agent. “Of all the countries in the world, you had to fall for a girl from Pakistan,” says Tiger’s colleague. Of course, that’s the point, and the Romeo-Juliet aspects of the relationship don’t get in the way of the action sequences, but there are only two big musical production numbers, and one of them is banished to the closing credit roll. I have no problem with Bollywood taking on touchy themes, but some priorities are sacred. In Hindi and English. (photo: Yash Raj Film Pvt. Ltd.)

Gangster SquadGangster Squad
Any movie with Sean Penn in it is automatically going to recalibrate to his intensity, regardlesss of how small his role is. Though the amount of screen time dedicated to Penn in the big budget ensemble period piece is spare compared to some of the other actors, the movie feels overheated just by his presence, and since Penn is playing real-life 1950s gangster Mickey Cohen he gets to act out in the most uninhibited way. No one does rage as scarily or convincingly. Suffice to say there isn’t much in the way of subtlety in Gangster Squad. In the first scene, Cohen supervises the splitting of a disobedient underling in half as if it were something he had to attend to before dinner, so you can imagine what it’s like when he gets really mad. That tone carries over to the other side of the law, represented by Los Angeles police sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who gets introduced in a similarly ultra-violent fashion when he single-handedly invades one of Cohen’s brothels and shoots up the place. Because he’s the only clean cop on the force, no one backs him up and Cohen’s bribes to higher-ups in the department, not to mention the judiciary, guarantees his men are immediately back on the street. The put-upon commissioner (Nick Nolte, whose resemblance to Brolin is a little too close for comfort here) asks O’Mara to assemble a squad of cops who will go after Cohen off the books, meaning the department will disavow their activities. The bunch O’Mara recruits contains one of each Hollywood crime movie type, including two visible minorities (Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena), a veteran Wild West gunslinger (Robert Patrick), and a tech nerd (Giovanni Ribisi), all of whom are stoked to rid L.A. of the Cohen plague by any means necessary, which includes blasting up public spaces. Though writer Will Beall implies some reservations about this strategy, it doesn’t mean director Ruben Fleischer holds anything back during those set pieces when bullets and bodies are flying. The only character with any depth is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), simply because he goes from insouciantly apathetic about O’Mara’s secret society (“You’re working too hard”) to equally determined to join after a shoeshine boy buys it during one of Cohen’s casual drive-bys. Predictably, the women—Emma Stone’s conflicted moll and Mireille Enos’s helpful wife—are only there as plot thickeners, but the men on both sides of the law are so stubborn you assume their fates were decided at the time of birth; in other words at some script meeting. This is based on whose idea of a “true story”? (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)

shoes_main_bigGod Save My Shoes
Once you get past the self-satisfied narration and the upper crust world view, this documentary about women’s obsession with shoes can be quite educational, especially with regards to the appeal of high heels to both the wearer and the observer. The talking heads (feet?) comprise famous names in pop culture, fashion, high society, the arts, and even academia. In the movie’s most cogently presented passage, the evolution of the high heel is traced from Renaissance times to the middle of the 19th century, when men stopped wearing them, to the flapper age, when they became associated with political freedom, and then to the look’s most celebrated phase in the 50s, when even housewives wore heels at home to emphasize a sexually heated femininity that had been cooled during the war years. After feminism lowered heels in the 70s, stilletos made a huge comeback in the 90s, mainly through the influence of Sex and the City. Sex is as central to the story of women’s shoes as commerce, and the bugbear of comfort vs. looks is given its due. In English and French. (photo: Caid Productions Inc.)

hysteriaHysteria
Though set in Victorian England and produced by an English company, Hysteria delivers the same battering ram sensibility that characterizes Hollywood historiography. Maybe it’s the quirky subject matter. Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) embraces the new theory of germ-laden disease and is dismissed from his hospital job. He lands a position with a gynecologist, Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), whose hands are famous among London’s housewives for relieving the titular malady, a catch-all phrase for what is essentially sexual frustration. Being younger and handsomer, Granville becomes even more of an attraction, and the work load becomes so heavy he develops a cramp that makes the “massage” ineffective. Though the movie’s hook is Granville’s solution to this problem—the invention of the vibrator, with the help of a rich, layabout inventor friend (Rupert Everett)—its theme is female entitlement as embodied by Dalrymple’s rebellious daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who stumps for women’s suffrage and gives her father’s money to the poor. The romance is automatic and prompts the viewer to take the historical truth of the matter at face value. (photo: Hysteria Films Ltd. Arte France Cinema and By Alternative Pictures)

killingKilling Them Softly
The Japanese title of this itchy crime noir, Jackie Cogan, inadvertently points the viewer to its source material, George V. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, and makes him wonder why director/scenarist Andrew Dominik changed it to Killing Them Softly. The apparent answer is that Dominik wanted to use Higgins’ story about a hit man, the aforementioned Cogan (Brad Pitt), assigned to rub out two small-time crooks, for purposes that Higgins could never have imagined, much less countenanced; namely, the state of the union circa 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president. On the surface, the premise is intriguing though the execution becomes more and more strained. The America we see (actually, New Orleans awkwardly filling in for Boston) is derelict and sloppy, like the two ne’er-do-wells (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy) hired by a small-time operator to knock off a poker game. This mini-play is the best thing in the movie, a compact drama that moves lithely from the disaffected caustic patter between the two robbers in their car to the extremely tense standoff in the warehouse where the game takes place under the supervision of mob factotum Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The less-than-clever idea is that Trattman once engineered a holdup of his own game and that a second sting will automatically place the onus on him, deflecting attention from the real robbers. And while it doesn’t work that way, the reasons have less to do with narrative logic than with crime-noir exigencies: Trattman not only gets worked over in gratuitously gory detail, but the ever more corporate-leaning, faceless organization, as represented by a mousy, unnamed bagman (Richard Jenkins), feels it needs to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, so it hires Cogan to make the necessary whack. Cogan, who knows Marky, disagrees with the assessment and in any case doesn’t want to “kill someone I know,” so he subcontracts Mickey (James Gandolfini), an alcoholic friend who needs the work but can’t break out of his depressive funk long enough to get the job done. I don’t know whether all these elements are presented similarly in Higgins’ novel, but Dominik can’t make them work together in a way that satisfies his thematic intentions, which is to show how crime is America’s business and vice versa. I’m sure if Higgins had such a theme in mind he would have sublimated it without the need for such obvious analogies and statements of purpose. In fact, Cogan says as much by stating baldly, “America isn’t a country, it’s a business. Now give me my money.” That might have been a great line to open the movie with, but Dominik chooses to close with it. Does he think we’re as dumb as those two holdup guys? (photo: Cogans Film Holdings LLC)

Last Stand new mainThe Last Stand
As much of a pushover as he’s been in Hollywood, even Arnold Schwarzenegger wouldn’t presume after almost a decade away from movies to be able to return to acting with his old persona in tact. Though he’s outfitted with the requisite terse one-liners and gets to beat the shit out of the bad guy, he acts his age and looks it to boot. Some say he’s grooming himself for a twilight career in the Eastwood mold, and there is a certain similarity in terms of limitations, but it’s difficult to think of Schwarzenegger adapting his meat-truck screen persona to codger roles. Ray Owens, the small town sheriff he plays in this efficient actioner, is about right, at least for now; a guy who was once a big city cop and now just wants to chill in a sleepy Arizona backwater where the worst he has to contend with is an overly entitled mayor and residents a little too fond of their firearms, but, hey, this is America, and nobody understands what Americans like better than this son of Austria. One of the premises of The Last Stand is that guns are readily available at a moment’s notice, so when the army of a deadly Mexican drug kingpin moves in to clear the way for his escape from federal custody, you’ve already got that well-regulated militia the second amendment guarantees, even if none of these stray dogs and weekend warriors probably know how to spell “constitution.” Andrew Knauer’s script is strictly functional, and director Kim Jee-won, in his American debut, knows how to fill it out. Though the FBI, headed by a nervous, bull-headed Forest Whitaker, has spared no expense to get their prisoner from Las Vegas to a nearby penitentiary, the kingpin’s minions execute a brilliantly complex breakout, complete with crane-and-electromagnet and dozens of orange-suited decoys. What’s more, the kingpin (Eduardo Noriega), has arranged for delivery of a kind of super-Batmobile that he plans to drive himself to freedom just so he can show those pussy Feds that he can. The only thing between him and the border is Owens and his ragtag bunch of deputies. The fact that both the drug army and the Feds underestimate this lawman is the movie’s simple but effective dramatic hook, and if it works more credit goes to Kim than to Arnold, who does what he’s told but is diminished by the action set pieces. If the memento mori of post-70s American cinema is the confluence of the internal combustion engine and the automatic rifle, then Kim deserves honorary citizenship. He orchestrates the tension masterfully in a car chase through a cornfield and choreographs the requisite shootout in the middle of town for maximum congency. This is a man who not only knows his High Noon, but his Bullitt, too. He makes Arnold look good, which was not at all guaranteed. (photo: Lions Gate Entertainment)

LINCOLNLincoln
Though it’s to director Steven Spielberg’s and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s credit that this movie about the passing of the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery, is coherent and entertaining, all eyes (and ears) are on Daniel Day-Lewis, whose portrayal of the iconic 16th president of the United States is mesmerizing not because it’s so truthful (how would we know?) but because it’s so strange. The diction, the stooped gait, the flighty gestures contradict the image we have of Lincoln as a towering Biblical figure of command while at the same time reinventing it for all time. That’s why he deserved the Oscar, and why the movie can’t hope to match the performance. Spielberg’s eagerness to prove how emotionally important the issue was tests the viewer’s understanding of human nature. At the center of the conflict is the need to secure peace. Though Lincoln had just won reelection, his mandate was limited by the public’s exhaustion with the War Between the States. Congress was howling for an end to hostilities as soon as possible, but despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of slavery wasn’t guaranteed by law, and it was assumed the Confederacy would force a compromise in return for surrender, so the only way Lincoln saw to abolish slavery once and for all was to pass a constitutional amendment to that effect before the conclusion of the war. That he accomplished this superhuman feat in four months is a dramatic enough fact to obviate the need for holding back on spoilers (though, considering the state of history education in America, it can’t be assumed that the average moviegoer won’t be in suspense as to the outcome), but then the viewer also has loitering in the back of his mind the tragedy that caps this momentous interlude. The only thing to do is dive right into the backroom deals, everyday racism, and cloying Congressional speechmaking, and with the exception of some colorful characters, like Tommy Lee Jones’s radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader’s crafty lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, they all blend into a chaotic mess, which was probably deliberate but also contradictory to the high moral tone Kushner tries to convey. He gains more on this count with the relationship between Lincoln and his wife, Mary (Sally Field), since it is there that the political becomes personal as Lincoln has followed Mary’s proscription that their son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), not be sent into battle, despite Robert’s belief that he can never face his peers if he doesn’t. When Lincoln discusses destiny with his black servants the movie is forced to confront the reality behind the myth. “I believe you deserve to expect what I expect,” he tells his housekeeper (Gloria Reuben), “and I’ll get used to you.” It may not be what we want to hear from the Great Emancipator and he probably didn’t even say it, but it sounds about right. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. & Dreamworks Dist.)

needLove Is All You Need
Though Hollywood has been good to Danish director Susanne Bier (an Oscar for In a Better World) her tinsel town work hasn’t been as noteworthy as her Danish films. Her latest feels like a halfway measure, an American-style romantic comedy with Danish characters set in a beautiful Italian coastal town, but, thanks to a script by Anders Thomas Jensen, it delivers the usual Bier-ish discomfort. Trine Dyrholm plays a middle aged woman finishing up chemotherapy who discovers her husband’s affair with a younger woman on the eve of their daughter’s wedding. She flies to the nuptials in Italy alone, but in the airport parking lot gets into a fender bender with Philip (Pierce Brosnan), who happens to be the father of the groom and an irritable bastard to boot. Such meet-cute plot devices are de rigeuer and Bier doesn’t mess with the formula, but her strikingly unlikeable supporting characters and their all-too-real inability to do the right thing in the right situation keep the film interesting until the predictable ending, which is all the more affecting for it. In Danish and English. (photo: Zentropa Entertainments29 ApS)

3idiots3 Idiots
After it was released in 2009, 3 Idiots became the biggest international box office hit in Bollywood history. What global audiences supposedly found more appealing was the sophomoric gross-out humor suggested by the title, but don’t expect an Indian knock-off of The Hangover. As with most Bollywood stories, this one is manichean, and if the gags scan more easily toward the scatalogical, the sex and bad behavior never stray outside the polite precinct delineated by industry mores. In fact, 3 Idiots is even more didactic than most masala movies. Amir Khan plays Rancho, a iconoclastic undergraduate at the Imperial College of Engineering, one of India’s most exclusive universities. Unlike his fellow students, Rancho questions his teachers, in particular the imperious Professor Viru (Boman Irani), who demands total adherence to a methodology that involves inculcating a spirit of competition among his charges since it is the only way they will succeed in the cutthroat world of technology. Rancho simply believes in the virtue of learning for the sake of knowledge, and is there to improve his understanding of mechanical principles for practical purposes. Viru immediately brands him an “idiot,” which means Rancho’s two best friends, the relatively mediocre but good-hearted Farhan (R. Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi), are also relegated to also-ran status in the eyes of the faculty and the more ambitious students, including transfer bootlicker Chatur (Omi Vaidya), whose propensity for silent flatulence is one of the film’s more tiresome running jokes. What makes Rancho more than a well-meaning hero is his own penchant for practical jokes, some of which indicate a darker cast to his personality. In one scene, he and his mates crash a wedding reception to get some free food, only to discover it’s for Viru’s daughter. Another daughter, a medical student named Pia (Kareena Kapoor), takes issue with Rancho’s boldness and he, in turn, takes issue with her hypocrisy, a gambit that proves both his integrity and his arrogance, but, of course, Pia is intrigued. For once, the production numbers advance the story, though their folk-poppish attributes, clearly meant to appeal to a cosmopolitan demographic, could alienate Bollywood diehards. And as with a lot of recent, more conscientiously social masala films, the balance between slapstick and melodrama is unstable, especially in one passage where a raunchy song is followed by a jarring suicide. Structurally, the movie works better than it should, since it is told in flashback some ten years after graduation as Farhan and Raju, accompanied by the greedily successful Chatur, search for their old friend and discover something surprising. 3 Idiots isn’t as funny is it thinks it is, or as socially provocative as it could be, but as a compelling story it reaches its destination in one piece. In Hindi and English. (photo: Vinod Chopra Films Pvt Ltd.)

We&I_mainThe We and the I
Michel Gondry’s reputation as a commercial film artist with a taste for the absurd is forthrightly tested in this experimental work that reportedly was two years in the making. During that time, the French director hung out with students in a Bronx high school, conspiring to make a film that proposed to capture the rarefied feeling of adolescence in both specific and general terms, the “we” and the “I” of the title. The setting is a public transportion bus that is taking the kids home after the last day of school gets out for the summer. Since the ride lasts the length of the movie, the story skirts the realm of fantasy, but the situations and interactions are real enough. The bullies take their rightful place in the back of the vehicle, a vantage point from which they cast their hurtful arrows at the other cliques—the nerds, the artists, the two openly gay couples. Ethnicity is less of a bond or badge than a sensibility, the willingness to be open and honest or deceitful and deflecting. The overlapping dialogue is distracting at first, but soon storylines take shape on nothing but strands of information: the sweet 16 party that is a point of contention between two best friends and the satellite acquaintances who want to get invited; the remembrance of an embarrassing drunken encounter between two passengers at an earlier party; a strange viral video of a problem boy who isn’t on the bus; a burgeoning accusation of infidelity. Though none of these tales seem dramatic, their interwoven dynamic creates a chaotic forward momentum that holds the viewer’s attention; and with each stop the cast gets smaller, tighter, more focused on two personalities, Michael (Michael Brody), an ostensible bully who eventually cops to his insecurity, and Teresa (Teresa Lynn), a budding draftsman who channels her lack of confidence about her looks into an aggressive neediness that blows up back in her face. Since the script was devised by the cast, nothing can be done about some of the more earnest lines. Likewise, the actors are stiff, especially in the more ensemble-oriented scenes. But there’s more truth here than in a dozen Breakfast Clubs, and it has nothing to do with the inner city milieu, which is actually played down. In the struggle to make sense of their inchoate yearnings, these kids demonstrate how dependent the individual personality is on the group experience. It’s fashionable to berate the herd mentality, but no one creates a persona in a vacuum. Like movie-making itself, it emerges from trial-and-error, and the more painful the process, the more incisive the experience. They don’t call it the formative years for nothing. (photo: Next Stop Prod. LLC)

welcomeWelcome to the Punch
Confused by its own impulse to lead the viewer on, this shiny Brit noir could use a good compass. In the opening set piece a detective, Lewinsky (James McAvoy), chases down some night-time bank robbers without backup, getting shot in the leg just before the thieves get away. The leader of the crew, Sternwood (Mark Strong), becomes his obsession over the years, a bad dream he can’t shake because of the chronic pain he has to deal with as a result of the shooting. When Sternwood’s son is arrested for gun-running, Lewinsky and his lover-partner (Andrea Riseborough) assume the gangster will return to London from exile in Iceland and they lay in wait, but the plan is confounded by higher ups who seem to have a secret agenda. Thanks to colorful supporting players like Peter Mullan and Jason Flemyng, the movie resists becoming just another pale imitation of American shoot-em-ups, but gunplay is the only element director-writer Eran Creevy has any interest in; that and the way city streetlights reflect off of moving sleek black sedans. (photo: The British Film Institute)

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