Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the Sept. issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Sunday.
It says something about Neill Blomkamp’s big budget studio followup to his excellent science fiction thriller District 9 that star Matt Damon doesn’t figure deeply in one’s enjoyment of the film. Though the reliable actor is as strong as always, almost anyone his age could have played this part without detracting from the movie’s overall quality. Damon has proven to be one of the only movie stars of his generation worth the money he’s paid, but Blomkamp’s story conception and vision of an entire future world is so stunningly integrated that the characters and, by extension, the actors seem almost beside the point. If Elysium isn’t as satisfying as District 9 it’s because it doesn’t take its amazing premise far enough. Damon is Max, an ex-con in the mid-22nd century who lives in the slumland of greater Los Angeles. In fact, all of earth, denuded of green and bereft of non-human life, is a slum, while what we now call the 1% live in a rotating gated community in the sky called Elysium. The defense secretary of that colony, a cold, efficient, ambitious woman named Delacourt (Jodie Foster), shoots down in cold blood the “illegal aliens” who attempt to reach her “habitat,” actions that perturb the president. Feeling threatened, Delacourt sets in motion a coup involving the biggest industrialist (William Fichtner) on or off the planet. The industrialist agrees to help with the takeover by sabotaging the data frame of the colony and handing it over to Delacourt. He holds this data in his own brain, and on his way to deliver it to Elysium his craft is hijacked by Max, who used to work for him in his factory until an accident rendered him irradiated and terminally sick. He needs Elysium’s exclusive medical technology to survive and a local crime lord offers to get him there if he kidnaps the industrialist, or rather the contents of his grey matter. That’s a lot of plot for the first half and Blomkamp complicates matters even more in the second with a leukemia-stricken child, Max’s childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga), a sadistic mercenary (Sharlto Copley), and more twists than an episode of Dr. Who. Amazingly, he keeps it all coherent and exciting, and thanks to a plot device involving Max being fitted with an exoskeleton to facilitate his task the action sequences are the best you will see this summer, but in the end Blomkamp’s soft spot for melodrama and the big humanitarian gesture undermines the film’s more serious subtext. Elysium seems satisfied to be a great science fiction adventure story though its attention to socioeconomic detail and projection of where we’re headed show the potential for a speculative ride that could have been sublime. More nuanced characters might have pushed it over into the realm of literature.
Ginger & Rosa
The title characters of Sally Potter’s adolescent melodrama were born on the same day in 1945—the day Hiroshima was obliterated, as a matter of fact. They are children of the bomb, and not just in a metaphorical sense. Potter’s contrasting device is to show how each girl addresses this fact of modern life in her own way. Set in 1962 England, just before the Beatles changed everything, the film provides a convincing replica of its intellectual moment, mainly by populating itself with intellectuals. Ginger (Elle Fanning) is the daughter of a leftist writer (Allesandro Nivola) who was imprisoned during the war because he refused to fight, and an artist mother (Christina Hendricks) who put her own ambitions on hold when she became pregnant as a teenager. Rosa (Alice Englert), on the other hand, has only her mother since her father abandoned their large brood when she was very young. So while Ginger is the overly thoughtful cynic, who frets with all seriousness that nuclear annihilation is very possible, Rosa is the carefree realist who nevertheless believes God will somehow see things through. Ginger goes to protest rallies while Rosa goes to church. Meanwhile Ginger’s dad, a man who lives for his convictions, inadvertently persecutes his wife with his freewheeling behavior, sleeping with students rather openly and questioning his wife’s need for affection and affirmation, though he’s perfectly happy to eat her food. Because of Ginger’s similar temperament she idolizes her father, who treats her as an adult, and resents her mother, though the audience understands this to be the usual delusions of girlhood. As Ginger’s own political convictions harden, especially under the tutelage of her gay godfather (Timothy Spall), his American partner (Oliver Platt), and their feminist writer friend (Annette Bening), her friendship with Rosa weakens, because Rosa wants what most girls her age want: attention. Eventually, the relationship won’t hold, and both girls suffer through it in their own way, but the adults have something to do with it, especially Ginger’s father, who turns out to be even more of an asshole than you think. (Don’t let the fact that he secretly weeps while listening to Schubert fool you) Though the actors, especially Fanning, do wonderful things with these period-specific characters, Potter has sketched them too generally, and the script, for all its sociopolitical precision, is crushed under the weight of its stereotypes. Taking a page from the Mike Leigh manual of plot development, Potter brings all the story threads together in a big emotional scene that somehow incorporates everyone. She even gets them all in the same room, a feat that’s more impressive technically than it is dramatically. A startlingly effect portrait of its moment, Ginger & Rosa is ultimately less effective as a compelling story. (photo: British Film Institute and APB Films Ltd.)
Masahiro Kobayashi’s brand of hyperventilating cinema isn’t tempered in any way by his decision to limit the interactions to two people in his latest film. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the father and Kazuki Kitamura the son in this mostly black-and-white family drama whose entire mise en scene is confined to two rooms. The father, diagnosed with cancer shortly after his wife dies, decides to forego treatment and locks himself away in his room to die in peace as his son, already distraught because his own wife and daughter are missing in the aftermath of the Tohoku disaster, tries to talk him into coming out. Though the title at first refers to 311, it is meant to represent the loss of national nerve in the face of an uncertain future, but Kobayashi’s depiction of desperation is all on the surface, as father and son rail at each other in mutual self-pity without ever getting at the root of their respective existential dilemmas. When the father proposes that the son not report his death so that he can collect his pension, Kobayashi betrays his lack of original thinking on the topic by stealing a sordid idea from tabloid headlines and then sidestepping the socioeconomic roots of the example he uses. Instead, he reduces Japan’s general malaise to purely psychological and spiritual causes. But it’s just one family’s tragedy, not Japan’s, and as such still overwrought. In Japanese. (photo: Monkey Town Prod.)
Man of Steel
By the time this earnest and ridicuously serious Superman origin story hits Japanese theaters its momentum will be lost, which is just as well. Though blockbuster superhero adaptations have been a summer staple since the late 70s, in the past ten years we’ve had more than a tolerable number of reboots and even reboots of reboots. The man of steel has been jerked around more than any other since the end of the Christopher Reeve franchise, and Christopher Nolan apparently thought he could spin his adult-themed Batman ideas though the cycle for Superman as well. By hiring wunderkind Zack Snyder as director he tries to return to fundamentals by thinking through the Superman tale, explaining why Krypton is doomed and why only Kal-El, Superman’s real name, is sent off into the void by his father (Russell Crowe). Krypton is the victim of political corruption and racial hubris as exemplified by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is imprisoned off-planet just before Krypton implodes. He escapes with his minions to track down Kal-El, who possesses the genetic “codex” for all of his species. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, since the first half of Man of Steel jerks the audience around by flittling from one plot strand to another. We see how young Clark Kent has to hide his super powers from his peers, and if not for his, pardon the expression, down-to-earth adoptive parents (Diane Lane, Kevin Costner), he would have ended up as psychologically twisted as Bruce Wayne. Snyder isn’t stingy with the Jesus metaphors, but despite the fact that Superman (who is actually never called by that moniker out loud in the film) is compelled to save all of earth, he’s a resolutely American hero, just as the old TV series would have you believe. And while Snyder handles these narrative digressions with ease, the movie never takes off, even after Kal-El adopts the cape and costume (bestowed on him by the ghost of his real father) and takes off himself, with the explosive power of a bottle rocket. As soon as Zod and his space ships enter the atmosphere and start mowing down major metropolitan areas, Snyder does what he obviously figures he was hired to do: blow the audience away. Superman was always the least subtle superhero because of his invincibility, and Snyder thinks the only way you can honor that quality is by throwing the power of the cosmos at him. It’s exhausting and infuriating. Even Amy Adams’ witty turn as reporter Lois Lane is leeched of humor. She doesn’t get to figure out who Superman is since he reveals himself to her the first time they meet. The upshot is that the Clark Kent reporter character is saved for the next installment, but I’ve already had enough. (photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment)
On the Road
Jack Kerouac dreamed of making his most famous book into a movie with himself playing his alter ego, Sal Paradise, opposite Marlon Brando as the uber-American archetype Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy). For sheer cheekbone effect, it was a huge missed opportunity, though On the Road has always epitomized the unfilmable great novel because of its aimless structure and pointedly purple prose. Brazilian director Walter Salles, who has done his share of road movies, wisely highlights the vastness of the American continent in both scale and context (1947-50, when anything and everything was possible), and at times his movie delivers the same heady rush of discovery that Kerouac’s writing did the first time you read it. Salles ties the episodes together with carefully selected voiceover readings taken directly from the book, but it’s his flair for the over-reaching drama of youth that makes the story satisfying. Sal (Sam Riley) has no real purpose in life except to care for his French-speaking mother in their Massachusetts apartment, so he sits in front of his typewriter wondering what to write about. Then he meets Dean (Garrett Hedlund) at a party during a sojourn to New York and is immediately attracted to his sense of fun and danger. Over the next five years he will travel the length and breadth of the U.S. several times, sometimes with Dean and sometimes without, taking notes in a crabbed penmanship in the backseats of cars and the beds of pickup trucks. Drugs, booze, jazz, and ass are plentiful along the way, and Salles doesn’t romanticize it the way Kerouac did. Sal is often the emotional refuge for the women Dean discards so casually, and his relationship with Marylou (Kristen Stewart), in particular, opens him up to the possibilities that Dean can be a son of a bitch. Salles even gets theoretical by filming scenes that Sal isn’t witness to, like the violent breakup between Dean and his long-suffering Denver wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst), thus adding melodrama of a more conventional sort. Salles’ determination to incorporate all the famous real-life characters from the saga (Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, Jane Vollmer) often comes across as gratuitous since too much extraneous exposition is needed to justify their inclusion, but the movie’s forward momentum isn’t stalled by it. If the sex is jarring it’s because Kerouac, mainly due to his conservative temperament, didn’t describe it in this much detail, whereas Salles gets almost perversely naturalistic. But if the movie doesn’t quite accomplish all that its impressive intelligence and production design suggests, it’s mainly a problem with the actors. Riley and Hedlund are too anachronistic in both their speech patterns and style of male comeraderie to pull off these two iconic American figures. As it turns out, the book was perfectly adaptable; it’s the people you can’t recreate. (photo: Gregory Smith)
Supposedly we don’t have Steven Soderbergh to kick around any more, a development that, in light of the achievement of this, his second-to-last movie for a while, should depress any serious movie lover. Soderbergh is not only the most talented and well-rounded American director of the last two decades, he’s also one of the most conscientious entertainers in any field or genre, and Side Effects, while slighter than it first seems, is a perfect distillation of what makes him great. Rooney Mara plays Emily, a young woman whose incipient depression intensifies after her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison following a stint for insider trading. Emily’s moods become blacker for no explainable reason and climax in what appears to be a suicide attempt in a parking lot. She comes under the care of Dr. Banks (Jude Law), a sympathetic psychiatrist with a successful Manhattan practice. He is also a consultant for a drugmaker who is marketing a new antidepressant, which he eventually prescribes to Emily after several old standbys make her even worse. Like Contagion (which was also written by Scott Z. Burns), Side Effects comes across initially as a cautionary social study, with Big Pharma and our reliance on their products as the main target of investigation. And while it is about that, it’s also a thriller and a mystery involving rather conventional crime-noir elements. Personally, I was slightly disappointed when the movie moved in this direction, though Soderbergh’s steering is steady and assured. The ringer for me is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Emily’s former psychiatrist with an agenda that turns out to be quite preposterous. Personally, I feel that the over-prescribing of drugs, and not just antidepressants, is a serious health issue in every developed country; so when Burns’ script takes the low road it compromises the movie’s very interesting take on that issue, effectively neutering it. And since all of this takes place among a class of people who, while not limited to the infamous 1% (see Elysium for a better critique on that crowd), is definitely up there in terms of income. Soderbergh has a curious knack for being able to convey upper class urban living as both appealing and dismaying. The huge apartment that Dr. Banks shares with his banker wife tells us more about his priorities than his agreeable bedside manner, not to mention the office he shares with two older colleagues, who immediately put up a wall once the drug he’s “consulting for” gets negative publicity in the papers. There are lots of ways to enjoy Side Effects that have nothing to do with the mystery, and that’s the best kind of entertainment. (photo: Happy Pill Prod.)
Star Trek Into Darkness
It’s easy to lose track of the plot particulars in J.J. Abrams’ latest installment in the Star Trek reboot, what with all the effort he puts into reestablishing the personality traits of some of the most indelible characters in popular culture. In the opening scene we have Kirk (Christopher Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) desperately trying to escape the clutches of a “pre-civilized” race on an unexplored planet, and their survival comes down to the rules of engagement spelled out by the semi-martial Starfleet Command. Suffice to say that Kirk violates them to save Spock’s life, though Spock, if it were solely his decision, would have let himself die so as not to rock the boat—or the starship, as the case may be. The remainder of this very busy movie is thus imbued with the dynamics of a relationship that has defined the series since its inception in the late 60s: intellect and duty vs. impulse and intuition. Kirk, of course, is punished for his insubordination, a situation that has nothing to do with an attack by a kind of superhuman terrorist named Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who, after destroying part of London, attacks Starfleet Command HQ and kills Kirk’s mentor in the process. It turns out that Harrison in an old Starfleet nemesis, whose name even the mildest of Trekkies will recognize, but in any case Abrams uses the reification of the character to reinforce his mission to make this reboot his own but without denying the series’ hallowed pedigree. Though the film doesn’t want for thrilling action set pieces, and the actors, Pine in particular, deliver the series’ patented hyperbolic dialogue with brio, you miss the philosophical subtexts that made the TV shows linger in the mind a little longer. Star Trek Into Darkness is less Harlan Ellison than Eugene O’Neill, which is not necessarily an improvement, but the fact that Abrams pulls it off at all is impressive. (photo: Paramount Pictures Corp.)
The Suicide Shop
Patrice Leconte brings his signature underwhelming style to animation for the first time, with a black comedy about a family that capitalizes on a future society’s sense of existential despair with tools to bring that existence to a halt. They even give you your money back if the stuff they sell you fails to do the trick. In this bleak view of Paris, even the pigeons are suicidal. The dramatic linch pin is Alan (Kacey Mottet Klein), who through some genetic abnormality has been born into the shopkeeping family with a sunny disposition. Leconte does the most obvious thing by depicting Alan in brighter colors while everyone else is drenched in gray. Alan’s mischievous side is manifested in sabotaging customers’ plans for offing themselves, a penchant that wreaks havoc with the store’s commerce, but which eventually makes itself felt in ways that aren’t very cleverly presented. Moreover, the songs don’t feel necessary, owing mainly to their tunelessness. What laughs there are tend to erupt from details, such as children smoking or the realization that the paterfamilias is named Mishima. In French (photo: Diabolo Films, La Petite Reine, ARP, France 3 Cinema, PCF Magasin des Suicides ie film inc., Entre Chien et Loup)
Though nominally an offshoot of the X-Men series, The Wolverine flows directly from X-Men: The Last Stand, in which the titular man-beast, Logan (Hugh Jackman), killed his lover Jean Grey. Almost the entire movie takes place in Japan, where Logan was a prisoner in Nagasaki during the atomic bombing. He saved a man named Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), who at the time realized Logan’s immortal powers. Many years later, he is the CEO of one of Japan’s most powerful tech companies and convinces Logan, who is on the run and living like a true beast, to come to Japan, though Logan doesn’t know he wants to extract his healing capabilities so as to make himself immortal. Right off the bat, James Mangold’s movie has a handicap, since the conflict gives the story nowhere to go, and thus the three scriptwriters have to pad the plot with romance, conspiracy, extended bouts of martyrdom, and lots of non-firearms fighting that, while taking excellent advantage of various Japanese martial arts, just become redundant after a while. The script ends with an appropriately apocalyptic face-off, and while it’s better than the too-much-at-once X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the idea of isolating Logan from his mutant compatriots leaves him as the only game in town. Jackman is strong enough to shoulder the burden, but you lose interest in the single-mindedness of the movie’s basic idea. The X-Men films may have been overcrowded and arbitrary, but they kept you on your toes. Nevertheless, Japan here looks more appealingly exotic than it’s looked in a Western movie in a long time. I want to go there. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)