Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Oh, East is East": Emperor (2012)

The small-scale but touching historical drama Emperor, directed by Peter Webber, begins with archival footage of the Enola Gay dropping the atomic bomb that incinerated over 100,000 men, women, and children in a single flash. Indeed, this is an atrocity, but calling acts of war atrocities and bringing war criminals to justice are the privileges of the victors, and that is, in part, what this film is about. Responsible for rebuilding Japan, General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) sends out his men to arrest suspected war criminals. Hideki Tojo, it is clear, will hang, but the fate of Emperor Hirohito is a delicate matter. The execution of the divine emperor, Mac fears, could lead to chaos, and so the crusty, pipe-chewing old soldier assigns General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) with the challenging task of finding evidence to support Hirohito’s exoneration.

With Harry Truman and many Americans expecting the execution of the emperor, General Fellers’ credibility could come into question since he is clearly “a Japan lover.” In Japan before the war, he learned to love the culture, and he fell in love with Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune), a Japanese girl studying in America. On top of that, he was responsible for diverting a bombing that threatened Aya’s town at the end of the war.

With sobering images of Tokyo in shambles, its citizens living in squalid shanties, Emperor, with its modest scope, establishes a gripping setting for Fellers’ modestly suspenseful investigation. There is little action in this film, little intensity, but its quietness suits its portrayal of a culture whose gentle half has been ruined by its potential for savagery in the name of devotion. Fox’s performance as Fellers is an invested one, and Tommy Lee Jones is not on screen enough to ruin the film. Indeed, he restrains himself somewhat and doesn’t over-bluster. Give Jones a chance to talk about dragging in a suspect “by the balls” and he’s happy.

This is not a panoramic historical epic. Instead, it is a narrowly focused, touching story, and that narrow focus is its strength. We sympathize with Fellers’ search for Aya, a search intertwined with his efforts to find substantial evidence that Hirohito tried to prevent the war and that once the war had begun he was powerless to stop it. In addition, the film provides an interesting look at the paradoxes of a culture that wreaked havoc on Asia, and it brings up many questions about justice and responsibility for the countless horrors of the most epic war in history.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Invasion of the Jealous Voice-over: The Host

When writer Stephenie Meyer took a break from writing her Twilight series, she went sci-fi, taking the basic premise from the 1956 classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers of emotionless alien souls taking over human bodies, but she still found a nifty way to serve up the requisite teen love triangle that her fans expect. Why be different?

In the film, young Melanie (Soarise Ronan) gets snatched by one of the alien entities that have taken over most of humankind, and she becomes the emotionless Wanderer, while the mind of Melanie struggles to stay alive in Wanderer/Melanie’s brain. This leads to some comical back and forth between Wanderer and Melanie’s plaintive voice in her head. In fact, Ronan's angsty voice-over provides a lot to laugh at. But this is serious! Melanie's human love survives, and this takes Wanderer out into the desert looking for her former boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons).

When Melanie ends up captured by survivalists led by a bearded, shotgun-wielding frontiersman named Jeb (William Hurt), things get all Twilight. The voice inside Wanderer still loves Jared. Meanwhile, in a clever but silly tweaking of the love triangle scenario, Wanderer, nicknamed Wanda because Wanderer is too much for Jeb to say, starts falling in love with Ian (Jake Abel). Team Ian anyone?

Then things get really confusing, and really silly! While Ian kisses Wanda who, of course, looks like Melanie, Melanie’s inner voice goes, “Don’t go there!” and “This is so wrong!” Despite some glitzy trappings (all alien vehicles and helicopters are made of shiny chrome) and some lovely cinematography of sunset-washed desert and mesas, the movie kind of reminded me of some of the low-budget sci-fi movies I’d catch on TV on Saturday afternoons during the 60s. Wooden acting. Vapid lines of dialogue delivered with inordinate spaces between them, many of them simplistic and silly. “Can Melanie go into another room so you can kiss me?” “Kiss me in a way Melanie won’t like.” As for the action, it’s slow-paced and half-hearted because the story is all about kissing.

Of course, we learn that true love is stronger than an alien parasite and that all those body snatchers, seed pods in the original film, just want to be kissed. The film is more about kissing than love, but I kind of enjoyed its lethargic B-movie pace. Still, after seeing it, I needed to wake up a bit, so I saw Spring Breakers again.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Why couldn't they just make a good movie of it?" - Spring Breakers

My daughter Jane’s idea of heaven would be Disneyland populated by all the Disney Channel stars from Hilary Duff to the present, and they would all be friends with her and have a great time. No, my daughter is not fourteen. She is twenty-five and she has Down syndrome. and her heart is always innocent and pure, and if a genie in a bottle gave her a wish, she would be Selena Gomez. So, you can imagine, months ago when she heard that a movie called Spring Breakers with Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens would be released this month, she was really excited. Even I was expecting it to be a light-hearted frolic like the genuinely entertaining Monte Carlo, which came out in 2011. But when I learned it was R-rated, I told Jane to watch the preview on her laptop, and she came to me later and said, disappointedly, “I don’t want to see that movie.” But I did.

In some ways, Spring Breakers is Dante’s Inferno for the 21st century. Faith (Selena Gomez of Wizards of Waverly Place), an ambivalent Christian fundamentalist, follows temptation in the form of her three college friends, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) down the primrose path to ruin: spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida. At first, it’s just sin in the shape of alcohol and drugs, but then Faith learns that her friends robbed a restaurant with water guns and a sledge hammer in order to finance the trip, and she realizes that her friends are dangerous. Indeed, they may be more dangerous than Alien, the ghetto-raised rapper/drug lord/gangsta wannabe who bails the girls out of jail and then introduces them to a scary world of drugs and guns and feuding drug lords.

After a tedious amount of the kind of spring break debauchery you can see on reality TV, tit shots and girls making out with girls, the film gets grave and gritty, and I have to say that James Franco redeems himself for his horrid performance in Oz the Great and Powerful by doing a good job of playing Alien, a dangerous lunatic drunk on the veneer of power he derives from the wads of cash and the arsenal of guns he has piled up. He raps about all the “shit” he has, and then realizes that the girls, Candy and Brit, at least, are more shocking than he is.

The film layers on the gratuitous nudity and vulgarity, but it has a story that gets visceral, and even though Hollywood has a tradition of girls-gone-bad shockers and we’ve seen this kind of thing before, I must say that the film’s mounting dread is quite effective. The ending, however, is too artsy indie for my taste, and it deflates the film's seriousness. Still, Franco plays a believable sleaze-bag, and the girls are suitably outrageous. SPOILER AHEAD. When Faith descends farther into hell than she would like to go, in a scene that is grippingly evoked, Gomez strikes an extremely touching chord when she has nearly succumbed to temptation and has the strength to turn away. Jane would be happy to know that Selena gets away!

For Jane, I wish this movie had been another Monte Carlo even though there’s a side of me that enjoys a kinky, sordid drama like Domino (2005) with Keira Knightley or thirteen (2003) with Evan Rachel Wood. In a way, it’s too bad that an actress like Vanessa Hudgens has to grow up and demonstrate that she can say "fuck" and show some skin like the big girls, though Jane would be happy to know that Gomez sacrifices much less of her innocent persona on screen. This is in keeping with her character, but perhaps this was Gomez’s personal choice as well.

Yeah, it’s too bad we have to grow up. I don’t know how much Jane knows about the sins of the real world, but she knows enough about profanity that she doesn’t want to hear it in movies, and she knew from seeing the preview for Spring Breakers that this was one Selena Gomez/Vanessa Hudgens movie she had no intention of seeing. Jane would be happy to know that my 8th grade girls share her feelings. Toward the end of class on Thursday, as we spent some minutes talking about upcoming movies, I overheard one girl lamenting the nature of the R-rated Spring Breakers. With the same deep disappointment my daughter had had after seeing the preview, she said, "Why couldn't they just make a good movie of it?" For Jane and these girls, I wish they had.

Terror Porn: Olympus Has Fallen

Olympus Has Fallen is an example of what I will call 9/11esque terror porn. Within a twenty-four-hour storyline, Olympus plays as an allegory for the period stretching from the terrorist acts of 9/11, through America’s attempts to reinstate its pride and unity, to the assassination of bin Laden, but it does so with countless R-rated shots in the head and buckets of splattering blood, as our country is debased almost sadomasochistically when North Korean terrorists massacre civilians, D.C. policemen, and secret service agents (see image above; why aren't the windows shattering?); demolish the Washington Memorial; capture the White House; and hold President Benjamin Asher hostage. In one sequence, Blackhawk helicopters full of confident Navy Seals fly to the rescue, an image immediately recalling the recent Zero Dark Thirty, but they are shot down with ease. Reprising the bitterly vengeful side of the character of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight more than the crusader for justice, Aaron Eckhart plays the President as a buff boxer who endures his captivity with eye-bulging defiance. In a premise ripped shamelessly from Die Hard, Gerard Butler plays secret service agent Mike Banning who ends up being the only agent left alive inside the White House. Invincibly, Banning cuts his way through the opposition, shooting everybody in the head, and in keeping with the historical allegory, he finds time to use torture to get terrorists to spill the beans. During a single day, America gets demeaned royally by terrorists, our flag flutters to the White House lawn, and the White House is partially burned, but Banning and Asher prevail, along with the help of an old-looking Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House and acting president during the crisis, and our country remains strong, united, and victorious. Olympus Has Fallen is an ordeal in more ways than one.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Upside Down (2012)

Upside Down
, Juan Diego’s Solanas’ science-fiction, fantasy fairytale/fable, a French-Canadian effort released in 2012, is the kind of movie whose premise is better left unquestioned. You either go for the fantastical ride, or you get off the vehicle in disbelief. Here, Solanas takes the archetypal story of lovers fighting against incredible odds to be together and sets it on twin planets that share the same orbit but don't share the same gravity. In the film’s delightful, fairytale opening, young Adam (Jim Sturgess), of the downtrodden Down, falls in love with young Eden (Kirsten Dunst) of the ruling-class Up, and in order to be together, they must defy gravity.

Yes, names like Adam and Eden and, yikes, Aunt Becky; worlds called Up and Down; and pink bees with pink honey that holds anti-gravity qualities – all of these elements might be a bit too contrived and cutesy for some viewers, but if you find yourself chuckling in disbelief, all you have to do is look. The screen is always filled with the amazing vistas of these twin upside down worlds: mountain peaks hanging over mountain peaks; inverse clouds swirling away from the demarcation between the two different gravities; and a modern metropolis hanging over a dark, dismal land of ruin.

Interestingly, Down is also up if you're looking from Up, but Up controls Down's perspective, dominating Down with its imperialistic exploitation of Down's oil deposits and keeping its people subjugated. In Down, Adam lives in dark squalor and rides his bicycle past buildings in ruins, while Up is covered with glitzy skyscrapers. Upside Down immediately evokes Metropolis, in look and story, as well as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and When the Sleeper Wakes with their Upper World vs. Lower World paradigms. In fact, you'll find Upside Down reminding you of much more. When Adam, in an attempt to get closer to Eden, lands a job in the TransWorld Tower, a structure built between the two planets, he finds himself working on Floor 0 that is divided by the gravity border. In the film's most dazzling shot, an image of Kafkaesque bureaucracy that calls to mind but trumps the famous office scene in Orson Welles’ The Trial and Terry Gilliam’s office-from-hell allusion in Brazil, we see one office hanging upside-down over a mirror image.

From the very beginning, the film is a fantastic allegory for the hardships of any romantic relationship. In order to be together, Adam must throw Eden a rope, pull her down, and place her under an overhanging rock so that she doesn’t fall up to her planet. Later, after the young lovers have been separated and years have gone by, Adam must go to great pains to wear “inverse matter” that counters his weight and allows him to visit Eden’s world for short periods of time. Adam’s frustrating misadventures as an illegal visitor to Up, depicted with an absurdist tone that reminds us again of Brazil, add to the dark, dystopian atmosphere. Will Adam be condemned to pine for Eden in the dark, oily, rubble-strewn streets of Down, a dystopia etched out by art direction often reminiscent of Dark City but strikingly unique as well. Upside Down might stretch your disbelief with its liberal exploitation of its own devices, and it might grow too cute as an obvious fable saying, yes, if love can conquer all, love can conquer gravity, especially if you know how to use pink honey. But despite the degrees to which the film pushes its own fancies, every scene is visually engrossing, and if you have to pick someone to play the innocent, pure-at-heart object of a young man’s passion, Kirsten Dunst is someone whose smile could drive any man to defy gravity.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Would Dicky Like The Call?

Getting to the punch line right away, Dicky would NOT like The Call with Halle Berry. This is not to suggest that Dicky is always a highly critical movie viewer. (Au contraire, she LOVES some movies that I consider deplorable.) The Call, whose first half is suspenseful and engaging, turns ridiculous when Jordan (Halle Berry), a 911 operator, takes it upon herself to go to a location connected to the kidnapper of a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin). She sifts through boxes of possessions that nary an FBI agent is sifting through, she finds a clue, and this leads her to the underground hideout where the psycho kidnapper has poor Casey strapped to a gurney and he's just about to scalp her. In fact, the movie goes south earlier when a suspicious onlooker gets beaten up by the killer and thrown in the trunk of his car where he lies next to Casey with what looks like a smile on his face. But this ridiculousness is not why Dicky would dislike this movie. Dicky would not like this movie because it disobeys one of the two inviolable criteria necessary for Dicky to like a movie:


1) Will I like the ending (which means, is it a happy or redemptive one)?
2) Even if it is an ending I would like, is it painful getting to this ending?

Well, Dicky would not necessarily dislike the film’s highly improbable, 360 degree shift to a surprising payback ending; but she would certainly consider the film painful in getting to that ending because of its excessive acts of sadism perpetrated by the monstrously psycho kidnapper (Michael Eklund).

That said, who is Dicky?

Molly Dickson Allison, a former colleague at the school on Cape Cod where my wife and I teach, has been a very good friend of mine for twenty-seven years. At school, Dicky and I were drawn to each other from the start, and we soon learned that we had a lot in common. We had both grown up in the West, she in Boulder, Colorado, I in San Mateo, California. We both had a passion for movies, especially Westerns, particularly Westerns with John Wayne, a passion we had developed since childhood. We both also loved the American history behind these Westerns, and we learned that, serendipitously, I had been born on February 23, the day the Texians took refuge in the Alamo and the siege began, and she had been born twelve days later, the same year as me, on March 6, the day the Alamo fell to the Mexicans. This led, of course, to birthday greetings of “Happy Birthday, Dicky. Remember the Alamo!” This also led to the institution of the first Alamo Dinner Party when we watched John Wayne’s The Alamo and ate Tex-Mex food.

Of course, as I spent hours and hours talking to Dicky about movies, and watching Westerns together at my place, it goes without saying that I, someone who prefers very serious films that pack a visceral punch, found the Dicky Restrictions very frustrating, and I couldn’t believe it when I learned that she, a big John Wayne fan, had never seen The Shootist and she had only seen The Alamo once! “Why not?” I asked. In her inimitable, signature “golly-gee” Western/Eastern preppie voice, always intoned with passionate sincerity, she said, “Because it’s too painful, Richard. John Wayne dies!” (I forced her to watch The Shootist. She loved it, but she has never watched it again, and I’m not sure she forgives me!)

As a tribute to a most faithful blog follower (who never leaves a comment because somehow Google comments pose a problem even though, by profession, she’s practically a computer hacker!) I plan to critique some of the films I see according to whether or not Dicky would like them. These posts will carry a title like "Would Dick Like Title?" This is especially appropriate because Dicky tells me she reads EVERY one of my posts word for word, and she uses my reviews as a gauge, according to her restrictive criteria, as to whether or not she should see the movie. Consequently, she gets frustrated when I don't review a movie she's considering seeing; she feels lost! And spoilers don’t bother Dicky in the slightest. In fact, she’d love it if I described the ending in detail so as to save her from pain. In future posts, if I totally give away the ending and forget to write SPOILER ALERT, you can blame it on my efforts to save Dicky some pain.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

"I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." Oz the Great and Powerful

By employing a 4:3 aspect ratio, softly rendered black-and-white, and gray mattes depicting a drab Kansas farmland, Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful immediately alludes to The Wizard of Oz and taps into all our nostalgic associations with that 1939 classic. In fact, the opening vignette, in which James Franco plays a carnival charlatan called Oz the Great and Powerful, is the best part of the film. The carnival setting, the pathos generated by a crippled girl who begs the Great and Powerful to make her walk, and Michelle Williams as Oz’s sweetheart who sees no future staying with the rootless showman, all these elements make us feel like we’re watching a 1930s film. Indeed, full close-ups of Williams’s face and her poignant delivery suggest that she would have been a screen star in the golden era of film. You find yourself wishing the film would continue to emulate the look and tenor of that decade in film, but then the tornado whisks us into a 2.40:1 CGI 3D fantasyland that is not as dazzling.

Sam Raimi’s Oz is an odd Oz. The CGI landscapes are flat and too colorful, so much so that you imagine the green screen set up behind the performers. There are funny characters that are not so funny, and wicked witches that are not so scary. In this origin story for Evanora/the Wicked Witch of the East (Rachel Weisz)and Theodora/the Wicked Witch of the West (Mila Kunis), the film strikes a couple of spooky chords with the silhouette of Theodora transforming into the sharp-featured West Witch. This is the film’s most chilling moment, much scarier than full-on close-ups of Kunis’s puffy pea-green face.

For the most part, this is slow-paced children’s fare that tries too hard to be endearing. Although Michelle Williams’s overly sweet act as Glinda begins to grow on you, Franco’s overacting wears thin. The best visual is an amazingly lifelike but oddly creepy china doll saved from a massacre at China Town perpetrated by the not-so-fearsome flying baboons, not monkeys. (Guess they evolve into monkeys later on.) The scene in which Oz fixes the little doll’s broken legs with glue is quite touching, but the scene in which she asks Oz to tuck her into bed at night is rather uncomfortable. Overall, the film features some engaging moments, but there is not enough in its over-long length to call it much of a success.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Fee-fi-fo-fum, Jack the Giant Slayer Is Full of Fun

In 1962, when I saw Jack the Giant Killer with Kerwin Matthews, I was ten years old, and I enthusiastically embraced this film’s low-quality stop-motion animation of giants and beasts, and all its elements of high adventure. For a while after seeing it, everything I set up at home with my box of plastic figures was Jack the Giant Killer. So, tell me how I could stay away from this year’s Jack the Giant Slayer?

I have to admit, as a preview, Jack the Giant Slayer looked like the worst of overblown CGI silliness, but it’s not! Jack the Giant Slayer is an imaginative, thoroughly delightful fantasy-adventure with the accent on adventure. The film starts out with a poor farmer reading a bedtime story to his son, and a king reading a bedtime story to his daughter, and here animated sequenes provide the backstory on how a magic crown controls the giants and banished them to the land “where the thunder comes.”

The action gets started without any nonsense, or lengthy scenes involving dwarves endlessly stuffing their faces. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) trades his horse for the magic beans, the bean stalk grows, Jack climbs the bean stalk to rescue the princess (Eleanor Tomlinson), and the film proceeds expeditiously from thrill to thrill: the bean stalk growing, later falling; the arrival in the land of the giants; a humorous scene in which Jack saves Lord Elmont (Ewan McGregor) from getting turned into a baked pig in a blanket; and the culminating battle in which the giants assault the castle of the King (Ian McShane). When the CGI ultimately gets going, there’s nothing dizzying or hard to follow, like hobbits tumbling from mountainsides or jumping through the treetop to treetop. In addition, the art direction provides a lot to look at. Blending in picturesque location shots with the CGI, the look of the film establishes substantial, memorable atmosphere.

The acting is more than serviceable. Nicholas Hoult is the perfect Jack, the poor farmer’s son who falls in love with Isabelle, the fair princess, played well by Tomlinson. And any film is made delightful by the presence of Ewan McGregor, who gets to intone, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Worthy of praise, as well, are the giants. Substantially rendered by well-developed CGI, these oversized characters are suitably obtuse but scary and imposing in their size and hunger for human meat. The leader of the giants is accompanied by a second head, cackling like the imbecilic hyena in The Lion King; the grimy, nose-picking cook is the most sinister as he obliviously rolls McGregor in pie dough and starts to bake him; and the head of the soldier giants provides tension as he leads the thrilling assault on the castle.