Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo)


In STILL WALKING the Yokoyama home is bustling with activity and chatter as three generations gather for an annual remembrance of Junpei, the eldest son and brother who died years earlier while saving a child from drowning. The prickly head of the household is Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), a retired physician bitter for, among other reasons, being forced to quit practicing. He is as quiet and distant as his wife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) is talkative and attentive.

The memorial visit is particularly uncomfortable for the oldest living son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe). Unlike Junpei, Ryota did not follow in his father's professional footsteps. Rather than being a doctor, he decided on a career restoring art. All these years later Kyohei still begrudges Ryota's choice as though it was intended as a personal affront. With Ryota's return home coinciding with employment problems, something he wants kept secret from his parents, he is already feeling sufficiently inferior.

Joining Ryota on the visit is his new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and stepson Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). Ordinarily this might be an occasion for his parents to express pleasure with their late marrying son, but they think he has taken on damaged goods in the form of a widow and her child. Also fluttering about the house are Ryota's sister Chinami (You), her husband, and their two kids. Chinami is using this time to try and nail down a commitment for her family to move into her parents' home.

STILL WALKING writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda began as a television documentary filmmaker before transitioning to narrative fiction films. His keen observational sense is put to exceptional use in this lovely and heartbreaking portrait of family and all of its complications. STILL WALKING primarily consists of conversations and scrutiny of interpersonal dynamics. While it may appear that Kore-eda is merely depicting everyday life, his studied method probes beneath the surface of congenial interactions to reveal years of tangled emotions and judgments this loving but bruised family holds against one another.

As is probably true for many families, passive-aggressiveness dominates the Yokoyamas' communication style. Toshiko puts on a warm and cheerful exterior, yet she harbors the greatest and longest held resentments of anyone in the house. Kiki is marvelous in how she can use a smile and an innocuous statement to make the most cutting remarks. By all appearances Toshiko is happily entering her golden years, but gradually she is shown to be a deeply angry and wounded person. Toshiko doesn't have nor require a big outburst to voice her displeasure. Whether it's by word or deed, such as not laying out new pajamas for Atsushi, she subtly lets her new daughter-in-law know where she stands. Politely accepting the arrows slung her way, Natsukawa's sensitive performance as Yukari brings an outsider's fresh perspective on hurtful behaviors and attitudes that her new family takes for granted.

While STILL WALKING'S characters can seem unnecessarily mean while staying civil in how they treat each other, Kore-eda adopts a highly empathetic outlook on the Yokoyamas. He acknowledges the complexity within each person and how difficult it can be for the pieces of a family to fit, especially as each changes over a lifetime. The only experience we can ever truly know to the full extent is our own, and Kore-eda sees that each character is doing the best with what is available to them, even if their understanding of family members frequently comes up short.

Toshiko comes across as cruel at a few specific moments, but Kore-eda doesn't think of her as a terrible individual. He sees that she lashes out because she's in pain. The film doesn't excuse Toshiko's callousness but recognizes where it comes from. That Kore-eda generates this profound comprehension and compassion for multiple characters is the mark of a major talent.

Longstanding family concerns and hang-ups aren't resolved overnight, and STILL WALKING doesn't bother attempting to repair them. Rather, Kore-eda captures a lot of truth in the details of communication, shared history, and the passing down of knowledge. He finds it in a mother's slight nudge of a child on the verge of inappropriate laughing. It's there as a parent tells a kid not to act poor when combining multiple soft drinks from a self-serve soda fountain. It's there too as a family argues over who really did something in a highly retold story in which the facts and reality may not agree. STILL WALKING is so uncommonly and beautifully perceptive about how families interact that it feels as natural as putting one foot in front of the next.

Grade: A

Sunday, March 06, 2011


BEASTLY (Daniel Barnz, 2011)

BEASTLY, the latest Classics for Tweens film adaptation, bedazzles the oft-told BEAUTY AND THE BEAST story with smart phones, social media, tattoos, and Jujubes, as though such contemporary things will keep the kids from noticing how super lamers it is.

Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) is king of the New York academy he attends and doesn’t bother hiding his disgust for anyone who isn’t beautiful and wealthy. His profile at a generic social media site lists likes as those who are “bangable” and dislikes as “fattycakes”. Yes, he’s a real charmer.

In his speech before an adoring prep school crowd, Alex extols the virtues of the genetically and financially blessed and tells his classmates that he wants to win the election for Green Committee president because it will look good on his resumé, not because he cares about the environment. Apparently Green Committee is the new student council as go-to cinematic signifier of prestige and popularity.

After taunting the school’s rumored witch Kendra (a gothed-up Mary-Kate Olsen) one time too many, Kyle is punished for his cocksure and cruel ways. Kendra casts a spell on Kyle that brings his ugliness to the surface, although really she makes him look like Darth Maul with some nasty facial scars and metallic silver Sharpie scribblings on his forehead and bridge of his nose. He will have one year to find someone to proclaim love for him or else the disfigurements will remain permanent.

When it becomes clear that the magic can’t be reversed, his image-conscious news anchor dad (Peter Krause) hides Kyle away with their Jamaican maid Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and blind tutor Will (Neil Patrick Harris). Kyle stews in luxurious isolation for nearly half of the deadline before venturing into New York City in search of a girl who might break the curse.

He has his eye on Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens), a pretty classmate harboring an independent spirit and a crush on him when he was a handsome brute. One night Kyle saves Lindy from the dealers hassling her and her widowed, drug addicted dad. (Strangely, she doesn’t seem to notice who intervenes.) Kyle uses the situation to blackmail her father into sending Lindy to live with him so that she will be safe.

Once she moves into his penthouse, Kyle begins wooing her with Bulgari jewelry and other expensive gifts while hiding underneath a hoodie and lingering behind corners. Lindy doesn’t want such fancy things. After he considers her interests, shows his face, and begins to open up, she warms to him, but time’s a-wasting according to the tattoo that covers his forearm.

Credit BEASTLY with this: it contains as little flab found on Pettyfer’s carved abs. Unlike the bloated TWILIGHT films, the success of which BEASTLY is clearly trying to capitalize on, it’s edited as though there’s a race to burn through the plot points. It’s about as romantic as a stock swap, but at least it cuts to the chase.

Whether it’s remnants from the source material or the film’s weird way of establishing characters, BEASTLY plays as an apologia for bad boys and the saintly girls who find them irresistible. Kyle’s father ignores him and has raised him with poor values. The pompous teen’s edges are supposed to be softened because the hired help wish only the best for him despite his abominable treatment of them, especially Zola. The immigrant servant’s unconditional care and concern for him borders on offensiveness and would surely be viewed that way with the modern perspective on an older film expressing a similar sentiment. Kyle’s actions are rarely unselfish. He’s just desperate to regain his looks. He becomes more sympathetic to those less fortunate in their physical features and bank accounts, but it stands to reason that he might need a reminder of this lesson in a few years.

Lindy’s portraiture is more problematic. She already likes him when he’s in raging jerk mode and excuses his hideous arrogance as unvarnished honesty. She continues to pine for him while everyone believes Kyle is away spending months in rehab. Lindy is merely another in the long line of funky gals with x-ray specs for the souls of egotistical but misunderstood clods. BEASTLY doesn’t have the decency to grant Lindy any assertiveness in this tale. She’s there for Kyle’s needs and nothing else. For all of the film’s nods to today’s society, in this department it remains determinedly archaic.

BEASTLY is teeming with dialogue clunkers that only Harris makes intentionally funny, although his line readings come off as though he’s skipped forward to starring in the inevitable parody sketch. It’s a bad CW drama writ as a feature film, and one undisguised as a Hollywood executive’s wish to horn in on that jackpot of sweet, sweet teen supernatural romance cash at that.

Grade: D

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


UNKNOWN (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2011)

In UNKNOWN Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) travels to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit. Having forgotten his briefcase at the airport, he hops in a taxi to go retrieve it while his wife checks into the hotel. The cab ride ends in an accident and the car depositing itself in a river. The driver is able to extricate Martin from the sinking vehicle, but when he awakens from a coma four days later in the hospital, he struggles to remember who he is.

Gradually the professor puts the pieces of his identity together, but he still lacks the documents to prove he is who he says he is. Complicating matters, Liz claims not to know him and is with another man (Aidan Quinn) who purports to be Dr. Martin Harris. In the hope of getting to the bottom of this mystery Martin tracks down and turns to Gina (Diane Kruger), the illegal Bosnian immigrant who was his cabbie on that fateful day.

UNKNOWN is a serviceable thriller in the classic Hitchcockian wrong man mold. Martin’s journey into an underworld of cautious illegal immigrants, hoodlums, and former Stasi agents steeps the film in paranoia. Bruno Ganz’s delicious turn as a onetime member of the East German intelligence community adds that extra Teutonic menace below the film’s surface. UNKNOWN often glides by on the European setting’s elegance and grime and Neeson’s steely determination as he works to solve his puzzling predicament.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra links it all together in a generally efficient way, but eventually it seems like the film is dawdling as Martin searches for answers but mostly finds more questions. Especially after he showed the bad guys who not to mess with in TAKEN, there’s a desire to see some Neeson ownage that UNKNOWN frustrates. Enough with the shoe leather scenes. Let’s get to Neeson turning guys into ground beef.

When the narrative explanations begin to tumble out, their absurdity clashes with the otherwise resolute nature of the film. At issue isn’t so much that the elucidations regarding Martin's past aren’t realistic, as UNKNOWN is firmly in movie territory. The problem is that the remarkable revelations don’t mesh with film’s grounded nature. As incredible as it may sound regarding an amnesia thriller, UNKNOWN’S plot isn’t silly enough to merit where it ends up taking the main character.

Grade: C