Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I Wish (Kiseki)

I WISH (KISEKI) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2011)

Like many kids whose parents have separated, brothers Koichi (Koki Maeda) and Ryunosuke (Ohshirô Maeda) would like to reunite their family.  Twelve-year-old Koichi, the older and more serious of the siblings, believes he’s found the solution in I WISH (KISEKI).  He overhears classmates saying that whoever sees two high-speed trains pass each other for the first time will get their wishes granted.  New bullet trains are scheduled to begin service across the island of Kyushu in two months, so the boys work on plans to meet halfway in Kumamoto prefecture to get their dreams fulfilled.

Koichi, who lives with their mother Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka) and her parents in the island’s southern prefecture Kagoshima, is pushed into action by hearing his mom being encouraged to move on.  She’s already taken a job as a cashier at a grocery store.  A boyfriend could soon follow.  Knowing the importance of the mission, Koichi prepares with an explorer’s thoroughness.  He and his friends examine maps to determine where the trains are most likely to pass, calculate a budget for the trip, and scrape together the money by looking for spare coins and selling some toys.

Ryunosuke doesn’t seem to mind the new arrangement as much as Koichi.  Certainly he would like for everyone to be together again, but he doesn’t worry about whether or not their parents will reconcile.  Since choosing to stay with their musician father Kenji (Joe Odagiri) in the island’s northern prefecture Fukuoka, he’s taken to tending a garden and surrounded himself with many friends.  For Ryunosuke the trip seems more like a chance to see his brother for the first time in six months and a fun day away from home with his pals.
As noisy as two trains passing each other at 160 miles per hour is, the disruption to the surrounding environment is fleeting.  The same can’t be said for the effects on children of divorce or a parent’s gambling problem, but in I WISH such disturbances don’t necessarily need to be ruinous either.  Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda studies the resiliency of children in the face of life transformations large and small.  He tracks these adaptations with plenty of charm and wit, making this observational look at the kids closer to Francois Truffaut’s SMALL CHANGE than his own harrowing NOBODY KNOWS.

The great pleasure of I WISH is Kore-eda capturing kids being kids instead of the little adults many films mistake children for.  Sometimes they can be very funny, like when they talk about crushes on teachers and what they would wish for if they could be guaranteed to have one dream made real .  At other points watching them can be heartbreaking.  For instance, Koichi is more tuned into his mother’s fragile emotional state than anyone else realizes.  I WISH excels at evoking a child-like state of mind in all of its wonders and concerns because of Kore-eda’s astuteness in following how kids make sense of the world and change their perspectives.

I WISH retains Kore-eda’s gift for empathetic scrutiny of daily life and ordinary people while also delivering miracles of a kind.  Hurl prayers for momentous change if one will, but don’t forget that answers and greatest blessings can come in the form of chance encounters and common pleasures.  I WISH feels slighter than Kore-eda’s best work, such as AFTER LIFE and STILL WALKING, but it’s a warm effort that finds through the tough times the kids can be, and often are, all right.

Grade: B+

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Cat in Paris (Un vie de chat)

A CAT IN PARIS (UN VIE DE CHAT) (Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, 2010)

By day black cat Dino is the best friend of Zoe, a small child who has lost her voice since the murder of her father.  The companionship Dino provides is ever so important with Zoe’s police superintendent mother Jeanne wrapped up in the hunt for her husband’s killer, Victor Costa.  With the art treasure The Colossus of Nairobi scheduled to be moved, Jeanne expects the gangster to be flushed out.

By night Dino is the accomplice of cat burglar Nico.  No one is the wiser to the cat’s double life in A CAT IN PARIS (UN VIE DE CHAT) until one evening when Zoe slips out her bedroom window to follow him.  During this nighttime adventure she stumbles upon Costa and his hapless underlings.  Nico and Dino come to Zoe’s rescue, but her safety is temporary.  The police, now wise to the burglar’s activities because of the telltale paw prints at the crime scenes, take him away and unwittingly place the girl in the care of one of Costa’s associates.

In two of the last three years Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members have thrown a few curveballs in the Best Animated Feature category by nominating small, largely unknown films alongside the products from industry heavyweights.  A CAT IN PARIS was one of two foreign-language animated features nominated for the 84th Academy Awards.  While the fluid hand-drawn animation provides a pleasant stylistic alternative to the predominance of 3D computer animation in the marketplace, the story leaves a lot to be desired.

Deceased or absent parents are not new to children’s stories, but the casualness with which the information of Zoe’s murdered father is introduced comes across somewhat distressingly.  His death haunts Jeanne, per her nightmarish visions, and has turned Zoe mute.  A CAT IN PARIS doesn’t dwell on these details, but for such a slight film in narrative terms, it carries excessive psychological weight.
A CAT IN PARIS gets bogged down in the middle section with the bumblings and strained jokes of Costa and his goons.  Even at a lean 70 minutes, the film feels padded out and unfocused.  When the low-key vibe works, it’s during Nico’s jazz-accompanied rooftop wanderings and thefts, in part because these scenes bring grace and humor mostly lacking in the other parts.

The titular cat is granted the full range of reactions and is good for some laughs, especially when he goes on the offensive in face-hugger mode.  Meanwhile, the human characters are given simplistic personalities that aren’t helped by the energy-deficient vocal performances.  (The English-language dub of the film adds celebrity voices [Marcia Gay Harden, Anjelica Huston, Matthew Modine] with little to no benefit.)  The thin characterization is especially problematic with Nico and how his storyline develops.  Although he hints at motivations beyond mere self-enriching thievery, A CAT IN PARIS never follows up on the matter and leaves big questions with how his arc resolves.

By the end A CAT IN PARIS feels like a film split in its priorities and satisfactorily achieving none of them.  It misses as quality children’s entertainment through a self-serious, downbeat story without an engaging main character. Nods to film noir detective stories aside, the flimsy story doesn’t give adults much to latch onto either.

Grade: C

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre)


Julio (Julián Villagrán) wakes up in an unfamiliar apartment with little memory of the wild Saturday night he apparently had.  The flat belongs to Julia (Michelle Jenner), who is eager to send him on his way.  As they try to recall the previous evening and each others’ names, Julio and Julia become aware that the world to which they’ve awakened in EXTRATERRESTRIAL (EXTRATERRESTRE) is no longer ordinary.

The downtown Madrid streets are empty.  Neither cell phones nor landlines work. The television is not picking up any signals, and internet access is unavailable.  Then they notice that a massive flying saucer is hovering above the city.  Julio and Julia are able to tune in a radio broadcast to gain some information, although the news that most people have been evacuated and stragglers should remain inside is less than reassuring.

Among those still in the city is Julia’s stalkerish neighbor Ángel (Carlos Areces), who tells them that about thirty spaceships are reported over Spain and untold numbers have appeared all over the globe.  Carlos (Raúl Cimas), Julia’s longtime boyfriend, eventually turns up as well.  He doesn’t suspect Julia and Julio of doing anything improper and believes the story she contrives about spotting Julio on the street and inviting him in.  Carlos is so trusting he insists that Julio stays with them.  Julio and Julia fear that Ángel will tell Carlos the truth about how they know one another, so they convince Carlos that Ángel is really an alien posing as a human.
Although set during an alien occupation of Earth, the science fiction trappings function as a readily apparent misdirect for staging a romantic comedy/drama. Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s interest lays not in little green men attacking earthlings but in the disruptive effect an outsider can have on a couple.  The problem is that the interpersonal dynamics aren’t developed sufficiently or invested with high enough stakes for what Vigalondo wants to study to matter.

If EXTRATERRESTRIAL is to explore what might be called Third Wheel Syndrome, Vigalondo needed to bring greater tension to the romantic triangle than what exists.  The mere presence of Julio, the proverbial extraterrestrial, alters the environment, but circumstances have a convenient way of mitigating his culpability. In due time Julia reveals to Julio that she has been with Carlos since she was nineteen and that their relationship was distressed before the spacecrafts appeared. The implication is that the relationship had soured before Julio’s arrival and that he need not feel guilty for whatever is transpiring between him and Julia, regardless of Ángel’s attempts to expose what he views as a tawdry secret.  Meanwhile, Carlos seems oblivious to any potential hanky-panky between Julia and Julio and then, having broken the trio’s agreement never to go anywhere alone, makes it easy for them to ask him to go away.  Despite Vigalondo presenting Julio as the suffering romantic, the emotional burden he is carrying could be shrugged off with little effort. The noble decision facing Julio packs less of a wallop because it feels unnecessary.

EXTRATERRESTRIAL’s combination of romantic comedy and genre movie elements recall SHAUN OF THE DEAD while failing to blend them nearly as well as Edgar Wright’s feature.  Having confined the action to a pocket of the world, Vigalondo’s featherweight film relies on the small but affable cast to be its saving grace, a task they are capable of handling.  With Carlos behaving as though the invasion has drawn out his purpose in life, Cimas is funny kicking into survivalist mode at the expense of all rational thought. As the third wheel supplanted by Julio, Areces adds some amusing moments in his awkward interactions with the others and his bold bids to restore his position, not the least of which involves a tennis ball cannon.  Miguel Noguera gets laughs as a resistance fighter constantly feeling demeaned by the technical ineptitude of those helping him with a UHF broadcast. Villagrán and Jenner are good in their underwritten roles, but the end of life as the characters know it doesn’t feel at risk collectively or individually in EXTRATERRESTRIAL.  Lacking a sense of cataclysmic change in civilization or a couple thus sells short what could have made for a thrilling adventure or a potent metaphor for love.

Grade: C

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Christopher Nolan, 2012)

Picking up eight years after Batman (Christian Bale) takes the blame for district attorney Harvey Dent’s misdeeds, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finds Gotham City free of organized crime.  Batman has vanished from the public eye.  Bruce Wayne has become a recluse in his stately manor.  

When a cat burglar posing as a server steals a pearl necklace and Bruce’s fingerprints from his supposedly uncrackable safe, he’s stirred from his self-imposed seclusion to learn more about and confront the thief named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).  She means him no harm.  Selina is in desperate need of having her identity cleared from all records and is assured she can get it for providing Bruce’s identifying marks.

Selina warns Bruce that bad times are on the horizon for Gotham City.  Indeed. Terrorist leader Bane (Tom Hardy), a beefy brute whose face is mostly covered with what looks like a high tech ball gag, is assembling a small but loyal underground army to foment a revolution that he promises will return the city to the people.  The time has come for Batman to resume his public service.   

Whether it’s the chronological reversal in MEMENTO, the artful trickery in THE PRESTIGE, or dream layering in INCEPTION, Christopher Nolan’s films boast complicated narrative architecture yet lay out detailed blueprints to follow.  The director, who co-wrote THE DARK KNIGHT RISES with brother Jonathan Nolan, is less successful navigating the way through his final Batman trilogy entry.  Perhaps all of the dots in the first two films connect in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, but grasping the totality of Nolan’s vision is a challenge short of rewatching BATMAN BEGINS, which receives numerous key callbacks.  As these comic book films become more intertwined, whether in their own dense mythology or across a series of franchise movies, the point has been reached where it would be helpful to get a footnote-intensive fact sheet along with the ticket.   
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn’t left wanting for ideas and artistic relevance to current events.  The 2008 financial crisis, Occupy Wall Street, government-sponsored torture, tribunals, the surveillance state, and the war on terror are referenced and mirrored in the film’s reality, but these subjects are commented on in such a muddled manner that their inclusions primarily amount to buzzword-dropping rather than cogent commentary. Post-9/11 conflicts are addressed most thoroughly, if unexceptionally.  Where prior Nolan films have resembled elegant mathematical proofs, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES looks like trial-and-error calculations scribbled on a scratch pad.  

Nolan makes the serious miscalculation of hiding the most expressive part of the villain’s face.  Whoever was following Heath Ledger’s Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT was liable to compare poorly among Batman nemeses, but Hardy, limited to his eyes, muscular torso, and voice, doesn’t have a chance to engage in a fair fight.

Hathaway’s Catwoman fares better in that she contributes a welcome dash of humor. As butler Alfred, Michael Caine’s watchful concern for Bruce brings the depth of feeling to an emotionally chilly film.  The opening sequence aboard a CIA extraction flight gone wrong as it attempts to leave Uzbekistan delivers a flashy action setpiece that the remainder of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, encumbered with scenes of talky exposition, fails to match.  

Shortcomings and all, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES remains a fascinating film, albeit one that suffers from an excess of ambition and deficiency in unifying its objectives with clarity.  Nolan and editor Lee Smith keep the proceedings moving even when it seems as though the film is bogged down in yet another plot payload transfer.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES builds to a rousing concluding act without the safety net typically assumed with franchise pictures.  Considering its narrative and tonal risks, it’s just disappointing for a filmmaker of Nolan’s caliber to conclude the trilogy with what plays like a bloated middle installment.
Grade: C+

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ice Age: Continental Drift

ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT (Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier, 2012)

Woolly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), sabre-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary), and sloths Sid (John Leguizamo), and Granny (Wanda Sykes) embark on an epic journey to return to the herd when Pangaea’s break-up separates them from their makeshift family. ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT sets the ragtag gang on a hunk of ice and sends them out to sea.

After surviving a violent storm, Manny and friends cross paths with an iceberg fashioned into a ship, but rather than this encounter leading to their rescue, it creates another set of problems.  Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), an ape so named for what he likes to do with his claws, demands they join his band of pirates or face the consequences.

Back on the mainland, Manny’s teenage daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) wrestles with peer pressure.  She has a crush on Ethan (Drake) and wants to hang out with the cool crowd, but doing so means rejecting her molehog friend Louis (Josh Gad) and not being true to who she really is.

Directors Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier keep ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT moving at a steady clip and the various objects comin’ at ya for 3D viewers.  The action and jokes zip by with the speed of processors rendering the digital animation files.  The fourth film in the ICE AGE series is lighter in tone from the past couple entries and busy enough to give the impression that all this activity is a good time.  All that positive energy can’t distract from the fact that the filmmakers are treading water, though.  It’s a hollow simulation of what fun for the whole family looks and sounds like.

Neither the main characters nor the celebrity voice work have been distinguished in the ICE AGE films.  That’s no different this time around, but two newcomers liven things up a bit.  The resonance in Dinklage’s voice makes the villain especially fearsome.  Sykes adds much-needed looniness by imbuing Sid’s grandmother with the kind of sass projected onto the honey badger in internet memes.  

As in previous ICE AGE installments, the funniest parts of CONTINENTAL DRIFT belong to the non-speaking sabre-toothed squirrel Scrat.  Free from having to impart lessons about the importance of family or being true to oneself, Scrat can scamper about on his Sisyphean effort to get those elusive acorns.  While Scrat’s interstitial scenes are beginning to get stale, they still have the cartoon silliness and cleverness found wanting in the main story.

Grade: C

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Take This Waltz

TAKE THIS WALTZ (Sarah Polley, 2011)

28-year-old freelance writer Margot (Michelle Williams) is happily married in TAKE THIS WALTZ, or so she’s always thought until meeting Daniel (Luke Kirby) while on an assignment in Nova Scotia.  They become briefly acquainted when he embarrasses her a little at a tourist attraction and then encounter each other again on a return flight to Toronto.  While sharing a cab on their ways home, they discover that he lives a couple doors down the street from her, although she seemingly puts an end to their flirty interactions by informing him that she has a husband.

Margot and her cookbook-writing spouse Lou (Seth Rogen) have been married for five years and appear to be very much in love.  Nevertheless, Margot is increasingly preoccupied with her neighbor and takes extra efforts to see him leaving his place and to bump into him on the street.  Daniel welcomes Margot’s interest.  He calls her out on her actions but otherwise slow plays his seduction, letting her cozy up to him.  Daniel also makes it clear he’s available to her whenever she’s ready.  Regardless of if Margot will ever physically surrender to him, she is committing emotional infidelity.  She knows it isn’t right, yet she doesn’t want to give it up either.

Early on Margot confesses to Daniel that she is afraid of wondering if she’ll miss something.  Within the context of their conversation she’s talking about connecting flights, but her behavior indicates that her fear is rooted in insecurity in her long-term choices.  After the newness wears off anything, such as her marriage, Margot requires constant reassurance that she possesses what she wants.  She doesn’t hide her confusion--the vaguely heart-shaped birthmark on her left shoulder suggests she displays her feelings for all to see--but she fails to confront the questions troubling her. Margot is a selfish character, yet Williams’ marvelous performance generates empathy for her even as she potentially destroys a solid relationship.  The inner struggle registers on her face like wind across the water.  
TAKE THIS WALTZ vibrates with the anticipation and thrill of temptation.  In the film’s sexiest scene, Margot and Daniel are having drinks when she asks him to detail what he would do to her if they were to consummate their relationship.  They laugh off his vivid descriptions when he’s finished, but this pivotal moment confirms that something greater than a lightly considered fantasy exists between them.  That this adultery takes part in words rather than deeds cuts to the crux of Margot’s dilemma.  She is chasing the ideal of something out there that might be better without realizing how doing so is ruining an already good thing she owns.

Writer-director Sarah Polley lingers on the intimate communication between spouses, friends, and would-be lovers to fill in the broader views of the relationships.  The genuine affection between Margot and Lou comes through in their silly private moments and the most violently expressed sweet nothings since PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.  The between-the-lines advice Margot is given by her alcoholic sister-in-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) addresses suspicions while avoiding accusations.  Polley excels at conveying who these people are through observation rather than exposition and sticks to that style by favoring low-key resolutions.  The emotional climax is a model of restraint, especially since it’s where other films typically deploy fireworks.  This tempered approach rings true to the individuals Williams and Rogen have fleshed out..

Having taken its title from a Leonard Cohen song, TAKE THIS WALTZ is dedicated to providing a serious look at what can lead to marital unfaithfulness.  Unlike the singer’s work, the film is afflicted with a case of being overly precious.  The amount of time devoted to Margot and Lou’s lovey-dovey play can be a bit much.  Margot pretends to have mobility issues at the airport so she can be pushed around in a wheelchair to make the connecting flights she fears missing.  Somehow Daniel earns a living as a rickshaw driver in addition to being a secret artist in his spare time.  It’s no single element that leads to twee overload but the entirety of them.  

As she demonstrated in her debut feature AWAY FROM HER and proves again with TAKE THIS WALTZ, Polley has a knack for writing about mature subjects and coaxing natural performances, which is what makes the excessive quirkiness here somewhat exasperating.  Even with it, TAKE THIS WALTZ is an achingly beautiful film in the longing its characters express and the sun-dappled Toronto cinematographer Luc Montpellier captures.

Grade: B