Thursday, July 23, 2009


It's unfair to review "Tokyo!" as one film. Between the three shorts within it, there are no visual or narrative connections, no crosses over, only the fact that they revolve around the titular city (there are brief graphics at the beginning and end to tie things up). Two filmmakers are French, one is Korean. Two films are unsuccessful and one is very good. I will not evaluate the three as a whole, but as three separate pieces, even though other critics are doing otherwise.

The first film is Michel Gondry's "Interior Design," a visually appealing quasi-comedy apparently based off of a story called "Cecil and Jordan in New York" by Gabrielle Bell, about a filmmaker/gift-wrapper named Akira (Ryo Kase from "Letters From Iwo Jima," a much better film) and his girlfriend Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), who are struggling to get by and are living with Hiroko's friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito). Akira's bizarre movie (involving a skeleton on a motorcycle and a birthed rabbit) is set to be screened at a porno theater. The scene in which he does show it is pretty hilarious and involves a nice use of a smoke machine. Anyways, Hiroko is tired of Akira. When she finds out he's in love with Akemi, she despairs. But not for long... she morphs into a chair and becomes human again only when people are not looking. Why this happens is beyond me. It's a nice little visual, but the film fails to make a big impression beyond its Japanese whimsy. It needs a little more necessity somehow to be really remembered as a short film. C

Gondry's offering is followed by Leos Carax's "Merde," that starts off as a take on a sewer-dwelling phenomenon that's actually intriguing. Denis Lavant is Merde, the being in question, and he manages to be bearable for the first few minutes. Then, Merde decides to throw grenades at people in the middle of the city, and is caught by the police in his underground hideout after doing so. But who should be his lawyer? Well, it has to be Maitre Voland (Jean-Francois Balmer), who's a attorney in France (the only time I believe the action shifts out of Tokyo) and who is contacted because is one of three who can communicate with him. From here, the short spirals into mediocrity and then to exceeding unpleasantness. There is a scene where Voland speaks with Merde that is at least a minute of unsubtitled ridiculousness. There are other language barrier problems as well, especially in the unbearable trial scene, where we have to wait for the Japanese judge to speak to a translator, who speaks to Voland in French, who speaks to Merde in their dialect, who speaks back to Voland, and sometimes this is subtitled in French, but others we have to go through him to a translator and back to the judge. There is also the use of multiple cameras here, which gets insane, since sometimes the cameras are filming the same exact thing. One camera, anyone? Well, we find out Merde is a racist put among the people he hates by his god, and the people he hates are the Japanese. From here, the film goes downwards to the end. The credits promise "Merde in USA" and such, but I got too much of him in Tokyo. Besides, what exactly would he do across the globe? Change racial prejudices? There's not enough backstory; in fact, backstory is laughed at. I wish it stayed how it was at the beginning, but Carax decides to go allegorical in the wrong ways and does poorly. D+

Placed last and unfortunately grouped with two lesser films is Bong Joon-Ho's "Shaking Tokyo," a charming, well thought out film about a recluse played by Teruyuki Kagawa (who played the father in this year's "Tokyo Sonata") who hasn't left his house in ten years and who's organized all of his possessions (especially the pizza boxes that he gets every Saturday). He fails to even make eye contact with the people he gets food from. Well, that's until he looks into the eyes of a pizza-delivery woman (Yu Aoi) and falls in love. When he "turns her on" via a button on her body after she passes out in his house after an earthquake (hence the title), she shies away and quits her job and she becomes a recluse as well. Well, when he learns of this from another delivery man, he sees he has to make a move. When he does, the film shifts into a study of extremism and society. Joon-Ho is a brilliant filmmaker, and here he and his vision definitely stand out. His creation is not fantastic (perhaps due to the very end), but is very good, and compared with the other two, it's ahead by miles. B+

"Tokyo!" itself is not really a film; it's a binding of three unrelated ideas that don't really reflect the city they are set in. "Shaking Tokyo" should be released separately, and considered on its own. As for the other two, I wasn't so impressed. A triptych in film has potential, but I believe the films should be more connected and more altogether solid than in this one.

Public Enemies

Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" takes you into 1930's America, when John Dillinger was at large and when the FBI was having its beginnings. It's a fast-paced, crudely edited film that fails to engage the viewer much until it's anticlimactic climax. If there had been perhaps more time spent in the cutting room on nicer cuts, that would be a plus. For I believe there were only a couple scenes in the entirety of the film that didn't contain a flaw, whether it be a misplaced score track, or a too-long-running musical track, or some sloppy editing. This last complaint could be attributed to the fact that there are two editors and thus two different editing agendas, one editor who's worked with Mann a few times before (Paul Rubell), and one who's been with a few different directors (Jeffrey Ford).

Well, "Public Enemies" definitely does have potential, but it chokes itself with these clipped scenes and other technical mishaps, even in the fights that should have pushed it over the top. John Dillinger is Johnny Depp, inspired casting based on photos. In the film's first distracting and disengaging moments, Dillinger gets some criminals out of prison. Why I mention this is that this is our first brush with Dillinger, which should be alluring, but the film fails to make it so. Next, we are introduced to the sharpshooting eye of Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) as he's gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). I do not believe that we get much more than that on him. Neither do we get anything on Dillinger, except for a flashing moment of backstory. We get as much as his love interest Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).

Anyways, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) declares "the United States of America's first war on crime" and sets up Purvis as the head of the Chicago branch. From here on out, its a quest to catch Dillinger before he robs a lot of banks and gets away to "farther than Cuba." Is this all that entertaining or stimulating? Stimulating, perhaps. There is one fantastic scene done in the woods where Dillinger is hiding out from the feds. The editing, cinematography, and sound design all hit high peak together, and the result is magnificent. Nothing else in the movie gets close to this, and that proves for a mediocre, considerably lengthy (143 minutes is too long for the film this is), and bland Dillinger mini-biopic that's weak in the ouevres of all its participants, especially Mann. "Public Enemies" has its chances, but most are squandered, which is sad, because there seems to be some good here. C

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Alex Proyas' "Knowing" is built, like most other science fiction films, upon an original, high-concept idea, and like most other films of the science fiction genre, the idea is good. However, this is not justification to let everything else (i.e. the structure, technicalities, script, acting) be undernourished. This is the (main) problem with "Knowing." The idea happens to be of a school experiment: each student draws a picture of the future. This elicits typical responses, except from the girl who came up with the experiment herself, Lucinda (Lara Robinson), who writes down a series of seemingly random numbers that have something to do with the voices that she's been hearing.

Flash forward 50 years, where the latter part of the experiment plays out: the current students (3rd graders, that is) get the drawings of their predecessors. Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), a genius kid who watches episodes of the nature channel before he goes to bed (we learn he's "obsessed with extinct animals"), gets Lucinda's, obviously. Caleb's father John Koestler (Nicolas Cage), the atheistic MIT professor that he is, has his class discuss wonder: are the course of events destiny or do they just happen randomly? (Ebert had a field day over this, and also heavily influenced my review; consider the previous sentence an effect) This plays a role in his life, since his wife died in a fire on a business trip, and like Ron Franz when Christopher McCandless passed, stopped believing in God. This is hard, since he's the son of a reverend.

Anyways, I've gotten way off topic. John becomes fascinated with his son's find (which seemed like a "The Number 23" style twist) and for some reason picks up very quickly that these numbers correspond to the dates and casualties and locations of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina (even though this didn't happen on one day or in one particular location) and, obviously, September 11, 2001. There are couple more sets of numbers on the sheet, however, so that means that is more mayhem to come, in all of it's CGI glory. More happens, of course, but I won't reveal it, although I will say it involves religion and the apocalypse. Koestler and his son also meet up with Lucinda's daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and her daughter Abby (played by Robinson also). Koestler and Diana are allowed to have one of those nonsexual relationships built on a search that Hollywood is so fond of.

Technically, the film is mediocre as well. The script is abundant with cliches, and leads through to a cluttered and nonsensical ending. The characters are tracing-paper thin. Cage and Byrne are two unstable leads. Cage in particular is good when there's at least a little slack given in the material ("Matchstick Men," or even "The Family Man"), but when depended on to deliver the goods with nothing else, he can't come through. And almost everything else is special effects. Those are a let down. The disaster sequences are constructed purely out of CGI and look unrealistic. Well, "Knowing" has an interesting idea, but furnishes it with too little. With perhaps a little innovation in the style and structure, it could have been much better. With that creative touch it could be close to Alfonso Cuaron's genius, amazingly well-crafted "Children of Men" (which had a much more interesting vision of what the future would be like). This is not at all where "Knowing" decided to go. C

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Yojiro Takita's "Departures" is a sentimental and at times hilarious film, that falls away due to its lack of real substance in between scenes. It's a beautiful film, and I really enjoyed it, but between the more important events, the fill-ins were sudsy. There's really a lot of potential in this tragicomic movie, but most of it goes unused. Daigo Kobayashi (Mashiro Motoki) is a cellist in an orchestra. He needs to keep going so he can pay off his expensive, “professional” cello. Unfortunately, the group is disbanded. I don’t believe that why this is ever quite explained (perhaps it’s the lack of attendance, I really don’t know). Out of a job, he sells his instrument and moves back into his dead mother’s house with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). When he finds a very unspecific ad about “departures” requiring no experience, Daigo decides to check it out. What he finds is something he wouldn’t have imagined. When he meets the boss, he’s immediately hired and given a lot of cash. The boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) then tells him the ad wasn’t for “departures,” but for “the departed.” Daigo finally realizes he’s gotten into the funeral business. The ritual of what the Japanese call “encoffinment” is a beautiful thing. It involves cleaning the body for death and enshrouding and all of that, but it’s done in a graceful manner that’s captivating. I wish that Takita had let those scenes speak for themselves, instead of with massive amounts of cello music almost every time. I mean, it’s fine a couple times, but to let beauty stand on its own is a more powerful method. Daigo is at first alienated by the touching of the dead, like most other people. He gets a rough couple of jobs to start off, and is forced into recording a bizarre instructional video about his trade. As he goes along, however, he learns the importance of body, and also to get used to handling these corpses. Predictably, he keeps this information away from his wife. At the beginning, when the film is a comedy, this works out (mostly because of the way he conceals it), but as it starts becoming a bigger and bigger plot point, it feels old. There’s also a colossal backstory here: Daigo was abandoned by his father when he was six and was cared for by his mother. When they did live together (which we don’t know a heck of lot about, and the scenes that are done here are brief and vague), he seemed to play a lot of cello for them. They also went to a public bathhouse. These baths have a bigger role throughout the film, and this I believe was the most heartwarming development. Here the film had me in its figurative grasp, but it let me go very soon. Speaking more of the film’s comedy towards the beginning, the film unfortunately doesn’t carry on this way. There are a couple of scenes involving food that are delightful in the true meaning of the word, but the feeling changes. I guess that’s uniform, but I liked the beginning better. How everything in between plays out is sad, and I mean sadly developed. These scenes needed major strengthening. So much attention is put on the funerals that everything else is undernourished. It was sad to see a great premise go to waste since the filling was too tepid. Even though the film clocks in at 130 minutes, it still feels rushed. If you gave some time to reflect (not involving cello), perhaps in a visual way, it would make everything a lot more spacious, and perhaps fixing the really awful pacing that was nipping at the quality at nearly every minute. Well, “Departures” is a very likeable movie, but it’s hard to get swept in it because of its impairing speed. It won many awards: 10 Japanese Academy Awards, the Audience Awards at the Hawaii International and the Palm Springs Festival, and, among others, the hotly contested Best Foreign Language Film award at the Academy Awards. This final accolade caused quite a bit of steam. A yet unreleased film had upset the more high profile works up there (including the amazing “Waltz With Bashir”) apparently due to the fact that the Academy’s policies had changed, forcing voters to watch every film (a rule that sounds pretty good to me). I can see why it pulled ahead, and why “Gomorrah” neglected to be nominated: pure sentiment. I agree with A.O. Scott of the New York Times: it was interesting to see really what makes the committee tick. C

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Food, Inc.

"Food, Inc." is a visually effective documentary that's material is devastating but structure is weak. It seems a lot of food documentaries (well, actually, most modern documentaries) follow a pretty typical routine, and this film is just as uniform. It even rips off the end credits of "An Inconvenient Truth" which is not only uninspired, it also lessens the message that comes before it while it's trying to leave on a soaring note (complete with "This Land is Your Land"). But there are a score of good things here as well. It wrenchingly chronicles the business side of the food industry and how companies such as Monsanto are controlling farmers' seeds and such, as well as how low they've all stepped in order to make money. But if you want to get out of this vicious circle, you can't really, if you're on a small paycheck. As someone in the film observes, "You can get two burgers for this [pound of] broccoli." And why wouldn't people? It's cheaper.

It's also cheaper in quality. Oh, have you forgotten about E. Coli? Your food could have it (that is, if it should be recalled and hasn't). A young boy named Kevin ate a couple of hamburgers and died 12 days later as a result of hemorrhagic E. Coli. His mother has now become a food activist in his name, and has tried to pass Kevin's Law, which proposes to shut down any repeat recaller of meat. As far as I know, the company whose contaminated beef killed the boy has not apologized and the law has not been passed. It shows not only that food is extremely unsafe nowadays, but that companies don't care enough about their casualties. Not only that, but they also don't let people speak out, maintaining a pretty much totalitarian regime. They also have ties in the administrations of both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In one case, I believe that the Bush-era food-safety person was previously tied up with the companies. That's now quite a common occurrence. It only stresses the point that the food industry is dominant force in the present day.

In order for this grim film to move forward, director Robert Kramer enlists two titans of food activism to present the facts: Eric Schlosser, author of the revealing book "Fast Food Nation," and Michael Pollan, author of "An Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History in Four Meals." As the two narrators/main interviewees, they set a dark, worried tone for the film, perhaps what it needed. "Food, Inc.," however, should have been a differently structured, since its material calls for something to match its groundbreaking power. I also think it had two different films within it: one about farmers and their troubles, and another about the state of our food. Perhaps they should have been separated. But altogether, "Food, Inc." is a moderately effective documentary showing that clean, safe, untouched food is hard to get these days, and if it means more money, corporations will keep it that way. B

Thursday, July 2, 2009


"Moon" is an ambitious but flawed feature-length directorial debut for Duncan Jones, a well-made film with a brilliant premise brought down by a poor structure. It opens with an ad for a new source of energy, harnessed sun power, collected by the LUNAR company's field operatives, like Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). Bell is in the final two weeks of his contract on the job, supported by his computer-with-a-primitive-voice Gerty (Kevin Spacey), and with the hopes of returning to his wife and child (Dominique McElligott and Kaya Scodelario, respectively). Although there are a couple of little confrontations, everything seems to run smoothly.

Then, Bell has a terrible accident in a rover while on the job. When he recuperates, he goes out to investigate. What he finds is Sam Bell, in a crashed rover. I thought here that the double was played by Rockwell as well (which would have been a cool double that you don't find very often anymore, except for Nicholas Cage in "Adaptation"), but instead of technically duplicating the lead, they put in a stand-in of Robin Chalk. I'm not sure if he has a speaking part, since it sounded a lot like Rockwell, but if so, it's a great impression. Anyways, he finds another Sam, and sets the film in a completely different direction. I'm not going to reveal the significance of this moment, but it is pretty brilliant and very "Primer"-esque. Speaking technically for a moment, the cinematography by Gary Shaw is great, the art direction puts you on the moon, and the great theme by Clint Mansell ("Requiem for a Dream") is very dark and creates a depressing and insane mood. I guess Rockwell is good here.

"Moon," however interesting and inflicting it is (I left the film with a headache, since the film is entrapping and powerful like Steve McQueen's "Hunger"), is far from a perfect film. There is an abundance of loose ends and scenarios that you have to twist your mind around, which is okay, but there at some point too many. The ending is full of these bends. It's very confusing and unsatisfying. There also seems to be too few obstacles in the path of Sam. I believe that Jones thought insanity was enough. But it's really not. When the later events occur, everything seems to go too smoothly (although the benevolent twist on the computer was good). There needed to be a little more time added on, possibly to enhance what was there and to further lock the viewer into a space-induced bind. A space epic, possibly? Yes, but that wasn't there. The film can be obscure then suddenly glaringly obvious (take what Gerty tells one of the Sams later on). With polish, "Moon" would have been so much better. B-