Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Capsule Reviews, June 2011 (Matt)

In Film, Reviews on June 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm

By Matt Smith

(Eric and I normally reserve our long-form reviews and essays for films we find we actually want to write about at some length, but that practice often leads us to let some films slip through the cracks.  Occasionally we’ll post short capsule reviews of things we’ve been watching recently – new release and older films – in an effort to give a better portrait of what our viewing lives are actually like.)

I Am Waiting (Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1957)
During the 1960s, Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest movie studio, took to crime dramas to make money after it began to lose audiences with more traditional fare. The result was a fascinating turnaround for the studio, and a whole lot of really good Eastern interpretations of that very Western genre, the Film Noir. One of the earliest of these films for the studio, I Am Waiting contains all the hallmarks of the best American crime films, including an ex-boxer, played by teen idol Yujiro Ishihara, a lounge singer, and, of course, murder. Joji, the boxer in question, is waiting for word from his brother, who has moved to Brazil to buy a farm and will send for him once everything is set up. One night, in the fog of the bay, he meets a woman, Saeko, who used to sing opera but lost her voice and who may or may not have been about to commit suicide. The two strike up a friendship and she stays and works at his bar until her former employers show up: a gang of yakuza who run a nightclub. We eventually get led deep down the rabbit hole to the truth about Joji’s brother’s fate (it has something to do with the yakuza), the freedom of Saeko from imprisonments both personal and public, and maybe the redemption of an ex-boxer who thought he was forever tarnished by that one time he killed a man with his bare hands. With striking cinematography, a whole lot of class and a true understanding of what made those American potboilers work in the first place, rogue director Kurahara gave us what is one of the finest examples of the genre made outside the Hollywood system, and not as self-referential as those made by the New Wavers throughout Europe around the same time.

Hall Pass (The Farrelly Brothers, 2011)
The Farrelly Brothers pretty much reinvigorated and reinvented the gross-out comedy genre in the 90s, beginning with Dumb and Dumber and continuing through the underrated Me, Myself and Irene, hitting their pinnacle of success with 1998’s There’s Something About Mary. In the decade since Me, Myself and Irene, they have released several movies, all of them miserable, and none of them particularly inspired. Their new film Hall Pass, which finds two suburbanites bored with their married lives (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis) and whose wives give them a week off of marriage, isn’t quite a return to form, though it certainly produces the best results we’ve gotten from them for the better part of their careers thus far. Some of the film’s best moments, especially when discussing their roles as wives, come from Christina Applegate, who does a lot with an underwritten character, but Jenna Fischer is given even less to do, relegating her role as Wilson’s wife to near-forgettable status; a real shame considering how terrific she often can be. After tracking the guys’ lack of progress at picking up chicks at their local Applebees, the film cranks up a second act plot machine involving a hot Australian barista (which sadly goes nowhere) and a handsome older man who both threaten to split Wilson and Fischer’s husband and wife apart, but ultimately the plotting leads to a reaffirmation of their dedication to one another. Sweet and somewhat fitting, but the only time the film feels like it has any balls at all is when Applegate goes through with it and actually does the deed, which she then immediately feels awful about. It’s a shame they didn’t take the darker more adventurous road, that could find her character realizing what a juvenile man-child she’s married to and dump the idiot for a chance to be wild herself (but that would be unbecoming of a loving wife). Richard Jenkins comes in later playing an older party animal who has reached legendary status in an effort to liven up the film, but he actually just appears to have a sad life in comparison, and even this can’t save the movie from its strictly conventional framework. Ultimately <em>Hall Pass</em> is worth only a single viewing, but I was entertained and the price of admission (or just looking up parts online even) is justified if only for a really funny sequence with the guys visiting a “friend’s” new McMansion viewed by the party entirely on security cams.

The Conspirator (Robert Redford, 2010)
An engaging historical melodrama, Robert Redford’s new film tells the story of the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, honing in the trial of Mary Surratt, mother to one of the conspirators. Frederick Aiken, former Union Soldier and lawyer, is called upon to act as counsel for the defense, and he faces an uphill battle all the way as he is labeled a sympathizer, must try to overcome a corrupt justice department waging an illegal case against his client in a military court, and ultimately try to discover the truth about what exactly happened. There are natural echoes to post-9/11 America, particularly the years when the Bush justice department walked all over the Constitutional rights of citizens and non-citizens with unprecedented authority, but Redford, an avowed liberal, never wallows in them, keeping things instead firmly focused on the history as it happened. As terrific as the film is – I can’t think of a single thing that throws things out of whack – it nonetheless feels a bit off, like something’s missing, something ethereal and unknowable. James McAvoy and Robin Wright have a good rapport as lawyer and client, and the cinematography is appropriately classical and filled with solid compositions. Definitely an incensing work and one that points to the fears Americans have long held about the “big government”, The Conspirator is recommended viewing if not quite essential. (Read Eric’s full review of the film here.

Trollhunter (Andre Øvredal, 2010)
I’m a huge proponent of the first-person found footage genre, finding the possibilities for representations of realities (or how we interpret something as “real”) endlessly fascinating.  I know I’m not in a majority in this regard, but I can’t help it – maybe I’m just a sucker.  Taking a cue from recent hits Cloverfield and the terrific [Rec] series from Spain, we are gifted with a pretty amazing little film from Norway that imagines a small government organization attempting to keep the existence of trolls from the public and employing a single man to travel the country keeping them in check and making sure they don’t venture outside their designated boundaries. Based largely on old Norwegian folk tales, the film is often humorous, and imagines its trolls as a completely evolved race of creatures, with distinct features and abilities based on where they live in the country. And yes, the can smell the blood of a Christian man, a trait which leads to several of the film’s most striking moments, including a very frank assertion by much of the cast that they don’t believe in God – something you would NEVER see in an American film (and we’ll get a chance to verify next year when the remake comes out), and a pretty funny chase scene (and lambasting) when we find out that one of the film crew following the troll hunter around is, in fact, Christian and he lied about it. The movie works in plenty of unconventional ways, turning notions of how such pictures should work on their ear constantly, while infusing just enough humor at the right moments to stop the proceedings from wallowing in self-serious dreck. Produced on a low budget, the special effects never cease being truly magical, and the emphasis often times relies on the atmosphere as much as the grotesque appearances of the monsters themselves. All in all a fun viewing experience that I’d recommend to any genre fan or anyone looking for a fast and fun monster movie to wash the sour taste of too many late-Spring blockbusters out of their mouths.

Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)
An early year surprise, Source Code, like earlier release (and also a movie I’m sweet on) The Adjustment Bureau, utilizes science fiction convention to examine human relationships and the perseverance of emotions in the face of an unchangeable set of circumstances or events. In The Adjustment Bureau, we are given a traditional love story with the backdrop of an omnipotent agency that is supposed to keep the world on its “plan” struggling to keep the two lovers apart. That film is slightly more problematic in its science fiction (or spiritual fiction?) than Jones’s experiment, but that’s neither here nor there. Source Code is engaged instead in the existential crisis of all humanity: how do we know we exist, and what constitutes existing? There are no easy answers, and the film turns out to be more profound than we initially think, as we get to know Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal). Stevens has been given the mission of finding the bomber of a train before another one of his bombs can be detonated – by going into the memories of one of the passengers and essentially becoming that person for eight minute loops. The eight minutes is a convenient plot device that also has to do with the ways in which we actually remember information. Rather than giving us a two hour stream of new and constant images, we are able to really understand the intricacies of the situation as we relive the moments with Stevens over and over again, simply because the human brain only really pays attention for about ten minutes. By showing us the same sequence repeatedly, we notice new things and discover new clues in much the same way as the protagonist. It’s actually quite a clever way to draw the audience into the film. There are revelations concerning the technology which allows Stevens to undertake such a mission, as well as his own personal history and the truth of his reality (or is the mind enough reality), and the film even hints at recent science that has found it is possible for multiple realities and dimensions to exist from the ground up starting at the cellular level with its ending, which finds Stevens attempting to actually save the passengers on the train (and his own burgeoning romance with Michelle Monaghan’s Christina) and to change the outcome of the experiments undertaken which have led to his situation. I really dug Source Code and found it a worthy follow-up to Jones’s debut, 2009’s Moon. (Read Eric’s different reading of and slightly less-than-enthusiastic take on Source Code here.)

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