PICK OF THE WEEK
Japan; Yojiro Takita, 2008, EI Entertainment
Death begets beauty in Departures, a moving film that teaches us, and its reluctant hero Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), all about the fine art of encoffination: the delicate ritual preparation of a corpse for cremation, a last rite performed with the utmost discretion and quiet showmanship in front of the assembled family and funeral guests, before the coffin is plunged into the flames.
It's a curious subject, but director Takita handles it beautifully, and the film, which effortlessly mixes dark comedy and believably sentimental family drama, has won prize after prize -- including 10 Japanese Academy Awards, the Grand Prize at Montreal and the American Oscar for best foreign language film.
You can see why. It's the sort of picture that both more casual art house audiences and some cognoscenti often love. It makes you laugh and feel, without coercing your emotions. The hero of Departures, Daigo, is both artist and nebbish: a young man fleeing a failed career as a mediocre classical cellist in a now defunct Tokyo symphony orchestra, to become, almost by accident, a professional encoffineer in his hometown of Yamagata, where he has settled in his late mother's old café bar and home.
Encoffination, as Daigo gradually learns it, under the expert tutelage of his world-wise boss, Ikuei Sasaki (played, in the film's best performance, by Tsutomu Yamazaki) -- is an amazing ensemble. It involves makeup and coiffure (painstakingly applied to bring the stilled faces back to life), costuming (to rearrange or redress the body's clothes without exposing too much flesh and offending the audience), doctoring (to straighten the crooked and soften the rough), and, most of all, a sense of both drama and self-abnegation (to perform each task with such tact and care that the entire procedure becomes an exquisite ceremony of solace.).
Ironically, despite that goal of consolation, it's a profession that inspires some revulsion in the average Japanese -- and does here, in Daigo's initially devoted-seeming young wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). But Daigo, despite his own qualms becomes an expert encoffineer, showing the talent Sasaki recognized almost instantly.
Along the way, Daigo tries to heal the splintered relationship with Mika, to reconcile with the father who abandoned his mother (and whom he hates), and to justify and repay the kindness of boss Sasaki and his also coffin-smart office assistant Kamimura (Kimiko Yo).
Departures, while not remarkably visually beautiful in the usual Japanese movie sense, does impress you and touch your heart. The theme, of course, is that the rituals are more for the living than the dead, and that we should show as much care and love when the people are alive. The cello music Daigo plays is often Bach, and it fits these "Departures." (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (B)
U.S.; David Yates, 2009, Warner
From the moment we see three dark, murderous Death Eaters swooping across London, wreaking CGI havoc on the foggy city below, right up to this new movie's hellish climax, with teen wiz Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) observing and his wizardly mentor Prof. Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) fighting in a lake of fire filled with deadly, squirmy creatures, the new Harry Potter movie drenches us in a mix of horrific fantasy and teen romance/sexuality that's a world away from the series' sugary magical school days 2001 kickoff, the Chris Columbus-directed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
Back then, Potter and company stirred and slurped up a confectionary fantasy that, despite the picture's high-prestige British adult supporting cast, wasn't so far, in style and mood, from '60s Mary Poppins-era Walt Disney -- and closer in feeling to the gung ho kids' adventure of an early Star Wars.
Now the series has gone dark and arty. The supporting adults are juicier and more theatrical, the villains increasingly threatening and stylishly devilish (here, Alan Rickman, as the snobbish, over-lordly menace Prof. Severus Snape, surges to the fore).
And its still youthful heroes and heroine (the pensive Radcliffe as Harry, the increasingly photogenic Emma Watson as right-hand lass Hermione Granger, and the brawnier Rupert Grint as sporty sidekick Ron Weasley) are taller, more filled-out, more teen-idolish and more preoccupied with affairs of the heart and glands, as well as with the dark-side horrors and potential cataclysms that rightly preoccupy Harry as a dutiful young Chosen One.
The story has grown and ripened, and so have the young protagonists, over the seven volumes of author J.K. Rowling's fabulously popular series -- and they have in the movies as well. I still prefer the middle two films, directed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, to the first two, by Home Alone's Chris Columbus, and the latest two by BBC helmer David Yates.
The arcs of all the stories, though, have stayed pretty much the same. Here, in addition, Harry and friends must adjust to specifically teen romantic problems, while Harry and Dumbledore investigate the dark past and hold off the increasingly awful and awesome assaults of the off-screen dark Lord Voldemort's onscreen torpedoes -- including Snape, Helena Bonham Carter as the demonically sexy and ferocious Bellatrix Lestrange, and Tom Felton as sullen student baddie Draco Malfoy.
The films compress the novels' large spans of events, and give us as many characters as they can -- often played by the cream of Britain's older British thespian talent, like Rickman, Carter and Maggie Smith.
Here, Michael Gambon pretty much steals the acting honors, along with a dithering new Professor of Potions, Horace Slughorn, played with his usual priceless distraction by Jim Broadbent. But there are also sharp turns for Rickman, Carter, Smith (as the magisterial Minerva McGonagall), and, very briefly, Robbie Coltrane as stout fella Hagrid.
Gambon and Broadbent are the treasures here. Gambon, a superb actor whom most of us first may reckoned an acting genius in either Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, or in Dennis Potter's BBC masterpiece The Singing Detective, has a gravity, penetrating eye and sonorous authority that make him equally effective as villain or not-exactly-hero.
Here, he's a fatherly magician of the first order. And Broadbent, whose watery eyes, shameful half-grin and beefsteak face give him a wonderful dissipated-uncle look, grounds the whole movie in earthy Brit reality, from his first scenes on. Bravo to both of them, and to the producers for casting them.
(500) Days of Summer (B)
U.S.; Marc Webb, 2009, Fox Searchlight
Five hundred days, arranged in anti-chronological, skip-along-and-skip-back order, which tell the often witty story of dubiously romantic greeting card writer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who's obsessed with the church scene in The Graduate ("Elaine!" "Ben!"), and his dream girl Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who says she's not up for anything serious, and unfortunately means it.
A clever romantic comedy that pleases the eye, tickles the mind, but doesn't exactly warm the heart. How could it, when co-writer Scott Neustadter (who, along with co-writer Michael H. Weber, committed The Pink Panther 2) admits in the credits that the movie is a partial act of revenge for a failed relationship of long ago? Gordon-Levitt is a good Benjamin-style putz, and Deschanel comes across as more sensible than femme fatale-ish -- which Neustadter undoubtedly realizes. This is another middle-class young-adult romantic comedy, with a yen for Manhattan, but it's sharper than most, and as Tom's buddies, Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler are swell.
Julie and Julia (B)
U.S.; Nora Ephron, 2009, Sony
In Julie and Julia, a perky and ambitious young Manhattan writer named Julie Powell decides to cook all the recipes in Julia Child's culinary bible Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the space of a year -- and write a blog about it, called "Julie and Julia." Can she make it? Can she and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) eat it? Will Julie strike it rich by mining Julia and serving her up on a blog? Most important, is this a clicky movie subject, in a field where catastrophes, murders and sexual high jinks abound? Well, yes...as long as you have the right recipe and the right people. Especially Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, the movie's Julia and Julie.
Now, Nora Ephron has never really been a favorite writer-director of mine. Most of her modern bourgeois romantic comedies (whether "Heartburn," which she wrote, "Sleepless in Seattle," which she directed, or "You've Got Mail," which she wrote and directed) -- strike me as a little smug, cutesy-chic and overly self-absorbed: love-and-sex comedies about people who have it good, but self-fixate too much.
But I enjoyed Julie and Julia, a comedy about love, sex and food -- and success, which is the secret engine of many a bourgeois fantasy. The movie is based on Julie Powell's book of the same name -- the spicy tale of a gorgeous young Manhattanite (played by Adams), who has a perfect, understanding husband, Eric (Chris Messina), and who figures out a way to get famous (and maybe, eventually rich) -- and interweaves it with Julia Child's own experiences as the 30-something wife of U.S. diplomatic employee Paul Child (Stanley Tucci, in a stellar job), stationed with him in Paris, who develops a passion for French food and cooking, and eventually gets famous and rich writing about it, as well.
That's the twin theme of these stories: how a writer with a good husband strikes it rich by cooking, eating and scribbling about it. The difference, of course, lies in the fact that Julia Child brought something wonderful to the world: a priceless collection of haute cuisine recipes that fed a multitude and inspired millions, including Julie Powell. Powell simply cooked the 524 recipes in 365 days and blogged, gabbed and whined about her daily routines -- winding up with a book deal a movie.
Entertaining as the movie is, the comparison of Julia's stimulating literary/political milieu and Julie's more superficial ain't-we-cute domain, are all on the side of Child. Late in the movie, when we hear that Julia C. herself has read the blog and apparently doesn't like it, I wasn't surprised. What did Powell expect, from an old-fashioned liberal writer, working in the world of print and classical publishing, confronted with a do-it-yourself internet blog that makes a huge slumgullion of Julia's recipes and Julie's misadventures?
Julie and Julia is all about striking it rich by piggybacking on someone else's fame and efforts -- and if a less delightful actress than Adams had played Powell, I might have gotten much more annoyed with her.
Meryl Streep has performed so many acting miracles so regularly, that we probably shouldn't be surprised at the way she slips into the persona of the very familiar, and distinctively throaty-voiced Mrs. Child. It's a marvelous performance, full of zest and humor and honest goddam joie de vivre.
U.S.; Mike Judge, 2009, Miramax
Mike Judge's Office Space was an oddball little comedy gem about the American workplace -- so dry and laid back and keen eyed that it survived an initial commercial flop to become a video cult hit. Judge's new workplace comedy, Extract, which has one of the weirdest titles I can remember (it's set in a vanilla flavor extract bottling plant), probably won't attract a cult. But it does dispense a fair amount of laughs, more of which come from character (and skilled acting) than scatology, sexual excess or fart gags. And that's despite the fact that Judge's ticket to fame was Beavis & Butt-Head.
Jason Bateman plays a likeable shmo of a capitalist named Joel, an amiable factory-owner and creator of the flavor extract, who's trying to sell his plant while coping with disgruntled or uneasy workers (and at least one who had one ball blown off in a floor accident), a sexually bottled-up wife (Kristen Wiig as Suzie), his pothead-bartender best friend Dean's (Ben Affleck) cannabis philosophy and dubious advice, a witless lothario pool cleaner who seduces Suzie at Joel's own behest (Dustin Milligan as Brad), a sexy pathological thief (Mila Kunis as Cindy) -- and a neighbor (David Koechner as Nathan) who drives him crazy with his endless, drawling, slow-as-molasses-extract attempts at neighborliness.
A lot of the pieces of Extract are quite good, the mood is both mellow and acerbic. And the ensemble is unusually right on. Still, the movie, good as its sections can be, doesn't jell or connect in the way, say, a classic screwballer would. The romantic subplot doesn't click either, despite a slick set-up. But Judge and company did make me laugh a little, which was something.
All About Steve (D+)
U.S.; Phil Traill, 2009 20th Century Fox
All About Steve is mostly as laughless and annoying as its title, and that unfortunately goes also for its main character, Mary Horowitz (played by star Sandra Bullock). Mary is a Sacramento newspaper crossword puzzle crafter who develops a mad crush on a likable, good-looking TV news cameraman named Steve (Bradley Cooper, the stud-guru of "The Hangover"), loses her job when she does a crossword titled "All About Steve" composed of nothing but Steve references, and then pursues the cameraman relentlessly through the West, to an improbable mine cave-in endangering lovable deaf children, where she becomes an outlandish heroine.
Almost nothing in this movie makes sense, beginning with the notion that Bullock's Mary is a wallflower, even granted her signature high shiny red boots. And would Steve have run away from her first-date assaults on his manhood faster than consummation? Would Mary really get fired for her cute little crossword love-poem? Would she really get deliberately ditched by a bus driver when she paid her fare? What fuels her sudden obsessive cutesy-psycho "Fatal Attraction" odyssey? What about that lame "Ace in the Hole" cave-in rip-off? What about... The list is endless
All About Steve is not only mirthless, it's one of the most predictable-yet-illogical movies around.
A Perfect Getaway (B)
U.S.; David Twohy, 2009, Universal
On a remote paradise island, sharp newlyweds Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich) helicopter their way into the mountains and distant beaches, and eventually meet two other couples -- the surly Kale and girlish-sexy Cleo (Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton) and the ever-smiling Nick and uninhibited Gina (Keile Sanchez). It looks like fun, except that we've also learned that another newlywed couple has been killed in the area, possibly by a murderous twosome who may have stolen their identities.
Which couple, if any, did the dirty deeds? A Perfect Getaway, written and directed by David Twohy, of the Chronicles of Riddick, has some bloody adventures, big surprises and double-reverse Agatha Christie-style twists in store, and it wouldn't be fair to reveal or hint at any of them. Overall, the movie is an okay job. The very reliable Steve Zahn, playing a movie scriptwriter, gets, as we might expect, a nice mix of nervous nerdiness and recklessness; all the other characters charm and unsettle us by turns.
The action at the end is over the top, but that's a common failing of many contemporary thrillers. In this case, you should have fun trying to guess what's happening and why, and who's doing what to who. Just remember, if you get lost on the island, what Strother Martin said so cogently in "Cool Hand Luke": "What we have here is a failure to communicate."
The Hangover (B)
U.S.; Todd Phillips, 2009, Warner, unrated 2-disc edition
Recipe for a Hangover: Four male buddies -- or actually, three buddies and a hanger-on who desperately wants to be one of the bunch -- take off for Las Vegas and one last bachelor bash, driving a 1969 Mercedes borrowed from the bride's dad (Jeffrey Tambor): Phil, the studly but married English teacher (Brad Cooper); Stu, the nerdy dentist (Ed Helms of "The Office"); Alan, the slobby and somewhat wacked out brother-in-law-to-be (Zach Galifianakis); and Doug, the very tolerant, very likable groom (Justin Bertha).
Shake and mix well. Once in Vegas, our fun-loving quartet check into a deluxe hotel villa suite and begin their night of revelry with a toast up on the roof, with libations that have been, unfortunately, secretly spiked with what one of them thinks is Ecstasy, but is actually the date-rape drug.
The next morning, three of them wake up in the suite, hung over and unable to remember a single thing that happened after they imbibed the drink and drug. Here's what they see: the apartment wrecked, booze on the furniture, a baby in a bassinet, one of dentist Stu's front teeth missing, the Mercedes gone, pizza on the sofa, a mattress speared on the pole outside, a live tiger in their bathroom. And, oh yeah, the groom mysteriously missing, with barely hours for the guys to find and deliver him to the wedding and his beaming bride.
What happened? Where is Doug? What about the impending nuptials with Tracy (Sasha Barrese)? And who the hell is Black Doug? (Since he's played by Mike Epps, we at least know he'll get some laughs too.) Despite myself, I've got to admit this is a terrific premise, at least for exactly the kind of raunchy, male-bonding comedy that usually plays to knuckleheads, but occasionally delivers the goods. (The last one I remember that worked this well was Wedding Crashers.)
Director Todd Phillips, who has made at least one funny male-bonding comedy, Road Trip -- as well as some others (Old School, Stansky and Hutch) that I'd rather forget -- has a real flair for this wild-and-crazy-guy kind of situation. Writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who were guilty of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Four Christmases, have dreamed up lots of funny bits, most of which work. But they've also given the whole thing a neat structure that makes the story far more interesting.
Instead of showing us the wild night as it happens, one blitzed catastrophe after another, they turn the whole show into a film-noir-in-reverse detective story, where the three guys left behind have to piece everything together, and suffer while they recall what irresponsible clowns they were.
This device makes the story more entertaining, funnier and also less offensive than usual.