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Posts in: October 9th, 2010

Life as We Know It (2010)

When a romantic comedy’s biggest liability is its central romance, it’s time to rethink the genre. Life as We Know It spends its first hour in a shallow exploration of some pretty interesting ideas about the way priorities shift when a child enters the picture. Then, it abandons those ideas for routine rom-com pablum (pardon the pun) that’s almost saved by the two lead actors. Almost.

After an opening “blind date from hell” sequence establishes Holly (Katherine Heigl) as an uptight neurotic and the unsubtly named Messer (Josh Duhamel) as a brash manchild, we understand pretty firmly that these two characters do not get along. They try to make it work because their respective best friends (Hayes MacArthur, Christina Hendricks) are married, but they simply can’t stand one another. What wacky rom-com circumstances will bring this couple together? Death. Huh.

That’s where Life as We Know It starts to get interesting. The married couple die in a car accident, and their will states that guardianship of their 15-month-old, Sophie (played by triplets Alexis, Brynn, and Brooke Clagett), goes to Holly and Messer. We never get to know the deceased well enough to understand why they would make such a terrible decision, but the movie isn’t really interested in that. It focuses primarily on two conflicts: the struggle to maintain their blossoming careers despite having a baby to take care of, and Holly and Messer’s struggle against each other.

Messer is the technical director for Atlanta Hawks games. As he describes his job, the director announces the camera number, and Messer pushes the button for that camera. It’s unglamorous, but he works hard, has good instincts, and wants to sit in the director’s chair someday. He doesn’t want to give it up for a baby that’s not even his. On the other hand, Holly wants this life and is more than willing to sacrifice her bakery’s restaurant expansion because she can’t afford the time or money it would take to achieve it. Still, Holly seems disappointed about the whole thing—she has the life she thinks she wants, but not in the way she wanted to get it, and not at the expense of her thriving business.

When Life as We Know It loses interest in the characters’ lives and occupations, it loses momentum and becomes far too one-sided. Initially portrayed as ambitious and self-absorbed, the screenplay eventually decides to have Holly start sacrificing as much as possible to make Messer look like a villain. Unfortunately, it only serves to make Holly seem extremely self-righteous. She never really exhibits any of the warmth or compassion necessary to sell this idea that she wants to raise Sophie. Like Messer, she merely ends up not doing a lot of things she would have otherwise done (like the business expansion) and doesn’t seem particularly happy about it. She’s doing it out of obligation, not love—just like Messer. The film could have made this more balanced, bringing them together romantically out of this shared sense of frustrated obligation. It may not be the stuff of treacly rom-coms, but at least it’s sort of interesting.

The movie treads a lot of the same ground covered in 2007’s Knocked Up, and having Heigl in one of the central roles makes the comparison unavoidable. Knocked Up explored its characters in fairly nuanced, unexpected ways that made it rise above what could have been a sappy romantic comedy. Life as We Know It starts out on the same path but loses interest in the characters as people. It forces a relationship that never feels natural, turning them into plot devices that do a disservice to all the good material in the first hour. Also, it contains an unending number of vomit and poop jokes. Sorry, filmmakers—that’s just never going to be funny.

All in all, Life as We Know It has a decent first half that’s undermined to the point of self-destruction by its second half. It’s too bad nobody involved was brave enough to risk a more interesting exploration of the characters—this really could have been something special.

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Sword of Desperation [Hisshiken torisashi] (2010)

If you love Yasujirô Ozu, Sword of Desperation may impress you. The film pays such attentive homage to Ozu’s style that it could easily be mistaken for one of his films. On that level, it’s an impressive work. However, it’s a work that’s all borrowed style and no substance.

The film opens with a murder. Kanemi Sanzaemon (Etsushi Toyokawa), a highly regarded swordsman, approaches concubine Renko (Megumi Seki) after a domain-sponsored Noh performance and stabs her, seemingly in cold blood. Instead of having him killed, the domain council strips him of his rank and reduces his rice salary.

Flashbacks surround Kanemi’s self-imposed exile, illuminating the reasons for his murder. It seems Renko’s growing influence on Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami), the domain’s lord, upset the balance. Her insistence on wasting domain money on decadence while the peasants starved frustrated the councilmen. Kanemi, fully aware of the dishonor of his actions, felt compelled to act for the good of the domain.

Sword of Destiny loses interest in the story of a flawed but (somewhat) just antihero about halfway through. It seems like fireworks will go off when Kanemi is called from his exile to work as a servant for Tabu, but that never happens. The film, instead, gets distracted with a fairly ridiculous, vaguely mystical swordfight between Kanemi and Lord Obiya (Koji Kikkawa), who opposes Tabu’s policies and plans a coup. Kanemi is warned early on what Obiya has planned, and it’s strongly hinted that he can regain his honor by picking up the sword and saving Tabu’s life.

The entire third act descends into an orgy of violence that not only loses sight of its characters and the initial, compelling conflicts of the film—it loses sight of story and theme. The first half has virtually nothing to do with the second, aside from extending an odd romantic subplot involving Kanemi and his niece-in-law, Rio (Chizuru Ikewaki), whose husband rejected her. However, this subplot takes a backseat to the wanton, unearned violence and ends in an abrupt, unsatisfying scene.

Aping Ozu’s style doesn’t exactly help the film’s cause. Every moment of the film is slow and methodical, attempting to mine suspense—as Ozu did—through the intense focus on mundane action and ominous shots of nature (gloomy skies and windblown trees). The almost obsessive attention to detail makes the raucous violence of the last half hour feel like a cheap way to end what started as a sober, reflective film. It’s tonally jarring in a way that’s more frustrating than a compelling defiance of convention.

The film’s style also undermines the fact that the screenplay does not have nearly the same laser-like focus as director Hideyuki Hirayama. Perhaps if more time had been spent giving the story a more natural arc instead of lingering on shots of servants opening and closing rice-paper doors, the film would have worked better overall.

Ultimately, the best part of Sword of Desperation is Toyokawa’s intense performance. I just wish a performance that good could have found a place in a better movie.

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Asleep in the Sun [Dormir al Sol] (2010)

Surrealism is a tricky thing. There’s an incredibly fine line that an artist must walk in order to achieve an end product that combines dream-like logic with heady, symbolic imagery. Play things too “weird for weird’s sake,” and you risk alienating the audience. Play things too real, and you risk a film that’s filled with an assortment of inexplicable character changes and plot twists that are explained away with the shrug of dream-like strangeness. Asleep in the Sun, for all its ambition and beautiful imagery, walks the line but stumbles a little too much to fully achieve its goals.

The film tells the story of Lucio (Luis Machín), a loving husband and unemployed watchmaker in 1930s Argentina. His wife, Diana (Esther Goris), is suffering from something unknown. By description, it sounds like bipolar disorder, but nobody ever describes her problem in clinical terms—not even the doctors. Her growing obsession with dogs—specifically, dogs that Diana believes can talk to her—leads Lucio to reluctantly confine her to a “phrenopathic institute” run by the shadowy Dr. Reger Samaniego (Carlos Belloso).

It’s around this time that the word “Kafkaesque” comes into play. What first seems like an ordinary sanitarium starts to seem like a labyrinthine prison. Lucio starts to get a sense that Diana is trapped there, held against her will by a doctor who refuses to see him. Samaniego’s assistant, Dr. Campolongo (Héctor Díaz), talks in circles eerily reminiscent of The Trial, which confuses and frustrates Lucio. When he finally meets Samaniego, the good doctor subtly implies mental illness is a contagious disease, and that Lucio is likely infected and should voluntarily commit himself, as well. Just when Lucio is prepared to sue the institute, he receives the call that Diana will be released.

When she returns home, Diana seems subtly different. She confuses the names of family members, her cooking isn’t up to par, she grows increasingly obsessed with reading her old diaries, and—most tellingly for Lucio—she suddenly enjoys fellatio. Lucio’s fear and suspicion mounts. He returns to the hospital to confront Samaniego, and that’s when things get really weird.

Unfortunately, writer/director Alejandro Chomski makes two grave miscalculations that undermine the film’s dream-like qualities: too much foreshadowing, and too much “realism.” The film has a few echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth in its attempts to ground a fantastical story in a brutal reality, but it doesn’t pay dividends here. It simply makes Lucio’s actions in the third act seem really out of character and boneheaded. The inconsistency is pretty much chalked up to, “It’s surreal—it doesn’t have to make sense.”

However, it’s stuck in the center of a precarious plot that’s not surreal enough to betray the characters’ previous behavior, yet isn’t grounded enough in believability to be accepted as some sort of convoluted science-fiction. Numerous twists pile up in the last 20 minutes, but they’re too predictable (because of all the foreshadowing) and/or too inconceivable to make the film satisfying as a whole. The end result is a bit of a disappointing mess.

Despite the big problems with the third act, the film is loaded with elements worth admiring. It boasts great performances all around, anchored by Machín, whose doleful eyes create palpable despair that make him easy to root for even when he’s acting like an inexplicable idiot. Chomski and cinematographer Sol Lopatin create gorgeous images that make the film easy on the eyes even when it’s hard on the logic centers. Several early dialogue scenes impressively evoke the absurd, circular illogic of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. Lots to admire, but ultimately it doesn’t hold together.

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Golden Slumber [Goruden suranba] (2010)

Two men see each other across a busy street. They were once the best of friends, but they haven’t seen each other much since college. They share a meal, catch up on old times, and park a few blocks away from where the Prime Minister’s motorcade will be heading down the main street of Sendai. That’s when Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) reluctantly explains to Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) all of the following: he impregnated a slot jockey, fell into massive debt, and went to the yakuza to bail him out. His final assignment: bring Aoyagi to the site of the Prime Minister’s assassination, to let him be this plot’s Lee Harvey Oswald.

Before Aoyagi can ask any follow-up questions, a bomb explodes (both literally and figuratively), and he’s on the run. The propulsive opening scenes of Golden Slumber introduce a film that’s unwilling to pigeonhole itself in any genre. Part conspiracy thriller, part action, part comedy, and part romantic drama, writer/director Yoshihiro Nakamura does a great job balancing tonal shifts that would have seemed jarring or unearned in less skilled hands.

Why Aoyagi? As characters frequently point out throughout the film, it’s all about image. Two years earlier, the mild-mannered deliveryman became a minor celebrity when he rescued pop star Rinka (Shihori Kanjiya) from a burglar. Aoyagi eventually theorizes that people like it when a hero falls from grace. Suddenly, Aoyagi finds himself teaming up with a mobster (Yasushi Hodogaya) and a serial killer (Gaku Hamada) in order to elude authorities and attempt to clear his name.

In the midst of the chaos is a much more complex story about friendships in decay. Years ago, in college, Aoyagi and Morita formed the Food Culture Research Club with friends Haruko (Yuko Takeuchi) and Kazu (Gekidan Hitori). Well-utilized flashbacks explore the closeness of their past and contrast it—quite starkly, at times—with their present-day fragmentation. Although they all remain in Sendai, their lives have pushed them away from each other. The assassination conspiracy forces Aoyagi to return to Haruko and Kazu for help. Nakamura shows no fear in portraying this as a difficult, awkward experience for all involved. This is a group with many unresolved issues, which need to be confronted head-on in order for Aoyagi to survive. For the characters, this dynamic serves as a wonderful core that instantly makes them more interesting than they would be otherwise.

Mostly, though, the film is a fast-paced thriller with some great comedic moments. Take, for instance, the moment a terrified Aoyagi returns to his apartment to watch news coverage of the assassination. He learns the Prime Minister was killed by a bomb planted inside a radio-controlled helicopter. “The assassin,” the newsreader declares, “must be very experienced with RC helicopters.” The film then cuts to Aoyagi’s reaction, and for the first time we discover a wall filled with RC helicopters. They, of course, belong to his girlfriend (Saki Aibu), whom Morita has warned him not to trust. “Has she ever told you to hand out flyers?” he asked Aoyagi, deftly referencing Lee Harvey Oswald’s alleged activism.

The film also includes one of the most novel character traits I’ve ever seen in a chase-filled thriller: the main character is a deliveryman, with unparalleled knowledge of Sendai’s nooks and crannies. As a criminal, Aoyagi’s inept—because he’s not one—but a deliveryman is probably the only “citizen” who could flee the authorities with such resourcefulness.

Golden Slumber, for all its charms, is just a tad overstuffed with subplots and characters. It overstays its welcome at 140 minutes, but not by much. Moments and even entire characters could be cut without impacting the story, but it’s still a tremendously entertaining film. Even the extraneous material form pieces in a large, eminently satisfying puzzle.

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