Facing East

Teresa on J-Pop in The Guardian--fantastic article!
War Is Hell Is Other People

Air Doll After a decade and a half making movies, Hirokazu Koreeda is looking more and more like one of Japan's key contemporary directors. Here, he takes a Pinocchio-as-inflatable-sex-doll premise and steers it in directions as provocative and poignant as Spielberg navigated A.I.. Major credit goes to Bae Doona as Nozomi, the titular pleasure object come to disoriented life. She's as physically expressive, and as convincingly naive, as a silent film comedienne. And, ultimately, she breaks your heart. Tokyo--murky and grey in the work of many of Koreeda's peers, most notably Kiyoshi Kurosawa--has never looked lovelier on screen.

Chloe Oddly enough, this delivered the camp goods promised (but not delivered) by last year's forgettable Fatal Attraction riff/Beyonce-as-actress vehicle, Obsessed. In that spirit, this is a keeper and one worth returning to on cable, if not necessarily paying to rent. As an entry in Atom Egoyan's ouevre, well...let's just say I hope he was compensated well and that he'll put those funds toward some worthy "one-for-me." Now, to be sure, many of Egoyan's signature themes--dark familial undercurrents, taboo sex, snow--are very much in play here, and it's easy to understand why (besides the paycheck) he decided to direct this remake of a French flick called Nathalie. But anyone hoping for the understated poetry and structural fluidity of Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter will almost certainly be disappointed. Instead, we get a surprisingly restrained Julianne Moore (I kept waiting for her to go all pharmacy-scene-from-Magnolia but it never happened), a juicier big screen role for Amanda Seyfried (who can't quite make the most of it), and an off-the-rails climax that vaults us from Eyes Wide Shut lite to Showgirls sublime.

City of Life and Death Lu Chuan's sprawling account of the Japanese occupation of Nanking must instantly be considered among the greatest war films ever made. Its battle sequences are as brutally, skillfully choreographed as Saving Private Ryan's, and yet it's superior to Spielberg's WWII film, more grittily authentic in its feel, more harrowing in its impact. In fact, in its unflinching depiction of the torture and rape carried out by the Japanese troops, Chuan's film calls to mind none other than Pasolini's Salo. Which is to say, not easy to sit through--but absolutely essential.

Greenberg I know it's only April, but I'll go out on a limb by saying that I'll be very surprised to see a more fascinating or fully-realized performance this year than Ben Stiller's here. On paper, Greenberg sounds like an extended version of that part in Annie Hall where Woody Allen's Alvy goes to L.A. And yet, thanks to Stiller's career-redefining work (plus a superb turn by Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach's impressive maturation behind the camera, and subtly gorgeous cinematography by the always awesome Harris Savides) the result is a rather profound commentary on loneliness, neediness, and growing older--you know, the stuff that makes us human and, more precisely, the stuff that often makes being human so goddamn annoying. The final scene is perfect; it's not a happy ending in the usual sense, but its open-endedness--like Scarlett Johansson whispering something in Bill Murray's ear or Julie Delpy cooing "Baby, you are gonna miss that plane" and Ethan Hawke responding "I know" or, for that matter, Mariel Hemingway telling Woody Allen "You've got to have faith in people"--suggests a cautious optimism and allows these characters to live on after the credits have finished rolling.

She's Out of My League This, on the other hand, treads in more conventional boy-meets-girl territory, but that doesn't mean it's not worth its weight in popcorn. What separates this one from inferior romantic comedies (besides that it's maybe the funniest since Knocked Up) is the details: Nate Torrence's scene-stealing turn as a Disney-referencing non-cussing married friend and the inspired decision to shoot the film on location in Pittsburgh--a city most people associate with steel and bridges and steel bridges--plus actually making it work as a romantic locale. Between this and last year's terrific Adventureland, the folks working for Pittsburgh's tourism department have got to be thanking their lucky stars.

24 City I finally caught Jia Zhang-ke's latest through Pacific Cinematheque's Jia retrospective. Following Still Life (my favorite Jia work to date, edging Platform by a hair), Jia seems to have grown (temporarily?) tired of traditional narrative structure and slick digital compositions. 24 City, like the excellent, underseen Useless, eschews standard notions of plot and character in favor of a documentary mode that, particularly in 24 City, registers closely with Kiarostami's later work. Jia's career-long investigation of his country's rapidly changing dynamics here feels also in tune with the Tsai Ming-liang of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, with a state aeronautics factory converted into a luxury condo complex substituting for Tsai's closing Taipei movie house. There's a pervasive sense of you-can't-go-home-again, a sort of conflicted wistfulness, shot through the interviews (some "real" with former factory workers, some staged with actors like Joan Chen and Jia muse Zhao Tao standing in) and musical montages that form this uniquely shaped masterpiece.