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"United Red Army" + Vampires, Sequels and More

Of course there'll be another roundup on The Tree of Life. But first, let's give a little breathing room to some of the other films opening this Memorial Day Weekend.

"The extreme leftists of the 1960s and 70s who sought to change the world one bomb at a time might have been unhappy to know that their revolutionary legacy is doing nice business at that bourgeois temple, the art house," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "It's a legacy that in recent years and specifically since 9/11 has been romanticized and critiqued in movies like The Motorcycle Diaries (a prehistory involving the young Che Guevara); Che (about his campaigns in Cuba and Bolivia); The Baader Meinhof Complex (German leftists who embraced violence); Good Morning, Night (the kidnapping of the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades); Carlos (the Venezuelan Marxist turned mercenary). United Red Army tells much the same story, this time from inside Japan. Directed by Koji Wakamatsu, a longtime maker of soft-core erotica and a professed former member of the radical left, the 190-minute movie opens with an extended section that seeks to put the militarism of the Japanese left in (limited) context. With blurred documentary images, voice-over and on-screen text, Mr Wakamatsu and his fellow writers sketch a familiar story of dissatisfied 1960s youth fired up by local and global events."

J Hoberman in the Voice: "At the heart of the movie are the prolonged, increasingly violent, self-criticism sessions — an escalating, claustrophobic, paranoid reign of terror, staged in near-darkness and shown in close-up. Day by day, the group tore itself apart, beating and eventually executing its supposed heretics. In the film's final 45 minutes, five survivors take over a ski lodge where, still in the grip of an insane ideology ('The cookie you just ate is a counterrevolutionary symbol'), they battle the police for 10 days."

This Asama Sanso Mountain Lodge "incident proved to be the last gasp for the United Red Army, but as a coda makes clear, it was hardly the end of Japanese left activity," writes Andrew Schenker in Slant. "Returning to the endless deluge of information that opened the film, Wakamatsu updates the chronicle of revolutionary action through the present, detailing the 30 years of violent activity perpetrated by the United's successor, the Japanese Red Army. History, a tangled mass of facts and figures, marches inexorably on, but when looked at closely, Wakamatsu suggests, its players are either hapless dupes or murderous autocrats. Every bit as brutal and authoritarian as the militant right the director would expose in his 2010 film Caterpillar, the radical left may have begun with finer, even downright noble, intentions, but they fell happily into the same cycles of unproductive violence. Through his inconsistent, but fascinating film, Wakamatsu's achievement is to show us how that violence can turn as easily inward as it does out, destroying its own members as surely as any imperialist oppressor."

More from Christopher Bell (Playlist), Joe Bendel, Violet Lucca (L) and Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 3/5); and Daniel Kasman reviewed United Red Army when it screened at the Berlinale in 2008. At the IFC Center in New York.

There's a film out in Japan this week that has Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling thinking of of United Red Army again, Nobuhiro Yamashita's My Back Pages, "a rambling but grippingly nuanced drama based on autobiographical nonfiction by essayist, translator and film critic Saburo Kawamoto…. Instead of the straight-ahead, deep-immersion approach of Wakamatsu's film, Yamashita tells his story from a more oblique angle. His hero is Sawada (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a naive young journalist writing for a weekly magazine and feeling out of place among his harder-headed (if not hard-hearted) seniors…. Yamashita, who is best known abroad for the dryly funny, rousingly energetic teen dramady Linda Linda Linda (2005), is not the most obvious director for this material, but from his start as a maker of zero-budget indie comedies (2000's Hazy Life and 2003's No One's Ark and Ramblers), he has been good at capturing not only grubby absurdities but also morally gray complexities."

 



"European and American arthouse directors have embraced the vampire genre," announces Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. Among the upcoming projects he mentions in his roundup: Jim Jarmusch's as-yet-untitled "crypto-vampire love story" (Jarmusch's own description) will feature Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton and Mia Wasikowska; Dario Argento's Dracula 3D, with Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing and Thomas Kretschmann "likely to play the Count"; and Neil Jordan's Byzantium, with Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton. "Another vampire-themed film that has quickly assumed cult status is We Are the Night, a German horror-thriller that tells the story of 18-year-old Lena, who is bitten by Louise, leader of a female vampire trio that are 'as deadly as they are beautiful.' Lena's newfound vampiric lifestyle is initially exhilarating — a whirling, hedonistic round of parties and excitement. But then she falls in love with an undercover cop and begins to regret her outlaw existence. This is as much a film about trendy young Berliners as it is a traditional vampire picture."

Writing in the L, Benjamin Mercer finds 37-year-old German director Dennis Gansel's film is "something like a bubblegum version of the recent Mexican cannibal film We Are What We Are, which also seemed to hold a too-high opinion of its own junior-varsity provocations. At least We Are the Night has anarchic energy to burn." More from Joe Bendel, Jesse Cataldo (Slant, 1.5/4), Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT) and Mark Holcomb (Voice).

We Are the Night plays at Brooklyn's ReRun Gastropub Theater with Ganzel's German box office hit The Wave, "a fist-pumping political allegory delivered with more conviction than subtlety," as Jeannette Catsoulis sees it in the NYT.

 



"The marvelous Argentinean actor María Onetto is adept at playing women whose facades are on the verge of crumbling in ways evident to the audience, even if the characters around them don't notice," writes Alison Willmore at the AV Club. "Puzzle, the feature debut of writer-director Natalia Smirnoff, isn't as ambitious, confounding, or excellent as the last film in which Onetto appeared on US screens, Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman. But it does offer another showcase for Onetto to have what's essentially an unnoticed breakdown amid an affectionate but oblivious family."

"Up until its finale, and aside from the fact that it's set in Spain rather than France and concerns jigsaw puzzles rather than chess, Puzzle is so similar to the recent Queen to Play that one half-suspects that the two films' directors shared notes before going into production," suggests Nick Schager in Slant. "Like that Gallic fantasy of female self-actualization, Natalia Smirnoff's film concerns an unhappy housewife, María (María Onetto), whose life of domestic servitude — so severe that she's first introduced waiting on guests at her own 50th birthday party — is forever shaken by a sudden fixation with piecing together 1000-piece puzzles."

Nick Pinkerton in the Voice: "Her new hobby leads her to a gentleman puzzle-enthusiast (Arturo Goetz) who's looking for a partner to take on the world championship, and she begins to sneak off and covertly train with him. The self-esteem booster shot provided by the sudden discovery of a prodigious talent is conveyed in a shy, self-surprised amusement by Onetto, accompanied by the slightest loosening of the joints. The storytelling is as unassertive as its protagonist — and likewise gets its way in the end."

More from Stephen Holden (NYT), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 3/5) and James van Maanen.

 

SEQUELS


Eric Hynes in the Voice: "Most sequels are born of good box office rather than good ideas — if you build it and they come, you simply must build another one — but it's hard to imagine a more calculating, creatively bankrupt piece of real estate than The Hangover Part II. Trade out Las Vegas for Bangkok, a tiger for a monkey, a lactating hooker for a trannie stripper, a missing tooth for a face tattoo, and you've got Todd Phillips's rote, dispiriting replica of his own surprise smash hit."

For Glenn Kenny, writing at MSN Movies, "it's not all that much of a stretch to see this film, like its predecessor, as a sour and ostensibly humorous fable of white male privilege withheld and then regained, and this film does an even worse job of disguising its resentment over the withholding part than the first one did." More from Matt Bochenski (Little White Lies), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 1/5), Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 1.5/4), Manohla Dargis (NYT), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 2/4), Bilge Ebiri (Nashville Scene), Nigel Floyd (Time Out London, 1/5), Mary Pols (Time), Anthony Quinn (Independent, 2/5), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, B), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 4/5), Marc Savlov (Austin Chronicle, 2/5), Nick Schager (Slant, 1.5/4), Dana Stevens (Slate), Adam Sweeting (Arts Desk), Drew Taylor (Playlist), Daniel Walber (Spout), Lindy West (Stranger), Armond White (New York Press) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 4/10). And everyone who's seen it will tell you that David Poland's video interview with Phillips is far more entertaining that the movie.

 



AO Scott in the NYT: "The first Kung Fu Panda, released in 2008, was a rambunctious, whimsical blend of action, jokiness and sentiment, lifted above the kiddie-cartoon mean by its shiny, playful look and [Jack] Black's endlessly adaptable charm. The movie was also a big enough hit to make it unthinkable that DreamWorks Animation, which ran poor Shrek into the ground, would let it stand alone. So the studio worked up this sequel, which accomplishes the depressingly familiar mathematical trick of being both more and less than its predecessor."

Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom "has a bafflingly obvious, fundamental structural flaw," argues Tasha Robinson at the AV Club. "The opening sequence gives the ending away." Sure, it "remains visually beautiful and strikingly designed, but otherwise, it’s a surprise in all the wrong ways." More from Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle, 3/5), Richard Corliss (Time), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5/4), Glenn Heath Jr (Slant, 2/4), Jesse Hassenger (L), Janice Page (Boston Globe, 2.5/4), Nick Schager (Voice), Keith Uhlich (TONY, 3/5) and Scott Weinberg (Twitch). Nicole Sperling profiles director Jennifer Yuh Nelson for the Los Angeles Times.

 

BRIEFLY


"Mirroring the way that many gay men adopted the film The Wizard of Oz as a potent cultural totem, frizzy-haired, white, adolescent hermaphrodite Spork ('neither spoon nor fork') embraces the all-black remake The Wiz (critically maligned upon release, adding to its underdog allure) as her personal touchstone, eventually coming to really grasp its tagline 'Believe in yourself.'" Ernest Hardy in the Voice: "Spork is slack in pacing and energy, never rising to its ambition of over-the-top outrageousness (its racial stereotypes are offensive mainly for being so tired) and never fully hitting its marks emotionally." More from Mike Hale (NYT) and Paul Schrodt (Slant, 1.5/4).

"In Tied to a Chair, Naomi (Bonnie Loren) is an unhappily married middle-aged woman whose acting dreams are tightly intertwined with her erotic bondage fantasies," begins Diego Costa in Slant. "So she flees miserable domesticity to the poolside glamour of the Cannes Film Festival, where she tries to convince filmmaker Billy Rust (Mario Van Peebles, still hot at 54) to cast her in his next film as a bondage-loving lady…. Bonnie Loren brings a kind of spunk to the material that evokes Miranda July. But instead of pursuing quirkiness, director and writer Michael Bergmann oversaturates the narrative with an unhealthy amount of plot twists that drive the film closer to botched comedy than intelligent spoof."

"Michael and I go way back," concedes the New Yorker's Richard Brody. "But, here, in talking about his new film, there’s no need to put aside what I know of the filmmaker in order to take a clear look at his film; rather, the film is, for all of its extraordinarily genre-centric and movie-referential mannerisms, as personal a film as is being made these days — if we think, aptly, of the personal cinema in terms of the classic-age auteurs whose self-portraits emerged from the limits and the conventions of their own genres." More from Nick Schager (Voice); at Big Cinemas Manhattan.

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