The surprise winner (as we are all obliged to call it) of this year’s Oscar for foreign film, the Japanese Departures, is somewhat less surprising when you see it. That’s not to say it’s a better film than the betting favorites, The Class and Waltz with Bashir, only to say we’re talking about the Oscars. They’ve done much worse. Their anointed film is without apology in the sentimental mode, a classification currently out of fashion if never, secretly, out of favor. Directed by the veteran Yojiro Takita, none of whose films (over forty credits on imdb.com) has come around till now, it tells of a laid-off cellist, self-admittedly second-rate, who returns from Tokyo to his hometown and answers an ambiguously worded want ad — “working with departures” — expecting something like a travel agency and finding instead an “encoffining” service, preparing corpses for burial in front of an audience of their survivors: “It’s a niche market.” The vocation, though taken to with initial distaste, turns out to be a tailor-made cinematic spectacle — a testament to the Japanese capacity to transform a chore into a ritual and an art — and the little drolleries of the awkward early stages do not prepare us for such breathless high points as the first time we see the old master at work on a body or the first time the squeamish wife sees her husband, the new apprentice, at the same work. If, especially in those early stages, the apprentice is a bit overacted by Masahiro Motoki, a bit pop-eyed and drop-jawed, he is more than made up for by the restraint, the repose, the composure of his master, Tsutomu Yamazaki, a face familiar from the works of Juzo Itami, The Funeral, Tampopo, A Taxing Woman. I’m not sure the emotional effect wouldn’t have been more powerful, or at least met with less resistance, without the syrupy background music. But that’s just part of the all-over lack of apology. Manipulation the film may be, but deft manipulation.
Little Ashes asks us to take an interest in three pretentious students in post-WWI Spain on the grounds that their names are Federico García Lorca, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dalí. Inasmuch as all three are dark young men of similar age, it would be difficult to tell them apart if one of them, Dalí, were not Robert Pattinson, easily distinguishable as the teen vampire of Twilight, and did not wear ruffled cuffs and collar. The other two are Javier Beltrán and Matthew McNulty, Lorca and Buñuel respectively, and less distinguishable. It gets easier to keep them straight, so to speak, once Dalí and Lorca pair off for homoerotic escapades such as an idyllic spin on stolen bicycles and a slo-mo moonlight swim. Buñuel further sets himself apart by throwing a homophobic snit fit and drifting off to Paris, where he will soon be joined by the fickle Dalí to make an out-of-sequence Chien Andalou. (The sliced eyeball should come first.) Lorca ultimately achieves heroic stature in the Spanish Civil War, while Dalí settles for hypocritical stature. Cognoscenti might get an occasional chuckle out of it (Lorca to Buñuel: “I thought you wanted to be an entomologist”) as long as they don’t mind the air of condescension.
Outrage, a talking-heads movie of many, many heads, or in other words not much of a movie, is a piece of advocacy journalism by Kirby Dick, a name-naming witch hunt to ferret out closeted gay politicians (Larry Craig, Charlie Crist, David Dreier, et al.) who in public life work against the cause of gay rights. This, to whatever extent it exists, never mind whatever extent it can be proven, is of course an interesting phenomenon worth examining and understanding, though Dick prefers to skim over the examining and the understanding in order to get down to the condemning. With the aid of allies, tattletales, and gaydar, he states a strong case. Or anyhow he states the case strongly.
Up, a computer cartoon from Pixar, weaves a web of delusional whimsy around a cantankerous old widower, not too dissimilar to Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, determined to live out the dream and the adventure he denied to his lifelong soul mate. To that end, he attaches a forest of helium balloons to his two-story house and sets sail for South America, specifically Paradise Falls, “a Land Lost in Time,” the stomping ground of his boyhood idol, an intrepid globe-trotter out of Jules Verne. (If party balloons can serve as a means of intercontinental transport, we can hardly be surprised at finding the boyhood idol still alive and kicking. Or at anything else.) This literal flight of fancy and its touchdown in “paradise” might have been taken as a metaphor of suicide were it not for the roly-poly little stowaway, a Wilderness Explorer in quest of a merit badge for Assisting the Elderly, presumably not including assisted suicide. He assists, rather, in a new lease on life: geriatric swashbuckling. (The old man, voiced by Ed Asner, bears an unmistakable likeness to the Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, and the kid, Jordan Nagai, is a Baby Buddha.) There seems no intrinsic reason for the insipid graphic style, the vacuum-sealed atmosphere, or the general feel of marshmallow and Styrofoam; no reason, that is, outside the limits of taste and talent among the Pixar people. The one glaring success in the picture is the oversized wide-eyed multicolored exotic bird, its resistance to anthropomorphization, its intractable maniacal birdiness.
Drag Me to Hell is a Sam Raimi horror film for those who like their sadism to be gleeful. An old-fashioned gypsy curse, cast by an old gypsy of unprecedented repulsiveness (rotten dentures, coughed-up phlegm, milky eye, etc.), falls upon a girlish loan officer (Alison Lohman) who already has enough troubles in her life — a glass ceiling at the bank, her boyfriend’s disapproving mother — without the upchucked insects, the projectile nosebleed, the sacrificed kitten, and so forth. It’s all in a spirit of fun, looking for laughs as much as chills, though both searches somehow taking away from the other. The philosophical debate between the psychologist boyfriend (Justin Long) and an Indian fortune teller (Dileep Rao), strictly for laughs, may be the least adulterated scene in the movie.