What if our current financial crisis owed its genesis less to greed than the boredom that comes when millionaires and billionaires tire of all their cool toys? Chronic ennui certainly is one of things motivating asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) in “Cosmopolis.” Seemingly on a whim, the 28-year-old mogul bets his company’s assets on a swing, one way or the other, in the Chinese yuan. Writer/director David Cronenberg equates the potentially calamitous trade to the banality of Packer driving across town in a stretch limo, simply to get his hair cut by his dad’s barber. Along the way, Packer conducts business from a throne-like chair inside the vehicle, while a diverse array of business associates and hired hands pass through its doors. These include his proctologist, longtime systems geek (Jay Baruchel), art dealer/mistress (Juliette Binoche), theorist (Samantha Mathis) and other leaches. When he does exit the limo, it’s to dine with his newest blond accessory, Elise (Sarah Gadon), who he recently married and has made love to approximately once since the wedding. This hasn’t prevented him from seeking relief in other directions, however. Complicating his journey to the old-fashioned barbershop is a mob of anarchists, led by an almost unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric, protesting the arrival of the President for a financial summit. Packer takes their violent disruption in stride, not even blinking as they spray-paint his limousine and shake rats – the new symbol of currency – outside his window. Indeed, the only time he gets noticeably upset is when his appointment is disturbed, rushing out of the shop with only half of his scalp groomed. Finally, Packer confronts a grubby little creep (Paul Giamatti) who’s been stalking him since morning. They kill the wee hours of the morning exchanging poorly aimed bullets with each other and debating economics.
Cronenberg adapted “Cosmopolis” from a 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, who claims to have been inspired by both the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000 and a re-reading of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” As timely as the morning newspaper, the book might as well have been published yesterday. DeLillo’s novels have defied easy adaptation for decades and Cronenberg was up to the challenge. After making three comparatively accessible dramas — “A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises” and “A Dangerous Method” – he probably was itching to swim outside the mainstream. “Cosmopolis” is as abstract as the paintings Packer collects like so many baseball cards. Then, too, Pattison must have been anxious to take on something more substantial than the “Twilight” saga. He’s easily recognizable as the 28-year-old financial wunderkind who seemingly has the world on a string, but, this time, may have pushed his luck a bit too far. By once again pin-pointing and exploiting the horror in contemporary life, Cronenberg has painted an apocalyptic scenario devoid of nuclear weapons, toxic pollution and religious fanaticism, unless one considers the accumulation of capital to be blessed by the deity. Typically, he’s also populated Packer’s world with A-list actors willing to go the extra mile for him. As usual, Giamatti is splendid as the paranoid would-be assassin and Gadon defines the term, “icy blond,” for today’s generation of actors. Even so, it’s Binoche who stops time with her sizzling take on Packer’s mistress, as she slithers on the floor of his limo suggesting additions to his art collection. “Cosmopolis” isn’t for everyone, including those fans who’ve admired his previous work. Those able to make it through this very difficult movie will want to stick around for the making-of featurette and sample the commentary, at least. – Gary Dretzka
Time travel has been a staple of speculative-fiction for as long as the genre has existed in print and on the screen. Once Jules Verne and H.G. Welles proved there was a market for such scenarios and the Industrial Revolution introduced prototypes of the machinery to accomplish such feats, readers were encouraged to imagine themselves tripping through time and visiting faraway planets. Filmmakers were happy to oblige the conceit, as well. It wasn’t until Rod Serling created “The Twilight Zone” that viewers would be asked to ponder such ethical dilemmas as, “If you could travel back in time to kill Adolf Hitler at birth, would you?” — that things got really complicated. Maybe not, if there was a possibility that even worse monsters – someone with the wherewithal to destroy his enemies with nuclear bombs, perhaps — were waiting in the wings.
In Rian Johnson’s futuristic action thriller, “Looper,” a somewhat less ghastly, if no less fascinating conundrum presents itself. Sometime in the entirely recognizable mid- to late-21st Century, time-travel not only will be possible, but it also will be deemed dangerous enough to be outlawed by the government, along with many less sophisticated criminal activities, such as the illegal disposal of bodies. To solve both problems gangsters use stolen time-travel technology to dispose of their enemies and their bodies simultaneously. This is accomplished by sending a “rat” or turncoat back in time – 30 years, to be exact – and arranging to have that person murdered within seconds of his arrival in a pre-determined location, where no one will be watching and the body can be easily buried. The ell-paid assassin assigned the task by a more permanent visitor from the future. A trusted lieutenant of the mob boss, or his doppelganger, one, would already be in place to make the arrangements for these hits and ensure they occur as planned. Otherwise, nothing could prevent a criminal with 30 years’ worth of mob history stored in his memory bank to wreak havoc with the organization, while also amassing a perfectly legal fortune on Wall Street. Such a scenario plays out twice in close succession in “Looper.” Instead of immediately killing the time-traveler when he appears on the edge of a corn field, the assassin Seth, gives the intended victim just enough time to divert his attention and escape. Panic ensues in the criminal underworld, until the runaway can be gunned down and the bounty strapped to his back can be recovered. (If all goes as planned, the looper would use the bounty to enjoy the next 30 years of his life, when the process either would repeat itself or the killer simply would vaporize.) This is what plays out in the first half-hour of “Looper,” when Young Seth (Paul Dano) fails to shoot Old Seth (Frank Brennan) and Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is subsequently assigned to murder both Seths and his own self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), who also managed to piss off a mob boss. And, yes, Old Joe escapes, as well.
The rest of the movie plays out largely in a wild series of chases in cities and their rural surroundings. Not only does Young Joe commit his resources to killing Old Joe, but the emissary of the mob (Jeff Daniels) sends out teams of hitmen to wipe out both Joes, as well. Got that? It’s not as complicated as it sounds. The action is well-choreographed and lots of fun to watch. In a bizarro sit-down between the Joes, Old Joe explains how things played out during the past 30 years of his life, so Young Joe can prepare for these events if he manages not to get caught by the gang or offed by his elder self. In either case, Young Joe is trapped in an existential pickle not of his making. As if that weren’t enough excitement for one movie, one of Old Joe’s prophesies comes true right before Young Joe’s eyes. While hiding out in the rural home of a self-sufficient woman (Emily Blunt), he begins to notice certain peculiarities in her son’s behavior. The closer they become, the more Young Joe begins to suspect the kid and Old Joe have some unfinished business with which to deal. Their business, of course, becomes his business when he finds himself in one of those would-you-kill-Hitler predicaments. After closing two “loops,” Young Joe is faced with another one, and it’s a doozy. No amount of spoiler alerts would give away the good parts of “Looper.” To borrow an explanation from Daniels’ crime lord: “This time-travel crap just fries your brain like an egg.” So, just sit back and enjoy the mayhem. The Blu-ray adds Johnson, Levitt and co-star Emily Blunt’s commentary; more than a half-hour of deleted scenes; three making-of and background featurettes; and animated trailer. – Gary Dretzka
A Man Vanishes
Surely one of the world’s great filmmakers during the latter half of the last century, two-time Palme d’Or-winning director Shohei Imamura remains largely unknown outside academic and critical circles in the United States. Such widely acclaimed pictures as “The Eel,” “Vengeance Is Mine,” “The Ballad of Narayama” and “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” received some exposure here, but not nearly as much as the contemporaneous work of fellow countryman Akira Kurosawa. Blessedly, the slack has been picked up in recent years by distributors of prestige DVDs. It took 45 years for “A Man Vanishes” to receive a very limited run in the U.S., followed shortly by the release of this multi-disc package from Icarus Films. At a time when the lines separating reality-based television and fiction have been completely and, perhaps, irrevocably blurred, this brilliant hybrid suggests that, like beauty, truth is in the eye of the beholder. Imamura begins here by examining an actual cold case of a married businessman’s mysterious disappearance – one of 91,000, we’re told – and giving viewers a cinéma vérité box seat on his investigation.
Everything else in the movie can best be described as “faction” or “truthiness.” Already known in Japan as a master documentarian, Imamura and his crew did what detectives do every day in real life and in TV series. They re-interviewed everyone mentioned in the two-years-cold police files, including his business associates, neighbors and wife, while also finding witnesses overlooked by police. The film’s framing and dark texture replicate actual documentary footage, so we’re naturally inclined to believe what we’re seeing and hearing. Moreover, we’re as interested in finding out what happened to the missing person as everyone else we meet. If Imamura leaves various “tells” as to the veracity of the investigation, they don’t add up to something tangible until he pulls the carpet from under our feet, completely, near the end. Even then, however, the actors remain in character. Today, fans of reality-based television tend to dismiss all available evidence that their favorite shows are, if not rigged, scripted to favor participants favored by network executives and advertisers. The passage of time hasn’t dulled the impact of “A Man Vanishes” one bit, however.
Also included in the box set are five factual documentaries Imamura made for Japanese television. Please don’t assume that I’m resorting to hyperbole when I suggest they are every bit as impressive as “A Man Vanishes” or any of Werner Herzog’s films, which they resemble. Three of them address the question of Japanese soldiers left behind in Thailand and Malaysia after World War II, either through negligence or by individual choice. Much of the material discussed in the interviews will come as a surprise to American viewers, whose only awareness of rank-and-file soldiers is that they willingly mistreated POWs and civilians when ordered and a few were so loyal to the Emperor that they failed to accept surrender for many years after the war’s end. Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” is closest most of us have come to understanding their motivations of Japanese troops, beyond blind obedience. “In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia” describes conditions for Japanese nationals before, during and after the takeover there, while “In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand” is far more disquieting. A conversation between three now-elderly and increasingly more intoxicated men includes graphic recollections of the systematic slaughter of innocent men, women and children under orders of their superiors. Even a quarter-century after the war, one of the men can’t bring himself to join the conversation, during which the horrid memories were disclosed spontaneously. The key figure in “Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home” is living a relatively normal life in rural Thailand when Imamura convinces him to return to his dramatically changed homeland. His bitterness over being left “unreturned” is palpable throughout, but what is truly heart-breaking is his learning what occurred in his absence. Based solely on the faulty memories of survivors in his platoon, Matsu had been officially declared dead, but for causes unrelated to the true circumstances of his wound. His brother used the declaration to steal property Matsu would have inherited and clear his conscience about ignoring his stated wishes that their sister would be supported financially if he died. Even after learning that Matsu was alive and living in Thailand, four years earlier, his brother failed to clear the record and make sure his pension was protected. Matsu also recounts how soldiers left behind on some islands actually believed that rescue ships would pick them up in 13 years and they should keep fighting.
Lest anyone think that human trafficking for the purposes of exploiting women sexually began with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the flood of kidnappings that followed, Imamura presents “Karayuki-San, the Making of a Prostitute” as evidence that it didn’t. We’ve already learned that the Emperor of Japan approved the enslavement of Korean women living in Japan for work in “comfort stations.” Other women, from other occupied territories, were required to fill the same role. Decades before the war, however, peasants – including the elderly karayuki-sans we meet in “Making of the Prostitute” — were lured to larger Japanese cities by promises of good-paying jobs. Instead, they were shipped to locations throughout Southeast Asia, where Japanese laborers and businessmen were living, and forced to work as sex slaves. Worse, the women were required to work off a phony debts incurred from the cost of bringing the women to the foreign brothels. Even when the debts were paid off, though, local prejudice and poverty forced the women to return to the brothels or open their own homes to clients. By the time they were introduced to Imamura, in the early 1970s, these lovely ladies were able to look back on the experience with clear eyes and recall good things that occurred in the wake of their servitude. They, like Matsu, were denied pensions and tickets back home.
In “The Pirates of Buban,” Imamura visits a remote region of the Philippines, where rival gangs of pirates ruled the seas and the government tended to leave them alone. One of the gangs is led by a well-armed former soldier whose peasant navy is constantly on guard for attacks by other marauders. Substantially less frightening is the leader of the closest rival gang. They live with their families in huts built on stilts over a lagoon protected by reefs. They exist solely on the fish they catch and flour made from cassava roots. More valuable specimens are sold at the market on a larger island, several hours from home, for gasoline and other raw materials. Today, western tourists would pay up to $500 a night for the same accommodations, but only if someone else cooked the fish and beat the toughness out of the octopi. Anyone who’s run out of Herzog titles to watch should find a lot to like in the “A Man Vanishes” set. – Gary Dretzka
The Trouble With Bliss
As credible as he is in the role of a vigilante killer in “Dexter,” Michael C. Hall is just that unbelievable as 35-year-old slacker Morris Bliss in “The Trouble With Bliss.” Or, maybe, it’s the character who’s unbelievable and Hall squeezed as much from Morris as there is to him. Either way, it’s too cute by half and I didn’t buy it. Morris shares a Manhattan apartment with his “daddy,” Seymour Bliss (Peter Fonda), who spends most of the movie reclining in a comfy chair in the living room. If Seymour’s too lazy to get out of the chair to get keys made and buy groceries, the chronically broke Morris is so depressed by death of his mother that he’s unable to retain any memory of his dad’s daily requests. Moreover, as unlikely as it is for Fonda to play a character named “Seymour Bliss,” it’s just that unlikely that Morris – who sleeps in his clothes and has an unkempt beard — would have a sexually promiscuous 18-year-old girlfriend. Still in prep school, Stephanie Stephanie (Brie Larson) just happens to be the daughter of one of Morris’ least favorite former classmates, a big galoot named “Jetski” (Brad William Henke). Stephanie not only gets Morris to agree to meet the folks over dinner, but she also gets him to commit to escorting her to the prom. If that scenario weren’t sufficiently unlikely, co-writer/director Michael Knowles and author Douglas Light add parallel storylines involving a friend (Chris Messina) who imagines himself to be a secret agent; a downstairs neighbor (Lucy Liu) that gets him in trouble with her muscular boyfriend; and a wealthy upstairs neighbor and landlord (Sarah Shahi) who moonlights as a homeless squatter occupying a building managed by Jetski. When he isn’t forgetting to pick up the groceries, Morris dreams of traveling to faraway places with strange-sounding names. All that’s needed for that to happen is the introduction of another convenient coincidence and a map to escape from this rain forest of mishegas? Probably, but only Hall’s diehard fans are likely to stick around long enough to see what it is. The extras add deleted scenes and an interview with the star. – Gary Dretzka
War of the Dead: Blu-ray
The great idea behind this occasionally very interesting genre-bender is that very early in Hitler’s attempt to conquer Europe he directed a team of fiendish scientists to use re-animation techniques to create a platoon of zombie killers. They experimented on the corpses of Red Army soldiers after Finland asked Germany for its support in turning back Soviet invasion forces. Even though the experiments bore fruit in the form of zombies capable of climbing trees, firing weapons and running, instead of shuffling toward their target, the Nazis decided not to pursue it. Instead, they left behind a rogue undead unit hiding in the forest near the bunker laboratory. In “War of the Dead,” a combined American and Finnish special-forces team stumbles upon the commandoes on its way to the secret bunker and several soldiers are killed in the initial attack. It takes the survivors a while to figure out why they constantly feel outnumbered, considering how many of the enemy they’ve taken down. Turns out, they’re merely killing the same soldiers over and over, again. It isn’t until a not-yet-reanimated Red Army soldier joins the Allied squad that an effective offensive can be mounted against the zombies. Although far more ambulatory than run-of-the-mill undead, they’re susceptible to the same things as every other zombie.
Apart from the undead conceit, “War of the Dead” plays out like countless other war flicks, with traces of “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan” thrown in for the bargain. People we don’t want to see die get killed before our eyes and our enemies are portrayed as faceless humanoids. Here, the special-forces unit is led by Captain Martin Stone (Andrew Tiernan), who’s cut from the same cloth as most other officers in war movies or, at least, those fighting for our team. For co-writer/director Marko Mäkilaakso, “War of the Dead” also is a “love letter” to such 1989s action franchises as “Rambo,” “American Ninja,” “Terminator” and “Indiana Jones.” His first feature film after spending most of his young career making documentaries, music videos and commercials, it demonstrates an ability to add fresh elements to tired genres, even on a miniscule budget. The project essentially ran out of money and steam in 2007, but Makilaakso was determined to see it completed. – Gary Dretzka
FX: Justified: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Nicktoons: Monsuno: Destiny
Syfy: Being Human: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Anyone who claims to love action-packed crime series, but has yet to jump on board the “Justified” train, isn’t trying very hard to find out what all the fuss is about. As of January 1, all three seasons of the Harlan-set drama now are available on DVD and Blu-ray. The show can also be downloaded, streamed and seen on FX in rerun form, prior to its January 8 re-launch. If the fourth season is anything like the third, prepare to take notes. Not even Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) could keep up with the many shady characters who took up residence in the hollers of Harlan last season. Neither could archenemies Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies). The dastardly duo stood to lose the most if their various interests – marijuana, Oxycodone and prostitution, among them – are disrupted by mafia henchmen from Frankfort and Detroit and a mining company that wants to turn the mountains to dust. Add to this motley crew of outlaws Raylan’s career-criminal dad and an African-American butcher, who plans to skin Dickie of his inheritance, and you have all the gasoline anyone would need to set the hills ablaze. Neither are the women of Harlan without sin. After Raylan dumped Ava (Joelie Carter) for his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), she took up with her no-count brother-in-law, Dickie. Meanwhile, a red-hot coal baroness (Rebecca Creskoff) demands Raylan’s personal attention as a bodyguard, after claiming that her life was in danger. With so many bad guys taking potshots at each other, Raylan isn’t required to justify his reputation as a lawman who shoots first and asks questions later. Guest villain Neal McDonough does that for him. Unlike too many other series adapted from popular books or movies, “Justified” continues to honor novelist and exec-producer Elmore Leonard’s original vision. The Blu-ray adds 9 separate commentary tracks on 13 episodes; outtakes and deleted scenes; a Noble’s Holler set tour; a conversation with Olyphant and Goggins; and featurettes “Go Back in There,” “Crossing the Line” and “Anatomy of a Stunt.”
I would love to learn the median IQ of audiences attracted to Nicktoon’s animated sci-fi series, “Monsuno.” After reading the press material on the American/Japanese co-production, I was completely lost on the subject of how “re-wakened monster DNA called Monsuno” could be captured and used to save the Earth, several millennia after “they burned through the planet’s atmosphere and crashed into four corners of the world, bringing chaos, destruction and the extinction of the dinosaurs.” Forget for a moment that while Earth has two poles, it is too rotund to have corners, where such magnificent fighting organisms could hide. Nonetheless, there they are. As is the norm for these animated series, it is incumbent on adventurous teenagers, Chase and his pals, to harness the power of the Monsuno and defeat the mysterious organization, S.T.O.R.M. Chase’s father discovered the DNA and the way to unleash the monsters, who seem loyal to whoever holds the “cylinder regeneration chamber capsules” in which they sleep … or something. The cast of cartoon monsters, teenagers and villains is only slightly smaller than that of list of depressed Southerners in “Gone With the Wind.” Fans of such fare won’t have any problem parsing the characters or enjoying the frequent battles in which the Monsuno participate. Naturally, “Monsuno” arrived earlier this year accompanied by a line of action toys and trading cards.
Also returning this month for another stanza, this time on Syfy, is the American version of the hit British supernatural series “Being Human,” which, oddly enough, can be seen here on BBC America. The premise remains the same on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Three undead twenty-somethings share a Boston brownstone, where they attempt to maintain a low profile and keep their true identities secret. Sam Witwer plays a vampire, who was turned during the Revolutionary War; Sam Huntington is a Jewish werewolf who works at the same hospital as his roommate; and Meaghan Rath, a ghost who was already residing in the brownstone. They have many human friends – some of whom are accidentally infected — as well as guests who share their backgrounds, but aren’t nearly as benign. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes interviews and material from a publicity event at San Diego Comic-Con 2012. – Gary Dretzka
PBS: Climate of Doubt
Although far more numerous and politically focused than members of the Flat Earth Society, climate-change deniers occupy the same dubious intellectual space as those folks who contend that our planet’s round shape is an optical illusion. The greatest difference between these groups of like-minded thinkers, perhaps, is that Flat Earthers aren’t backed by dozens of mercenary scientists and lobbyists for companies that benefit from polluting the Earth. Neither have they waged an electronic war of terror on those scientists who do believe the Earth’s environment is being adversely affected by such variables as solar radiation, greenhouse gases, plate tectonics, changes in the Earth’s orbit and emissions from fossil-fuel combustion. As we learn in the PBS documentary “Climate of Doubt,” most of the people who sit in the audience at seminars and write letters to their representatives truly believe that almost everything the government spends their tax dollars on is part of a leftist plot against the American way of life. It’s their right and privilege to hold contrarian opinions on important subjects, of course. The right to be wrong is built into the Constitution. Sadly, though, their mistrust of government makes doubters especially susceptible to the bad intentions of leaders of the denial movement who are far more interested in maintaining the flow of dollars from corporate sponsors to their bank accounts. “Frontline” correspondent John Hockenberry allows deniers plenty of time to present their side of the issue, without also being combative or overtly cynical. What he’s more interested in documenting is how, over the course of four short years, previously unorganized groups of deniers and anti-government activists have been able to intimidate so many politicians and impede researchers at universities and government-backed laboratories.
Four years ago, conservatives Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich weren’t reluctant to acknowledge that something needed to be done to slow the pace of climate change. During the just-completed campaign, neither would take the same stand. It explains, as well, why global warming never came up in the presidential debates. President Obama didn’t feel as if the aggravation was worth the effort of bringing it up, either. By employing tactics used by the pro-tobacco lobby and tea-party activists, deniers not only have been able to influence politicians, but also convince the growing legions of disaffected American taxpayers to hop aboard the band wagon. Money from the Koch brothers, pro-industry groups and PACs allow deniers to score points in television ads, featuring so-called experts with little credence in the scientific community. Foremost, it’s become entirely too clear that a growing number of taxpayers now are unwilling to fund – or accept as necessary – programs that might improve the quality of life for their grandchildren better, whether it involves schools, the nation’s infrastructure or the environment. And, they’re perfectly willing to fight for their right to be wrong. – Gary Dretzka