Weekend roundup: Movies not to miss

A horror auteur finds his ultimate monster -- the Japanese economy! Plus: Micro-indie legend Joe Swanberg's latest; the joyous "Carmen & Geoffrey."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 14, 2009 10:52AM (EDT)

Photos courtesy Regent Releasing, First Run Features, IFC Films

From left, stills from "Tokyo Sonata," "Carmen & Geoffrey," and "Alexander the Last."

We've got a modest selection of small-scale openings this week, but each of these movies is terrific, and they're about as varied as you can get. One is a bizarre and magnificent social drama from a Japanese director better known for horror movies. Another is the latest microbudget relationship drama from indie auteur Joe Swanberg, a major step forward in terms of his craftsmanship and artistic vision. Then there's a straightforward bio-documentary about a married couple who just happen to be two of the most important dancers of the 20th century as well as leading figures in the African-American cultural renaissance.

Also opening this week, and already covered in Salon: New Zealand director Christine Jeffs' new offbeat comedy, "Sunshine Cleaning"; the Dylan Thomas romantic quadrangle "The Edge of Love," with Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller; and the rerelease of Costa-Gavras' great 1969 political thriller "Z."

"Tokyo Sonata" When middle-class Japanese salaryman Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) is abruptly downsized -- his management job is being outsourced to China -- his ordinary family life begins to spiral downward into absurd tragicomedy. He doesn't tell his wife and continues to put on his navy suit and take the train into central Tokyo every morning. But there's much more to "Tokyo Sonata" than the unraveling of Ryuhei's pathetic ruse; it's the story of an essentially decent but profoundly damaged man and his troubled but loving family, fighting a losing battle against the chaos and violence that surround them.

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to art-film god Akira Kurosawa) made his reputation as a director of thrillers and horror films, including the serial-killer movie "Cure" and the Tarkovskyan ghost story "Pulse." In "Tokyo Sonata" the horror lies in Japanese society itself, where a decade of economic stagnation has uprooted thousands or millions of workers like Ryuhei, driving many to booze, violence and suicide. Kagawa's nuanced, bemused performance is matched if not exceeded by Kyoko Koizumi as his uncomplaining wife, who seizes on the family implosion as an opportunity to stage a remarkable getaway and live out long-buried fantasies.

Ryuhei's eldest son (Yu Koyanagi) wants to join the American military and fight in Iraq. (In the film's universe, the United States has begun recruiting foreigners from "friendly" nations, which may not be so far-fetched.) His younger son (Inowaki Kai) has been taking piano lessons in secret -- they're not in the family budget -- and may be a one-in-a-million prodigy. Ryuhei is so imprisoned by his own misery and self-hatred he barely notices any of this, taking a shopping-mall janitorial job in desperation. As the story turns in a dark, allegorical direction in its final act -- involving an inept burglary and an envelope full of money -- his destruction seems certain.

"Tokyo Sonata" is a work of tremendous passion, daring and delicacy, and Kurosawa is able to construct a kind of miraculous, quasi-Christian (or perhaps quasi-Buddhist) redemption out of the melodramatic ruins of Ryuhei's life and family. If it doesn't all hang together -- Kurosawa's conclusion may strike some viewers as inspiring and others as cornpone -- I still don't expect to see more than a few movies this year that offer this breadth of emotion coupled with such wonderful acting. (Now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.)

"Alexander the Last" I keep swearing I'll never use the word "mumblecore" again, but the career of unquenchable micro-budget filmmaker Joe Swanberg is inextricably linked to that unhappy term. Swanberg has taken a beating from some critics for growing up in public, and he arguably wasn't quite ready for prime time when "Hannah Takes the Stairs" -- I guess the paradigmatic mumblecore film -- was released by IFC two years ago. Perhaps because of Swanberg's tireless work ethic and evident ambition, some people who haven't bothered to watch his films seem irritated by his very existence, and that's the part that's not fair. If you haven't given this 27-year-old director a chance -- or haven't even heard of him -- "Alexander the Last" is a fine place to start.

This is a distinctly more professional film than Swanberg's previous work, and in most ways that's a good thing. He's ready for the upgrade. Featuring a charismatic but unshowy performance by Jess Weixler, as Alex, a young married actress tempted by the hot guy she's sharing love scenes with, "Alexander the Last" is an oblique, complicated relationship drama, beautifully performed and constructed with musical precision. Swanberg's central subject -- thus far, his only subject -- is how relationships begin and how they end, and he's consumed with identifying those places on the intervening arc that shift the trajectory upward or downward. (If you see this one and like it, you can move on to the underappreciated "Nights and Weekends," an electrifying two-hander starring Swanberg and co-writer-director Greta Gerwig as a couple in relationship meltdown.)

Deciding to stop just short of real-life sex with the muscular Tennessean Jamie (Barlow Jacobs), her costar in an off-off-off-Broadway play, Alex palms him off on Hellen (Amy Seimetz), her attractive photographer sister. Everyone in this unstable foursome -- also including Eliott (Justin Rice), Alex's itinerant-musician hubby -- seems to grasp that this substitution isn't quite working. In one sense this is a movie about ordinary, semi-creative 20-somethings in urban America (the film was made in Brooklyn, N.Y., but could have been made a dozen or so other places) as they struggle with adulterous passion. In another sense it's about something more amorphous, like what the difference is between art and life, and how you can tell them apart.

In either case, while Swanberg's improvisational method appears to be intact (since the cast is credited with co-writing the dialogue), "Alexander the Last" has a taut, decisive and concise quality -- it's 72 minutes long! -- that feels like something new. Swanberg edits his own movies and shoots them when he's not in them. He's grown prodigiously in both departments, developing a keen eye for composition and a terrific sense of how to meld sound and image for maximum irony, maximum tension and maximum eros. (As usual with Swanberg, naked bodies are on display.)

"Alexander the Last" premieres this weekend at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, and is simultaneously available nationwide on cable TV, as an on-demand offering from IFC Festival Direct. This is part of a new venture, by which festival films will bypass theatrical distribution altogether and go straight to pay TV. Obviously this is part of a much larger story about the slow, or not so slow, demise of small-release theatrical films. More about that shortly.

"Carmen & Geoffrey" The only hard part of my job here is getting you to start watching Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob's documentary about Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, two of the greatest figures in 20th-century American dance and an utterly entrancing couple who've been married almost 50 years. Because once you start, you won't want to stop. Let's just say that you don't have to know anything about modern dance or ballet or jazz or Broadway or movies, or anything specific about the explosion of African-American dance that began in the 1950s.

With all its wondrous archival material, "Carmen & Geoffrey" will fill in the blanks. You'll learn that Holder is an eloquent and handsome dancer-choreographer-painter from Trinidad who created important works for Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem, and designed and directed "The Wiz" on Broadway. And that de Lavallade was a middle-class girl from Los Angeles who became an important soloist in ballet, modern dance, Broadway and film. Much more important than all of that, this movie will teach you that these people have loved life and each other to the fullest, and have spent their lives creating and enjoying marvelous things. Laugh if you want to, but this movie is a joyful celebration of the possibilities of love, the possibilities of blackness, the possibilities of America, and the possibilities of the human spirit. It's a tremendous tonic for dark times. (Now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York, with more cities and DVD release to follow.)


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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