Air Doll

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll has a completely foreign sensibility. It’s not American, and it’s not one I’d take immediately for Japanese. We see Hideo (Itsuji Itao, who looks like a pooped-out Mathieu Amalric) press his face against the glass of a commuter train window; the raindrops on the windowpane are a barrier between him and the skyline. Tokyo shimmers faintly, a pale shade of blue. His spirit leavens as soon as he enters his apartment, which looks to be inside a warehouse. It has the interior of a messy teenage girl’s bedroom, and the exterior of a rusty tin can. Hideo enthusiastically recounts his day at work as he sups with his companion: a blow-up doll. The label on the box identifies it as a second-rate model called Candy; but he calls her Nozomi. By the next morning, sunlight has broken through the clouds. Hideo says goodbye, and leaves her in bed. But the balloon woman pads toward the window, and stretches out her vinyl hand. A bead of water falls from a hanging pipe and lands on her palm; when the camera pulls back we see a flesh-and-blood woman (Doona Bae) looking at a strange new world.

Within the first 10 minutes, Kore-eda has pulled the Pinocchio string; and later, at a restaurant, a little girl makes reference to Ariel from The Little Mermaid. When her father tries to rent the Disney movie from a video store at which Nozomi has improbably been hired as a clerk, he’s not sure what the title is. Neither is Nozomi. Clearly, they don’t see the connection; but Kore-eda makes connections that I might not have seen either. At the end of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, when his scaly princess dies, her body withers and turns to seafoam. But she has refused to slay her prince; in deliquescing, she’s attained an everlasting soul—a privilege that humans, one infers, tend to take for granted. The question our wastrel poses to her sex-toy Geppetto is one that’s riven poets since time immemorial: Why do human beings have hearts? But Kore-eda doesn’t offer Nozomi the consolation that Andersen gave her fishy fellow spirit. What makes this film feel so exotic—mysterious, even—is in what we sense is being withheld from us. Its absence permeates the imagery, and what remains is a grace that’s indistinguishable from despair. Kore-eda weds fairy tale with tragedy. He withholds what he doesn’t feel he has the right to provide.

The problem is that Air Doll takes in the world at the pace that its heroine does. (Just because she’s light as air doesn’t mean she’s quick on her feet.) Sprouting from a 20-page manga called The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl, the film seems two times too long. The schoolgirl strokes her doll’s hair with a fork; it’s a reference to Ariel, who, in the animated feature, was so bemused by the world above that she mistook cutlery for a comb. Nozomi mimics the people around her—particularly children—but her actions don’t allow us to see the world in a new light. Kore- eda leaves that to the heavyset metaphors that weigh down the subtitles. Before revealing her unorthodox origins, Nozomi says things like “What are birthdays?” and gets planer-straight answers—as if it wasn’t outlandish for an adult to ask such questions in earnest. A coworker, Junichi (Arata), whose hair is flying toward a flock of seagulls, becomes the sex doll’s boy toy. But when Nozomi deflates in the store, exposing her true nature, he doesn’t seem properly surprised—just turned on by her fragility. The world of the familiar, which is unfamiliar to Nozomi, is unfamiliar to us, too. By overinflating his metaphor about the postmodern condition, the director makes it pop.

Kore-eda isn’t a conventional filmmaker; he doesn’t foist plot points on us and tell us how to feel. There’s a splash of the anything-goes anarchy of Ponyo, but Air Doll may be the only film in which miracles are amoral. It’s almost the opposite of Lars and the Real Girl: Ryan Gosling was initially deemed the village loony for falling in love with latex. In Kore-eda’s Tokyo—where you don’t have to be replenished with a bike pump to feel hollow—he’d be considered the norm. Kore-eda’s core idea is a variation on The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen’s masterpiece—itself a reworking of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. In Cairo, Jeff Daniels played a silver-screen shadow who stepped into the theater and became Mia Farrow’s dream lover. Nozomi is a composite of those characters—both fantasist and fantasy. Allen’s film came to a heartbreaking conclusion; Kore-eda’s is even sadder: The air doll has no reverie to return to. She’s Galatea without Pygmalion. The poor thing is Galatea gone wrong.

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The American

With a frosty beard, George Clooney looks like Sean Connery. In sunglasses, he resembles my dad. (Weird, right?) But, in The American—scripted by Rowan Joffe from a Martin Booth novel, and directed by Anton Corbijn—he’s playing Steve McQueen. They may as well have cast McQueen, too—and made the movie while he was alive. It’s a misfired homage to arty European directors who toyed with juicy American offal: an inactive action film.

For the first 40 minutes or so, I was willing to give Clooney’s laconic assassin the benefit of the doubt—maybe that loaded title would be unpacked; maybe this quiet American was a relative of Graham Greene’s. But it slowly sunk in that the reason our national namesake wasn’t talking was because he had nothing worth saying—and neither did the filmmakers, who were mumbling clichés in brain-freezing slow-motion. The penitent assassin who wants out. The hooker he treats like a lady. The exotic, but cultivated, setting. The hot-shot, hot-mama female assassin who lacks his ideals but wears Vanessa Redgrave’s hand-me-downs from Blow-Up (1966). The doomed romance that makes him want to settle down. The kindly, inquisitive old priest, face encrusted with blubbery wrinkles, who tries, in vain, to show him the light. Now where was it that I’d seen all this before? Oh yeah. Everywhere.

Even though, with little to express, Clooney’s performance ranges from ruminative to rheumatic, his presence must explain why The American was the number-one film of Labor Day weekend. Can the formula of hackneyed plus minimalist plus boring really be a major draw? Were audiences, like me, passing time by admiring the crepuscular colors before realizing how blatant and bright and non-diegetic the lighting was? Corbijn’s imagery is often ravishing, but it’s stultified by the pulpy plot; it’s made to seem less than arbitrary. Maybe people are so sick of high-speed summer stupidity that they’re okay with trash in a tuxedo. I dug the mood, too, until I realized that there was nothing going on in the story that might sustain it. However, after an onslaught of coming attractions that are either about Facebook or contrived to look like something a crafty teenager may get some hits from on YouTube, maybe one should enjoy this dinosaur—a real movie, with pacing and an attempt at style—while it lasts. But something as been-done and dull as The American could easily be communicated in 140 characters or less.

The Last Exorcism

In nervous times, such as our own, the rationale behind exorcism may seem a relief. It bolsters the iffy notion that internal evil is an external force—one which can be removed by the religious equivalent of a trained exterminator. There’s also a grain of masochistic chic hidden in there, the same congenital backwardness that once turned bad girls into “witches.” (The Christian fear of the human body, in all its reproductive funkiness, can itself be morbidly alluring.) William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), which rammed the arcane practice into modern pop-cultural consciousness like a crucifix into a—well, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know—sponged clean any metaphysical kinkiness; but if that film is frightening nowadays at all (it didn’t so much as elicit a peep from me), it’s because of the way it systematically breaks down any barrier in its path that’s been erected by reason or modernity. A movie star’s daughter, privy to the best and brightest minds in the capital of the most advanced country on the map, is helpless to contend with spiritual rapine. She’s left with only one option. Who’s she gonna call? Ghostbusters!

There’s some bedevilment at the heart of any of these movies: They must affirm religious doctrine or reject the supernatural. Either way, I end up feeling a bit screwed over. So when I saw an ad for The Last Exorcism, my first instinct was: Finally! Fortunately, the writers (Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland) and director (Daniel Stamm) took a middle path, and modeled their bayou-based yarn on the 1972 documentary Marjoe, which concerned a former boy-preacher who now sought to expose the phoniness of his florid techniques and the credulity of his tent-church followers. Our hero here, Cotton—to play anyone by that name you need a rustier drawl than Patrick Fabian provides him with—is out to expose exorcisms, in order to spare future children from not surviving that procedure. He’s vaguely agnostic, but doesn’t see himself as a fraud. He’s a placebo healer. So he takes a film crew in tow when he’s called to cast the devil out of a 16-year-old farm girl named Nell (Ashley Bell, who has a spectral, fluttery presence). As you may have already inferred, this chick isn’t your normal gal haunted by puberty and stunted by home-schooling. And whatever’s possessing her knows that Cotton has doubts…

There’s intellectual tension in the tightrope these filmmakers walk; they are intelligent enough to realize that losing their balance means more than losing their vitality—it also means selling out. The attention I paid to their gymnastics exceeded my concern for little Nell’s well-being or their Cotton-mouthed crisis of faith. Then again, I didn’t find myself praying for the movie to end. But, even if the jangly camera lingers over some images—like a baby doll’s head submerged in bathwater—just long enough for them to be arresting, there’s none of the obsessive trouncing that made Martyrs, a French slasher, the work of an artist. Not that these Yanks, who feign doc realism no more skillfully than reality-show editors, harbor any such pretensions. They’re not possessed by the art of filmmaking; when a boy asks the characters if they’re making a movie, he doesn’t even steal a vain look into the lens. But these low-budget filmmakers are not without integrity. They’re a cut above placebo spookers.