Here are the movies reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which will be distributed in Tokyo tomorrow.
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Though ostensibly a two-hander, this melancholic romantic comedy is mainly a showcase for Rashida Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with former signficant other Will McCormack. Jones plays Celeste, a gainfully employed young woman who still has a very close relationship with ex-husband Jesse (Andy Samberg), an artist who has yet to make an impression on the market because he’s so easily distracted. Jesse still holds out for some sort of reconciliation with Celeste and continues to live in a bungalow in back of their modest L.A. house. In fact, it takes a little time for the viewer to realize that they are divorced since the opening scenes show them joking and making plans as if they were still married. Certainly the most vital component of the film is Jones’ and Samberg’s easy chemistry, a virtue that underlines how much romantic comedy has changed since its heyday. The banter is so breezy and situationally specific that it risks alienating the audience, who may feel left out of the gags, but it feels more natural even if the dialogue has been devised to evoke just such a reaction. If the methodology is up-to-the-minute (boomers will likely wince at the diction), the emotional parameters are the same as they’ve ever been in romantic comedies. It’s Jesse who won’t let go, but he’s also the first one to take a stab at dating, and in a plot device that should come across as trite but actually has impact, he knocks up a one night stand (Rebecca Dayan). Though the movie chronicles Jesse’s determination to be a good dad, it mostly lingers on Celeste’s difficulty in accepting the news, since one of the reasons she divorced him is that she didn’t think he could ever be the father of her children, a rationale that, in the beginning, is the movie’s best joke but as the relationship becomes clearer seems more like a convenient excuse that backfires. On the surface, Celeste has everything in that her marketing job fully engages her creative impulses; while Jesse, ostensibly the more creative one by lieu of his status as an “artist,” is so economically at sea that he scans as a loser. The script turns those stereotypes around, mainly through the character of Riley (Emma Roberts), a precocious pop idol assigned to Celeste by her company. When Jesse actually gets a job and seems on the verge of making the sort of life Celeste says she always wanted, her self-regard crumbles and she turns to the petulant, seemingly vacuous Riley for comfort—and finds it in the most disarming way. It’s not enough for a romantic comedy to overturn expectations. It has to do so for a reason, and without sacrificing what makes it a comedy. Celeste and Jesse Forever isn’t perfect in that regard, but it succeeds on its own modest terms. (photo: C&J Forever LLC) Continue reading
Posted in Movies
Tagged Andy Samberg, Bradley Cooper, Dwayne Johnson, Ewan McGregor, Harmony Korine, Hong Sang-soo, Isabelle Huppert, Kim Ki-duk, Naomi Watts, Park Chan-wook, Rashida Jones, Roman Polanski, Ryan Gosling, Tom Cruise, Wang Bing, Wong Kar-wai, Woody Allen
Here is a column I wrote in 1997 about the “comfort women” issue, which was still relatively new at the time. In light of the controversy sparked by Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s comments, I thought it might be instructive to see how the matter was discussed 15 years ago.
Several groups are now trying to prevent junior high school students from learning about the women who were brought to the front lines to provide sex for Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. These groups object to the inclusion of such information in government-approved textbooks, though they don’t deny that the system existed. Because the euphemism ianfu (comfort women) is going to be used in the books to describe such women—thus reinforcing the implication that they were providing a service—the only logical reason for opposing the inclusion is to keep sex out of the classroom.
On December 2, the Group to Make New History Textbooks held a press conference at a hotel in Tokyo and claimed that merely mentioning “comfort women” in textbooks would have a harmful affect on impressionable adolescent minds, a naive assertion, to be sure. The media bombards junior high school students with sex—much of it violent—and an innocent-sounding term like “ianfu” mentioned in passing in a dull history textbook will not likely cause a mass outbreak of guilt and self-recrimination. The group, however, has a larger purpose, which is to revise what it feels is the “masochistic” reading of its modern history foisted on Japan by the West. Continue reading
Toshiaki Endo, who is in charge of the LDP’s English proficiency proposal, though he admits his English is pretty bad.
Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the government’s proposal to boost English language proficiency, mainly through utilization of TOEFL. Near the end of the column I mention the “parochial” nature of Japan’s world view, a stereotype I normally try to avoid. Japan is no more insular than any other country, but what I hope would be more widely discussed is how language learning or at least exposure to it affects this general outlook. I don’t want to give the impression that a more universal attitude automatically accompanies acquisition of a second language, or that non-acquisition indicates small-mindedness. But I do think the more you know about anything in the world the more likely you are to understand why people do the things they do. What was apparent from Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose’s faux pas regarding the city’s Olympic bid is that his understanding of Islam and international relations in general isn’t fully formed. How much of that misunderstanding could have been cleared up by a greater command of English is impossible to know, but in this particular circumstance in his own mind he was partially shielded by his use of Japanese, since afterwards he used the tired defense that he had been misunderstood by his interlocutors. That doesn’t wash any more, and had he been more conversant in English he might have been more circumspect with his language, which, in turn, would have made him question his logic. In next week’s column, which will be about Inose, I want to talk about the way people in the public eye tend to get a pass from the media with regard to these kinds of verbal screwups simply because reporters don’t challenge them at the time they’re made. Inose made intemperate remarks to the New York Times because he is used to saying whatever he likes. People who speak a second language are always cognizant that they could be making mistakes. That may sound like a small technicality when it comes to developing a global outlook, but it’s also a part of the process that can’t be discounted. Continue reading
Like father like superstar
In his newest sci-fi blockbuster, After Earth, Will Smith plays a man who is incapacitated during a crash landing on earth some thousand years into the future and in order to survive he has to send his own son, played by his real life son Jaden Smith, on some perilous errand to retrieve a vital object through a landscape that has “evolved to kill humans.” Apparently, homo sapiens destroyed earth back in the 21st century and had to relocate to some other planet and earth isn’t looking to let bygones be bygones. At least that’s what I got from the 16 minutes of footage that was shown to the media prior to the press conference for the movie in Tokyo. It consisted of the two existing trailers spliced with three complete scenes from the movie. Smith is uncharacteristically stoical in the role. He treats his son as a soldier rather than his progeny, and that seems to be one of the hoary themes of the film, that these two will by the end learn to be father-and-son rather than commander-and-subordinate. That theme also carried over to the press conference, where the Smiths parodied their public image as a way of demonstrating that it wasn’t as serious as we might imagine.
No one sells himself as a movie star as aggressively as Will Smith, not even Tom Cruise, whose self-image is so circumscribed that he seems to have every response scripted. Smith wants you to know how much he enjoys his job and isn’t scared to wing it if it thinks it will endear him to the people who count, and here the people who count were the Japanese press, delighted to be privy to his every awkward ad lib. With Jaden he had a practiced straight man, and while their forced-funny banter was diminished by the dry translating of the interpreter, the audience relaxed immediately and didn’t seem to mind the lack of substance and Will’s penchant for pointless hyperbole. One guy sitting in back of me was a little too relaxed, letting out a studied guffaw at every gag. Continue reading
Here are the album reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last Thursday.
-Eric Clapton (Bushbranch/Universal)
-Richard Thompson (Proper/P-Vine)
Though he’s still God to some boomers, Eric Clapton hasn’t tried very hard to maintain his edge as a rock artist or even a blue guitarist since…well, he quit heroin. Few popular musicians will ever be able to claim responsibility for something like Layla, the greatest rock guitar album ever made, and this collection of covers, mostly done in a relaxed reggae style, appears to represent what Clapton appreciates as he nears his eighth decade and moves away from the stresses of pleasing a major label. Even those of us who would still pay money to see him play the blues live have a hard time understanding what he gets out of sit-down acoustic versions of Gershwin and Kern, or sappy duets with that other nostalgia-beater, Sir Paul. The sunny sleeve photo and smiley vocals offer answers: the comfort of retirement. Even “Angel,” a dark song by a writer, J.J. Cale, whom Clapton has a close affinity for, is breezier than Montego Bay at sunset. Tempos never accelerate past a trot, and the reggae breaks and backing vocals keep a lid on the energy level. He even adds a children’s chorus to “Every Little Thing,” one of only two originals on the record. However, the other one, “Gotta Get Over,” is a loping blues, and if the vocal growl doesn’t sound lived in enough, the guitar work retains the magic touch that still makes him peerless as an instinctive stylist; and his tribute to Gary Moore, a slow burner done in a cocktail jazz groove, proves that whatever he’s lost in youthful fervor he makes up for with ingrained facility. No one has to try so little to deliver so much. Richard Thompson, another singer-guitarist entering his twilight, has the reputation of trying too much, though as conscientious as he is as both an instrumentalist (he still practices two hours a day) and a songwriter (no one conveys misanthropy with as much verve and variety) he has tread water creatively since his strong run of solo albums in the early 90s. After a decade of mostly acoustic records necessitated by a touring regimen that can’t afford a band, Thompson jumps back in with an album that wears its rock pedigree on its cover. Recorded in Buddy Miller’s Nashville studio, Electric is effusive and brisk, though it doesn’t have the presence of his last album, an original set recorded in front of an audience. That record was mostly electric even if the songs themselves didn’t always lend themselves to the added voltage. The new songs have been designed for maximum volume and rhythmic concision, resulting in a few numbers that nag as incessantly as a Carly Rae Jepsen couplet; and the playing is as knottily compelling as ever. Only time will tell if this collection keeps longer than the last few. The problem with being a serial over-achiever is that no one expects less from you. Continue reading
Posted in Music
Tagged Alan Sparhawk, Biidoro, Bilal, Eric Clapton, Har Mar Superstar, Justin Timberlake, Kate Nash, Mike Keneally, Paramore, Richard Thompson, Suede, Takashi Aoyagi, The Knife, The Strokes, Willy Moon
Here’s the playlist for the InterFM show I programmed last night, with links where available.
Sarcasm & Sincerity: Songs I think would sound good on the radio
M1. “Old World,” The Modern Lovers (1973)
An anti-hippie without being a jerk about it, Jonathan Richman was once the self-declared savior of rock’n roll but retreated into innocence and earnestness. In 1973 a rock musician had to have guts to pledge allegiance to his parents.
M2. “The Funky Western Civilization,” Tonio K. (1978)
At one time Tonio K. rivaled Warren Zevon for the title of Los Angeles’s most cynical singer-songwriter, though he made his money writing conventional songs for other artists. The sarcasm on this particular song is timeless, which is not necessarily a good thing considering the subject matter.
M3. “He Never Got Enough Love,” Lucinda Williams (1992)
A pure country song and one of the few Lucinda has co-written (with Betty Elders), “He Never Got Enough Love” utilizes all the cliches of the form but from a different emotional perspective. A man could never have written this song, much less sing it with any credibility. Continue reading
Posted in Music
Tagged Andre Williams, Bassekou Kouyate, Culture, Elizabeth Cook, Iris DeMent, Iron City Houserockers, Kim Weston, Lucinda Williams, Marvin Gaye, Miranda Lee Richards, Natacha Atlas, Replacements, Solange, Spoon, The Coup, The Modern Lovers, Tonio K
Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which is being distributed in Tokyo today.
Ek Tha Tiger
Former documentary filmmaker Kabir Khan has become successful in Bollywood with socially charged subjects that don’t necessarily fit the template engineered for the genre. His latest is an espionage thriller. Tiger (Salman Khan) is the Indian intelligence agency’s secret weapon, a killing machine so tireless he has no life outside of work and laments to his superior that he’s never been in love. On assignment in Ireland to keep tabs on an Indian missile scientist who may be trading secrets with Pakistan, Tiger falls in love with the scientist’s student assistant, Zoya (Katrina Kaif), who turns out to be a Pakistani agent. “Of all the countries in the world, you had to fall for a girl from Pakistan,” says Tiger’s colleague. Of course, that’s the point, and the Romeo-Juliet aspects of the relationship don’t get in the way of the action sequences, but there are only two big musical production numbers, and one of them is banished to the closing credit roll. I have no problem with Bollywood taking on touchy themes, but some priorities are sacred. In Hindi and English. (photo: Yash Raj Film Pvt. Ltd.) Continue reading
Posted in Movies
Tagged Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bollywood, Brad Pitt, Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangster Squad, Josh Brolin, Michel Gondry, Ryan Gosling, Salman Khan, Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg, Susanne Bier