Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the November issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last Friday.
The Lethal Weapon series has a lot to answer for. Or is it 48 Hours? Either way, the biracial crime buddy movie is a subgenre of questionable value, even as a means of satirizing America’s foibles regarding race relations. The basic idea is that, working together in order to accomplish a shared task, which is to solve a case or bring someone to justice, a white cop and a black cop transcend whatever cultural differences might arise if they were interacting socially. Along the way if they learn to get along, it’s just gravy, but everyone knows its a rigged game in the movies. In this post-Obama buddy comedy, racial differences are mostly beside the point. Bobby (Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) are undercover government agents who pretend to be partners in crime, which is funny because each one doesn’t know the other is a fed, probably because they work for different organizations (Bobby DEA, Stig NCIS). They also don’t know that the guy they’re after on their own, a Mexican drug lord (Edward James Olmos), is an informer for the CIA. There are other people involved who aren’t on the up-and-up either, but by the time our two heroes figure this all out they’re protecting $43 million in cash they stole from a New Mexico bank, mainly from their own superiors, who turn out to be just as corrupt as the nominal bad guys. The convolutions of the plot will only bother those who think that cop-buddy movies are adolescent hokum in the first place, but they’re not going to see this movie anyway, which means it’s better for your peace of mind if you don’t think too carefully about the story and just enjoy the action set pieces and the wise-guy banter, which isn’t stingy with the offhanded racial put-downs, all at Stig’s expense. “Are those your people?” Bobby says about some dangerous hombres, and you’re not sure if he means NCIS goons or white folk. There’s a certain subtextual satisfaction to the knowledge that it’s Wahlberg who is on the receiving end of these wisecracks because of his history of race-baiting when he was a white-boy rapper, but who among this movie’s target demographic remembers that? Thanks to his stature as a star, Washington gets away with a lot he shouldn’t, such as the poorly conceived romantic dalliance that Bobby carries out with a fellow DEA agent (Paula Patton). It’s not the age difference that grates but rather the need to have Washington do a sex scene he doesn’t seem to enjoy for no purpose other than boosting a betrayal subplot, which is already off the meter. It’s only fun to see so many people blown away when there are clear boundaries, and 2 Guns never bothers to erect any. (photo: Columbia Pictures) Continue reading
Posted in Movies
Tagged Ashton Kutcher, Colin Farrell, Denzel Washington, Hannah Arendt, Liberace, Luc Besson, Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Michael Shannon, Michael Winterbottom, Robert De Niro, Steve Jobs, Steven Soderbergh
Takashi Yanase, who created the beloved manga and anime “Anpanman,” died last week. His creation was the subject of the first Media Mix column I wrote, and I’ve reproduced it here.
Media Mix, Jan. 19, 1995
Faster than a speeding Pop Tart
A woman who works as an interpreter for visiting performers once told me about a stagehand with a Canadian ballet troupe who bought a toaster at Akihabara and asked her to translate the instructions for him. As she explained the part about what not to do, he studied the illustrations accompanying the text and said, “I get it. Just don’t make the toaster cry.”
Anthropomorphism certainly isn’t unique to Japan: the Walt Disney Company has cornered the market on singing-and-dancing household implements. The Japanese are more flexible in their use of it, though, and more shameless. In one particular animated television show, it has become an end in itself: “Sore Ike! Anpanman” (Nippon TV, Mondays, 5 p.m.) may be the only cartoon where almost every character is an inanimate object.
Anpanman is a superhero whose head is an anpan, the Japanese confection of soft bread filled with sweet red-bean paste. He does the usual superhero things, but his special trait isn’t about “power” in the usual superhero sense. When Anpanman encounters someone who is hungry, he allows the poor soul to eat his face, even though it saps his strength. In order to regain his strength, his friend the baker (Jamu Ojisan, or–George Clinton fans, take note–”Uncle Jam”) has to provide him with a new face. Anpanman’s selling point as a superhero is not his ability to fly or fight, but his selflessness. Continue reading
It was unexpectedly a nostalgic day for me at the festival, and bittersweet, as well, though I suppose nostalgia is always bittersweet. The last screening I attended today was Tsai Ming Liang’s “Stray Dogs,” and afterwards the director and his constant lead actor, Lee Kang Sheng, took the stage for a Q&A. At one point during the conversation Ming mentioned that his most recent films have not been shown in Korean, or even at BIFF, which I found surprising. I knew about his films before I came to BIFF for the first time in 2001, but it was here that I first saw him in person doing one of these Q&As, which, I have to say, he’s somewhat brilliant at. Regardless of the obviousness of the question he manages to turn it around and say something incisive about his work and its place in Asian cinema, and it seems whenever I came to BIFF, even when it was PIFF, he was always here. You would just see him walking around, talking animatedly with whichever Korean person he was with. I guess I’ve just missed his last several films, because if they had been shown here I’m sure I would have seen them.
But then he said something I found very moving. “If you look carefully, you’ll realize that my films are getting slower and slower,” he remarked. “That’s because I’m getting slower and slower.” And I could see it; not so much that aspect of his films, but his general appearance, as well as Lee’s. When I first encountered this pair in the 90s, mainly through their masterpiece, “The River,” they epitomized the youthful potential of Asian progressive cinema. Now they’re well into middle age and look it. “Stray Dogs” reflects this change cosmetically. Lee plays a family man, albeit a homeless one, who sleeps with his two young children in abandoned buildings in Taipei while doing scut work as a sign holder for, of all things, luxury real estate. His wife has left him and for some reason Tsai has cast three different women to play her, which is very confusing given his usually vague narrative methodology. Also, one of the women is played by Lu Yi Ching, another Tsai regular who has played Lee’s mother numerous times in the past, so the passage of time is felt in more ways than one. In a sense, Tsai’s and Lee’s appearance this evening made me feel acutely the passage of years at BIFF. Continue reading
Sunday turned out to be Philippine Day for me. As a kind of companion piece to “Ilo Ilo,” there’s “Transit,” a first feature by Hannah Espia about migrant workers in Israel, more specifically the ones who are determined to stay–which seems to be all of them, according to the film. Though I imagine it’s not a problem exclusive to Israel, children of migrant workers, even if born in the country, are not guaranteed residence. They can be deported before the age of five if the parents don’t have the proper work permits. (Could this be true, in principle, in Japan, too? Probably) The movie revolves around one household containing two adult Filipinos, one male, one female, who have been in Israel for a while, and their respective children, who were born in the country. Four-year-old Joshua has already absorbed the survival mindset, wearing a scarf to look “invisible” whenever outside and avoiding figures of authority at all cost. The topic itself is forcefully presented but Espia’s structural means are a bit annoying. She basically tells the same set of stories through the eyes of each of the characters in succession, which means we have to sit through the same plot developments several times. I’m sure there’s a more graceful way of doing it, and since this is Espia’s first film I’ll assume she’ll learn how to avoid these kinds of basic technical issues. Continue reading
Supposedly a typhoon is on its way. It’s been windy and overcast since yesterday morning, but strangely warm, too; warm enough for T-shirts. And last night there was a brief squall, but luckily I was inside at the time. Though the festival is not exactly a well-oiled machine, it would seriously be disrupted by a major weather front.
“Ceylon,” which I saw yesterday morning at a press screening, is about the Sri Lankan civil war of 2009. It’s one of those well-meaning films that doesn’t take a side, per se (though the government soldiers come off much worse than the rebels), but condemns war in general. It was directed by Santosh Sivan, an Indian, who made “Malli,” one of the best films I’ve ever seen about terrorism. That was a fairly internal film, diving into the mind of the girl who was selected to be a suicide bomber. Since then Sivan has become more commercial, so to speak, though he continues in the same vein. “Ceylon” tries to take in too much while offering something that can also be considered entertaining. It takes place on a beautiful island where a bunch of young people orphaned by the civil war live in a commune run by a kind but strict middle aged woman. Eventually, the war comes to the island with terrible consequences, but it’s not particularly affecting. Sivan seems enamored of Terrence Malick, or maybe it’s just that any movie shot on a tropical island beset by war looks like “The Thin Red Line.” Continue reading
The festival put me in the Seacloud Hotel this year rather than the Grand, where I usually stay. I stayed at the Seacloud once when it first opened and liked its efficiency rooms with a sink, stovetop, and even a washer. I also liked the wood floors and the somewhat antiseptic decor–the bathroom was a frosted-glass cubicle sitting in the middle of an enormous space. Times have changed. The room I got this time is much smaller and the efficiency functions are turned off unless you ask them to turn them on. More discouraging is that the area where the Seacloud is located has been built up, so the view out my window is the wall of the building next door, about three meters away. I miss the Grand, not only its more conventional “luxury” features, but its convenience (most of the press functions are there), though the Seacloud is closer to the subway station and the Megabox multiplex. Continue reading
I arrived in Busan for the film festival earlier than I usually do. Delta has stopped direct flights from Narita to Busan, and their daily round trip arrived at Gimhae Airport in the evening. I booked on Busan Air, which I didn’t even know about until I did a random web search for cheap flights to Busan. I got a round trip for only ¥25,000, including tax and fuel surcharge. It left on time and we even got a meal and coffee. The flight arrived at 4 p.m., which gave me plenty of time to get to my hotel and then to the opening ceremony, which I usually miss.
I was more interested in the opening film, but that wasn’t the case with the majority of people at the Busan Cinema Center, a huge outdoor space with a kind of floating roof above it in the middle of Centum City, a retail and commercial district on the edge of the Haeundae resort area. There is plenty of room around the BCC for rubber neckers to watch the goings-on, and with each big Korean star on the red carpet there was a high-pitched effusion that seemed to come from everywhere. Though some of the names were familiar to me, everyone was so gussied up it was difficult to tell one person from another, especially the women. Odagiri Jo made something of a spectacle of himself, sporting a huge bushy afro topped by little hat. It reminded me of that line from “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.”
The movie, “Vara: A Blessing,” was better than I expected, though there were a lot of distractions in the open air venue, what with people moving about in the aisles. It’s a Bhutanese movie, directed by Khyentse Norbu, an actual Buddhist priest, though it seems to take place in India. It’s also a markedly international production, and the English dialogue was sometimes a distraction since it seemed written by someone who watches a lot of Western TV. The story is about a young dancer who is pursued by two young men in her village–the rich but shy landlord and a low-born outcast who has a talent for sculpture. The latter talks the dancer into modeling for him while the former pines for her from afar, and after a scandal erupts involving these three the resolution is not what I expected, which is saying something since the movie’s plot is melodramatic in a soap operatic kind of way. The actors try too hard and the spiritual elements are overwhelmed by the practical ones. It should be more contemplative.
At the opening party afterwards some people were talking about the movie, specifically why this one was chosen as the opener. It’s hard to say. BIFF hasn’t had the chance to premiere a really major Asian film in years, losing out to the big Western festivals, so the consensus is that the programmers want to draw attention to how much attention they are paying to cinema from smaller countries. But “Vara” was pretty lightweight, and while it got the attention it deserved here, I don’t think it will get much anywhere else.