October 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

That Green Hornet movie with Seth Rogen was a good idea that didn’t work out as planned. Basically a comic riff on superhero blockbusters that took into consideration the towering ludicrousness of the premise, it nevertheless stopped way short of the usual shenanigans one would expect from a movie with Rogen’s name over the title while shortchanging the kind of action it was supposedly deriding. Since Ant-Man is a Marvel production, it might be expected to demonstrate a little more self-consciousness in this regard. After all, almost all the Marvel movies are in some ways parodies of themselves. But it seems the studio decided to make this aspect purposeful, and not just by casting Paul Rudd, who is essentially Rogen’s more conventionally handsome cognate, as the titular superhero, but also by using a script by the only genuinely inventive comic filmmaker of the moment, Edgar Wright (along with Adam McKay, Joe Cornish, and Rudd, who basically took over when Wright left the project), and a bankable comedy director, Peyton Reed, to helm the thing. One of the better ideas this crew came up with is isolating the origin story from the hero. Michael Douglas plays Hank Pym, a scientist who creates a particle that makes things shrink. Naturally, his protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), wants to use it for evil purposes, and eventually Cross gains control of the technology while Pym is pushed into early retirement. However, neither Pym nor Cross are Ant-Man. That role falls to burglar Scott Lang (Rudd), who, thanks to a stint in prison and losing custody of his beloved daughter, is at the end of his proverbial rope. His savior is Pym, who catches Scott breaking into his safe and then recruits him to do the same at Cross’s company—the one he stole from Pym. To help him do the job, he makes him a suit that shrinks Scott down to ant size without compromising his full-size strength and speed. Though the dramatic component is dominated by Scott’s reluctance to continue in his criminal ways, the movie requires him to give in to them, and does so by making the whole shrinking process fun. It also helps that Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who works for Cross, is secretly helping her father and thus doubles as a love interest for Scott. If this all sounds painfully familiar, it just goes to show how some superhero conventions are impossible to resist, and as the film enters its third quarter, which is filled with SFX and a lot of cleverly staged action scenes that take full advantage of the shrinking premise, you may not notice that you aren’t laughing despite the pedigree on screen and off. By the time Ant-Man and Cross, using a similar shrinking technology, are beating each other up in a miniaturized world where raindrops become tidal waves and real ants qualify as the cavalry, you will have totally forgotten that this was supposed to be a comedy. Marvel wins again. (photo: Marvel) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Sept. 6, 2015

NHK announcer and Tamori on "Buratamori"

NHK announcer and Tamori on “Buratamori”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the not-so-subtle sexism behind a lot of media-related work, especially with regard to teenage girls. In the column I discussed a new NHK show, Muchimuchi, which may or may not turn into a series (so far, they’ve only shown one episode, and that was on Aug. 20) but which has attracted a fair amount of criticism for its suggestions of sex and the stereotype of high school girls as being frivolous and ignorant. However, within those complaints in a deeper distrust of TV production techniques, the kind that manipulate reality in order to create a semblance of spontaneity. Among the Tweets that writer Chika Igaya cited in her Huffington Post article about the show was one that mentioned the “whole staged feeling” of the presentation, that the entire setup of the show was suspiciously artificial, which made the viewer also question the truthfulness of the girls’ reactions and responses.

This Tweet illustrates a significant aspect of media literacy, the ability of the receiver of information to sense how that information has been filtered by the medium itself. Japanese TV, and NHK in particular, has perfected this ability to the point where people know that what they’re watching is fake but have somehow been conditioned to accept it as part of the presentation and adjust their comprehension accordingly. The example that comes to mind immediately is NHK’s travel show, Buratamori, in which veteran TV talent Tamori goes to a neighborhood in Tokyo or some other city and explores the history of that place using old maps and existing landmarks. During the show, Tamori and a female announcer walk around the area and inevitably bump into some local expert, who then answers their specific questions. This narrative device is borrowed from Tamori’s other show, the very long-running Tamori Club on TV Asahi, where Tamori always just happens upon a group of comedians on the street who help him address that week’s funny theme. No one, of course, thinks these meetings are spontaneous. If anything, Tamori plays them for laughs, but it says something about the way TV producers’ minds work that everyone copies it, and it follows that they probably have no problem faking or manipulating other things, like the girls’ responses on Muchimuchi, which means that the sexism on display is intentional. I’m not saying that high school girls are all erudite and sexually self-possessed, only that their complexities are necessarily flattened by the prejudices of producers. And as anyone who watches NHK knows, the people there hate surprises.

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September 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

galactic15hiatusInto the Deep
-Galactic (P-Vine)
Choose Your Weapon
-Hiatus Kaiyote (Sony)
It says something about the territory Galactic covers musically that their recent Field of Heaven headlining stint at Fuji Rock hardly touched their new album. Though regularly touted as a funk/jam band, the New Orleans collective not only runs the entire R&B spectrum, but also soul music north and south and a respectable corner of the jazz realm. Though Into the Deep isn’t significantly different from past albums in that it samples the group’s tastes liberally and takes advantage of their biz connections with a large and wide variety of guest vocalists, there’s something more intense about it. The opening Mardi Gras raveup, “Sugar Doosie,” lays out their myriad skills in a compact 4 minutes: tight horn harmonies and a greasy rhythmic undercarriage that buoys the beat. What’s especially thrilling is the way the group pulls the old verities into the 21st century. JJ Grey’s frantic reading of “Higher and Higher” hardens its Stax/Volt vibe with crisper keyboards and a fuzz bass that gives it an edge. Macy Gray complements the Band-like country funk of the title song with a vocal that’s alternatingly meditative and desperate. And while Mavis Staples doesn’t sound like the right match for the Caribbean-flavored “Does It Really Make a Difference,” the old girl proved a long time ago she can sing pretty much anything short of Wagner and give you what for, and as the song builds you lose track of the elements and fall right into the toughest groove on the album. “Chicken in the Corn,” a collaboration with Brushy One String, brings the orchestral funk of Isaac Hayes into the computer age. But the record really comes into its own on the instrumentals, which reference New Orleans without being overly reverent to the city’s sonic traditions. They’re not merely the heirs to a legacy any more. They’re one of the most forward-looking bands in America. One might say the same about Hiatus Kaiyote in relation to their native Australia. Smaller and more experimental than Galactic, the quartet is steeped in the kind of avant-funk that George Clinton perfected, but seem less determined to get listeners dancing than questioning their understanding of what funk entails, which, for the most part, means linear structures that work on the booty. Much of the group’s appeal, not to mention its uniqueness, is built around guitarist-vocalist Nai Palm’s personal engagement with the songwriting, which takes in everything from family tragedy to essays on the supernatural. Like Galactic, Hiatus is capable of a wide range of styles, though often they demonstrate this talent in the course of one song. This is a long album, too, 18 tracks and full of so many ideas that it might take years to process them all. I find it kind of daunting, which doesn’t mean it won’t show up on my best-of-year list in January. I just need to give it the attention it deserves. Continue reading

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September 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the September issue of EL magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

assassinThe Assassin
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first attempt at an “action” movie retains the narrative distinctions peculiar to all his features, which means fans of the genre will likely be baffled and disappointed. Though the plot, which is based on an old novel, has conventional storylines and develops its characters accordingly, Hou’s spare use of dialogue and tendency to elide anything that doesn’t serve his aesthetic aims means it doesn’t make as much of an impression as it would in others’ hands. Nevertheless, the film has a rigorous visual integrity that evokes its own story. Shu Qi is Nie Yinniang, raised in ninth century China as an assassin by a nun who uses her to dispatch corrupt officials on behalf of the emperor. When Yinniang fails to complete one particular assignment after seeing the target spend time with his family, the nun realizes she isn’t emotionally mature enough to be a real assassin and sends her to her hometown to kill an official (Chen Chang) to whom she was once betrothed, the purpose being to toughen her resolve and rid her of material sentimentality. Though presented as a kind of test, the mission is complicated by unforeseen developments taking place within the official’s court and which involve his concubine and his wife. Hou doesn’t clarify these developments since they are mostly conveyed through third person, offstage exposition, but the upshot is that Yinniang is compelled to use her skills to both protect her ex-lover from the machinations of his underlings and somehow see her mission through, ends that would seem to be contradictory by definition. What’s striking about the fight scenes isn’t their bloodless grace, but rather how their economy of movement actually adds to the naturalism of the movie as a whole. Death has real meaning, and while Hou spares us gore he drives home the idea that killing is not an easy act, even for the highly skilled. The contrast between the austerity of the action and the sumptuousness of the production design makes it one of Hou’s most beautiful films. If it takes more than one viewing to absorb its dramatic dimension, then all the better, I say. In Mandarin (photo: Spot Films Metropole Organisation Ltd. Central Motion Picture International Corp.) Continue reading

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Media Mix, Aug. 16, 2015

Into the fire

Into the fire

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about summertime energy needs. As mentioned near the beginning, the summer National High School Baseball Tournament is one long expression of gaman (patience) since it takes place during the hottest time of the year. There’s also a high school baseball tournament in the spring, which I’ve never quite understood–why two?–but in any case the summer contest is much more popular. However, my partner recently read somewhere that the tournament isn’t quite as gaman as it makes itself out to be. Apparently, the dugouts are air conditioned, thus providing some relief to players when they aren’t on the field. She happens to have a friend who works at the tournament on a contract basis and she asked her if this is true. The friend was quite shocked and assumed it was just a rumor devised to denigrate the tournament, but she agreed to ask around and, apparently, it is true, though the organizers and sponsors want to keep it a secret since it would spoil some of the drama that’s so integral to the spectators’ appreciation of the games.

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August 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

Ezra Furman / Perpetual Motion People (jake-sya)(HSE-38014)drewfordPerpetual Motion People
-Ezra Furman (Bella Union/Hostess)
The Life and Times of Drewford Alabama
-Drewford Alabama (P-Vine)
Few millennial purveyors of pure rock’n roll go about their mission with as much purpose and instinctual passion as Ezra Furman, a Jewish gender-bender from Chicago. The fact that he plays harmonica along with his guitar is mostly gravy, but it aligns appropriately with his street-level sociopolitical outlook, which he doesn’t indulge as forthrightly here as he has on previous albums. Though his themes mostly revolve around his struggles with mental illness and suicide, he isn’t so inner-directed that he can’t disassociate his feelings from his thoughts and relate them to the larger world, and he often steps out of the persona he assumes for a particular song and comments on the moment, as when he professes to being “sick of this record already.” If fear of ennui qualifies as a psychological disorder, than Furman is ready for serious therapy, but rock therapy is obviously just what the doctor ordered in Furman’s case, and the rest of us benefit as well, since the energy level rarely flags. Per the title, the kinetic power of Furman’s music feels pre-ordained, organic, a natural phenomenon. And while the R&B and folk forms get worked on relentlessly, there’s nothing reverent about the way Furman wields them. In other words, he has no use for the 60s—or the 90s, for that matter. He’s the busker with nothing to lose, the guy on the audition tape who doesn’t give a damn who’s listening but hopes whoever it is can keep up with him. Jamie Morrison used to be in a band, the Noisettes, that was famous for its own peculiar brand of energy, and as a drummer Morrison even moonlighted with the Stereophonics. Neither band qualifies as Americana, but Morrison’s new project, Drewford Alabama, does in a sort of piss-takey way. Still, don’t expect Father John Misty. Reportedly, several years ago Morrison found a notebook filled with hundreds of lyrics written in the middle of the last century by a guy named Drewford Alabama. He claims to have seen the light, but since he fields the singing chores out to friends and acquaintances, the project has an ad hoc vibe to it, as if the spirit of Drewford Alabama were simply hovering above. The songs have a pleasingly dusty ambience but they don’t deliver the piquant wierdness that great folk music does when it’s being made by a true original. Since Morrison says he was inspired by Alabama’s lyrics (he even taught himself the guitar just so that he could sing them), the listener wants to be inspired as well, but there’s often so much going on in the song that whatever it was about the words that drew Morrison to them is buried under a lot of disparate business. And that’s the difference between a force of nature like Furman and a man who “plays” music like Morrison. One doesn’t need inspiration because the music is already there. All others have to search it out. Continue reading

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August 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

Lee Do-yun’s feature debut is like a primer in mass-appeal Korean cinema of the moment. It’s got a bit of criminal mischief, some class-conscious social observation, and a lot of betrayal-induced guilt among characters who think of themselves as friends. This latter theme is central to the story, since it involves three men who have been close since a near-fatal adolescent jaunt bonded them for life. Of the three, Hyun-tae (Ji Seong) has ended up the most grounded, married and working as a paramedic. In-cheol (Joo Ji-hoon) is an insurance agent living beyond his means who sometimes resorts to scams to make extra money. And Min-soo (Lee Gwang-soo) is the requisite full-time loser, a lonely drunk living on the margins. After In-cheol talks Min-soo into helping him torch a building for insurance money at the bequest of Hyun-tae’s estranged, debt-ridden mother and the scheme goes south, the friendships unravel, though probably not as fast as they would if such an unlikely incident actually happened. Lee knows how to stage all the cliches but he can’t make them anything other than cliches. In Korean. (photo: Opus Pictures) Continue reading

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