Review: Sorry We Missed You

At this point in his career Ken Loach is neither anybody’s fool nor anything less than what he resolutely says he is in his films—a staunch socialist muckraker with no qualms about using rough sentimentality to drive home his political points. Consequently, he’s been more appreciated and honored at continental film festivals (Cannes, especially) than he has by international critics and his fellow Brits. His latest, in fact, may be his most scathing indictment of late stage capitalism, not to mention his harshest rant against what the UK has become socioeconomically in the 21st century. Though film purists will obviously see it as yet another over-the-top screed, in light of yesterday’s general election, it comes across as nothing less than a libertarian horror movie.

Loach’s target is the gig economy. Ricky (Kris Hitchen) is a tradesman whose work fell off steeply following the 2008 recession. He’s barely managed to support his wife, Abby (Debbie Honeywood), and two kids thanks mainly to Abby’s work as a freelance home care nurse. When he’s offered the opportunity to “be his own boss” by signing a franchise deal with a delivery service, he jumps at it, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. His aim is understandable—he hopes the relative freedom of working as many hours as he can stand will finally allow him to buy a home—but his understanding of how this brave new world of zero-hour contracts works is severely lacking, and his first mistake is his biggest one. Instead of renting a truck he decides to buy one and that entails having to sell his own car, which Abby needs to get to her “clients.” Abby now has to schlep around on public transportation, which is quite difficult considering how far flung her charges are, not to mention that the nature of her work involves visiting some of those charges in the middle of the night due to emergencies she’s feels obligated to attend to out of a sense of responsibility.

So what with Ricky busting his ass to not only cover the payments on the truck but justify his taking a busy route that obliges him to follow it on the nose in order to avoid penalties, and Abby taking longer and longer to complete her rounds, their two kids, 15-year-old Seb (Rhys Stone) and 10-year-old Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), are mostly left to their own devices. In the case of Seb, that means flexing his artistic impulses for tagging, which eventually gets him in trouble with the law. Liza Jane, meanwhile, is losing it on a subtler level, wetting the bed and secretly harboring schemes to make her parents regret their employment decisions.

As with all Loach’s work with his trusted scenarist Paul Laverty, Sorry We Missed You (the title is taken from the printed notes Ricky leaves at delivery points where no one is at home) is obsessed with a naturalism that’s often too naturalistic for its own good. Ricky’s working class volatility is depicted as being as integral to his problems as are the cut-throat conditions of his “self-employment,” but despite the sometimes hackneyed displays of venom and frutration, Loach and Laverty respect the intelligence of both his characters—even the unsympathetic ones, such as Ricky’s burly supervisor—and his viewers. These are basically complicated people with complicated reasons for making decisions that turn out to be bad, which is why the discomfort that churns in your stomach with each tragic turn of events feels more terrifying than any similar sensation that hits you while watching some jump scare-riddled slasher flick. Because this shit is happening right now somewhere in the world to many, many people, and that means it could easily happen to you, too.

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Sorry We Missed You home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Sixteen SWMY Limited, Why Not Productions, Les Films de Fleuve, British Broadcasting Corporation, France 2 Cinema and the British Film Institute 2019

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Media Mix, Dec. 1, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about Reiwa Shinsengumi leader Taro Yamamoto, who was profiled and analyzed in several cover stories in a recent issue of Newsweek Japan. As pointed out in the column, Yamamoto currently holds no elected office, a situation that essentially gives him plenty of time to formulate his party’s position toward the next general election, when he plans to field about a hundred candidates. He had made no secret of his personal ambition to become prime minister, sooner rather than later, and while that sounds like the usual bluster of a political neophyte, a lot of people in the media are taking him seriously if for no other reason than that he offers a credible alternative to a status quo in which the LDP remains the ruling party mainly because the opposition can’t get its shit together. Newsweek centers Yamamoto’s chances on his left-wing populism, which I attempt to explain in the column. My own feeling is that Yamamoto’s popularity has more to do with his personal engagement in politics, which is a mixture of the kind of charisma associated with right-wing populism—thus, the misgivings of people like filmmaker Tatsuya Mori about his authoritarian tendencies—and an instinctual approach to issues, which he tackles almost recklessly.

If progressives find his non-stance on climate change disappointing and his approval of the emperor system confounding, they still see him as someone who, given the chance and a solid platform, could actually make a difference in a country where differences tend to get pushed aside and change is incremental at best. Because his candidates not only stand for something but represent those positions through provable experience, it’s clear he intends to run on the issues rather than on the usual vague platitudes, so the real question about his party’s prospects is how will he implement such changes? The last time the opposition gained power it ran up against the implacability of the bureaucracy and lost. Though the LDP’s success has always been explained by the general apathy of the public—if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it, except, of course, it is broke—a better explanation of their longevity in power is that they understand that the permanent government runs things in Japan and that they are simply its democratic facade. The bureaucracy allows the LDP to make money for its members as long as those members implement the bureaucracy’s plans. When the now defunct Democratic Party of Japan tried to implement actual change, the bureaucracy successfully and somewhat dishonestly shut them down—most apparent in the matter of the U.S. bases in Okinawa—and their brief tenure as the ruling party is now considered a disaster. The bureaucracy tolerates sideshows such as Shinzo Abe’s lifelong dream to change the Constitution because they don’t think the Constitution applies to them (look at the courts, which are supposed to uphold the Constitution but just uphold the status quo). If Yamamoto’s party does gain some kind of power balance in the near future, this is the central matter he has to confront before he can effectively wield that power. Otherwise he’ll end up howling at the wind like everyone else in the “permanent opposition.”

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Review: Zombieland Double Tap

What made the first Zombieland more interesting than it had any right to be was its attention to dweebish detail, in partcilar its lists of dos and donts when navigating a new American landscape where the undead were a daily danger, but a danger that could be reduced to a mere nuisance if the protocols devised by the film’s redneck hero, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), were followed to the letter. His opposite number, the bookish rube Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), needed some time to absorb this wisdom, and while he managed to adjust a few tenets and add some corollaries of his own, the basic manual of chopping and shooting survived into this sequel, whose very title references one of the rules, which is to ensure that a zombie is really finished by zapping it twice with whatever weapon is at hand.

Otherwise, what is mostly maintained is the spirit of stereotyping that, unfortunately, makes whatever nuanced takes on the zombie zeitgeist offered by Double Tap secondary to the immediate identification it provides to the ruder fanboys. It’s been ten years since the original, so maybe time has just been crueler to the overall concept. Irony, for sure, is deader than a double tapped zombie.

The main drawback is that the women are depicted as being even less useful (and less funny) than they were the first time. Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who was a little girl in the original, is now a grown-ass woman who runs away with a hippie, of all people. Wichita (Emma Stone), whose waggish con-woman schtick provides more credible cynicism than Tallahassee’s kill-em-all sensibility, doesn’t exactly make it as half of a couple, especially when the other half is the purposely annoying Columbus. Most of the plot has to do with these three chasing Little Rock with the added company of a dumb blonde named Madison (Zoey Deutch), who sparks jealous competition on the part of Wichita. Then there’s the doppelganger pair (Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch) who only compound the irritation provided by the Tallahassee-Columbus dynamic. The only thing to be said about the lazy road movie structure is that it allows our mortal mirth-makers chances to camp out in both the White House and Graceland, where the opportunity for cosplay proves irresistible to them and excruciating to the viewer. Regardless of Madison’s pleas for everybody not to be “super-judgy,” my verdict is that these people need to get out of the U.S. Does Europe have zombies, too?

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Zombieland Double Tap home page in Japanese.

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Review: i: Documentary of the Journalist

Writer and documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori obviously likes titles limited to one letter of the alphabet. The two movies that made him famous, the ones about the Aum Shinrikyo cult, were titled A and A2. The title of his latest, is a bit of a mystery until it’s explained at the end, so someone, perhaps producer Mitsunobu Kawamura, suggested the secondary title that pointed out it was a film about journalism, or, actually, one journalist in particular, Isoko Mochizuki, who writes for Tokyo Shimbun. Though Mori teaches about media in Japan and is a common pundit on TV for media-related issues, i, apparently, was not his idea, but rather Kawamura’s. The producer also made that fiction film, Shimbun Kisha, that was released several months ago and which was also based on Mochizuki. It was a hit. This is a kind of companion piece and Kawamura thought Mori was just the guy to do it, and he is, except as with all his documentaries, i is more about him than it is about its nominal subject.

Mochizuki has made a name for herself as one of the few reporters who asks tough questions of those in authority, and there is plenty of footage in the movie showing her confronting Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga during regular news conferences at the cabinet office. Mochizuki has been derided by the government for being too insistent, implying that she’s wasting everybody’s time, and for premising her questions on false information. What she’s doing, though, is trying to pin Suga down. Most of the questions depicted in the film have to do with Okinawa, specifically the new U.S. marine base being built at Henoko, and Mochizuki can’t rightly ask a question about things like feasability and whether the government’s construction plans are legal without explaining the background, but since Suga never gives more than a one word answer, which resolves nothing, the exercise really does seem like a waste of time. Mochizuki knows he will answer in such a way, so what she is mainly trying to do is show what a reporter is supposed to do in such circumstances.

Though these news conference snippets are a very small part of the movie in terms of running time, they are the most significant because the whole point is to reveal how toothless the media is due to their complicity in government stonewalling. Unfortunately, we don’t get much of a sense of Mochizuki as a reporter, meaning someone who writes stories. Her interview style is dogged and pointed, and it’s exhilirating to watch her tail her interlocutor down a hallway or ambush him outside his office. But perhaps because he doesn’t see any point in it, Mori never gives us any of the results of these interviews. Is Mochizuki’s reporting making a difference, or just her pugnacious style? In any case, she pursues three topics during the course of the movie: Henoko, the rape case of fellow journalist Shiori Ito, and the Moritomo Gakuen school scandal. Certainly the most telling sequence in the movie is when Mori essentially highjacks Mochizuki’s interview with Moritomo’s owners, Yasunori and Junko Kagoike. It’s as if he were investigating the scandal, not Mochizuki.

Similarly, there are a number of scenes showing Mori trying to gain press credential to cabinet office new conferences, so he can record Mochizuki doing her thing in the flesh, and, of course, he’s constantly turned down because he’s a freelancer. Another freelancer, Tetsuo Jimbo, explains to Mori that it took him 15 years to finally get a seat at the pressers, so it’s hardly necessary to show Mori getting turned down on the phone, but suffice to say that Mori isn’t going to lose to Mochizuki in the persistence department. In the end, i is less about Mochizuki than it is about Mori’s pronouncements about the sad state of news reporting in Japan, which is where the one-letter title comes in. It’s “I” as in first person singular pronoun in English, which Mori thinks is important since the news media addresses its responsibility more as a “we.” To drive home this point, he occasionally flashes an image of a dense school of fish, implying that all Japanese reporters work cohesively to follow and disseminate the government line. It’s a specious analysis, though, because in order for the media to fulfill their responsibility as watchdog they have to confront the powers that be as a group. They have to be as monolithic as the government even if each outlet and writer is pursuing their own agenda. Mochizuki is admirable in her iconoclasm, but that’s the problem, as she points out: She’s only doing what a normal reporter should do. It shouldn’t be extraordinary. Of course, i should be seen by as many people as possible so as to bring home how impotent the mass media is in Japan, but Mochizuki’s quixotic efforts should be seen for what they are: meaningless if they don’t produce news that people can use. Mori doesn’t show that she’s doing that; only that she’s trying.

In Japanese. (Prints with English subtitles may be screened at a future date) Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Picadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Eurospace (03-3461-0211).

i home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 i shimbunsha document seisaku iinkai

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Media Mix, Nov. 10, 2019

Issey Ogata in “The Sun”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the “emperor taboo.” In the piece I refer to an article from 2018 that surveyed movies depicting or otherwise including the emperor in some capacity. Most of the titles mentioned in the article dwelled on World War II, meaning that the emperor under discussion was Hirohito, or Emperor Showa, as he is now called. One of the core reasons for the taboo as it applied to Hirohito is that, despite his renunciation of his divinity, older Japanese still felt him to be something of a god, and, in any case, postwar political thought at least entertained the idea that he was responsible for the war. So while most postwar films that addressed wartime subjects tread lightly around the emperor’s involvement, a few presented that involvement in clever ways that may have flown over the heads of studios and other self-censoring entities. A 1963 comedy called Haike, Tenno Heika-sama, starring Kiyoshi Atsumi of the Tora-san series, included one scene where the bumbling protagonist, newly arrived at a drill area where Hirohito was to appear, comically tries to sneak a peak at the emperor’s face, thus making fun of the whole divine aspect of the monarchy. Of course, the film itself does not show the emperor’s face. In the 1972 movie, Gunki Hata Meku Shita ni, which takes place in the South Pacific near the end of the war, a non-commissioned officer is executed for insubordination, and right before he dies he screams, “Tenno Heika!”, or “His majesty the emperor.” However, the doomed soldier does not add the customary “Banzai!”, an exhortation that expresses the speaker’s hope that the emperor’s reign will last 10,000 years. By leaving out the “banzai” part, the filmmakers signal to the audience that the soldier is not praising the emperor, but rather protesting him or making an appeal, either of which were forbidden before the end of the war.

The most famous non-appearance of Hirohito in a dramatic movie was in Japan’s Longest Day, a 1967 feature about the decision to surrender. In this film, the emperor was only shown from the back, and the situation was so sensitive that the identity of the actor who supplied that back was kept secret by the studio so as not to endanger his life. Notably, in the 2015 remake of the movie, the emperor was played by former idol singer Masahiro Motoki, who, of course, looks nothing like Hirohito, which may have been the point. It’s certainly the most open depiction of Emperor Showa ever attempted in a Japanese movie, but because Motoki is so well-known, there was no risk of people somehow identifying the image on the screen with the actual person being represented. In any case, certain traditionalists were still taken aback and protested accordingly.

Foreign filmmakers have no such taboo, but interestingly enough, Japanese emperors in Hollywood movies tend to be played by kabuki actors, as in The Last Samurai and Emperor. Perhaps it’s coincidental, but the pedigree of both kabuki stars and the imperial family are based solely on male lineage. The great exception is the comic actor Issey Ogata who played Hirohito as a mumbling, distracted little man in Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun, a decidedly non-Hollywood movie that found distribution in Japan despite itself. The casting, in fact, was more noteworthy than the film itself, which was so insular as to be almost meaningless in terms of shedding light on the emperor as an individual. He was definitely a man in the script, but his relationship to the war and, more significantly, his subjects was almost perversely vague.

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Review: The Trip to Spain

This third exploration of the semi-fictional competition-friendship between the two British comedic actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, tries to get by on the pure momentum generated by the last installment, The Trip to Italy, which was and will probably remain the high point in the series about two insufferable entertainers tooling around the countryside on some publication’s dime sampling amazing food, accommodations, and scenery while bemoaning their respective personal and professional setbacks. Though Coogan and Brydon got much more mileage out of their considerable celebrity impersonation skills in Italy than they did in the original The Trip, where they simply traveled the English countryside and which was edited down from a TV mini-series, here the surrounding plot is so weak and gratuitous that you almost get the feeling the whole movie was built around these seemingly spontaneous attempts at one-upmanship in the mimicry arts, which peaks during a sequence in which Coogan, attempting to explain to two female acquaintances the importance of moor culture in Spain, is confounded by Brydon’s incessant impersonation of Roger Moore. The scene outdoes Ricky Gervais (also referenced at least twice in the movie, which is nothing if not incestuous about British comedy) in terms of wince-inducing faux hilarity, and you really just want it to stop as soon as possible.

The main problem with the plot-like scaffolding is that Coogan this time is the conceited jerk, having just come off an Oscar nomination for a screenplay that has filled his head with dreams of being a great writer. When he and Brydon are offered yet another chance to pig out on the road, this time in Spain, a destination Coogan once sampled when he was a young man, he gets the idea of writing a book comparing this outing to the one where he, naturally, lost his virginity to a woman almost twice his age. Unfortunately, the script, credited to the two actors and director Michael Winterbottom, saddles him now with an affair with a married woman about half his age. Brydon, who was the forlorn one in the last movie, is now back with his wife who in the meantime has produced two children just as he’s turning 50. Though Brydon certainly acts the harried middle aged new father, the viewer is constantly being clued in as to which of the two fussbudgets are on a more realistic and fulfilling life path. This aspect of the series has always been its focal point, since the two men’s insecurities as manifested in their rivalry over their peculiar talents have been the only source of conflict in movies that are otherwise nothing more than aspirational travelogues studded with standup, but the conflict was prickly enough to be engaging. Here, it’s just plain predictable, and while Coogan doesn’t really deserve the bitter fate that befalls him, in the end you probably won’t care any way. As always, the food looks great, but my covetousness did not run over this time. Their company didn’t quite sit well with me, and the fact that Brexit didn’t even enter into their conversations made me quite suspicious. It’s one thing to not be serious, quite another to deny reality altogether.

Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

The Trip to Spain home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Sky UK Limited 2017

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Review: At Eternity’s Gate

It could be argued that we don’t need another biopic of Vincent Van Gogh, certainly the most cinematized painter of all time. And on the surface, Julian Schnabel’s treatment of the tormented Dutchman covers much of the same ground that previous movies have, at least temporally. He limits the film to the last year of Van Gogh’s life, but rather than dwell on his state of mind or what might or might not have happened during those last fateful, disputed months, he looks squarely at the work, which makes sense since Schnabel is a respected painter himself.

The thing that the director has to point out is that during his life Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) was unknown except for by a handful of other artists, and, of course, Schnabel references his brief but intense friendship with Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). This may be the most gratuitous sequence in the movie, since it seems Schnabel can’t get through his thesis without showing Gauguin’s influence on Van Gogh’s style, which, in essence, doesn’t really exist in Schnabel’s mind. In any event, once Van Gogh was released from a French asylum his work pace increased exponentially. Allegedly, he painted 150 pictures during that last year, selling only one of them. It’s common wisdom that Van Gogh didn’t care about money, much to his art dealer brother Theo’s (Rupert Friend) disappointment, but the style was so out there that it took decades for the rest of the world to catch up.

“God gave you this gift to keep you in misery,” Van Gogh tells himself as he newly discovers the light in Arles, where he achieved this monumental task, and another good point that Schnabel makes is that it was Van Gogh’s rejection of the city, or society in general, that afforded him the vision to see nature as being the real subject of his aesthetic. Schnabel conveys this realization by making the film every bit as impressionistic as Van Gogh’s work, but it only works to a certain extent. At times the style overwhelms the narrative, which loses too much traction in the end, and though we may not need another psychological analysis of Vincent’s life, his final days are portrayed so murkily that we get no sense of what kind of state he was in.

Nevertheless, Dafoe’s performance often breaks through the murk to give us something profound in both Van Gogh’s sensibility and his failure to connect to people. It helps alleviate some of Schnabel’s overbearing need to wallow in Vincent’s suffering for its own sake. Dafoe’s character is not so much a man who is crazy but rather one who is so overwhelmed by what his senses tell him that he is contantly distracted, and in that way he isn’t so much “miserable” as ill-equipped to deal with life as most people live it. He may have not been born for this world, but he was not a victim of it, either.

In English and French. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

At Eternity’s Gate home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Walk Home Productions LLC 2018

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