Review: Wonder Wheel

It’s often difficult to tell with Woody Allen where the satire ends and the pretension begins. The narrator of Wonder Wheel is a would-be writer named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who toots his own horn often enough while relating the sad tale of the mess he made of the life of a married woman named Ginny (Kate Winslet). It’s easy to poke fun at Mickey’s pronouncements on Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare, though after a while you begin to wonder if it isn’t the director’s own need for us to understand the allusions he’s making in his own script, which isn’t bad as far as romantic potboilers go, but you can only cut Allen so much slack when it comes to affairs of the heart.

Mickey makes a living as a lifeguard at Coney Island, where Ginny lives with her ne’er-do-well, alcoholic, borderline violent husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who runs the merry-go-round. It’s the 1950s, and the famous amusement park is on the skids, so Ginny works as a waitress to make ends meet. Her affair with Mickey is aspirational. At one time a budding actress, Ginny falls for Mickey’s lines about a life of the mind that will include her and her talents, but nothing much comes of it. And then Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), from a previous relationship, shows up. She’s running from her mobster ex-husband and Humpty seems to feel responsible for her, though Ginny, obviously, doesn’t. It’s not exactly O’Neill, more like bargain basement Clifford Odets, but it turns out to be Allen’s sturdiest plot in a long time, and for a while the gears move with a steady rhythm that draws the viewer in. Even the grace notes, like Humpty’s love of fishing, which Ginny hates, add credibility to the story and the characterizations.

Unfortunately, once Carolina becomes the focus of the subsequent intrigue, the plot becomes predictable. You know feckless Mickey is going to fall for her and that Ginny will find out and all sorts of hysterical words will be exchanged, turning the dynamics from that of Odets to that of Tennessee Williams. As intuitive as she usually is on screen, Winslet becomes almost unbearable to watch as Ginny falls victim to a series of migraines, which, in turn, knock Humpty off the wagon. The movie turns maudlin and depressing, which is especially a shame since Allen does some of his most creative visual work, perhaps invigorated by memories of the locations, where he grew up. The satiny, golden look of the film would inspire nostalgia in anyone, but there’s nothing to reinforce the longing. The miserable lives on display have nothing inspiring about them. It’s as if the story is all in Mickey’s mind, a play he’s working on. We should have known, because right from the start you could tell the guy’s a chump.

Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Picadilly (03-5367-1144).

Wonder Wheel home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Gravier Productions Inc.

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Review: Only the Brave

Though stuffed to the gills with macho signifiers and the sentimentalized homoerotic comradeship of men in peril, this action film about the job of forest firefighting is notable for the way it incorporates the minutiae of the job into a kickass storyline without making it feel pedantic or dry. In the opening scenes, a fire department supervisor for the city of Prescott, Arizona, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), prepares his team for recertification from your normal fire crew to a coveted federally recognized “hotshot” team, which are called on only to battle the most dangerous forest fires. The crew’s grueling physical training regimen is detailed, but also its logistical knowhow in learning how fires spread, which mostly involves preparing a line at the edge of an area where the fire is heading in order to “contain” it. The work looks unexciting—mostly clearing the area of brush and fuel—but is nevertheless fascinating in the way it enlightens the viewer of what they need to know about the drama that will eventually unfold.

Unfortunately, this straightforward methodology is complicated by the usual dramatic flourishes, embodied in the character of Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a former drug addict who, now that he’s a father, is walking the straight-and-narrow with a particularly upright backbone. Mistrusted by the rest of the crew he’s trying to join, he has his work cut out for him, but Marsh keeps cutting him slack because he suspects that what he’s been through will make him more conscientious as a fireman—not braver or less risk-aversive, but smarter when things get really tough. Marsh is the big brother figure, which means Marsh himself needs a father figure, which comes in the form of Jeff Bridges as Prescott’s fire chief. Though director Joseph Kosinski doesn’t belabor these relationships, he doesn’t do much to make them anything more than emotional fuel that never quite gets lit. Then, of course, there are the women, notably Marsh’s wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who hold down the fort and worry excessively about their men whenever they go into the flaming fray. The requisite action finale is scary and bracing and keeps the focus on what’s real at the moment rather than what’s going to happen. The movie builds suspense from what we have learned about the way forest fires “act.” It’s a rare disaster movie that asks you to appreciate the action based on what it’s already taught you about nature, both human and existential.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Ueno (050-6868-5060), Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (03-3982-6388).

Only the Brave home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 No Exit Film LLC

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Review: April’s Daughter

Mexican director Michel Franco’s signature is a sensationalistic storyline told in a dry manner. The basic idea of April’s Daughter is made for tabloid TV—teen pregnancy as the natural outcome of a broken home. However, Franco doesn’t present this scenario in a way you’d expect. The young mother, Valeria (Ana Becerril), is 17 and, we are led to believe from the very start, likes sex a lot. She lives with her older sister, Clara (Joanna Larequi), in a nice rustic house on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, a situation that belies their material circumstances. Both are dropouts working part-time jobs. We soon learn that the house is owned by their mother, April (Emma Suarez), who doesn’t live with them and for some reason isn’t aware that Valeria is pregnant, even though she’s already 7 months along when the movie opens. Clara, a moody, lonely girl who resents Valeria’s dissipated lifestyle, tells April of her sister’s condition against Valeria’s wishes, and April shows up promising to help out. At first Valeria is suspicious and resentful, as if she’s seen this scene before and learned not to believe in it, but her fears over the coming delivery prove to be too much and she asks her mother to stay and see her through. Valeria’s boyfriend, the studly but somewhat clueless Mateo (Enrique Arrizon), is all for it, since his own parents want nothing to do with the child.

Franco never quite elucidates the family history that would explain what transpires, which is both disturbing and narratively problematic. April, we learn, gave birth to her two daughters when she was not much older than the age Valeria is now, and wasn’t married to the girls’ father (or fathers? Clara and Valeria are too dissimilar to be believable as siblings), who was some 30 years older than she was. Though he shows up in the film briefly, he doesn’t seem to have much to do with his daughters or with April, for that matter, which begs the question: How does April survive herself? She seems to be fairly well off, and though she mentions a job in the film industry at one point, she never seems to work. It isn’t as if Franco were being lazy about these plot points, but rather that he wants the mystery of April’s situation to inform our understanding of her cruel and impractical actions. Eventually, she lives up to Valeria’s worst fears and then goes even further, forcing the girl to go to extraordinary lengths to put her life back together again. But even at the end the viewer struggles to distinguish the lies the characters tell from the truths behind them.

Franco’s storytelling methodology is infuriating, but the movie is nonetheless successful as a potboiler. It may, in fact, be too mannered. Had the director used a more sensationalistic approach, he could have retained the mystery and made it acceptable. By treating the whole affair as a psychological study instead of a cautionary tale he robbed it of its natural dramatic potential. Good for film festivals, but not quite what the material deserves.

In Spanish. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space (03-3461-0211).

April’s Daughter home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Lucia Films S. de R.L de C.V. 2017

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Media Mix, June 17, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about elderly drivers. I mention that some local governments have tried to address the problem by providing transportation services for seniors who give up their cars, but I didn’t go into detail. This is a problem in my area. We live in the middle of an agricultural area that is not far from a large suburban zone in Chiba Prefecture. Cars are very necessary here and public transportation is very sparse. The city bus that passes closest to our house only comes five times a day in either direction, and even when you order a taxi you may have to wait up to an hour for one to show up unless you order it, like, a day in advance. There just aren’t that many operating in the area. Consequently, older people—and there are a lot where we live—are compelled to keep their licenses and drive everywhere. Personally, I think Uber would do very well out here, or something like Uber, but from what I understand the various taxi industry associations have successfully kept Uber and other ride-sharing businesses out of Japan. Uber’s presence in Japan is as a partner with taxi companies, who use their app and actually charge more for the service, so Uber is thought of (and advertised as) something for people of means. Of course, a complete bus service is what our area and, I imagine, many rural areas in Japan really need, even if it loses money. That’s what local government is for. But if they want something that is more business-oriented, they should look into ride-sharing schemes, even if it’s only available to seniors. Otherwise, it is very difficult to make people give up their cars once their capabilities start to dim.

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Review: The Big House

As a documentary filmmaker, Kazuhiro Soda goes with what he knows, or, more precisely, who he knows. In most cases his subjects are people he’s close to, and while the relationship makes the filmmaking process easier and more open it also allows Soda to sort of cruise. His latest film is more ambitious in terms of scale, but it still takes the easy way. Apparently, Soda had a teaching gig at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and he recruited some of his students to help him make a documentary about the university’s famous football stadium, which is supposedly the second biggest sports facility in the world. Filming mainly during a home game against UM’s nemesis Michigan State, the group of more than 15 cameramen try to take in everything, from concessions to rich alumni to scalpers and even the locker room.

It’s a rich, enlightening movie that provides a good idea of the kind of chaos that such sports events generate in the U.S., and thus reinforces the stereotype many people have about American excess. Nevertheless, this is basically a PR film about the University of Michigan that was produced and funded by the University of Michigan, so despite the extensiveness of the coverage, the film never really gets below the surface. We see the VIP booths filled with rich OBs who aren’t shy about telling us how much it cost, but we never really get much information about who these alumni are and what such associations mean. Nobody bothers to explain the rivalry between UM and certain teams that makes their games some of the most anticipated in America. (Soda himself has said he knew nothing about the sport being played before he started the project.) There are a lot of statistics thrown at the viewer, but none are given proper context to make any sort of impression except ones of volume and size. The Big House is the perfect title, because everything in the movie is celebrated for its bulk.

Including the movie itself. Though it was never boring, it did seem about 20-30 minutes too long, owing probably to Soda’s desire to use everything his students gave him, or at least to be fair. And, to his credit, he is fair. Everyone who filmed got an equal director’s credit.

Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum (03-5766-0114).

The Big House home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Regents of the University of Michigan

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Review: The Day After

Hong Sang-soo’s antiromantic comedies differ little in terms of narrative themes, and tend to distinguish themselves through formal construction. The Day After is almost unique among his films in that its form is conventional—no “what if” digressions or POV mischief—and for once the comedy is clear-eyed and unfussy. Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is a typical Hong stand-in protagonist, a noted critic-cum-small press publisher who is having an extramarital affair with his only employee, Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byuk). In the brilliantly staged opening scene, Bong-wan is having breakfast with his wife, Hae-joo (Jo Yoon-hee), who has somehow gotten wise to the affair and plies him with questions as he plays with his food and laughs at her. The scene is both hilariously on point and witheringly precise about the marriage dynamic, but the viewer has no way of knowing whether Hae-joo’s suspicions are correct. Still, if the viewer has seen a Hong film before they can probably assume them to be.

Hong subverts this expectation by showing it’s both true and false. Bong-wan has already broken up with Chang-sook, and in an intensely uncomfortable flashback shows how, during one of those drunken meals Hong is so fond of (this one during the day), Chang-sook goes swiftly from trusting acolyte to resentful victim, accusing Bong-wan of cowardice. She quits him and her job in a nasty huff. When the narrative returns to what has been set up as “the present,” Bong-wan is interviewing a replacement named Areum (Kim Min-hee, who, for what it’s worth, Hong had left his wife for). It’s obvious from the outset that Bong-wan means Areum to not only replace Chang-sook as assistant, but also lover, and the brilliance of the sequence of scenes that develops this seduction is how it reveals Bong-wan’s eternally narcissistic temperament without showing him to be underhanded. Areum, a student of good literature, is enamored of the older man and while she doesn’t seem interested in sleeping with him doesn’t lay down the law–at least not at first.

The ringer, the incident that tips her hand, is when Hae-joo, still steaming from that morning’s breakfast tiff, shows up at the office while her husband is out running an errand and mistakes Areum for the mistress who has already quit and supposedly moved on. There’s a deliciously old-fashioned comic vibe to the scene that recalls the best of Preston Sturges, as Areum, totally unprepared for the fusillade of abuse this woman directs at her, tries desperately to get a handle on what is actually going on.

Hong doesn’t stop there. Chang-sook eventually returns and there are several more dual dialogue sequences that sample every possible configuration of characters. Being the only man in the picture, Bong-wan is asked to represent his gender, and, as is Hong’s wont, he fails miserably as a sexual being and a professional. But if the women come off better in contrast, it’s not because they stand up to Bong-wan’s interminable self-regard. If anything, all three still seem mysteriously invested in his approval. Some will call this element sexist in nature, but Hong’s jokes have always been at his own expense. Any woman who is fool enough to fall in love with him deserves what she gets.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

The Day After home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Jeonwonsa Film Co.

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Media Mix, June 10, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the media’s sudden interest in the detention of undocumented foreigners. As pointed out in the column, most of the people being detained are overstayers, but apparently there is a good many who are asylum seekers. Given the extremely low likelihood of obtaining a refugee visa from the Japanese government, it’s surprising that asylum seekers even consider Japan, though, of course, if they are genuinely desperate because of conditions in their home country that may not be an appropriate reaction. In any case, the government has said that most asylum seekers come to Japan for economic reasons, and if you’re a healthy skeptic you’ll take that position with a strong dose of salt because the Japanese government has baldly stated that it’s their aim to prevent foreign laborers from taking up permanent residence in Japan, even though everyone knows Japan needs workers. Part of my own skepticism springs from the belief that, at one time, asylum seekers were allowed to stay in Japan on a provisional basis and even work while their applications were processed, but that was changed in 2012 when the provisional work-release program was suspended.

However, according to a report I saw on the NHK news show “Closeup Gendai” last week, which was broadcast after I had filed this week’s Media Mix column, the work-release program seems to be back on. The show was about a temp company that acts as a middle man between asylum seekers and small companies who needed workers. NHK made no mention of the suspension of the work-release program in 2012, implying that the law was never changed. More significantly, the foreigners who apply for refugee status openly claim economic reasons on their applications, which means, of course, that they are guaranteed to be turned down. (It also means the government’s claim that most asylum seekers’ reasons for coming to Japan are economic is true.) This would appear to be nothing more than a gaping loophole in the immigration system, and it seems there are thousands of foreigners working in Japan on refugee work-release permits. The foreigners who apply for the permits know this well and seem fine with it.

As pointed out by one of the participants in the forum I mentioned in Sekai magazine’s June issue, despite its hard-ass reputation, Japan really has no immigration policy. Everything is ad hoc, depending on the circumstances at the moment. The government wants the public to think it’s not letting in foreigners for low-paying jobs, but anyone with eyes can see that’s not true. Even the refugee application process is being gamed—and by the government itself.

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