Review: Viceroy’s House

Given the casting of Hugh Bonneville in the role of Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India before independence, it’s easy to guess that the producers wanted direct comparisons between this dramatic recreation of the summer of 1947 and Downton Abbey, though it more rightly resembles Upstairs/Downstairs in its contrast between the political machinations of the British overlords and the romantic goings-on among the servants in the titular establishment.

But to say that selling point does a disservice to the historical magnitude of the subsequent partition that created Pakistan and forever plunged the subcontinent into lethal, genocidal squabbling is perhaps too much. For sure, the complications of the deal have been filtered down into a cynical play for post-colonial “security” on the part of the British, which, while true up to a point seem here more informed by dramatic stimulation than accuracy. More troubling is using the forbidden love between a Hindu valet (Manish Dayal) and a Muslim secretary (Huma Qureshi) to represent the tragedy of partition in a dull, hackneyed way that has more to do with Bollywood than the Merchant-Ivory quality drama model that writer-director Gurinder Chadha obviously had in mind. Mountbatten and his idealistic wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), are also perhaps too on-the-nose sympathetic to make you believe things happened the way they did. When Edwina summarily fires a middle-aged career female English servant for complaining that a native servant is “standing too close,” you know character development is not one of Chadha’s strong points. Similarly, Michael Gambon’s British government fixer practically announces himself as the fly in the post-independence ointment as soon as he shows up scowling and genuflecting. Gandhi and Nehru and Jinnah are stock players asked to play gods and don’t quite get it.

But, of course, if you really want to know what happened, you should read a good history book. (My recommendation: Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann) Viceroy’s House, despite its exaggerations and romantic affectations, will at least suffice in conveying the magnitude of bad colonial practice, no matter how well-meaning (Dickie’s motives are the purest). One might call it the ultimate cautionary tale except that Britain subjugated the sub-continent for three whole centuries. Suffering and stupidity are inevitable.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Viceroy’s House home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Pathe Productions Ltd., Reliance Big Entertainment (US) Inc., British Broadcasting Corporation, The British Film Institute and Bend It Films Ltd. 2016

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Review: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Christopher McQuarrie returns to direct the sixth installment of Tom Cruise’s vanity project, which he has every right to be proud of, and not just because it continuously breaks box office records internationally. For what it’s worth, the Mission: Impossible franchise is the most seaworthy of action vessels, but that reliability is only partly due to its watertight premise based on the famous 1960s TV series about a secret organization that tackles cases too difficult for the usual U.S. government intelligence bodies. What generally keeps the series afloat is Cruise’s unflappable penchant for his own impossible stunts and scripts that are not built to be taken seriously by anyone.

It’s rumored, in fact, that McQuarrie and his writers mostly came up with the story as they filmed. This is certainly the most carefree addition to the monolith, a trait that doesn’t impinge on those moments of ludicrous suspense as Impossible Missions Force team leader, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), dangles precariously from an airplane fuselage or scales a rock face while dripping blood. And while attempting to follow the plot closely amounts to a chump’s game, there are moments of coherence that are so startling as to make you wonder if McQuarrie and his gaggle of writers might have boned up on their Le Carre beforehand. As is often been the case in all the movies in the series, the IMF is working at odds with the CIA, who as represented by an often confused Alec Baldwin and a steely Angela Bassett, is as likely to feed Hunt to the sharks as send in the cavalry to save him. But that theme results in one of the series’ most intriguing characters, a CIA bruiser named Walker (Henry Cavill), who at first seems to be working for the other side but eventually reveals himself as Hunt’s government appointed minder. The tension between the two men as they carry out their mission, which is to retrieve nuclear bomb parts that are on their way to some secretive, freelance terrorist organization, is the most satisfying aspect of the film and makes for a compelling love-hate relationship between the two men that often results in violence. Lovers’ spats can be so thrilling, especially when one of them is known for having played Superman.

This dynamic makes the more conventional romantic relationship between Hunt and the returning turncoat Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and the one-that-got-away, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), trite, but while both women are injected into the festivities rather gratuitously, they do manage to bring a welcome feminine sensibility to proceedings that are top heavy with the tired boys club atmosphere supplied by the dwindling IMF team of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). Nobody expects an MI movie to be boring—that would be a violation of Tom Cruise’s contract with Paramount—but Fallout is actually better than it has any right to be. It’s stupidly thrilling.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (0506868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas (03-5979-1660), Toho Cinemas Ueno (050-6868-5066).

Mission: Impossible – Fallout home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Paramount Pictures

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Review: Double Lover

Though Francois Ozon has made an enviable reputation for himself by being both prolific and consistently engaging, his best movies are throwbacks to enduring styles that have never really benefited from being updated. Double Lover falls into this category. It’s the kind of psychological thriller that Hitchcock not only invented in cinematic terms but seemed to have perfected before anyone else tried to recreate it. Though relatively free of shock value and suspense, the movie nevertheless casts a queasy spell that lasts well after the lights go up.

Twentyish Chloe (Marine Vacth) suffers from chronic stomach discomfort that her doctor can’t diagnose and thus suspects it may be psychosomatic. She refers the young woman to a therapist, Paul (Jeremie Renier), with whom she falls into a passionate love affair almost too quickly. Ozon’s voyeuristic tendencies tend to be one of the sticking points for critics who have never been on board with his lush visual preferences, and the sex and nudity here seems almost provocatively gratuitous until you realize it’s a means of making the viewer question the reality of either Chloe’s viewpoint or Paul’s. The answer comes, again, almost too quickly, when, after Chloe and Paul move in together, she looks through some of his stuff and finds items that would seem to indicate he once had a different name. Consequently, she starts seeing Paul in unexpected places, sometimes with other women. She becomes sensitive to his schedule, and wonders if he is living a double life. The truth, or, at least, the truth as far as Chloe perceives it, is even more disturbing. When Paul recommends that Chloe go to a different therapist because he doesn’t think he can properly treat her and be her lover at the same time, she seeks out the “other” Paul, who is also a therapist named Louis. But whereas Paul is considerate and even gentle in his lovemaking, Louis is aggressive and somewhat scary. Louis claims to be Paul’s twin brother, though Paul has said he has no siblings.

As titillating as Double Lover often is, it doesn’t quite deliver the transgressive excitement of other Ozon pastiches, and certainly isn’t as startling as some of his purely idiosyncratic works, like Swimming Pool or Under the Sand. You don’t have to be an amateur sleuth or psychologist to see where the film is going and there isn’t much of a buildup to the climax. You sort of watch just so you can find out if your hunch is correct. Still, the movie is crackerjack entertainment, a visually rich hall of mirrors with preternaturally attractive people and eye-catching production design. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen where I actually envied the person suffering what appears to be a gradual nervous breakdown.

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

Double Lover home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Mandarin Production-Foz-Mars Films-Playtime-France 2 Cinema-Scope Pictures/Jean-Claude Moireau

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Media Mix, Aug. 5, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about how LDP lawmaker Mio Sugita’s controversial remarks about LGBT individuals highlights the Japanese mindset regarding rigid family structures. Though I’ve discussed this matter many times before in this column (it has personal meaning since my Japanese partner was born out of wedlock), what’s particularly galling about Sugita’s viewpoint is how it affects children down the line. Her ideas about “productivity” are entirely utilitarian and, as such, sidestep the issue of what’s best for a child in the scope of what constitutes a “family.” To her, the fact that LGBT people can’t naturally have children (though, to be consistent, gay men can donate sperm and lesbians can give birth) is the only criterion for their contributions to society as a whole. There are, of course, other ways to contribute to society, as there are ways to contribute to the family life of a nation. The reason I concentrated on special adoptions is to show that once a child is born, the state seems to think it has no further responsibility, since children become the property of their birth parents.

But what if the parents are unable for whatever reason to raise that child? This question is fraught with difficulties that all societies must address. Because of the primacy of the family register, the Japanese authorities are loath to take a child away from a parent if that parent won’t give up custody, even if the parent cannot raise the child. Even if the authorities acknowledge that the parent is a danger to the child (which happens very often but, as the occasional abuse-related death of young children in Japan proves, perhaps not enough) they will not revoke the parent’s custody unilaterally, which means the child ends up in an institution or in foster care. Adoption is still a social taboo, and parents who adopt a child as their own do so almost always as a last resort, after all options for natural birth or medically assisted conception have been exhausted. It’s safe to say no one in Japan adopts a child for the sake of adoption. That’s why special adoptions are “special”: they are unusual, a decision that implies desperation. Adoptive parents want to keep it a secret.

What’s clear is that the system favors the primacy of the natural family and the natural parent rather than the welfare of the child. The government’s decision to make it easier to specially adopt older children does not look, on the surface, to be a means of making life easier for orphaned or otherwise parent-free (as opposed to parentless) children, but rather a means of making it easier for couples who, for whatever reason, can’t have children “of their own” to create families. The intentions are different and informed by the family register. As long as the koseki system exists in its present form, that will always be the case.

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Review: The Death of Stalin

As he proved with the 2009 political satire, In the Loop, director Armando Iannucci is not afraid to delve deep into the curdled souls of ambitious men and women for comedy that smarts more than it entertains. He is the reason a wholly offensive TV show like Veep works as well as it does, and his reimagination of the inner-Kremlin machinations following the sudden death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 is funny for the same wincing reasons, but it offers something even more subversive: History you can use and laugh at at the same time.

Reportedly, Iannucci faithfully follows the historical record of those fateful days, when Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) emerged the new leader of the Soviet Union out of a struggle among party sycophants who had to maneuver through a minefiled of shifting loyalties and sprung vendettas. At times, the scheming and vectors of implication become so convoluted as to be numbing, but Iannucci incorporates genius casing to make it all easier to follow. In effect, the actors show off their most iconic public images so as to give the viewer a grip on their characters’ respective personalities. Buscemi’s Krushchev is all blistering sarcasm and withering one-liners. Jeffrey Tambor’s bewigged Georgy Malenkov is the epitome of opportunistic obsequeousness. Michael Palin lends the foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, the kind of intemperate hail-fellow-well-met attitude that characterized his most iconic Monty Python characters while injecting it all with acute paranoia.

Though the style is extreme slapstick of the Abbot and Costello variety, the comedy works so well because of our prejudices about Soviet life. In the brilliant opening scene, a Radio Moscow director (Paddy Considine) is forced to recreate the performance of a Mozart concerto that was just aired because Stalin wants a copy of it and he forgot to record it. The hapless bureaucrat scrambles around trying to persuade the orchestra, pianist, and conductor (another must be found) to do it again while also pulling people off the street to sit in the audience. The ludicrousness of the situation is compounded by the notion that this probably happened the way it did. (Apparently, something like this did, in fact, occur.)

Though the script is based on a graphic novel, the movie is pure cinema in the old style. Iannucci interweaves what are basically two- and three-person sketches into the fabric of a story that is believable despite the use of non-dialectical English and oversized caricatures. Simon Russell Beale’s Lavrenti Beria, the most fearsome survivor of Stalin’s regime, is the kind of oily salesman you want on your team but would damn to hell if he came at you from the other side. He’s the most sinister figure in the film and also the funniest because…well, he can have you killed in the wink of an eye. This is the comedy of perfect timing, and the performances, not to mention the on-the-nose editing, keep the pace galloping without dropping a single gag. If The Death of Stalin doesn’t quite match In the Loop in terms of macabre horror, it’s only because pre-60s Soviet culture is too far away to make us care about the ill fates of these men’s subjects the way we trembled at the more credible damage the Bush-Blair era did on the American and Brisith peoples. It’s easier to laugh at stupid, self-destructive Russians than at our own deluded selves.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Cine Quinto (03- 3477-5905), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

The Death of Stalin home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Mitico-Main Journey-Gaumont-France 3 Cinema-AFPI-Panache Productions- La Cie Cinematographique-Death of Stalin the Film Ltd.

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Revew: Incredibles 2

Though Pixar and Marvel are two separate production companies, both are distributed by Disney, a context that becomes problematic as the sequel to one of the best Pixar movies ever begins. The superhero Parr family battles a villain called the Underminer in Metroville and in the process destroys the city in order to save it. That is the same plot device that activated one of the Avengers movies, so you accept that fact as either a comment on Marvel or a shameless simulation of the studio style.

In any case, the mayhem leads to the banning of superheroes and the Parr’s laying low until they are approached by a rich investor (Bob Odenkirk) and his inventor sister (Catherine Keener), who have a scheme to make superheroes popular among the public again and thus rescind the ban. After movng the family into some palatial, ultra-modernist digs, they recruit Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to be the sole face of their project while her husband, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), is left at home to raise the kids and keep house. So while Elastigirl is saving her new urban home from the likes of a villain who can control all technologies and bend mortals to his will (thus making him the ultimate super villain), Mr. Incredible is at home trying to help his son Dash with his homework, giving pep talks to his lovelorn teenage daughter Violet, and learning that the couple’s newborn, Jack-Jack, has pretty awesome super powers of his own.

Director Brad Bird isn’t coy about the role reversal cliches here, and, in fact, does pretty well by them, considering how moldy some of them are. Mr. Incredible’s cluelessnes with his daughter is standard sitcom material, but his anxiety about his place not only in the family but in the scheme of things is treated with a certain bold sincerity. At the same time, while Elastigirl is successfully carrying out the PR purposes of the siblings she serves, she worries that she’s enjoying herself too much at the expense of her children, whose development she’s missing out on. Bird is too much of an entertainer to allow these elements to get too heavy, but the movie’s poignant moments work more than they don’t. In any event, when things get too heavy, he can always go back to Jack-Jack, whose discovery of his own powers is pretty hilarious.

But if Marvel was the model for the opening it also ends up being the template for the big finale, where the whole family gets back together to defeat the aforementioned super-villain in earnest. It’s a wild, exhilirating, imcomprehensible ride, the kind of overcooked action filmmaking that most audiences take for granted now but which Pixar enthusiasts have fortunately been spared from having to sit through. In many ways, Incredibles 2 is better than the original, but it also succumbs to every superhero trope the original so successfully trashed.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Ueno (050-6868-5066), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (03-3982-6388).

Incredibles 2 home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Disney/Pixar

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Lauryn Hill, Budokan, Jan. 21, 1999

I just watched Lauryn Hill’s performance at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago online and marveled at how little her live show had changed in 20 years. Here’s my take on her first tour, which was published in the Japan Times but isn’t on the internet.

Lauryn Hill opened her Jan. 21 Budokan concert—the first date on her inaugural world tour—by singing the gospel standard, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” With the hall lights down, Hill delivered the song offstage to only organ accompaniment, as if it were an invocation. “I sing because I’m happy,” goes the most memorable line, which rides on an ascending glissando that’s supposed to indicate a closer proximity to God through singing. Hill did without the glissando, and though it might have been a simple stylistic decision, it gave the line a more secular feel, setting the tone for what was to come.

God knows, Lauryn Hill has much to be happy about. Her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has topped every entertainment-related publication’s best album list for 1998, and has sold more than three million copies in the U.S. alone. She is in constant demand as a writer and producer, having already worked on tracks for, among others, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Cece Wynans. And she’s been nominated for every Grammy there is except microphone placement.

By themselves, these accomplishments and accolades don’t necessarily add up to anything more than flavor-of-the-year status, but Hill offers something that few 23-year-old superstar divas would even conceive of. More than simply aiming to be the baddest (male or female) M.C. or the richest (all connotations) soul singer on the block, Hill means to be the conscience of her community.

And when I say community, I’m talking borderless. The warmth in the ovation that greeted the singer as she took the stage with her huge complement of musicians, DJs, and singers was unmistakable. Tottering about on perilously stacked heels, and singing “Ex-Factor,” a song about the shock of suddenly realizing that the love you thought was permanent is not, there was something jarring about the juxtaposition of the desperation in the vocals with the outpouring of affection from the arena. “This is crazy,” she sang.

Hill attracts this kind of devotion because she situates everything she does in the realm of the personal. Her life is an open book. Hip-hop, of course, is dominated by the self-promoting confessional voice, which says if you don’t like how I’m living, it’s too bad. Hill’s candor is different, since it attempts to make sympathetic listeners out of everyone in earshot. On the standard rap boast “Superstar,” which she sang next, her targets are somewhere else. All of us in the house were made to feel we were in on the bitchy jokes (“if your rhymes sound like mine/I’m taking a percentage”), because the bad guys are too dumb to get it.

Consequently, her modified Fugees medley had a certain gleeful bite. Hill came of age in the group, and not just musically. The Fugees dared to fight the hip-hop status quo—there was a mission to their music—and when she broke with Wyclef Jean and Pras it was obviously more bitter than it would have been had the split been simply a creative one. In concert, she kicked “Fu-Gee-La” up into a faster, more danceable tempo and played with the tension throughout “Ready or Not,” wherein the band achieved a dub laxity that grooved irresistibly. The audience, again, was happy to be in on the rub. Continue reading

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