Review: Liberation Day

There are actually too many intriguing premises for this spiky documentary directed by two Scandinavians. The overall premise is compelling enough: a Slovenian art-rock band becomes the first foreign pop outfit to play a concert in Pyongyang that’s approved by the government. But even beyond that enticing possibility there are other questions that could very well form the basis of their own documentaries. The band, Laibach, for instance, is famous in Europe for being provocateurs in every conceivable way. They formed when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia and were an active thorn in the side of the government with their abrasive, industrial, strident, but no less melodic pop songs, many of which were ironic standards. For instance, they’ve played concerts that consisted of nothing but songs from The Sound of Music. They also appropriate Nazi imagery as a means of keeping everyone who sees them on their toes, because despite the martial frippery they seem opposed to both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, as suspicious of communist ideals as they are of capitalist truisms.

Then there’s the whole concept of their playing in North Korea, whose officials don’t understand irony and certainly don’t trust Laibach to follow orders. Which brings us to our third and, in a sense, most telling premise: Laibach’s appearance is brokered by a Norwegian, Morten Traavik, who also happens to be one of the film’s directors, for reasons that seem subversively dangerous, or, at least, dangerous to his own well-being. Traavik is a frequent visitor to the Hermit Kingdom, where he promotes cultural exchange programs, and so has managed to cultivate a relationship with the powers that be despite that fact that every indication given by the film says he’s a prickly, difficult customer. But that may be Traavik playing up to the camera for the sake of boosting the film’s entertainment value, which is already considerable. In any case, Traavik manages to convince officials who want nothing to do with Laibach to allow them to perform, under strict conditions, however.

What’s truly refreshing about Liberation Day is the way Traavik spins the negotiations, rehearsals, and the concert itself into a kind of Herzogian absurdist treatise on the limits of cultural control. One of the ways Laibach convinced the authorities to allow them to perform is to say they will play “We Will Go to Mount Paektu,” a North Korean folk song that is practically a national anthem. They do it in their stentorian style and you can tell by the looks on the officials’ faces that they don’t know if this was a really good idea in the first place. Most documentaries about North Korea tread a fine line between exploitation and enlightenment because of the limits the state puts on recording and talking to citizens. There’s always a feeling that you’re not getting the real deal. Liberation Day makes no such promises in the first place—it’s basically about whether or not Laibach is a serious political entity of a bunch of con artists—and is thus a unique work of art. Calling it a documentary, in fact, seems insufficient.

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

Liberation Day home page in Japanese.

photo (c) VFS Films/Traavik. Info 2016

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Review: Battle of the Sexes

Movies that realistically depict the 1970s force those of us who remember the decade as firsthand observers to slog through several layers of subtext. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s film covers one of the seminal “progressive” events of that time, the contest between former professional tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) and the current women’s tennis champion, Billy Jean King (Emma Stone)—the first woman to be named Athlete of the Year by Sports Illustrated—which became more about personal PR than women’s rights. The more immediate problem with Battle of the Sexes is that Faris and Dayton’s direction doesn’t quite do justice to Simon Beaufoy’s nuanced script. The directing couple seem to be taking their technical cues from David O. Russell, who tends to substitute genre and period signifiers for potent plot points that would actually advance a story. Consequently, the viewer fixates on the musical cues, the automobile models, the wallpaper, the cheesy fashion sense, and relate it all to the story, as if those things determined character and attitudes rather than the other way around. Carrell and Stone, two actors firmly identified with the most recent decade of Hollywood, only intensify this cognitive dissonance.

This aspect also allows the viewer to feel slightly superior. Riggs was definitely a hustler and a clown. Once a champion, in middle age he has become an inveterate gambler who uses his rich wife’s money for his habit. Though seriously insecure, like a certain U.S. president Riggs compensates by ridiculing the weak and inflating his own accomplishments, which exist only in the past, so when “Mrs. King” becomes a media darling and the most visible representative of the women’s liberation movement, he exploits the situation by challenging her to a battle of the sexes to prove once and for all that men are physically better. As someone who once could spin his modest talents into PR gold, he knows how to take advantage of his “male chauvinist pig” reputation at the expense of King’s “hairy-legged feminist” image.

The best thing about Beaufoy’s version of these circumstances is that he does place them in a milieu where they make social sense. Riggs’ macho pronouncements and stances are presented in contrast to his paunchy mediocrity. It’s only his willingness to intimidate that sets him apart. At first, King, understanding his game, wants nothing to do with the challenge, because she can see how it might be impossible to win, not from an athletic perspective, but from a sociological one. For one thing, feminism was not a monolith. Her main rival is the Australian champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), a more traditionally minded woman who is recruited by the male-dominated professional tennis association to rail against suspected lesbianism in the sport. Naturally, King, who is married but having a clandestine affair with a woman, is conflicted. The filmmakers don’t help Stone’s difficult interpretation of this part of King’s development by surrounding her with sympathetic men—her bland husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), and gay clothing designer Ted (Alan Cumming)—who are simply there to justify her feelings.

The better part of the film deals with the Women’s Tour that King helped usher in, and which was the real feminist breakthrough for women’s sports. Once King accepts Riggs’ challenge following his defeat of Court, matters are problematic. It becomes increasingly difficult to separate the film’s attempts at dramatic entertainment from its social commentary. Of course, we all know what happens, but given that feminism has never been fully embraced by American society, even now, it’s hard to accept the movie’s conclusion that King, like her namesake in the civil rights movement with respect to African-Americans, made the world completely safe for female athletes. Just because Riggs lost so ignominiously doesn’t mean King won so unconditionally.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (03-3982-6388).

Battle of the Sexes home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Twentieth Century Fox

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Review: Right Now, Wrong Then

Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, released in South Korea in 2015, is finally opening in Japan, though it should be mentioned that Hong’s films are not temporally fixed. Current events or even trends have absolutely no purchase on his stories. Even the fashion sense is strictly generic. Right Now is one of Hong’s experiments in bifurcated narratives, and while it doesn’t really do anything different with the form, it does show incremental improvements in his command of it when compared to past experiments, like In Another Country.

Hong tells the same story twice, with slight variations that indicate what might happen if some small detail were changed. The base plot involves director Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong), who has come to a provincial city to present one of his films to a group of enthusiasts and answer their questions. However, the day he arrives he learns the screening has been postponed a day, so he has to kill this one. He does the tourist route and visits a local palace where he spies Hee-Jeong (Kim Min-hee) and is immediately attracted to her. He cleverly positions himself in her vector and strikes up a conversation. She is a painter but doesn’t know Cheon-soo’s work. Nevertheless, she seems impressed by the fact that he is successful and they go back to her atelier and he makes an effort to praise her own work. If you know Hong, you might expect them to fall into bed at this point, but they don’t. Instead they go out drinking and spill their respective guts in suitably humorous fashion. They then join some friends of Hee-Jeong’s at a nearby restaurant where Cheon-soo’s ego, bloated by alcohol, gets the best of him.

Because this story is told first and we are led to expect that variations will ensue in the second telling (the titles give this away), the viewer is acutely on guard for these variations, and that added sense of artificially stimulated attention brings something interactive to the movie that is both invigorating and frustrating. The changes are more a matter of tone. Cheon-soo is more straightforward about his problems and direct about his feelings toward Hee-jeong, whose reactions shift accordingly. Though the writing is sharp and the plot developments never challenge our suspension of disbelief, the second half’s more or less reactionary methodology was a bit of a turn-off for me, since it seemed to remove Hee-jeong’s agency as a character. It’s a given that Hong’s male protagonists are his proxies, but he usually provides his female foils with plenty of opportunity to exert their integrity. Funnier and more formally adept than his past experiments, Right Now, Wrong Then is strangely tentative in terms of what the results of this particular experiment is. I liked it without really understanding what the point was.

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

Right Now, Wrong Then home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2015 Jeonwonsa Film Co.

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Media Mix, July 1, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the ongoing Kake Gakuen veterinary school scandal. The focus of the column is on the “lie” that a Kake official admitted to, and the subsequent press conference held by the school to point out that both he and the school’s head, Kotaro Kake, a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, would be punished with pay cuts. The lie centers on a meeting between Kake and Abe in February 2015 that the school and Abe say never took place. As pointed out in the article, it would be very easy to prove that no such meeting happened if either the prime minister’s office or Kake produced an official itinerary or schedule showing what the two men were doing that day, but all they can do is “confirm” that no such documents exist, which is an odd way of proving that something didn’t happen.

However, the scandal’s contours take in a whole lot more that wasn’t mentioned in the column, the main element being PM aide Tadao Yasase’s 2015 meeting with officials from Ehime Prefecture, at which, according to those officials, Yanase invoked Abe’s name to gain favor for approval of the Kake veterinary school. Yanase had attempted to erase this matter by resorting to the usual trick: He says he doesn’t remember any such meeting. Bad memory, of course, is the laziest and most common form of denial because it can’t credibly be challenged. The fact that the Kake official admitted to lying, therefore, is something of a radical act in coverup methodology, and some might say it’s very “Japanese” (the samurai falling on his sword for his lord), but in the larger scheme of things the Kake official had little to lose except a few weeks of face.

But there’s a larger matter that the scandal’s neverending intrigues are covering up, and that’s the worth of the school itself. All the energy expended on proving that Abe or Kake or their men lied might be better invested in questioning the value of the school in the first place. As the online web magazine Litera pointed out, the veterinary school is “fourth-rate.” Kake’s institutions are money-making enterprises that add little to Japan’s brain trust or work force. Litera goes on to say that while the Kake veterinary school was being approved the education ministry was cutting the budget for the University of Tokyo, mostly in the area of research. Sure, people who lie to cover up political malfeasance should be called out, but first get your priorities straight.

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Review: Winchester

During the horror film’s formative heyday in the 80s, trashiness was next to godliness. Perhaps by necessity, the gory goings-on were delivered via hilariously ridiculous plots that were gentle on whatever degree of intelligence was brought to the proceedings. Even a fairly sophisticated shocker like Dressed to Kill was, at base, a comedy.

Nowadays, it’s more difficult to tell if the brainlessness on display is purposeful or not. For one thing, in their bid to make the gore and shocks gorier and more shocking than the last guy’s, directors now lose track of the tone of the film and you get a blockbuster like It, which is fairly serious in terms of story and theme, but those aspects are then completely overwhelmed by the scare dynamics. Balance has been lost, but I have yet to see either Hereditary or A Quiet Place.

Winchester‘s problems as both a horror movie and a movie is that the brother directors, Michael and Peter Spierig, can’t decide which kind they’re making. Based loosely on the story of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune whose San Jose mansion was said to be haunted by the victims of her family’s product in the days leading up to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the script parries with ideas related to gun control, certainly a topic that will connect to a lot of viewers these days, but mostly it has to do with guilt of another sort. The protagonist is not Winchester but rather Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), the psychiatrist charged with figuring out whether Mrs. Winchester’s belief in ghosts is the result of an addled mind. Price, however, has his own demons, which mostly spring from his addiction to laudanum but include remorse over a dead wife. In any case, Price takes the job not because he thinks it has merit, but because he needs the money, and is further challenged when Winchester’s lawyer demand he live at the mansion during the treatment and lay off the drugs and booze. So while the spooks keep spooking after his arrival, it’s difficult to tell if they are nominally real or the figment of Price’s withdrawal-affected imagination.

All of these elements point to a relatively serious study of psychological self-delusion, but in the end the Spierigs opt for fun house horrors and a storyline that eventually falls off the deep end in terms of silliness. Though at one point, somebody says “the rifle never discriminates,” the movie never really addresses America’s own addiction to gun-related violence; and the twin hallucinatory problems of the principals are not resolved in ways that make them thought-provoking. The only thing that makes a suitable impression is the production design: What a waste of a genuinely unsettling haunted house.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Ikebukuro Cinema Rosa (03-3986-3713.

Winchester home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Winchester Film Holdings Pty Ltd., Eclipse Picture Inc., Screen Australia and Screen Quennsland Pty Ltd.

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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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