Review: Mary Queen of Scots

The rapid rise and fall of Mary Stuart has been filmed a number of times before, so director Josie Rourke needs a damn good reason to stick our noses in the tragedy once again. Her revisionist take, turning the rivalry between Mary (Saoirse Ronan), who, when her husband, the king of France, dies, returns to reclaim her throne in Scotland at the age of 18, and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), into a cautionary feminist tale about two strong-willed women struggling to navigate a world of men who don’t trust them, is interesting up to a point, but it still has to contend with certain inalienable facts that have to be explained if anything is to make any sense, and, as a result, Mary Queen of Scots comes across as schematic and dramatically anemic.

Rourke’s boldest move is to create a tone of mutual respect between the two monarchs that wasn’t necessarily in evidence in the history books. Being a Catholic, Mary creates twice the anxiety among the Protestant clergy in Scotland and England—which, due to her birthright, she could end up reigning over one day—and John Knox, the head of the Church of Scotland, brands her not only a papist but a harlot, thus taking advantage of her supposedly tainted womanhood to shore up his own power among his flock. Elizabeth isn’t given much of the benefit of the doubt when she schemes to send her own lover (Joe Alwyn) to Scotland to marry the queen in order to ensure that a Protestant is in the court. Mary, of course, rebuffs the entreaty and doubles down on her demand to be named heir to the English throne. Though enmities are enflamed, most of them are fueled by frustration that it is their respective womanhood that is being insulted by the men who advise them. In the end, Rourke stages a secret meeting between the two queens that, apparently, never happened, and she fails to make it worth the wait.

The movie stays true to its title by mostly taking Mary’s side. Elizabeth doesn’t have that many scenes to her herself, and her main troubles seem to be her complexion, which has been ruined by a near fatal dose of pox. Here again, Rourke brings up an interesting if marginal aspect of the Elizabeth legend and does really nothing with it except highlight how looks are still the measure of a woman, even when she’s an absolute ruler. There’s also a kind of hipster cast to the whole production design, from the bushiness of the beards (which make all the males look so much alike I had trouble telling one from another) to the somewhat cynical flow of the dialogue. “Your gifts are your downfall,” says Elizabeth to Mary when they finally meet, a prescient but meaningless observation. It’s as if Elizabeth had seen all the other Mary Queen of Scots movies.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Bunkamura Le Cinema (03-3477-9264).

Mary Queen of Scots home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Focus Features LLC

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Review: Woman at War

It’s interesting that Jodie Foster is thinking about doing a Hollywood remake of this extraordinary Icelandic fantasy, because it seems so resistant to the kind of pat familiarities that Hollywood trades in these days. The hook is understandably appealing: Unassuming single middle-aged woman looking for purpose in her life becomes an underground eco-terrorist who garners headlines and stirs controversy aboveground. And while director Benedikt Erlingsson handles the action portions of the tale with flair and humor, he’s more interested in the philosophical ramifications of our hero’s quest. Altruism is many-sided and complicated to a fault. Sometimes you have to give up one good thing in order to get another.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir) is a middle class matron who teaches music and leads her church choir in a rural suburb of Reykjavik. For years she has been trying to adopt a child from overseas, and while the roots of Halla’s terrorist activities are not interrogated very carefully, they seem to spring at least partly from her frustration with being unable to realize her dream of raising a child. In any case, as the movie opens Halla is already in ninja mode, cutting power lines with her trusty bow and arrow in order to shut down an aluminum plant while dodging helicopters and drones. With the help of a sympathetic farmer, she is able to escape capture.

But it’s not as if Halla is secretive about her ecological activism. She eschews cars and supports green initiatives, even if it sometimes involves climbing on people’s roofs to distribute anti-government leaflets. Her secret alter ego is eventually dubbed “Mountain Woman” by the media, which intensifies the authorities’ manhunt, and at times the threat to her well-being seems downright deadly, though Erlingsson continually undercuts the drama and suspense with oddly fantastic touches, such as musical groups that keep popping up in the most unlikely places, adding a kind of Greek Chorus effect to the proceedings. However, the real kicker is the sudden news that, after all these years, Halla’s adoption request comes through just as the police are closing in on her. At this point, her twin sister (also played by Geirharosdottir), whose earth-friendly activities are more spiritual in nature, takes on a larger and more significant role in the plot. The titular idea that these are women who are fighting the powers-that-be takes a unique but hardly surprising turn in the final act.

The director, it should be noted, also made the equally peculiar Of Horses and Men, which was funnier but also more discomfiting. Woman at War successfully telescopes a local problem into a story that is both universal and disarmingly personal, and those are the kinds of stories that Hollywood used to be good at.

In Icelandic and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Woman at War home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Slot Machine-Guildrengurinn-Solar Media Entertainment-Ukrainian State Film Agency-Koggull Filmworks-Vintage Pictures

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Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

As we prepare ourselves for another spring-summer of superhero schlock, it’s best not to make too much of a distinction between Marvel and DC. Obviously, the former trumps the latter in most departments, but the late Stan Lee’s runaway train of pop culture signifiers has become so obsessed with outdoing itself movie after movie that the effort becomes a slog for everyone involved, including the viewer. The Spider-Man franchise has always managed to set itself slightly apart from the crowd, and I have no idea if it’s because the brand is handled by Sony rather than Disney, but reportedly the makers of this ambitious animated take on the series had problems selling the studio on their concept, and it’s easy to see why: It’s a genuine kids’ movie, but for kids who are brainier than your average superhero fan, since it deals with multiple dimensions that incorporate parallel plots requiring the viewer to process characters on-the-go. Eventually it was greenlighted, and Sony/Marvel got more than they expected: a huge box office hit and the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

It also incorporates a visual gestalt that mashes up the best of Japanese and Western animation styles. Though it definitely has a distinct look, that look is variegated and often psychedelic. There is so much going on within the frame that the characters can feel secondary to the production design, which is frustrating since the characters are so much more compelling than most denizens of Marvel films. The central figure returns the Spider-Man ethos to its adolescent origins and even dials it back a little further. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a transfer student to an elite middle school in Brooklyn where he doesn’t feel comfortable. Raised by his NYPD father and hospital technician mother, Miles is basically a younger Peter-Parker-of-color. We eventually come to understand that another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson)—or, at least, an older, less robust version—exists in another dimension that somehow collides with the one Miles occupies after he receives his radioactive spider bite. Miles goes through the usual awkward confrontation with his new super powers, but the awkwardness feels somehow more natural, the struggle with the hackneyed sense of Spidey responsibility more genuine and immediate. He has a tough time adjusting, and several times sees his powers as a curse that he’d rather be rid of.

The through-line has a multitude of Spider-Folk converging in Miles’ universe to simultaneously help him become the Spider-Man he needs to be, as well as solve the problem of the multiverse, which is losing its structure. The usual villains appear—Doctor Octopus (as a woman, this time), Kingpin, Scorpion, Green Goblin—and they often feel gratuitous in a story whose action set pieces are built on a learning curve. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Marvel blockbuster without a big violent finish that ties all the loose ends together, but this one is such a kaleidoscope of color and shape that you don’t get the feeling the material world is being bruised senseless, probably because it takes its most visceral cues from comic books rather than CG superhero movies. In reclaiming its heritage, Into the Spider-Verse boots the Marvel blockbuster into an unexpected and exciting future.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse home page in Japanese

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Review: The Mule

For reasons that are easier to understand than explain, Clint Eastwood is probably considered the most important American director by the Japanese film cognoscenti. Even his minor works, the ones that obviously play to the rafters, get listed on annual top ten lists as a matter of course. The Mule will certainly be no exception, despite the fact that its ambiguous take on the War On Drugs clashes starkly with the Japanese attitude toward illicit drugs in general. That’s not necessarily a demerit when it comes to cinematic depictions, but locals might take away conclusions that weren’t intended.

For one thing, in spite of the overhanging themes of impending mortality and moral compasses gone awry, The Mule is something of a human comedy. Based sketchily on a true story, the plot follows the late career fortunes of an Illinois flower wholesaler named Earl Stone (Eastwood) whose business success contrasts mightily with his failures as a husband and father—yeah, another one of those Eastwood characters. Eastwood’s peculiarly effective style of exposition works exceptionally well when it shows how Stone’s prosperity is quickly undermined at the turn of the century by the ascent of internet commerce, which eventually makes his work obsolete. By the 20-minute mark Stone is scraping by on Social Security and dodging creditors. But he’s got a nice truck and at one point is approached by a Mexican gentleman who offers him a transport job. All he has to do is “drive.” Having been a free spirit all his life, Stone is hep to the offer, but it isn’t immediately clear that he will be carrying drugs from Mexico into the U.S. for the deadly Sinaloa cartel.

Though Eastwood and his screenwriter, Nick Schenk, don’t obviate the evil behind the operation, they let Stone off the hook continually, and often try the viewer’s patience with nonsense that seems to have no purpose except to prove that old coots like Earl can still enjoy life, even with ill-gotten gains. There is not one, but two scenes of Stone enjoying sex in motel rooms with much younger women. And Stone’s road trips are presented as something out of a Kerouac fantasia. The nominal bad guys are humanized rather than demonized, but you get the feeling that’s only so that Stone can make jokes with them and come across as less of a social leech. Like many an Eastwood character, Stone starts out at least borderline racist and later warms to his Mexican colleagues, even if some of them have obviously murdered without compunction. Andy Garcia, as the kingpin who can’t wait to meet this senior citizen who’s doing such great work—and being paid well for it—is such a softie his proxy killings feel like misdemeanors.

And while the movie develops in substance when it introduces two DEA agents (Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena) who finally figure Stone out, the script, perhaps at Eastwood’s insistence, still dips fitfully into the family values trough that undergird every one of the director’s films. It’s as predictable as the Eastwood smirk, and twice as annoying. The Mule has so much potential that you wonder if it lost about twenty minutes of what constitutes unnecessary plotlines it might not have been a minor masterpiece along the lines of Gran Torino. As it stands, it’s simply Trouble With the Curve but with more geezer moxie.

Opens March 8 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Mule home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Warner Bros.

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Media Mix, March 3, 2019

Kozo Nagata

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about suspicions among certain media outlets that NHK’s planned restructuring has something to do with bowing to government pressure. As pointed out in the column, NHK has always been more or less in the government’s pocket but that certain producers and divisions nevertheless make shows that are valuable in terms of information, including information that is not flattering to the authorities. However, this information comes mainly from the Production Division and not the News Division. The latter is mostly involved in daily news and breaking news, and NHK has always seemed over-cautious in both areas if not downright solicitous to those in power. Much of the reason for this caution is the nature of news reporting in Japan, which is only more pronounced at NHK. Most broadcast reporters in Japan are recruited straight out of university and trained to be reporters by the media outlets that hire them, meaning they aren’t necessarily driven to be journalists. It has more to do with corporate culture than press culture: Reporters for the major TV stations, including NHK, are constantly undergoing on-the-job training, which is why their copy tends toward the drab, their on-air skills are lacking, and their understanding of the topic under consideration is shallow.

One bit of intelligence that came up in our research for the column that I wasn’t aware of is that at NHK reporters have more power than directors. During the cited discussion on the web channel Democracy Times, former NHK director Kozo Nagata explained that this power balance is unique to NHK, and he thinks it’s central to the “overwork” problem that the restructuring is meant to solve. To me, however, this explains why NHK daily news is often worse than it is on commercial stations, where directors (in the U.S. we would call them producers) come up with story ideas and then find a reporter to do the coverage. At NHK, the process is the other way around, and while that sounds natural—reporters, being on the front lines of journalism, should be digging up their own stories—given the lack of professional depth manifested by Japanese broadcast reporters, the stories pursued on NHK aren’t going to get much further than press releases and news conferences. Sources will be the most obvious ones, specifically those who have something to gain by talking to reporters. In that regard, sucking up to the government is not a matter of wanting to please the authorities, but is simply what happens when you don’t have the talent or the will to get beyond the official version of a story.

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Review: Green Book

A lot of critics are calling this road movie about a black musician touring the South in 1962 with a white driver the most embarrassing Best Picture Oscar winner since Crash. Such critics take the Academy Awards too seriously, and for what it’s worth, Green Book has a certain savvy charm that has nothing to do with its racial friendship theme. If anything, Mahershala Ali’s gay, classically trained pianist and Viggo Mortensen’s almost-made-guy club bouncer start out as cartoons and mostly remain that way, even as they both warm to each other’s pecadillos over the course of their journey. It’s not likely that anyone will take it at face value, though, it’s supposed to be based on a true story.

It’s this conceit that makes Green Book a bit of a grind. Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), we know now according to his family, did not develop the kind of palsy-walsy relationship with Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) that the movie claims and which is structured almost like a classic romantic comedy. Knowing this bit of intelligence makes the story that much more intolerable, because that’s the whole point of the conflict. Director Peter Farrelly, known more for his off-color humor, is rather cavalier about this conflict, and if he had made it a straightforward comedy the movie might have had less pushback because comedies are taken less seriously by default. He knows we know about the Jim Crow South and trusts our basic decency to give him a pass for exaggerating the Shirley-Tony relationship. The title refers to a travel guide for black motorists that indicate where they can stay and eat without having to suffer white people’s scorn over their presence in the lower half of the country. Tony is hired to not only drive Dr. Shirley, but also act as his bodyguard, a task he has to carry out more than once. If Tony is a lunk who overcomes his native racism while carrying out his work, Dr. Shirley is a stuffy epicure who learns a little tolerance himself for the plight of dumb working stiffs like Tony. In fact, the movie’s most egregious calculation is making Tony more appealing than Dr. Shirley in the beginning, a point that clearly shows who the target audience is, and it sure ain’t Spike Lee.

The episodes that prove the movie’s opinion of itself are rote and predictable—Dr. Shirley draws good-sized audiences but can’t eat in the white person’s sections of the venues he plays. His patrons are polite but doctrinnaire about their exclusionary culture, and at first Tony, as a Northerner, is more amused than concerned, so it’s Farrelly’s and Mortensen’s job to flip his reaction. When Dr. Shirley’s homosexuality is addressed, however, you get the feeling Farrelly can’t get out of the scene soon enough. Even the movie seems to be conflicted over its moral choices.

And whatever you want to say about Mortensen’s and Ali’s own choices, they are very entertaining and deserve credit for making the movie not only watchable but enjoyable. It’s not a bad movie at all, just terribly misdirected in terms of what its makers are trying to prove.

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 Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002).

Green Book home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios and Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC

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Review: Memoir of War

Based on Marguerite Duras’s 1985 novel, La douleur, Emmanuel Finkiel’s film removes the fictive conceit and presents the story as a fairly straightforward memoir of Duras’s experience in occupied Paris during World War II. It’s easy to understand why Duras boosted the book as a novel and not a memoir: removed from their circumstance by forty years, her memories of that time had been clouded by doubts and second thoughts brought on by trauma and repression, especially given the dramatic impetus of the so-called plot. Duras kept diaries, but since she claimed she had no recollection of actually writing things down their context is virtually meaningless except as exegesis.

Finkiel is bold in transferring the narrative with a stark immediacy that is almost documentary-like in its urge to be taken seriously as fact. Melanie Thierry plays the young Duras as a moody, almost enervated shell of a girl whose only ambition is to get her husband, Robert (Emmanual Bourdieu), out of detention. Robert was arrested by the Nazis as part of the Resistance. It’s often difficult to square her dogged determination to secure Robert’s release with her nagging doubt about whether it’s possible—or, for that matter, with her nagging doubt as to whether Robert is even alive any more.

But the movie is not entirely naturalistic. Duras’s split persona is rendered as such by the fledgling writer observing herself, which Finkiel, in turn, renders visually by doubling her image. This disembodiment serves to make it easier for Duras to sleep with the French Gestapo agent Rabier (Benoit Magimel) in order to glean information about Robert. But even here she seems to be operating on inertia. To say her heart isn’t in it is to deny her any agency in her own survival, which may be the most compelling aspect of her story. She makes it through the war without as much as a glance from the Germans, and afterwards her complicity is not remarked upon by the nationalist forces who punished anyone with a hint of collaboration. She certainly doesn’t feel inclined to join in the celebration. In a sense, she’s almost a non-person, which may explain why her memoir-novel seems written by a third person and makes such a riveting film. Robert, in effect, becomes a red herring: Maybe he doesn’t even exist. Was that stillborn child we see in flashbacks a figment of her fertile imagination? Though the truth is out there, Finkiel would prefer we make up our own, and for once it’s a fitting challenge to the viewer.

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

Memoir of War home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Les Films du Poisson-CineFrance-France 3 Cinema-Versus Production-Need Productions

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