Review: Skyscraper

It’s no scoop to say that the IMAX format dictates the production of certain movies, since it’s difficult to imagine a Hollywood conference call where, after a movie has been greenlighted and cast, someone thinks out loud, “Hey, maybe this would work on a towering screen!” The latest Dwayne Johnson vehicle, in which the former wrestling hulk shares top billing with a 4,000-foot CG Hong Kong office-and-residential building, was obviously made with the IMAX format in mind, and after you think carefully about it, Johnson is the only A-list actor at the moment who could have starred without wilting in the shadow of the titular edifice.

Of course, that greatly reduces the appeal of the movie when it isn’t giving the viewer vertiginous shots that highlight how high up we are. Though the obvious template here is The Towering Inferno, basically director Rawson Marshall Thurber is just trying to one-up that WTC novelty, The Walk, wherein Robert Zemeckis attempted to get audiences to puke without resorting to horror movie images. Thurber assumes that by putting his star, who plays a former FBI agent now being interviewed as the yet-to-open skyscraper’s security chief, in constant danger and forcing him to leap across empty space a mile or so above the ground, he’ll get the reverse peristalsis reflexes churning as well, but since he isn’t much on building suspense—the action in Skyscraper is relentless—there isn’t a whole lot of fear generated, either.

Even the script’s one attempt at high concept—Johnson’s Will Sawyer is an amputee thanks to a botched hostage situation that’s actually the most exciting thing in the film—is never taken advantage of fully. Also, the disaster that forces Sawyer into superman mode is completely man-made and on purpose. Some sort of terrorist organization has planted devices that start fires on multiple high floors, which shouldn’t be of much consequence because nobody has moved in yet—except, of course, Sawyer’s wife (Neve Campbell) and kids. Would he have tried to save the building if they weren’t there? Probably, but now we’re getting into suppositions that make absolutely no sense outside the bailiwick of Hollywood.

And that brings us to the film’s most egregious missed opportunity. Johnson has proven that he’s adept at self-deprecating comedy, even in the purview of action films, but Thurber seems uninterested in anything but depicting The Rock’s body mass and how extraordinary the character is in moving that bulk nimbly throughout a burning high-rise. Johnson really was just cast for his body. Consequently, the set pieces are thrilling but instantly forgettable, the stakes high but dismissed as soon as the next hazard is conquered. In the end, the skyscraper wins, even if it isn’t fit to occupy any more.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (03-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Skyscraper home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios

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Review: Faces Places

Collaboration is more than just the theme of Agnes Varda’s latest curiosity. Teaming up with the tall-glass-of-water visual artist JR both on camera and behind it, the veteran nouvelle vague director expands her late career discussion of the French polity by engaging it in one of JR’s art projects, thus freeing herself up as more than just an enthusiastic observer of what is mostly rural life.

During the course of the film, the two artists travel the French countryside in pursuit of meaningful encounters with average people. The entry point into these people’s lives is JR’s very large prints of the individuals they encounter, which are then plastered on surfaces in very public places. Sometimes the photos are of faces, sometimes they are of full body shots. Many include more than one person. They are then affixed to buildings and even vehicles. The point is that each work of art is attended by a true story related by the subject, the overall result being a portrait of a people that becomes more indelible with the addition of semi-permanent visual aids.

But that isn’t the real appeal of the movie, which is Varda’s and JR’s interaction with each other. The pair putter around in a large truck listening to pop songs and talking about anything that comes into their heads. There’s a playfulness to these interactions that defies the age difference and informs their conversations with the farmers, factory workers, and village bureaucrats they meet on the road. Their collaboration is mainly with life, and they extend it to everyone they encounter. The goofiness is built into the contrast between the two principals: Varda is short, plump, pixieish, with a drastic two-tone bowl cut, while JR is tall, lanky, insouciant, his head constantly encased in a fedora and dark shades (a running joke throughout the film). Varda is also 88, and she is happy to bring her experiences into the discussion, dropping names like crumbs of bread and plumbing her exceptional memory for anecdotes that apply to any situation she finds herself in.

And there is drama. JR drops his flippant air when they visit his 100-year-old grandmother, and a visit to an ophthamologist reminds us of Varda’s encroaching decrepitude, since it appears she is going blind. But even that sequence is leavened with a joke—he eye-slashing scene from Un Chien Andalou, a movie she apparently had something to do with. For once the purposely shocking image is revealed for what it is: a prank against conformity, which is a stirring rebuke to the idea that the average person is a slave to normalcy. The people we meet are widely varied in their appetites and needs, and as our hosts continually expound, the mission of film and photography is to open us up to that possibility. JR’s project is a willful exaggeration of this premise. His works are intended to crush the notion of the commonplace: How can a dockworker’s face stretched across the side of a building be considered “normal?” How, for that matter, can a goat’s?

In the end, Varda and JR attempt to visit the man who perhaps best represents all they have tried to accomplish in their unique movie: Jean-Luc Godard. They fail to make the connection, though the aborted visit does lead to another wonderful anecdote about a weekend Varda and her late husband, Jacques Demy, spent with Godard and his wife, Anna Karina. Every moment in life is magic. Few movies drive that point home as well as Faces Places does.

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Swith Ginza (03-3561-0707), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Uplink Shibuya (03-6825-5503).

Faces Places home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Agnes Varda-JR-Cine Tamaris, Social Animals 2016

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Media Mix, Sept. 16, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the Asia Games basketball scandal. As I tried to say in the last paragraph, the media response has been dual—the MSM expresses shock and disgust, while the tabloid press shrugs and winks—even though the same impulse feeds both reactions, namely a belief that men cannot control their sexual desires. The former finds this a problem while the latter accepts it and even celebrates it sometimes. The jokey tone of the Shincho article I referenced is representative of the tabloid attitude—one source thinks buying prostitutes is no big deal and wonders why the Asahi photographer didn’t join the group (“they probably could have gotten a bargain”)—and conveys a deeper feeling that as long as women offer themselves in this way it’s only natural for men to take it. Such transactions are only the business of the two parties involved, but, especially when money’s involved, the notion of coercion still has to be factored in. Neither Shincho nor Asahi said anything about the women these players bought because no one talked to them, but it isn’t far from credible to think they might not have been prostitutes willingly. I say that not to demean sex work but rather to point out that the transaction isn’t necessarily as clean cut as Shincho makes it out to be. While the magazine has a point in ribbing Asahi for its puritanical approach to the story, the reporter also writes that the newspaper “revealed its priorities” by publishing it. “After all,” he writes, “that’s how they covered the comfort women issue.” This is a reference to Asahi’s sex slave coverage, for which it has been lambasted on the right, mainly for one instance of fake news. Those who maintain that the comfort women were all professional prostitutes and thus were not coerced into servicing front line soldiers during World War II implicitly hold that monetized sexual relationships are only negotiated with the complete willingness of the female side. Males have no conscious agency; they are just a jumble of confused, incontrovertible urges. Rape is one of these urges, and in the heat of combat it becomes acute. That’s why front-line brothels were supposedly necessary. Disregarding the evidence that Japanese soldiers—like all soldiers throughout history—did their fair share of raping, this narrative assumes that the comfort women could have only been willing participants in this endeavor because the purpose was practical and the military’s intentions therefore pure. But this narrative also indicts prostitutes for providing the service that allows men to indulge in their least admirable trait, which is why prostitutes, both as a group and as individuals, are hated by the general public. Despite documented historical proof, not to mention logical thinking informed by familiarity with human nature, the former comfort women who have come forward later in life to say they were forced into serving Japanese soldiers have been called blatant liars. Any problems having to do with sex are still the fault of women.

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“The Fog of War,” Sept. 2004

I recently realized that almost all of the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun in the 90s and early 00s are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy. Continue reading

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Review: Asako I & II

I have yet to see Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s previous film, the internationally lauded 5-hour domestic drama Happy Hour, which, probably due to its length, hasn’t been picked up by WOWOW. But having read about its charms for almost a year I was intrigued to see his latest, which premiered in competition at this year’s Cannes. It’s much shorter and, based on a popular novel, apparently more manageable than Happy Hour. In fact, it’s pretty conventional in terms of plot and characterization. Hamaguchi’s strong point is his attention to personality detail. Despite the hackneyed dialogue and thin motivation that’s built into the story, he manages to make the people on screen seem familiar in a three-dimensional way, though, in the end, it isn’t enough to lift the narrative out of the pedestrian.

The title is cleverly misleading. There are not two physical Asakos (Erika Karata), but rather two completely different men with whom she falls in love in tandem. The first man, Baku (Masahiro Higashide), she meets in Osaka. Baku is carefree and irresponsible and pretty much forces his way into Asako’s life. Her friend, Haruyo (Sairi Ito), warns her about him, but they become a couple of a sort, despite the fact that Baku, who has longish hair and a distracted demeanor, tends to disappear and not show up for appointments. One day, he goes off to buy some shoes and never returns.

The story resumes two years later with Asako transplanted to Tokyo, where she meets Ryohei (Higashide), who looks a lot like Baku but, due to his retiring manner, obviously isn’t. Thanks to a second chance encounter, the two become friends and then lovers, and it’s mostly up to the viewer to decide if Asako’s attraction is based on Ryohei’s inherent qualities or his resemblance to Baku. Most likely it’s a bit of both.

Hamaguchi’s handling of the romantic give-and-take is more satisfying than the intrigues that eventually materialize. You feel like you’ve seen these intrigues done before in better movies, even if you can’t name them off the top of your head. Asako I & II is better than most Japanese films of its ilk only because Hamaguchi is a more interesting director. He allows the story, whatever it’s flaws, to reach its own conclusions without clever tricks or narrative prodding, but he necessarily misses something with his casting. Higashide, a well-respected star of stage and screen, is quite good in the dual roles. I, for one, didn’t even find the resemblance that obvious because the two men were so different temperamentally. Karata, a newcomer, is more problematic. She underplays Asako’s emotional development, but it’s hard not to think that she’s doing so because she doesn’t feel ready for the part. She’s a very slight presence in a movie where she’s supposed to be the main focus.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Theatre Shinjuku (03-3352-1846), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Asako I & II home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Eiga Nete mo Samete mo Seisaku Iinkai/Commes des Cinemas

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Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

It’s a good thing the second Ant-Man movie is above average, because it’s becoming quite a chore to fit all these Marvel superhero movies into the Marvel universe, at least as it applies to the Avengers movies, which seem to be the focus. Much of the plotting of Ant-Man and the Wasp is dependent on both the last Captain America movie and the last Avengers flick, though temporally they exist in different relative dimensions, and I found myself uselessly trying to recall the details of Avengers: Infinity War, which hasn’t taken place at this point, when I should have been concentrating on Captain America: Civil War, which is the reason our hero, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), is under house arrest as the movie begins.

He’s actually just finishing up his sentence, which doesn’t seem so harsh: He still gets to see his daughter, and lives in a very nice San Francisco Victorian. He’s even on pretty good terms with his FBI handler (Randall Park), who is a bit of an airhead otherwise. Naturally, he’s jerked out of this little piece of paradise by the call of duty, which, if you remember from the first movie, wasn’t exactly Lang’s forte, being a minor criminal and all before he became Ant-Man. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who devised the suit that makes Lang small, and his daughter, Hope (Evengeline Lilly), contact Lang to help them find Hank’s wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has been lost to the so-called Quantum Realm for years. Lang is the only other person who has reached that small a size, but he was able to come back, so they require his experience, which calls for his slipping his ankle bracelet and risking his freedom.

Hope is the Wasp, who, due to her father’s fugitive status and the government’s mistrust of superheroes in general, is also laying low, and the relationship between her and Ant-Man is comically tense, since they have a certain amount of skin in their reputations as heroes, though Lang’s persona is mostly bluster covering up a lack of real knowledge about what his powers entail. In addition to literally getting down, he can also summon insect friends to help him get things done. But he also has two criminal sidekicks to take care of logistics. Since a villain is required we have two in the over-complicated Marvel style. One is Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who wants to steal Pym’s nanotechnology and sell it to the highest bidder. The other is Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman who herself passed through the Quantum Realm and as a result is literally immaterial, in that she can pass through solid objects. She needs Pym’s technology to save her from disintegrating into countless random molecules.

Director Peyton Reed doesn’t belabor the already overloaded story and lets it play out naturally while investing his attention in the set pieces, which take more advantage of the extreme possibilities of scale than any other Marvel movie has made out of their respective relationships with peculiar super powers. He keeps the humor churning as actively as the action, melding them in ways that might have been models for the series if that damn Thor movie hadn’t been so funny. It’s not as good as Ant-Man and the Wasp, but it’s much more irreverent, which these days counts for something special.

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).

Ant-Man and the Wasp home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Marvel Studios 2018

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Media Mix, Sept. 2, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the weekly magazines’ pursuit of royal scandal for the hell of it. The point I was trying to make, and which wasn’t really reflected in the headline, is that while the weeklies buck the Imperial Household Agency simply because they can, at bottom they support the conventional idea of the royal family. Kei Komuro is portrayed as a kind of interloper, despite the fact that he appears to be an intelligent, responsible person who truly loves Princess Mako. If he and the princess had been “matched” through more traditional means, the weeklies likely wouldn’t have said much of anything, even if his mother were in debt (though an omiai would have implied vetting that might have disqualified him in the first place). The weeklies didn’t have problems with the matches made for Princess Ayako or her older sister, though they seem delighted now that the sister’s marriage has hit the skids. Likewise, former Princess Sayako’s marriage may be less that perfect, they imply, but in any case, this is all after the fact, meaning after the marriage has taken place and the women have left the royal family.

In fact, the rule that says women must leave the royal family after wedding commoners is one of the reasons the IHA has pushed Mako and Komuro to put off their engagement. The weeklies want to make it about the IHA and Mako’s father objecting to Komuro as husband material, but likely it has more to do with bureaucratic convenience. A survey by broadcaster JNN in January found that 71 percent of the public said that they would accept a royal family “based on female members,” meaning that the female line could produce heirs who may one day become emperors–or even empresses. The IHA and the government is pondering allowing female members who marry outside the royal family to stay in it, but they have their hands full with next year’s abdication of the present emperor and the succession of his son, so they don’t have time to discuss the female line until that’s over with. This affects Mako and Komuro’s engagement, because if they decide to allow her to remain in the royal family after they marry, it might be to their advantage. The royal family has become quite small since not too many male heirs have been produced. With every female member who marries a commoner (and who else are they going to marry after the peerage was abolished following World War II?) the royal family loses a valuable employee, because only family members can credibly carry out the “activities” (komu) expected of the royal family. It’s a human resources problem. The IHA probably wants Mako to stay, but if the weeklies are raising questions about her intended partner, they may want to put off any developments in that direction until the public’s presumed concern for Komuro’s fitness as the partner of a royal has cooled. If that’s making way too much of the matter, well, that’s the nature of any office whose job is to rationalize the existence of a monarchy.

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