Review: The Mauritanian

Kevin McDonald’s movie about Mahamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was swept up in the capture of suspects for the 911 terrorist attack and sent to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, seems to assume that the viewer is prepared with a prescribed set of views regarding the overall story. The screenplay is mainly based on Slahi’s diary about his time in the prison, and thus has a limited purview regarding the war on terror that put him there. There’s not a lot of suspense inherent in such a story, unless, of course, the viewer hasn’t read a newspaper for the past 20 years, so McDonald’s various attempts to squeeze extra drama from a situation that is terrifying to begin with ends up having the opposite effect: the movie is strikingly unmotivated. 

The main problem seems to be the decision to divide the narrative among three POVs: Slahi’s (Tahir Rahim), his defense attorney, Nancy Hollander’s (Jodie Foster), and the US Marine Colonel Stu Couch’s (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a passable good ol’ boy accent), who is tasked by the government in Washington to secure the death penalty for Slahi. Essentially, Hollander and Couch, though they begin as nominal adversaries, end up in the same place once they realize that Slahi’s confession, in which he admits that he did, indeed, recruit the principals involved in the highjackings of the four airplanes that caused so much death and destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, was coerced through torture. They, of course, get to this destination via different routes, but the stories are so similar in tone and particulars that they feel redundant. Meanwhile, we see Slahi, both in so-called real time and flashbacks, experiencing the horrors explained in the super-classifed documents that both lawyers have to go to great lengths to attain, thus adding another superfluous layer to the development. Too much of the drama is based on people sitting in windowless rooms reading papers with furrowed brows. 

There’s obviously a gripping cautionary tale here that could have made a good movie, but not a lot of thought was put into the best way to tell it. (Maybe a TV series would have been better.) But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing. Rahim does an extraordinary job of bringing Slahi’s story and personality to vivid life, creating a distinctive human being whose past directly informs the person he became in prison. At the end, he’s given the requisite heart-stirring speech about how people living in repressive societies always look to the U.S. legal system with envy and desire, because they see it as an ideal worth striving for. The speech doesn’t sound trite and phony because Rahim has shown how Slahi’s own native intelligence and, yes, wit have kept him alive through an enormous amount of physical and mental abuse. He teaches himself English while at Guantanamo by mimicking the profanities of his captors! The point is, he’s so much better than the Americans he professes to admire. The movie should have been about him and him only.

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 Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Mauritanian home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Eros International, PLC

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Review: Sweet Thing

New York indie standard bearer Alexandre Rockwell is mainly known for giving Steve Buscemi his first leading man role in the 1992 underground hit In the Soup, which also happened to be Rockwell’s debut. Since then he’s maintained a career with the same formula—bittersweet black-and-white studies of people living on the margins—but diminishing returns. His latest has the feel of something that was influenced by many other low-budget movies, though Rockwell has been at this for so long that it could very well be he’s plagiarizing his own work. He’s certainly picking from his own tree: the two main protagonists are his own children, and their mother is played by their own mother and Rockwell’s wife.

Adolescent Billie (Lana Rockwell) is raising her younger brother Nico (Nico Rockwell) in a broken down apartment in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Though they live with their father, Adam (Will Patton), he’s drunk most of the time and only occasionally employed. Adam loves his kids and they return the affection, but he seems unable to cope with anything approaching responsibility. One day he’s arrested for vagrancy and sent off to hospital rehab, thus forcing Billie and Nico to move in with their estranged mother, Eve (Karyn Parsons), and her boyfriend, Beaux (ML Josepher), neither of whom really wants them there. Eve puts on the airs of a caring mother but is more interested in her stalled career as a singer and her wine. Constantly distracted, she doesn’t seem concerned so much with Beaux’s abuse, which eventually comes to bear on the children. Eve gets defensive when Billie hints at Beaux’s sexual predilections toward her, but seems more threatened by Billie as a rival (“you’re not going to ruin the good thing I got”) than horrified by the possibility of her teenage daughter being raped. In any case, when Billie and Nico make friends with an indigent kid named Malik (Jabari Watkins), the three decide to steal a car and make their way to Florida.

Rockwell’s obvious affection for people who can’t afford what we now take for granted as the bare necessities (cell phones, internet, takeout food) lends his movies a kind of timelessness that’s difficult to believe but easy to like. And while his portrayal of the effects of alcohol on the impoverished is riddled with stereotypes and cliches, he makes up for them with subtle emotional indicators. More to the point, he allows his young actors plenty of freedom to explore their characters (reportedly, much of the dialogue was improvised) and the result is more honest and affecting than your average indie study of homelessness and broken families. Though it’s not likely to win Rockwell the same measure of acclaim and exposure as the woolier, funnier In the Soup, it will at least maintain his track record as probably the most dedicated indie filmmaker of his generation. 

Opens Oct. 29 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645). 

Sweet Thing home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Black Horse Productions

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Media Mix, Oct. 23, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about excessive overtime work for Kasumigaseki bureaucrats. As pointed out in the column, many civil servants have to stay late at the office in order to draft responses to questions from opposition lawmakers during committee debates in the Diet. Takao Komine, a former career-track bureaucrat mentioned in the column, wrote an article in which he detailed how the ministers and other ruling party lawmakers are verbally briefed by the relevant bureaucrats about the topic being discussed. The way Komine describes it, it’s an involved and time-consuming process, which means not only do the bureaucrats have to stay up at night doing research and then writing documents that the lawmakers will refer to during debate, they have to meet with the lawmakers before the debate and essentially coach them in how to answer the questions, presumably to prepare them for followup questions. It seems like a lot of work just for the purpose of creating some kind of illusion that the lawmaker knows what he’s talking about, because even Komine admits that the politicians who are appointed to head ministries and agencies usually don’t know much about what those ministries and agencies do. Consequently, it would save a lot of time and resources if the knowledgeable bureaucrats themselves answered the questions in person during the debate, and, on occasion, they do, but that, apparently, is not the ideal situation, since debates are political in nature and the ruling party lawmakers also have to defend policies under certain circumstances. In any case, there’s always a relevant bureaucrat on hand during debate. You’ll often see them whispering in the ears of ministers, who then just parrot what they heard.

All this work seems doubly wasteful since it is presumably being done for the sake of the media and, by extension, the public. The media, of course, is obliged to show up and report what is said during debates, but I have doubts if the average person pays much attention. Diet debates are notoriously boring (partially because they are scripted) and, in fact, don’t happen very often. The Diet is only in session for less than half the year*, so maybe the overtime issue isn’t as bad a problem as some people are making it out to be, but if they really wanted to solve it they should just have the bureaucrats do all the talking. Who needs politicians anyway?

*Corrected Oct. 24

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Review: I Am Greta

As the title suggests, Nathan Grossman’s documentary about teen climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg is more about the person than the activist, though, with someone like Greta, the distinction may be moot. Consequently, the viewer often gets the feeling that Grossman doesn’t know which direction to take, and while Greta herself doesn’t really seem to mind his camera being around all the time, she rarely treats it or Grossman with undue attention. She’s essentially saying to us, “This is what you get,” but that may be more than she thinks.

The movie covers about a year in time, from Greta’s first brush with notoriety, when she went on a solo school strike in Stockholm at the age of 15 to draw attention to global warming in August 2018 and get her native Sweden to join the Paris Accords, until September 2019 when she gave a withering speech blasting world leaders at the UN for their failure to initiate any meaningful action to address climate change. What’s clear from the very beginning is that Greta takes it all very personally. Her dour, scolding attitude springs from an acute realization that her generation will bear the brunt of the climate crisis while those who now exacerbate it in the name of growth and progress will be dead sooner than later. This is, of course, what her dectractors fail to grasp about her. They think her attitude is a function of her Asperger’s (a Fox News pundit calls her a “child with a mental illness”) and makes her out to be malleable to left-wing adults who want to push their alarmist, anti-capitalist agenda, but one thing the movie makes clear is that Greta defies manipulation. Her own father, Svante, who tends to be the only adult she listens to with any deference, says outright that it was Greta who changed his own mind about global warming through the force of her considerable will, and while he necessarily has to chaperone her and make sure she doesn’t collapse psychologically under the weight of all she’s taken on, he knows his own limits as a parent and guardian. There are a number of tense scenes where father and daughter square off over some matter of protocol or safety.

Certainly, too much will be assigned to the Asperger’s, but Greta’s savant tendencies certainly work to her advantage in terms of the work she’s taken on. She’s got a photographic memory, and her stubborn streak means she can’t be swayed by sentimentality or material temptations. Like many young people of her particular temperament, she gets along with animals better than with people, and her veganism, not to mention her disregard for consumerism, are not things she even thinks twice about. For sure, when she embarks on her trip to New York from Europe on a sailboat, because flying would give her opponents ammunition, she is reluctant, mainly because she will be separated from her beloved dogs and horses for so long, but also because the isolation and deprivation will be a trial. She, more than anyone, understands that she comes from a position of privilege, and, in a way, the sea voyage can be seen as Greta testing her own resolve, which may explain why her speech at the UN right after she finished the voyage was so vociferous. 

Grossman perhaps overdoes the nerdy teen thing. “I don’t care about being popular,” Greta says at one point about the disparagement directed at her by trolls and climate change deniers, but the director frames it as the statement of purpose of a contrarian adolescent toward the cool kids in class. If Greta the climate firebrand seems inseparable from Greta the moody teenager it only plays up her integrity as a lightning rod for others her age who are similarly distressed about their futures. She doesn’t do things by half-measures because she knows definitively that half-measures will not save the planet. She’s as honest with herself as she is about the world. 

In Swedish and English. Opens Oct. 22 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

I Am Greta home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 B-Reel Films AB

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An interview with Todd Haynes, 2008

The following is a transcript of a telephone conversation I had with director Todd Haynes in 2008 about his movie, I’m Not There, a kind of fantasia about Bob Dylan. It was done for the Asahi Shimbun’s English language edition and, thus, has never been made available online. The article itself was much shorter and contained only a few brief quotes. (I have appended it to the transcript) With the recent release of Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary, I thought people might be interested in reading what he had to say about Dylan. But, in any case, if you haven’t seen the movie you should. It really is a trip.

-How have you felt about the reception so far?

I’m happy. It’s received good notices amidst a crowded and generally high-quality movie season.

-Was that helped in any way by Dylan’s own resurgence as an artist?

There’s no question. The general interest in Dylan never goes away, but it’s compounded by the quality of work he’s put out recently, starting with his last three releases, and then the book and the radio show. He’s been conveying a crazy generosity in the quality of his work. It’s the radio show and the book to me, indicating the Dylan who is there to stand for the history of American popular music in all its various forms, and as somebody who still wants to act as a link to the earliest traditional music and even contemporary music.

-We can’t hear the radio show in Japan.

That’s too bad. The songs are so great and it’s so cool how much time he’s obviously put in, with a staff of writers, and his own taste, and how much time he’s put into talking between and setting up the songs and sharing really cool kernels of wisdom and stories about each artist. And it’s yet another character: this droll, witty old-timer. [mimics Dylan’s voice introducing Leadbelly and Blur].

-I’m sure he’s riffing on the DJs he listened to as a kid, too.

Exactly.

-What was your first impression of Dylan?

I don’t really remember a first time of actually hearing his voice. Those songs were in the culture of the American Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles where I grew up. I remember “Blowing in the Wind” being played in a circle alongside “Silver and Gold” and falling into that great tradition of American folk songs that became part of the new left of the 60s and was already making its way into places like that. But it was high school where I discovered the singer and the artist, and fell in love with his music and his whole persona and character and style. One of my best friends in high school was Elizabeth McGovern, the actress, and we were soulmates. And I remember her saying once, If you could look like anybody other than yourself, who would it be? And I remember picking Dylan. Because that was a cool look, even in the mid-70s.

-How did your feelings about him change over the years?

I kind of stopped listening to his music for about 20 years. I didn’t stay on top of his releases through the 80s and 90s. I never outright rejected him. I was just moving on to different kinds of music and different genres. It’s what made this strange season at the end of the 90s, at the end of the millennium so interesting and surprising, when I found myself craving him deeply, and needing to hear that music. And I know now how much that was an indicator of changes in my life that would materialize shortly thereafter. A need for a real radical change in my life and a break from my 15 years in New York City. I drove cross-country at the very beginning of 2000 to get away from New York, to go to Portland where my sister lived, just to get away to write. I was writing my last film, Far From Heaven. But my daily, hourly obsession was Dylan, and it kept growing and involving reading biographies again and discovering interviews I’d never read before. And discovering all that amazing music that had never been officially released. And it was in that new climate that I latched on to this idea of him as a shape-shifting artist, and suddenly had this craving to make a film about it, and to address that practice of constant defining change in the concept of these multiple characters.

-How much of that was pure nostalgia?

I don’t think it was nostalgia at all, unless it was nostalgia for my own adolescence. There’s something about Dylan’s fearlessness as an artist and creator that defines even his best studio recordings that there were very few examples of and which condoned a sense of change as a positive thing. And I needed that much more in my later years, when change is no longer simply the definition of your future as a young person but actually as something scary because it’s an uprooting of all that you’ve done to define yourself. I needed an uprooting and I went to somebody who’d been doing it so well for so long.

-When did you come up with the concept of the movie?

It was during that time, but I can’t put my finger on a eureka moment. My conceptual centerpiece of the film is almost banal, this idea of Dylan as someone who is always changing, particularly in the 60s and the 70s. And when you think about it, even the things for those people who don’t know much about him at all, what they do know are these events that are events of radical change and disappointment, like plugging in electric. These are the myths that never die around him, but they come from an actual practice that he was exploring in every possible way. So when you really look at it I don’t feel like I was inventing anything, let alone imposing something on his story or his biography. Just trying to get something core about him as a person.

-It’s interesting in that regard to compare your movie to this whole slew of musical biopics right now, which attempt to provide some verisimilitude.

In fact, the reason those kinds of films receive a lot of criticism, especially from critics and also from filmgoers who still go to see them, like myself, but who groan at the conventions, is that it isn’t verisimilitude at all.

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Review: The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith

As a kind of adjunct local release to Minamata, the controversial feature film treatment about American photographer W. Eugene Smith’s black-and-white record of the first major industrial pollution case to garner global headlines, Sara Fishko’s 2015 documentary The Jazz Loft actually does a much better job of explaining Smith’s unique position in the history of photojournalism, not to mention his prickly, contrarian personality. Between 1957 and 1965, Smith’s illegally occupied home and office was a loft in a broken down old commercial building in New York’s wholesale flower district, at 821 Sixth Avenue, which also contained a kind of makeshift space for jazz musicians to meet and jam and bullshit into the wee hours without drawing complaints or the cops. Smith, seemingly the only other round-the-clock tenant in the building, didn’t mind the racket at all. In fact, he installed his own wiring and microphones and recorded much of the activity there, complementing his own voluminous photographic record of the musicians with taped performances and conversations. As you can imagine, all this material is priceless from the perspective of the history of the New York jazz scene, and Fishko has done an incredible job of assembling it all into a coherent and fascinating chronicle of the times. Dare I say, it’s the perfect companion piece to Todd Haynes’ new documentary about the Velvet Underground, which charts another facet of the New York underground art scene.

The notoriously difficult Smith was perhaps the most famous American photographer at the time and could have made a fortune on commissions, but turned down job after job in order to follow whatever non-lucrative muse caught his fancy, and, as the electrical works proved, he put everything into the jazz loft, though Fishko wisely doesn’t limit her study to him alone. The movie exists because of Smith, because of his photos and tapes, but since it was his desire to record what was happening, whether for posterity or his own artistic obsessions, Fishko is supplied with ample resources to delve into the New York jazz scene. Surviving jazz musicians who frequented the loft remember Smith as a mad workaholic, addicted to amphetamines, constantly taking and developing pictures (the chemicals he used and his peculiar methods in the dark room probably shortened his life), and inserting himself into the lives of musicians who accepted him as a fellow artist. Fishko also goes into the economics; how visiting jazz musicians would usually play gigs elsewhere in Manhattan and then schlep downtown to the loft where they’d spend the night jamming, drinking, and doing drugs. But it wasn’t just hedonism. Connections were made. Another main character in the movie is Hall Overton, the classical composer and teacher at Juilliard who also moved into the loft in 1954 and became a jazz aficionado. In return, he taught many jazz musicians theory on a private basis, including Thelonious Monk, who is considered one of the greatest jazz composers and arrangers of all time. There is also plenty of first-hand testimony speaking to the role, both creative and destructive, that drugs, mainly heroin, played in this milieu. 

The movie also briefly charts Smith’s own life, both before and after he lived in the loft, though this exposition is mainly provided for context. Smith likely suffered from some kind of personality disorder exacerbated by the horrible wounds he received covering the Pacific Theater in World War II (he was one of the first genuinely embedded photojournalists), and the drugs and alcohol he consumed in lieu of food. As a result, he was, by his children’s own estimation, the worst father and husband you could imagine. But he sure knew how to make images, and sounds, too. Those sounds!

Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema, Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

The Jazz Loft home page in Japanese

photo by W. Eugene Smith, 1959 (c) 2015 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

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Media Mix, Oct. 16, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which covers a documentary feature about climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg and Japan’s own response to the crisis. After I wrote the column, Syukuro Manabe won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in “physical modeling of Earth’s climate.” During the press conference following the announcement, a member of the committee was asked if the prize was supposed to send a message to world leaders about the importance of the climate crisis, and the answer was that if any world leader hadn’t gotten the message yet it’s doubtful the prize would make them get it now. This is a slightly more diplomatic way of saying the same thing that Greta Thunberg has been harping on for three years: we can nag and nag, but until something concrete is actually done, we can’t trust any governments to act on all the promises they keep making. It would be nice if Manabe’s award stimulated the Japanese media to prod the Japanese government into some kind of demonstrable action. As pointed out in the column, last year when he was prime minister, Yoshihide Suga pledged to reduce greenhouse gases to zero by 2050, but in the meantime has the government acted on that pledge in any way? Perhaps one year is not enough, but as Greta has made abundantly clear, we’ve already wasted too much time. The crisis is upon us and each day we don’t act brings us closer to a tipping point where there is no turning back. 

In any case, the media hasn’t really used Manabe’s win to bring greater attention to the climate crisis in Japan, where it’s never been much of a story. First of all, Manabe, though born in Japan, works and lives in the U.S., and from statements he’s made that have been covered much more thoroughly than his research, he doesn’t seem interested in coming back to Japan for any reason. Secondly, he seems to want to avoid getting into any possible political controversy by talking about the climate crisis. He’s just a scientist who has come up with a method for studying climate changes more accurately. The fact is, Japan really needs a young person, a Greta of its own, to bring the issue to bear on those who make the decisions, because it’s young people who will have to put up with the long-term effects of climate change and global warming, and until the Japanese media takes the matter as seriously as some media do in the West, it will be difficult to transfer that sense of crisis to the young people who will be tomorrow’s leaders. But maybe that has more to do with political realities in Japan than it does with media complacency. 

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Review: Our Friend

The problem with cancer movies isn’t that the disease is often meant to symbolize something else, but rather that in showing the process of dying over a period of time the natural instincts of a filmmaker work to elide anything that doesn’t touch directly on the effects of cancer. Our Friend, a long movie based on a long magazine essay by Matthew Teague, essentially tries to get at that process more honestly, but uses a device that necessarily distracts from what the movie really wants to say, which is that dying from cancer is messy and horrible, and covers it up with the redemption story of a man who never knew what he had in him.

Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) lead a relative privileged life for people who make money as, respectively, a freelance journalist and a part-time actress in a local theater company in suburban Alabama. After Nicole is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and her condition worsens, the couple’s old friend, Dane (Jason Segel), volunteers to move in and take care of the house and Nicole during the last year of her life so that both she and Matt can get through the ordeal without destroying Matt and their children. The movie, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, goes to great pains to show how Dane has nowhere to go and no particular goal in life. At the time he moves in, he’s barely holding down a sales job at a sporting goods store. Occasionally, he talks about trying his hand at standup comedy, but flashbacks indicate he’s been at loose ends for as long as he’s known Matt and Nicole, and approaching his forties all his friends are married with kids. At first, moving in and taking care of the family more or less seems like a way for Dane to get free room and board, but, in any case, the family welcomes him, and, in the end, is glad they did.

Because the script tends to jump around a lot in time, the full impact of Nicole’s illness is muted for about two-thirds of the movie, but in its final rush to the end it picks up the details of dying in small, potent ways that are much more affecting than the usual emergency-room-visits-and-puking scenes you normally get in cancer movies. (Our Friend has those, too, but they’re strangely low-key) The point is that cancer destroys not just the person who has it, but often their loved ones as well, and the core of Teague’s story is that his family didn’t implode because of Dane, who, perhaps because his decency was always in plain sight but untapped (he talks a lot about working abroad for an NGO), becomes the hero no one could ever expect him to be, including Matt, who’s always thought of him as a screwup. If the movie fails anyone, it’s Nicole, whose illness is almost taken for granted, and while Johnson makes her into a fully inhabited human being who once strayed and whose loss will be deeply felt by those around her, Cowperthwaite spends much much time on Matt’s and Dane’s relationship, probably because it is Matt who now feels at loose ends, not knowing how to act around his wife or his daughters. In the end, Dane is mainly there for him rather than for Nicole, who, in the final days, at least has a hospice attendant (Cherry Jones). Dane is not portrayed as a saint or even someone who finds his purpose. He simply rises to the occasion, whatever that occasion happens to be at the moment, and the beauty of the movie is the way is stays in its lane and suppresses the usual melodrama in favor of the everyday satisfactions of good companionship and quiet throughtfulness. It’s devastating in its own unusual way.

Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Our Friend home page in Japanese

photo (c) BBP Friend LLC 2020

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BIFF 21: Oct. 15

still from The Apartment With Two Women (c) KAFA

The 26th Busan International Film Festival concludes today and the festival has already released its final report summarizing the crowd numbers and other relevant data: 223 films were screened comprising works from 70 countries; 76,072 distinct attendances, including for both physical and online screenings; 31 special programs featuring in-person appearances; 191 guest visits to screenings, including 40 online; and, perhaps most interestingly, only 69 “international guests” as opposed to 1,079 “domestic guests,” which means, despite the festival’s claim that it is “the first international event in Korea to be held during the pandemic,” it’s an international event only open to people who are already in the country or those from overseas who received special permission to attend, and that would seem to include guests who attend the market events. There’s nothing untoward about such a claim, but, obviously, BIFF can’t possibly reassert itself as the biggest and best film festival in Asia until the actual international component of its attendance regains its old potency. A lot of people I know can’t wait to get back.

As mentioned in an earlier post, there is no overall competition at BIFF, though a lot of niche awards are given out. The only film competition that’s sponsored by the festival is the New Currents Award for new filmmakers, which went to two films, Chinese director Wang Er Zhuo’s Farewell, My Hometown, which I didn’t see, and Korean director Kim Se-in’s The Apartment With Two Women, which I did. The latter also won the New Currents Audience Award as well as the festival’s Actress of the Year Award for the performance of Im Jee-ho. Outside the festival, Apartment also won the NETPAC Award, which is given by representatives of foreign film festivals, and the Watcha Award, a Korean prize for new filmmakers. Im’s award seems appropriate because Apartment is, if anyting, a real actors’ showcase. Kim’s script and direction exude a strong sense of autobiography spiked with hyperbolic depictions of scenes plucked from real life. Still, it’s difficult to imagine the protagonist, Yijung (Im), as a proxy for the director, who, after all, possessed the wherewithal to get into film school and make this ambitious 140-minute portrayal of a fraught mother-daughter relationship that oftens descends into comic, albeit blood-shedding arguments. Though the theme is hardly original, Kim earns points for avoiding much of the sentimental undertow that characterizes such movies. She doesn’t bother with a back story, so we never know who Yijung’s father is or why he isn’t in the picture. And though the mother, Sookyung (Yang Mal-bok), has some good reasons for demanding her 20-something daughter move out, her abject intolerance of Yijung’s presence will itself be intolerable to most sentient viewers; and while Yijung may attract sympathy for having to put up with the emotional and physical violence inherent in her mother’s attitude, her glum behavior is just as off-putting. Kim makes it very difficult to like either woman, and yet the long running time never becomes a tortuous slog because of her talent for couching these stereotypes—especially Sookyung’s penchant for youthful fashions that are not only out of her age league, but feel at least 20 years out of date—in episodes that are both credible and dramatically compelling. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but as with so many Korean films by new directors, it shows how adept the film education system is at instilling in film students the importance of conveying, as directly as possible, an original vision, even if the tools are well worn. 

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Review: Candyman

Though billed and plotted as a sequel to Bernard Rose’s very influential 1992 horror film, the fact that Nia Dacosta’s movie has the exact same title indicates that more is at stake here. And for sure, the director and her co-writer and producer, Jordan Peele, seem determined to reclaim the Candyman character and story for Black people, since the milieu of the story was an infamous Chicago public housing project and the title character the vengeful spirit of a murdered slave. More significantly, the protagonist of Rose’s movie was white, so DaCosta’s and Peele’s aim here is to situate the legend of Candyman among the people he terrorized, but in a post-George Floyd world.

Having never seen the original, I felt at a loss walking into the screening of the new one, thinking that much of the story wouldn’t make sense, but the script (Win Rosenfield also contributed) does an excellent job of incorporating as much of the original tale as possible without bogging down the continuing exposition. And while it seems counterintuitive for a monster, out of vengeance for having been killed by a mob of racists, to prey upon his own people, inevitably the logic of the situations depicted bring the viewer around to the conclusion that anger of such monumental proportions is destructive to everyone. And rest assured, white people here get theirs, which may be the point in the end.

Set among the bohemian Black middle class of Chicago, who have moved into the gentrified housing complex that replaced the demolished project, Candyman also does a wickedly good job of lampooning the tastes of the educated Black striver. Tony (Yahya Abdul-Mareen II) is an artist who is dating an up-and-coming gallery owner, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), and suffering from lack of new ideas when he hits upon the legend of the Candyman as the subject for a series of works. According to the legend, anyone who says Candyman’s name five times while staring into a mirror summons the demon, who will then dispatch the summoner in a very bloody way. After Tony publicizes his series at a gallery opening, the idea spreads throughout the art community and beyond, and several people, just as a joke, summon the Candyman and end up very dead. As with the white academic in Rose’s movie, Tony becomes a suspect in these murders, and as he grows to realize the power of his incantation and the true meaning of the Candyman he himself becomes a kind of inverted superhero. The Candyman is not just one demon, but the collective consciousness of dead Black men with scores to settle. 

DaCosta delivers on the requisite gore, though often laterally and with a certain measure of jokey verve. But what really sets Candyman apart from its ilk is the way it describes the everyday socioeconomic circumstances of Black people as a horror show. Tony and Brianna have climbed the ladder successfully and on their own merits, but it doesn’t take much for them to fall back, and it’s that acknowledgement that underscores the themes that this new version of the Candyman tale sets forth so convincingly and, dare I say, so satisfyingly. 

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

Candyman home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and BRON Creative MG1, LLC

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