Review: Bombshell

Tongue-in-cheek title aside, there’s not a whole lot in Jay Roach’s takedown of Fox News that’s farcical. If anything, the movie is earnest, even sincere in the way it unloads on male toxicity in the media, but Roger Ailes is dead and Megyn Kelly, though somewhat chastened by her failure at NBC, still willfully spouts ignorant horseshit. In a word, Bombshell is burdened with too much ongoing context.

It’s important to note that the story here is highly speculative, even if it’s based on real events that had real concsequences. What went on in closed offices is subject to poetic license, and Roach and his screenwriter, Charles Randolph, don’t color too far outside the lines, which is sort of where the earnestness comes in. For the first half hour or so, the movie looks to be taking the piss, with the preternaturally blonde trio of network star Kelly (Charlize Theron), on-the-outs anchor Gretchen Calrson (Nicole Kidman), and up-and-coming new recruit (a fictional “composite”) Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), each manuevering their respective positions of power or lack thereof in opposition to one another but in coordination with the whims of their boss, the imperious and imperiously ugly (in all senses of the word), Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). The derisive tone of the dialogue and the production design makes it look like Mad Men if the 60s had actually turned out differently that it had, sociopolitically speaking, that is. And that’s a fair way of looking at the corporate culture of Fox News, which is so obsessed with image over content that their notional right-wing agenda is more a result of their game rather than the impetus for it. Forget about Ailes being media advisor to past Republican presidents, what he gave them was corporate advice, not ideological talking points.

And for a while this approach works well in that the film’s conspiratorial atmosphere is thrilling and unself-serious. The ringer is Kelly, who, sticking to her professions guns, nailed Trump on his sexism during a debate. At first, we get to see Kelly asserting her power at the network, which was spooked by her affront to Trump, by making a case that she is not a feminist but a real journalist, two descriptions that will mostly draw howls of derisive laughter from knowing newswatchers, and if Bombshell had continued in that vein it might have made a good comedy. Unfortunately, it becomes something else that is much more muddled. Carlson, hurt by her demotion to an afternoon time slot she feels is beneath her, sues Ailes for sexual harassment, and, in order to illustrate what she’s talking about, we get an extremely distasteful one-on-one as Ailes interviews Pospisil for an on-air job that involves blatant power harassment. There’s, of course, no way you can make light of either of these plot points, and they are vital to the story that Roach wants to tell, but they make the movie feel turgid and self-important. We know enough about Fox News and male toxicity by now to have formed our own opinions about both and either, and having Bombshell try to make it all seem like news again feels redundant. Besides, it’s not as if Fox News learned anything.

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

Bombshell home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.

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Review: Midsommar

I’ll give hot horror director Ari Aster this much: He really knows how to set the stage for his twisty mischief. Like his earlier potboiler, Hereditary, Midsommar opens with a deceptively bleak slice of melodrama. Dani (Frances Pugh), a grad student, has to cope with the tragedy of a bipolar sister in a set piece that would have made an exceptionally interesting film by itself. The trauma eats away at her already disintegrating relationship with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who seems more beholden to his chums, a toxic crew of privileged maleness. The one exception is Swedish softie Pelle, (Vilhelm Blomgren), an exchange student who invites Christian and his pals to his home village in Scandanavia, a kind of primitive hippie commune. Since two in this crew are studying anthropology, they are eager to go to experience the village midsummer festival. Dani’s part in this is not really clear, though Christian seems to want to patch up their relationship, and she really could use a change of scene.

As with Hereditary, from a certain point Midsommar winds itself so tight that the plot can seem impenetrable, but in any case, the village isn’t quite what these Americans envisioned. The first thing they do when they arrive is consume herbal hallucinogenics, a move that freaks Dani out given her already delicate psychological condition. The guys dig it, however, and not just because of their scholarly curiosity. The commune seems to practice its own form of free sex, though the newcomers may have to wait to participate. Predictably, the warm hospitality masks something much more sinister, and while it becomes obvious early on that our travelers are trapped—the commune is very far from what you would call civilization—it’s Dani, of course, who gets hip to the ways things are done around here before her pals do; and that plot point is central to what Aster has under his hat.

The scares are rather mild compared to Hereditary, and the gimmick is that everything happens in either broad daylight or during extremely well lit nighttime activities. It’s the movie’s suggestions that are meant to be upsetting, and while the feminist subtext is acutely felt, it doesn’t feel particularly original. Dani is the only character the viewer will likely care about, so one’s emotional investment is paid back without much in the way of dividends. In fact, the Swedes are so blankly uniform in manner and appearance, it’s surprising Aster hasn’t been accused of stereotyping.

In English and Swedish. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Midsommar home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 A24 Films LLC

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Review: A Hidden Life

What’s immediately striking about Terrence Malick’s newest movie is that its premise does most of the work for him. Malick is known for imprinting a characteristic visual style and spiritual tone on all his stories, regardless of their provenance or theme, thus creating his own theme, which usually centers on the nexus between the natural world and God. A Hidden Life is about the Austrian farmer Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), who refused to fight for Adolf Hitler because of his religious beliefs. The first half of the film takes place high in the Austrian Alps, a milieu where nature is king and God’s work is taken for granted. Jagerstatter’s life is so simple that he doesn’t even need the Catholic Church to guide his spirituality (“the Church tells you so…”), and he comes off as something of an oddity in the community, a man of deep faith without need for dogma to explain how to channel that faith. He sees God in the trees and the fields and the animals and in his love for his wife, Franzi (Valerie Pachner), who gives him three children. As with many such passages in Malick’s films, this idyll is sometimes overwrought, an excess of beautiful scenes beautifully staged and shot. Some will no doubt find it tiring, but it makes Jagerstatter’s idealism whole and uncomplicated, and that’s important because it determines the choices he makes, ones that very few of us ever even contemplate.

Eventually, the Anschluss comes and Jagerstatter is sent off for basic training, which he tolerates with native stoicism. Afterwards, he returns to his village, which has been altered terribly by the scourge of forced patriotism. As Jagerstatter awaits his draft notice, he becomes more than just the village eccentric. His conscience is seen as a danger to the community, and he and his family are ostracized. He is open about his objection to the war, which in and of itself isn’t the real problem. Though conscientious objectors were not permitted in the German army, they could get assigned to non-combat duty. Jagerstatter’s problem is that he won’t pledge loyalty to Hitler, who he sees as the anti-Christ, even if he doesn’t use that exact term. When his notice comes the village is almost relieved to get rid of him, while his wife is frantic: Is your spiritual purity worth the burden you are putting on your family?

The final third, which details Jagerstatter’s stint in prison, is almost all about internals—the insides of jail cells and prison yards, the deep recesses of Jagerstatter’s strangely placid mind. Malick’s intense use of shadows brings out the slippery slope that the lawyers, judges (one of whom is played by Bruno Ganz in his last film appearance), and clergymen who try to get him to tell a white lie to save himself have to navigate in their own lives of self-deceit. What’s almost miraculous about A Hidden Life is that Jagerstatter doesn’t come across as a saint. He’s actually the most patient man you will ever meet; a purposeful, perfect fulfillment of Malick’s vision of the spiritual being as leading man.

In English and German. Opens Feb. 21 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Shinjuku Cine Qualite (03-3352-5645).

A Hidden Life home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Corporation

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Media Mix, Feb. 16, 2020

Not Tomomi Inada

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about LDP lawmaker Tomomi Inada’s perceived shift to the center owing to her support for a tax revision that would provide deductions for single mothers who have never been married. As pointed out in the column, the real issue at stake in the deduction’s conception is whether people who are against it object due to the parent’s lifestyle choices and thus ignore the main point, which is to create a better environment for the child. As I mentioned, this issue becomes more pertinent in the matter of the child-rearing allowance, which is implemented by the central government but administered by local governments. Single parents whose income is below a certain level are eligible for government assistance for child-rearing purposes, though the amount differs for each child based on circumstances.

A Mainichi Shimbun article published last October outlined the difficulties that many single parents—read: single mothers—face when applying for the allowance. The questions on the form are quite invasive: Are you dating someone at the moment? What is this person’s name? Are you pregnant now? The local welfare office is trying to determine if the applicant is in a live-in relationship with another person whose own income would alter the calculus for determining assistance, though, in fact, this partner does not have to be living with the applicant. Any possible monetary assistance must be taken into account. NGOs that work with single parents have consistently objected to this line of inquiry, saying it is not only invasive but beside the point, since the assistance is supposed to go the child based on the child’s needs. Other questions on the form ask for details about the applicant’s interactions with a previous spouse, possible financial support from parents or siblings, and whether the single-family household receives gifts of clothing or food. Local governments say they are trying to prevent fraud, since the law states that persons in common law marriage-type relationships are ineligible, but the scope of the questions imply that the definition of common law relationships is quite broad. Some forms ask single mothers who have never been married to provide the names of the fathers of their children, though the welfare ministry insists this information is optional.

Moreover, once a single parent is approved for the allowance, she has to resubmit the form every year in order to report any changes to her situation, and not just in terms of her income. According to Mainichi’s investigation, these forms very rarely uncover improper activities. In 2017, the welfare ministry reported that 973,188 single parents had received the allowance, and while they didn’t report how many applications were declined, they said that only 0.1 percent of the cases were “overpaid.” Recipients interviewed for the article expressed annoyance at the busybody nature of the application process, which also can involve surprise home visits. One of the NGOs, Single Mothers Forum, which is mentioned in the column, are constantly checking on local governments’ procedures for the allowance and sending suggestions for improvements. And some have responded positively, so there is hope. Nevertheless, the whole idea of the application gives the impression that there are three kinds of single mothers: women with axes to grind against men, so-called kept women (or mistresses), and women who are purposely trying to swindle the government. In actuality, single mothers, regardless of their marital status or dating history, constitute one of the lowest paid demographics in the country, and their children suffer for it. If the alimony and child support structure was stronger, at least divorced mothers might have a better chance, but that isn’t the case. Joint custody would also be an improvement for divorced couples, though organizations like Single Mothers Forum tend to oppose joint custody, since many of the women they work with were in abusive relationships.

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Review: Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy

Justin Kelly’s cinematic retelling of the J.T. LeRoy scandal is the second film I’ve watched in a span of 24 hours about a true-life literary hoax. The day before I watched Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which was about biographer Lee Israel’s two-year project to defraud literary memorabilia collectors by forging letters by famous dead authors. The Heller film is superior to Kelly’s, but mainly for technical reasons. Heller understands how to shoot and edit for maximum emotional resonance and how cinematic time differs from real time. Kelly’s film, which depicts a longer time period, is often confusing in that incidents almost seem to happen on top of one another. And the use of title cards and voiceovers just add to the mess of developmental tricks that are obviously used to paper over lapses in imagination.

Nevertheless, both movies address their respective hoaxes with the same open-mindedness. Obviously, Israel’s was a bit more serious since it involved money-related fraud, but the skill behind her forgeries—that she could convincingly mimic the tone and style of some of the most famous writers of the 20th century—points up the essential silliness of the collector class. The J.T. LeRoy affair was much more complex since it involved more people and was played out in public in very conspicuous settings, such as the Cannes Film Festival and the pages of Vanity Fair. But the common sense idea at its core—that celebrity is a function of credulousness rather than intrinsic worth—is the same, and explored in more cutting detail.

J.T. LeRoy was the “avatar” of unpublished writer Laura Albert (Laura Dern), who created an androgynous teenage street kid to tell his sad story of being raised by a junkie truck stop prostitute in book form. Against all odds, LeRoy’s stories captured the zeitgeist of the late 90s/early 00s, and Albert was forced to ponder how far she would take the subterfuge, so she recruited her younger sister-in-law, Savannah (Kristen Stewart), to create LeRoy in the flesh, while Albert played the author’s comically accented British “handler,” Speedy, whenever they went out into public. Because of his damaged upbringing, LeRoy was preternaturally shy, hiding behind wigs, dark glasses, and feminine style so as to play up the notion that he could be a her, and since LeRoy always claimed his writing was “fiction,” the over-determined standoffishness came across as a mystique: was he or wasn’t he? Savannah’s lack of guile basically assured the success of the imposture.

Where the film succeeds is in its handling of the Savannah-Laura dynamic. Savannah is still a naif when she comes to San Francisco in 2001 to visit her newly wed brother (Jim Sturgess), and, like the viewer, is taken aback by Laura’s boldly solipsistic artistic persona. It’s clear from the beginning that Albert has emotional, perhaps even pscyhological, issues that prevent her from being not only honest with herself, but isolated from reality. Savannah goes along with her batty plan because she lacks self-possession, and the impersonation gives her a means of creating an identity. However, once she forms a crush on the moody, caustic French actress (Diane Kruger) who wants to buy the film rights to LeRoy’s first book, it’s clear that Savannah is not emotionally mature enough to maintain the proper veneer.

The movie’s main failings involve a simple lack of information. Though everyone involved in the scam is really into this for the money, it’s never explained how LeRoy as a construct benefits from the popularity of his books; nor how Albert conducts business without some kind of filtering agent. You know a movie is cutting way too many corners when you have to access not one, not two, but three Wikipedia pages to fill in the blanks.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Mars Town Film Limited

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Review: 1917

Most bets were on Sam Mendes’s World War I epic to take the Best Picture Oscar at last week’s Academy Awards ceremony, but no one seems to be griping that he was robbed. I guess that most people who saw all of the nominated films probably think that the best one won, but it’s still worth discussing why 1917 was favored in the first place. The thinking is that movies about heavy-duty themes (war) that are also technically challenging (the famous “one take” gambit) have an advantage with Academy voters. Within those narrow parameters, 1917 is quite good and exerts its intended power as you watch it. Afterwards, however, it fails to linger, a function of its gimmick rather than its theme.

World War I is pretty much the default conflict for antiwar movies since no one has ever really come up with a justifiable excuse for its wholesale slaughter, and that’s the subtheme of 1917, which goes without saying and so doesn’t feel particularly penetrating or fresh, though the automatic patriotism on display is never contradicted. Essentially, we have two young British soldiers, Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who have been ordered by their commander to travel behind enemy lines and deliver a message to another company to cancel a planned attack, since new intelligence indicates the company would be walking into a trap. This is where the one-take gambit comes in: We watch the pair carry out their order every step of the way. So automatically there is a slight deficit, since the movie is only two hours and the trip seems to take much more than that. (Granted, there is one scene where time seems to take a break.) What’s more impressive than the one-take gimmick and Roger Deakins’ masterful camerawork is the production design, which conveys the hellscape of this particular battle front in sickening detail, the bodies churned in the mud, the massive craters, the total affront to nature. And some of the tableaux, like a bombed out French town burning at night, are so breathtaking as to be comparable to great oil paintings. The music, on the other hand, tends to be a bit too much.

There isn’t a lot of plot to absorb or deal with, just the constant reiteration of atrocity, which exerts its own suspenseful power, though that power shouldn’t be mistaken for drama, which does happen occasionally but doesn’t stay with you for more than a minute. Relentlessness has its own numbing effect. Consequently, the film is most powerful in snatches, when someone dies unexpectedly or a fight ensues that seems endless. It’s here where Mendes’s methods work, but they don’t necessarily have a cumulative effect. And since the one-take gambit relies on control, the chaos that is endemic to war is undermined. 1917 is excellently staged and masterfully choreographed, but its “war is hell” signifiers are too impressive in and of themselves. You leave in awe of the work, which may not have been what Mendes had in mind.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-05068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

1917 home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Universal Studios and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC

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Media Mix, Feb. 9, 2020

A care facility for people with disabilities in Hokkaido

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the press’s collateral coverage of the trial of the Sagamihara care home killer. It should be noted that neighborhood resistance to care facilities for people with disabilities is not a rare thing. The Mainichi Shimbun report I cited goes into detail about the history of such resistance. It says that in the 90s there were at least 83 protest campaigns throughout Japan against the construction of care facilities, which was a problem because in most cases such facilities were built wholly or partially with public funds, and in such cases community approval had to be secured before construction could begin. In 1999, Osaka Prefecture took the initiative to pass a law that did away with this requirement, since it was becoming almost impossible to build any care facilities in their jurisdiction. The prefecture essentially said that such a requirement effectively violated the rights of the disabled.

Other localities followed, and in line with this change the public sector retreated from the process of arranging for people with disabilities to stay in such facilities. Formerly, local governments assigned applicants to specific care homes, but now it’s mostly the case that potential residents deal directly with facility operators. That’s because in 2005 the government passed a law to encourage greater independence for people with disabilities, which also paved the way for private sector companies to enter the care home business in a major way. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of private group home operators increased tenfold to more than 750. In addition, group homes have become a fairly popular means for land owners to do something constructive with vacant properties. One public welfare professional told Mainichi that tax and real estate consultants have exacerbated the problem of group home protests by recommending construction of such homes for income and tax purposes without explaining to landlords that there may be neighborhood opposition. Consequently, the landlord builds a facility and hires an operator to run it without consulting neighbors, who learn about it at the last minute and become upset. Lawsuits are often the result. Though the protests are obviously a function of people’s prejudices and unfairly discriminate against people with disabilities, realtors and associated businesses take advantage of the law without addressing these prejudices, which only makes the problem worse.

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