Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

It’s the slightest of serendipities to note that two days after the great Terry Jones died at the age of 77, another Terry who toiled in the same comedy group and, like Jones, a man who made a second career as a director of feature films, finally sees his 30-years-in-the-making epic open in Japan. Granted, Terry Gilliam is surely a more famous filmmaker than Terry Jones, though I would hesitate to call him a more successful one. Jones’ output was slight in comparison, but it was surely more consistent in tone and quality since it mostly had to do with bringing Monty Python’s Flying Circus to the big screen. Does that make Gilliam, a famous asshole with a streak of artistic idiosyncrasy a mile wide, more ambitious? Perhaps, but given that ambition, it will probably be some time before we’re able to properly judge his body of work.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote won’t make the job any easier. Begun in 1989 and discontinued twice due to lack of funding, a situation that led to a kind of documentary about the failure of the project featuring footage of the abandoned film, this finally finished movie is credited to lead actor Adam Driver’s ability to use his name to attract money, a development that, in and of itself, is deserving of a deeper explanation since Driver has only been a box office draw for about 2 years now. In the film he plays Toby, a hotshot CM director working on location in Spain to film a vodka spot. Under pressure from his ad agency boss (Stellan Skarsgaard), who hopes to snag an open-ended contract with the liquor conglomerate, Toby is essentially returning to the scene of the crime, since his student film was made in this exact same stretch of Spain. It was about Cervantes’ immortal knight errant, and Gilliam implies that Toby has not done much else of aesthetic value since then. When a gypsy drops by the set and tries to sell pirate DVDs to the crew, Toby snatches up a copy of the student film, a move that inspires him to abandon the commercial in order to find out what has transpired in the town in the ten years since.

Quite a bit, as it turns out. The actor who played Sancho Panza drank himself to death. The female lead gave up her dreams of stardom to become an escort, and his Don Quixote, a cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce), went mad and now is convinced he’s the real thing and, as such, is determined to right the wrongs of the world, if only he had the right Sancho to accompany him. Against his better judgement, Toby takes the role.

It’s easy to understand Gilliam’s stubbornness in pursuing this theme. His metier has always been fantasy shot through with a touch of madness, and the man of La Mancha was the original crazy dreamer. If Toby is Gilliam’s obvious stand-in, a creator who relies on many others to realize his vision, then it follows that in the end he has to feel responsible for those who suffered as a result of that vision. Though the storyline mirrors Cervantes’ in an episodic way, the overall plot is original and mostly revolves around Toby’s overcoming his sellout impulses, ending in a frenzy of cross-purposes that requires the participation of not only the ad agency boss, but the Russian liquor company that is presumably paying for all of this. One is tempted to see it as an elaborate raspberry aimed at all the backers who gave up on Gilliam over the years, but there’s not enough narrative meat to bite into much less chew on. Like Don Quixote’s crusades, everything feels amorphous and liable to disappear in a puff of smoke at any moment. Gilliam has fun with Don Quixote’s hallucinations, but for the most part the movie doesn’t display his usual sense of whimsy. Over-determined and stuffed with confusing detail it definitely looks like a movie that took 30 years to make.

In English and Spanish. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Tornasol Films, Carisco Producciones AIE, Kinology, Entre Chien et Loup, Ukbar Filmes, El Hombre Que Mato a Don Quijote AIE, Tonasol SLU

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Review: Horse Thieves

The unwieldy title of this feature film from Kazakhstan that was trotted out for film festivals is The Horse Thieves, The Road of Time, which is far too much information and points to a loss of clarity as to what the purpose of the movie is as a piece of art or entertainment. For sure, the basic narrative idea, which mixes romantic intrigue with action and danger, is dramatically absorbing, but the whole exotic component of the setting and the culture as emphasized by the cinematography and production design points to its promotion as some kind of precious artifact. Then there’s the subtext of having a Japanese actor play the romantic male lead opposite a Kazakh actor who won a Best Actress prize at Cannes, as well as the directing credit being shared by a young Japanese director, even though the story and overall aesthetic is obviously the product of the award-winning Kazakh director.

Thankfully, the end result is nowhere near the kind of mish-mash of cross purposes this description could indicate, though it may have had something to do with the film’s lack of originality and ambition. The principals have described the story as a Western on the steppes, which is a useful reduction. The head of a family (Dulyga Akmolda) living in a remote area of Kazakhstan leaves his wife and children alone for a number of days as he goes to the regional market to sell some horses, and during his journey he is set upon by thieves who steal the horses and kill the man. After being informed of her husband’s murder, Aigal (Samal Yesyamova) holds a village funeral and struggles to raise her three children on her own. Coincidentally, on the day of the funeral, a mysterious Shane-like figure arrives in the village. Kairat (Mirai Moriyama), a freelance horse trainer passing through, calls on Aigal, and the relationship between the two, as well as between Kairat and Aigal’s 10-year-old son, Olzhas (Madi Minaidarov), is revealed in subtle ways.

Most of what transpires is predictable to anyone familiar with Westerns or even this kind of rural, former-Soviet-bloc cinema, which takes nothing away from the way directors Yerlan Nurmukhambetov and Lisa Takeba stage the climax for maximum suspense and excitement without betraying the naturalistic tone of the production. If the rest of the movie had been approached with this open sense of risk, it might have made more of a distinct impression, not so much as a faithful pastiche of certain tried-and-true narrative patterns but as something that tried to reach beyond such patterns to something sublime. For sure, the horse work and the cinematography by Aziz Zhambakiev is especially strong, so maybe it was just a case of too many cooks.

In Kazakh. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).

Horse Thieves home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Olzhas no Shiroi Uma Seisaku Iinkai

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Media Mix, Jan. 19, 2020

Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the detention of foreigners who don’t happen to be Carlos Ghosn, mainly by the immigration authority rather than the police or prosecutors. First, I should mention that the header chosen by the Japan Times is not precisely correct. While Ghosn did flee Japan, most foreigners who are detained by Immigration and then allowed what is called provisional release don’t leave the country. Ghosn forfeited his bail when he escaped, supposedly in a music instrument case. Foreigners on provisional release are required to pay a deposit in order to compel them to show up regularly at their local Immigration office. It’s not called bail but the deposit has the same purpose, and if the person doesn’t report to Immigration on pre-arranged date, they could lose the deposit, not to mention their freedom. But they usually remain in Japan.

They can still lose their freedom even if they do show up when they’re supposed to, which is why so many decide to disappear. Immigration officers can decide to redetain a person without giving a reason for it, and they often do, which means the person has to reapply for provisional release, and that could take months or even years. Of course, Immigration’s aim is to convince the person to leave the country at their own expense and of their own will, but since many don’t necessarily have countries to “go home to”—some are political refugees, while others have been in Japan so long they effectively know no other place—they refuse. That’s why when they “flee” they don’t leave Japan. They just disappear underground.

Emelita, the Filipino woman mentioned in the column, is one of the people who has lived in Japan for a long time and is refusing to be deported because she has a Japanese husband and two children who were born here. Some years ago she was convicted of a financial crime and did her time in prison, after which Immigration summarily detained her in preparation for deportation. She hired a lawyer to fight the deportation and the detention, and after three years she was finally granted provisional release in December, but she still has to report to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Shinagawa on a regular basis. She will do so for the first time since her release on Jan. 23, and there is a possibility she could be redetained, so a group of supporters will gather at the bureau on Jan. 23 at 10 a.m. to demand that she remain free. Anyone is welcome to join them. Of course, the real hurdle is her deportation order, which was supposed to be carried out later this month. Her lawyer has told us that he filed a suit to stop the deportation, so, at least temporarily, she has a reprieve. But the first order of business, according to the lawyer, is to make sure she isn’t detained again. We will try to follow the case, which is not being covered by the Japanese media, and report on any outcome in this space.

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Review: The Aeronauts (Into the Sky)

About the only way to approach Tom Harper’s two-handed adventure film is as a problem in search of a solution. Though based thinly on a true story (or, more exactly, elements from several true stories), the film’s adventure component is so limited in scope that in order to remain relevant for 100 minutes a number of hurdles must be overcome, the first of which is that there are only two characters, and the second of which is that the entire adventure takes place in the basket of a hot air balloon.

Harper beats the first hurdle by making one of the characters a daredevil entertainer. The year is 1862, and James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a meteorologist, wants to prove a theory he has about predicting the weather, something his scholarly colleagues believe is impossible. In order to investigate his hypothesis he has to get high up in the atmosphere, where real weather patterns originate, and so hires a balloon. But since his university won’t fund the journey, because they think it’s all a folly, he brings on the aforementioned entertainer, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), who is experienced with balloons (Glaisher has never set foot in one) and, more significantly, can help subsidize the adventure by charging people to watch while she does her acrobatic act—complete with performing dog—as they cast off.

Nevertheless, once the movie is off the ground we’re stuck in that little basket with our two stars, who, having already worked together in that Oscar-winner about Steven Hawking, at least have cultivated a certain chemistry, but with Amelia recently widowed (her husband was her ballooning partner) and Glaisher dweebishly obsessed with his instruments and record-keeping, focusing their attention on each other is bit of a chore, so Harper has to liven the proceedings with extraneous stuff, like flashbacks that show us what the two have gone through to get to this point, and interesting pieces of natural science that justify the CGI budget, like an invasion of butterflies that are hitching a ride on an upper atmosphere current. He also injects a few suspenseful set pieces conveying how dangerous it all is, the most potent of which—passing through the first layer of rain clouds—is also the most stimulating. From there it almost seems like an anti-climax, even though the cold and diminishing oxygen level get to be real problems and Amelia is actually forced to climb the outside of the balloon to the top in order to fix a stuck valve. These moments of unease are strong while they last but fail to amount to anything memorable. Personally, I was intrigued by the notion that up until this voyage, weather forecasts were considered a fantasy, and wanted the script to address Glaisher’s breakthrough more thoroughly, but the whole experiment thing, which was the main reason for the adventure in the first place, is treated as a mildly diverting sideshow. I mean, these two people almost die for the sake of science, so why not give science its due?

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Uplink Shibuya (03-6825-5503).

The Aeronauts home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Amazon Content Services LLC

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Review: Richard Jewell

Though Clint Eastwood’s oft-discussed tendency to inject his personal cultural prejudices into his movies seems to become more pronounced with age, he is more likely to get away with that proclivity in films where he also stars, probably because the director’s work as an actor, particularly in the Dirty Harry series, provided his entire public persona with an acceptable facade of conservative independence that comes with its own integrity. Whether you appreciate or abhor his politics, Eastwood is a known entity, and a comfortably familiar one, so wherein presentations such as American Sniper and 15:17 to Paris can come across as reactionary statements, equally skewed movies like The Mule and El Torino feel more like films thanks to Eastwood’s curmudgeonly lead characters. You take them at face value as entertainment rather than as veiled attempts at libertarian persuasion.

Richard Jewell, Eastwood’s highly reductive retelling of the bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and its aftermath, doesn’t feature Eastwood the actor, and it’s difficult to think of any role in the movie that he could have filled, but the script’s (by Billy Ray) obviously polemical notes are undercut by a fast-paced, intensive style that has more in common with the sort of leftish intentions attributable to the kind of 70s movies that represent the antithesis of Eastwood’s later work. In fact, the main villain in Richard Jewell is the FBI, meaning supreme law enforcement, which also often played the bete noire in those 70s movies. The language of Hollywood hasn’t changed in the intervening years, only our perspective when it comes to authority. In the 70s, the bad guys were “the establishment,” while now it’s “big government.” The difference is notable, and worthy of greater scrutiny than a movie review can supply, but in the end Eastwood is playing on the viewer’s feelings with an old-fashioned sense of drama: Finding sympathy with a victim.

That victim is the title character, played by Paul Walter Hauser, a wannabe cop who has to settle for being a security guard because of certain peculiar personality traits that seem to have gotten him dismissed from one police department. Jewell’s annoyingly ingratiating side is exacerbated by a somewhat Manichean view of society. Though he loves his mama, Bobi (Kathy Bates), and has a pretty good grasp of what the Constitution means, he also believes that authority should be given the benefit of the doubt. He sees the police, the most direct arbiters of authority, as always being in the right by default. He’s overzealous about policing dorm students in his job as campus security. At the same time, his obsession with belonging to this tribe spurs his ambitions. Even as a security guard hired to just walk around Centennial Olympic Park, where various Games-related public events take place, he takes his orders seriously, which is why he was the person who saw what looked like a bomb stuffed underneath some scaffolding and, contrary to his superiors’ apathetic reaction, had the area cleared. Though two people were killed in the explosion, many more might have died if it weren’t for Jewell’s actions.

At first he’s a hero and a humble one, but the FBI, represented here by a suspiciously handsome and arrogant agent named Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), and the media in the form of an equally arrogant and opportunistic newspaper reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), separately and together suspect that Jewell planted the bomb himself in order to play the hero in the end. To them, with his apparent insecurities and lack of social skills, Jewell fits the profile of someone who seeks attention, and while Jewell is certainly awkward and slow to pick up on others’ take on him, it’s clear by the cliches forced upon Hamm and Wilde that Eastwood sees them as caricatures of all that’s wrong with, respectively, government power and the media, which in this case isn’t nominally left wing but certainly irresponsible. Consequently, the public mood against Jewell shifts 180 degrees when he is outed as a suspect, though until it becomes too much for him Jewell retains his respect for the FBI, because he aspires to be part of such a fraternity.

The hero of the movie, however, is Sam Rockwell’s Watson Bryant, Jewell’s defense attorney, who scans as slick operator but one who has already recognized Jewell’s intrinsic decency and can see the venality of Shaw’s and Scruggs’ actions. So the Manichean battle is joined, and Eastwood has a fine old time exploring the coldness of the government’s tactics to break Jewell, not to mention the media’s cynical indifference to fairness. In that regard, Richard Jewell is something of a minor masterpiece, straightforward in its insistence on due process while brutally efficient in its use of suspense and dramatic development. It’s as if Clint were in the movie himself.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (050-6875-0075), 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).

Richard Jewell home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Claire Folger

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Review: Jojo Rabbit

Director Taika Waititi sincerely tries to hedge his bets with his Oscar-nominated Nazi comedy by labeling it right off the bat as an “anti-hate satire,” which, of course, gives the impression that the New Zealand director, not-so-fresh off the success of his MCU Thor blockbuster, has only the best intentions when he depicts Hitler as a goof-ball and anti-Semitic propaganda as akin to MAGA-inspired cultural laziness or immaturity or both. And for sure, the movie’s relentlessly inventive stream of jokes that tap directly into our collective sense of how ridiculous that whole regime was, with its uniform fetishes and obsession with whiteness for the sake of whiteness, works a certain magic until you catch yourself wondering what you should make of a group of people hanged in a town square after summary trials for anti-Nazi activities. You’re obviously supposed to be appalled, but then you’re also supposed to fall right back into laughing at the silliness of it all.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with implementing such stark tonal shifts in order to provoke a reaction, but there isn’t enough originality in Waititi’s vision to make that reaction anything more than a reflex. Based on a novel published in 2008, Jojo Rabbit tells the story of 10-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a dedicated Hitler Youth member who dutifully hates Jews and believes totally in all the ideas of the Third Reich. In his quaint little berg at the tail end of the war, however, he’s something of an odd duck, and earns his nickname at a camp after failing to kill a bunny when ordered to do so. The viewer is thus signaled to understand that Jojo isn’t quite the monster his belief system would make him out to be. In addition, he has devised for himself an imaginary friend who looks a lot like Der Fuhrer himself, and as played by the director he’s a cartoon caricature of Hitler, or, more exactly, the kind of nebbish that Mel Brooks would have concocted had he extrapolated the premise of The Producers to a full-fledged World War II comedy. This hallucinated Hitler is more evil Jiminy Cricket than playmate, and as the movie progresses and Jojo’s conscience is stimulated by outside events that challenge his received prejudices, the real conflict emerges, which is gratifying as far as it goes, but, again, we’re talking about a kid and his unformed intellect, which has been a product of a fairly sheltered life. This isn’t The Tin Drum.

In a sense, it’s a missed opportunity, because Jojo’s seemingly widowed mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is, we soon learn though Jojo doesn’t, a member of the underground resistance who is hiding a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in a secret room in their house. Jojo’s entlightenment starts kicking in when he stumbles upon this girl and makes friends with her, thus confounding everything he has absorbed about Jews, though, at first, he resists mightily to the point where he almost exposes her to the local SS. Again, the narrative device feels reflexive and not credible within the frame of the story. Given Jojo’s proclivities, it’s not a given that he wouldn’t snitch on Elsa, but the premise of the movie demands he doesn’t.

That’s as deep as it goes, and while no one expects more from a comedy, the laughs become tiresome. Sam Rockwell plays a cynical local factotum who suspects Jojo’s self-doubt and lets it slide, because, hell, why not? Rebel Wilson is even more of a cypher, a female Nazi tool (she’s already produced 18 Aryan offspring) who is always game for humiliation. By the time the Americans and the Russians arrive the Germans have effectively ridiculed themselves into defeat.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Jojo Rabbit home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Twentieth Cnetury Fox Film Corp. & TSG Entertainment Finance LLC

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Media Mix, Jan. 12, 2020

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the Japan Post Holdings scandal, which is mainly about the way NHK was prevented from covering the matter fully. Two pertinent points that aren’t made fully clear in the column is that Yasuo Suzuki, the “don” of Japan Post Holdings who personally put pressure on NHK to curb its reporting, was also forced to quit, and that then-NHK President Ryoichi Ueda eventually testified to the Diet that NHK did not postpone a follow-up report on Japan Post Insurance’s improper sales methods due to this pressure, an assertion that no one ever really believed. In terms of media relevancy, the main point of the column is probably that the NHK board of governors may have broken the law by relaying the pressure it received from Suzuki to Ueda directly, a violation of the Broadcast Law, which guarantees newsgatherers freedom from interference.

The fact is, the Japan Post Insurance scandal contains a lot of central as well as peripheral illegality. The follow-up NHK report, which was finally broadcast last summer, a full year after it was originally scheduled to air, clearly indicates illegal actions on the part of salespeople who were under pressure to meet impossible sales quotas. One victim talks about how a salesperson visited the home of her elderly mother, who had a Japan Post insurance policy, in order to talk about inheritance taxes and asked both the mother and daughter to affix their signatures to a piece of paper to confirm that they had understood the salesperson’s explanation. Later, they discovered that the signatures had been transferred optically to a contract for an additional policy they knew nothing about. That is obviously sales fraud. The NHK report stated unequivocally that these kinds of practices were not only rampant, targeting tens of thousands of policy holders, but that they were known by executives of the company. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have tried to cover them up after the first report was aired. Executives have resigned and a certain amount of self-reflection has resulted from the fallout of the scandal, but no one has been prosecuted much less punished by the authorities. And why? Because Japan Post Holdings is still mainly owned by the government and, despite recent news reports to the contrary, still provides a cushy landing spot for bureaucrats parachuting out of their jobs in Kasumigaseki?

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