May 2016 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on April 25.

Civil_War_mainCaptain America: Civil War
No, Cap hasn’t been transported back in time to fight the Rebs. The internecine struggle indicated by the title is between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), thus making this latest Marvel blockbuster not only another chapter in the Avengers series, but also an inadvertent (?) Marvel response to the recent Batman versus Superman fiasco. That it isn’t a fiasco itself says more about Marvel Studios’ knowhow as purveyors of cinematic bombast than any distinctions you might want to draw between the two superhero institutions as institutions. Marvel has had more practice and are better at spending money than the DC people, even if the DC people have been in the comics game much longer. In a more essential way, Marvel, while always a bit too casual with the cynicism, bothers to consider the superhero genre as something that actually has an influence on society. The problem with the Superman and Batman movies is that they’re so generic. The civil war in this instance is sparked by something us skeptics have always huffed about in these movies: the incredible collateral damage that comes with saving the world. In the opening recap, we get the greatest hits of the Avengers’ carnage in various world cities, which has brought the wrath of these countries down on their heads and with it an intermediary (William Hurt) to run roughshod on their activities. Rogers, who suspects they’re being set up by one of those evil forces they were formed to fight, doesn’t go for the leash, while Stark, at one time the loose cannon destructo king, takes the bit. They clash, and the other Avengers line up behind one or the other, depending on their political stance. In the meantime, some stray members of the Marvel universe are finally recruited, with Ant Man (Paul Rudd) hanging with Cap and the preternaturally millennial Spider-Man (Tom Holland, in his debut as the character) taking Stark’s stand. Though it’s more coherent and intellectually stimulating than Winter Soldier, there’s still a lot of flab in terms of set pieces whose only purpose seems to be to spread the action amongst as many superheroes as possible, and since there are so many (Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as Falcon, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, etc., etc.) it’s a lot of fighting to sit through. Daniel Bruhl plays the heavy, an outlier whose own score to settle with the Avengers actually has some merit, and makes you wonder how much better the movie might have been if his story had been given more attention. Since everybody assumes the Avengers stand for America, it’s nice to see them get their comeuppance for once, but apparently there’s always a limit to such things. (photo: Marvel) Continue reading

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Media Mix, May 1, 2016

IMG_3932Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the new single by the female idol collective HKT48. The column discusses media charges of sexism against the song and its writer-producer, Yasushi Akimoto, but another topic that has come to the fore in the talk about “Einstein yori Dianna Agron” is that old complaint about how idols are not allowed to have love lives because it would dilute their appeal and thus damage the brand. In the Shukan Asahi column I cited in the piece, Minori Kitahara talked about a male acquaintance who is obsessed with girl idols, in particular the AKB48 type. He’s in his 40s and married with a daughter in elementary school. In fact, he agrees that he is probably the typical “fan” of groups like AKB48. Kitahara asked him bluntly if he is sexually attracted to girls who are the same age as his daughter, and he answered that the attraction isn’t easy to explain, but gives an interesting example of how it is manifested. He told her that if an idol he admires writes on her blog that she went to Disneyland, he and others like him will wonder if she went there on a date with a man. He was quick to add that it isn’t as if he wants to go on a date with the idol himself, but he is nevertheless jealous if another man is going with her. The idea of there being a “shadow of a boyfriend” behind an idol disturbs him.

Kitahara explains that this feeling represents a kind of contract, which is why when girl idols are caught out on dates by the tabloid press, they have to apologize to their fans, who may feel betrayed. However, when Akimoto was asked about this aspect of the idol dynamic in the Aera interview, he said something slightly different: “I never said they couldn’t have [romantic] relationships. Once that happens, you can’t stop it. But if you’re playing high school baseball and have a girlfriend, it’s hard to do two things at once.” In other words, just as high school baseball players and other amateur athletes are told by their coaches that lovers will distract them from what’s really important–helping the team win–idols won’t put their all into entertaining their fans if they’re mooning over a boyfriend. Though it sounds like a different justification than the one Kitahara described, it comes down to the same thing: idols aren’t idols unless they ostensibly dedicate their souls to their fans and their fans only.

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Media Mix, April 3, 2016

74936543785d7ac2a36c467c3aa48c4cHere’s this week’s Media Mix about companies that lie to new graduates about job offerings. The column discusses the situation for university graduates, but the problems covered also extend to high school graduates. The 2012 NHK program I cite at length was part of a series about “youth poverty,” which also talked about similar job recruitment practices for young people who didn’t graduate from university. A lot of this stuff has been covered at length in the media with regard to lawsuits that workers have brought against former (or, in same cases, current) employers, the most notable one being that store manager who sued McDonalds for unpaid overtime. Continue reading

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Media Mix, March 20, 2016

wakakusaBHere’s this week’s Media Mix, which concerns that anonymous blog post about the daycare shortage. An interesting footnote about Shiori Yamao that I didn’t learn until after I wrote the piece is that she once played Little Orphan Annie in a local version of the Broadway musical when she was much younger. I’m not sure if the experience gave her any special insight into the problems covered by the column–orphans and at-risk children are less of an issue here than over-burdened parents–but it certainly must have honed her public speaking skills, which are always in evidence whenever she stands up in the Diet.

As pointed out in the last section, the main difficulty to overcome with regard to the daycare shortage is the attendant shortage of human resources, caused mainly by the low pay involved. (As some have pointed out, the reason nursery school teachers get paid so poorly is that it is considered women’s work, but that’s an issue that deserves its own distinct discussion.) Whatever solutions the government comes up with in the short run to give it some traction before this summer’s elections, none of them will make much of a difference if they can’t get more daycare workers on board. And the only solution that I can see to that problem is for the government to make all workers government employees. After all, we’re talking here almost exclusively about public daycare services, which are run bureaucratically. For the most part, public daycare is set up and funded by local governments, who have limited budgets, so if the LDP wants to take a stand for working mothers they have to do something on the national level. There has been some talk about giving subsidies to public daycare centers that will go directly to workers, but they’re only talking about an extra ¥10,000 a month or so. Since public nursery school teachers are civil servants, governments should pay them civil servant wages, which tend to be better than those earned by private sector employees. Local governments are not going to be able to cover this outlay, so it’s up to the central government. Though it would be a huge amount of money, it would solve the problem. The fact that no one on either side of the ideological divide has suggested it probably means it’s a political non-starter, but isn’t that always the situation?

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Media Mix, March 13, 2016

b5f29ffe81b04ebad979e26843976ff3Here’s this week’s Media Mix about recent news stories associated with senior nursing care and how they bear on government policy. One of the jumping off points for the column was a conversation that Masako had with a an old school friend of hers who now works as a caregiver at a day facility for seniors. Day facilities are not strictly speaking nursing homes. Users come for the day and don’t stay overnight. It’s like a children’s daycare center only for seniors. The son or daughter drops off the elderly parent so as not to leave that person alone at home during the day. The user doesn’t necessarily have to have a condition that makes it problematic for them to be alone, but according to K, Masako’s friend, many do.

Most of what K talked about had less to do with conditions for users than conditions for her and other workers. She admitted forthrightly that the owner of the facility where she works, a local construction company, is pretty tight-fisted with money. As a regular employee, she is entitled to paid vacations, but she’s never had one because they’re impossible to schedule owing to under-staffing issues. As far as pay goes, she says she has not seen any increase in her monthly salary ever since the government said it would earmark ¥12,000 a month more for each regularly employed nursing care worker last year. She did however, remember that some official did come to her workplace to check whether or not the increase had been passed on to workers and she told this person it hadn’t in her case, but there was no followup. She admits that she has wanted to talk to her supervisor about this increase in pay, since hers is so low to begin with, but she hasn’t had the opportunity to do so.

She says she doesn’t mind the work and doesn’t consider it over-taxing. She just wishes it paid more, and in a sense she may think that complaining about such things won’t get her anywhere. Though the turnover at her facility sounds typically high, nursing care is the only work available in her area (central Gunma Prefecture) for middle aged women like her. She doesn’t see much of an alternative, so as long as she isn’t too put out, she’ll put up with the status quo.

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March 2016 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the March-April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo Feb. 25.

pcd93866_sstriplin_E式sFat White Family / Songs For Our Mothers (jake-sya)(HSE-3156)The Catastrophist
-Tortoise (Thrill Jockey/P-Vine)
Songs For Our Mothers
-Fat White Family (Without Consent/Hostess)
It’s become a thing to label any musical style you can’t describe easily as being postrock, a situation that, in and of itself, goes a long way toward explaining how the term “rock” doesn’t make much sense any more unless preceded by a qualifying adjective or prefix. Chicago’s Tortoise has always been the default standard bearer for the genre if only because they’ve never rejected it. More to the point, their heady mix of prog and ambient refutes the visceral pleasures associated with “rock music” while mostly retaining rock’s instrumental and rhythmic touchstones. On their first album in 7 years, the group seems stumped for a way forward and so moves slightly backwards—anti-prog, as it were, and it’s not just the lead-footed version of David Essex’s 1973 off-center hit single “Rock On” that makes this case. Though Tortoise has always relied on the kindness of studio engineers to make their point, they never shorted the listener on chops, but The Catastrophist is notably lean on guitar or keyboard showcases. It’s an album of layered compositions, ideas that sound as if they were formulated while fiddling with knobs or patching together orphan fragments of abandoned songs. One exception is “Shake Hands With Danger,” which is built around a Bolero-like hard rock guitar pattern and propelled by metallic synth sounds that mimic those of a steel drum. It’s the closest thing on the album to what might be termed the Tortoise sound: lockstep instrumental activity that builds to something monumental without making your heart leap. The Catastrophist is too tasteful by half, an attitude that refutes the “rock” label even more. One would hate to see what would happen if they ever met Mogwai in a dark alley. “Tasteful” is the last word you’d use to describe the UK band Fat White Family. Obsessed with drugs, sex, and death, the band plays in an enervated style that recalls the narcotic thrum of Suicide or mid-period solo Tom Verlaine. And while the group pointedly doesn’t display much craft, they do stretch the boundaries of the bailiwick in ways that Tortoise might appreciate. Though “Satisfied” is little more than a two-chord rant pushed to the edge of discombobulation, it shapeshifts in interesting ways, as if the energy expended to drive it were producing more energy, like a hybrid gasoline engine. Some of the songs are abstract to the point of perversion: “Duce” is like somebody’s joke reply to Krautrock, six minutes of sludgy, beatless grunts and muffled choruses whose appeal is completely dynamic. Even when they attempt a conventional pop song, it either has to be slightly out-of-key (“Lebensraum”) or stripped of all of its pleasure signifiers except melody (“Hits Hits Hits”). It’s impossible to determine if this sort of rock is progressive or regressive. Tortoise moved back to get out of a rut. Fat White Family see no point in trying to budge out of theirs. Continue reading

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March 2016 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the March-April issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

???????? ???????The Big Short
At the moment there is no more timely piece of entertainment than Adam McKay’s black comedy about the subprime fiasco of 2007-08, considering that we may soon be experiencing the same sort of economic disaster. Charles Randolph’s script is based on Michael Lewis’s non-fiction bestseller, but while most of the characters are based on real people, the situations are invented. McKay, whose comedy resume includes a few Will Ferrell movies, uses laughs to raise the audience’s ire—these clowns brought down the whole banking system—and in the end the viewer may feel more frustrated than enlightened or entertained. Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a cargo-short-wearing, heavy metal-cranking fund manager who has realized the shell game behind the mortgage securities everyone swears can’t fail. He determines they will, and sets out to buy credit default swaps to “short” the instruments, a move that spooks the people who supply him with money and clients but alerts other players on the grid, like Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an excitable bank executive who doesn’t trust his employer and quickly sketches out an end run around his superiors to make sure he’s in on the scam. Meanwhile, two young dorks (John Magaro, Finn Wittrock) with a startup hedge fund think they’re the only ones who notice the coming crash and consult their scruffy guru (Brad Pitt). The film’s narrator and devil’s advocate is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who explains the arcana involved or passes that chore, non sequitur-style, to a real celebrity like Selena Gomez or Margot Robbie (lecturing from a bubble bath, no less). The pace is madcap, the banter screwball precise, and it takes a while for the import of what’s happening to sink in. This deflection is intentional and achieved by means of shouted dialogue. Except for Burry, whose epiphanies occur in isolation, the characters are all so tightly wound they can’t hold a conversation without spitting and hyperventilating. Baum, who may be autistic, is a bullshit detector on legs, suspicious of all around him, a trait that gets him fired. Vennett is a facilitator of shouting, the guy who gets his team worked up to the point that they can’t hold it back. Only Pitt’s Ben Rickert, who has retired from the game, remains calm, which is why he’s also the only man who owns up to the horror he’s helping to perpetrate. See anything in common? Yeah, they’re all men, and what’s more depressing than amusing about The Big Short is its depiction of male entitlement as the source of all that’s wrong with the world. It’s not a bold assertion, but as it’s presented it may be just as cynical as the people who made money from this catastrophe, and I’m not sure if McKay and Randolph don’t share in that cynicism. (photo: Paramount Pictures) Continue reading

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