Review: Us

Jordan Peele’s Get Out was so on point about its sociopolitical subtext that many critics gave it a pass on its plotting, which, especially toward the end, became stiff and formulaic. It’s clear that Peele has a talent for horror forms, but it’s also clear that these skills have mainly been acquired through osmosis, which makes sense for someone who was making his first horror movie. But what everyone, including myself, took away from the groundbreaking feature was the way Peele incorporated the everyday discomfort that black people feel in a world ruled by white people into a conventional horror story by inflating that discomfort into pure terror. Given how skillfully and convincingly he accomplished this feat, the screenplay’s pitfalls seemed less blatant. In fact, it won Peele an Oscar.

These pitfalls are more noticeable in his followup, Us, which is actually scarier than Get Out while making less sense. Encouraged by the success of his previous film, Peele has become even bolder with his subtext, expanding the sociopolitical criticism to embrace the experience of being an American in general, and not just a black one (though, in the context presented, being black comes across as scarier by definition).

The genre is that of the “family beseiged by unknown supernatural forces,” and the movie opens with a flashback of a little girl wandering through a California amusement park during a storm and taking refuge in a hall of mirrors where she encounters a terrifying double. The girl, whose name is Adelaide, grows up, gets a job, marries, and has two kids, and the beginning of the movie proper has her (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family visiting the same coastal area during a vacation, during which the feelings of dread she felt so long ago in the amusement park are reawakened and given flesh. The family, ensconced for the night in a weekend house Adelaide’s husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), is borrowing from his employer, is that night terrorized by a family dressed in identical red outfits and which looks exactly like them but moves in zombie-like fashion with blank, wide-eyed expressions. During this sequence, Peele ramps up the jump scares and expertly keeps the viewer’s attention distracted by details—bloody raw meat, the glint of a kitchen knife, a noose hanging from an elevated ceiling, Adelaide’s son’s “Jaws” T-shirt—that take on a cumulative meaning aside from their individual signification of death and violence.

The class distinctions that eventually come to define the difference between Adelaide’s family and these doppelgangers are potent until Peele feels obligated to explain them, and the movie collapses under the weight of an intricate origin tale that makes only thematic sense. The problem with horror movies—and it was the problem with Get Out, too—is that the justification for all the carnage has to be clear and simple enough so as not to be a distraction itself, and Us‘s clever but ultimately unwieldy social critique plot is just too silly to take seriously in the context of a horror story. Though it may sound like a waste of talent, it would be interesting to see Peele tackle a straightforward horror movie without the weighted subtext.

Opens Sept. 6 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Us home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Universal Pictures

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Media Mix, Sept. 1, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the recent interest in road rage incidents. The topic aligns with my own pet peeve about Japanese drivers and their feeling of entitlement when it comes to carless people with whom they share roads. I know this is a problem in every country of the world (just be thankful Japan is strict about guns), but in other countries the police at least put up a show of maintaining the right-of-way safety hierarchy, with pedestrians at the top and drivers at the bottom. As a person whose bicycle is their primary form of transportation, I can’t count the many times I’ve been honked or yelled at for simply sharing a road with a car whose operator obviously thought I should be on the sidewalk rather than taking up valuable space that would otherwise be better utilized by an over-sized SUV. But even as a pedestrian, I’ve become acclimated to an environment in which drivers don’t even follow normal rules. As mentioned in the column, police are finally starting to crack down on drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians at marked pedestrian crossings. Though there is a law that says you must stop for pedestrians, I suppose I can get my head around the concept that because they are not required to stop at ped crossings when there are no pedestrians they may not automatically stop when they see pedestrians out of the corner of their eye. However, this dispensation is immediately dismissed when it comes to intersections where there are stop signs. Every driver must come to a complete halt at a stop sign, but Japanese drivers tend to respond to them as if they were yield signs: At best, they slow down to check if the coast is clear and then continue on their way. And the police do nothing unless they’re conducting one of their periodical end-of-term ticketing campaigns. When someone does stop at a stop sign, often the person behind them honks their horn in impatience. The problem, as pointed out in the Asahi article cited in the column, is that pedestrians have come to accept the idea that cars have more rights than they do. Children in Nagano Prefecture, which boasts the safest drivers in Japan, are encouraged to bow to cars that stop at pedestrian crossings, meaning children should thank drivers for obeying the law. At one particularly troublesome corner in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, drivers not only zip through pedestrian crossings, they beep their horn at any pedestrians who happen to be in their path. It’s one of the reasons we sold our car. We don’t want to belong to that club any more.

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Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Technically speaking, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature is a historical movie, and he’s said it follows in that genre concept the same as his other so-called “revisionist” movies, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, did. The main and vital difference is that Tarantino was alive during the period that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes place, 1969, and while he was only six at the time, it’s obvious from his take on the setting and the milieu—in particular, the soundtrack, which is filled with AM radio hits of the era—that he remembers something of the texture of those times. For sure, Hollywood is deeply informed by the movies and TV shows of that era, but if feels a lot more relevant to Tarantino’s sensibility than the other two films of this ilk.

Still, as the title implies, it’s a fairy tale, and therein lies the rub. It’s hard not to wonder how much of what’s fabricated for the story adheres to Tarantino’s ideal of what the era represented. Despite the important plot line involving actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), this is definitely a man’s film, even a macho film, and it’s generally approving of the concept of manliness embodied by the two leads, troubled leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rick’s loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Though they’re too young to belong to the Greatest Generation, they don’t adhere to the hippie ethos that was ascendant at the time, and, obviously, neither does Tarantino. Though honorable men as far as that idea goes, Cliff is generally suspected of having murdered his wife (he was not convicted), and Tarantino is pretty coy about leaving his guilt a mystery. For sure, when the chips are down, he can be as violent as a pit bull (which he owns and which plays a very important part in the film), but true to Tarantino’s fantasy of manhood, his expression of violence is never gratuitous, though one can certainly say that Tarantino’s depiction of it is.

Hollywood is also Tarantino’s most structurally interesting film since Pulp Fiction, which is saying a lot since Tarantino plays with structure as if he were in Legoland. In the first part of the film, Rick, who starred in a Western TV series in the late 50s for two seasons, has seen his star descend to the point where, as one agent (Al Pacino in Jewish drag) puts it, he’s now continually getting cast as guest villains in other people’s series, a sure sign that he’s washed up. Nevertheless, he still lives in relative luxury in the Hollywood Hills, with Tate and her new husband, Roman Polanski, fresh from his victory with Rosemary’s Baby, having just rented the house next door. Cliff, on the other hand, still lives in a trailer down below, and his subservient position vis-a-vis Rick belies his own self-possession, which, in Pitt’s hands, is pure aesthetic. Perhaps the biggest obstacle for Tarantino in this formulation of male bonding is that DiCaprio is too earnest in his stylization of male self-pity while Pitt was born to play the cool, unruffled, and totally competent sidekick. You bathe in Cliff’s scenes while you often squirm during Rick’s.

Of course, everybody is primed to expect something apocalyptic because of the Tate subtext, though Tarantino is just as coy with the presentation. In the movie’s best sustained segment, Cliff gives some jailbait a ride to the house where she and a tribe of hippies are squatting. It turns out to be an old movie set that Cliff once worked at, and he hears of a guy named Manson who seems to have some control over these freaks. The segment is tense and open-ended—there’s really no telling what is going to happen—and it sets the audience up in ways that are purposely perplexing, and as long as you buy into the fairy tale premise what develops makes not only perfect sense, but can be taken as being highly satisfying in the Hollywood tradition. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the epitome of the guilty pleasure in that it confounds our expectations with a false sense of security. Agree with it or not, it obviously represents the world as Quentin Tarantion believes it should be.

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

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Visiona Romantica Inc.

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Media Mix, Aug. 25, 2019

Junichiro and Junya Koizumi

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the marriage announcement of Shinjiro Koizumi and Christel Takigawa. Shinjiro’s situation is not that unusual in Japanese politics. There are many dynastic lines in government, both national and local, as there are in many other countries. Granted, show biz seems to breed more nepotism than politics owing to the dynamics of popularity and commerce, but once a family finds a way to monetize their political power on a local level they hold on to that power with all their might.

The Koizumi family’s heritage goes back three generations. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s grandfather, Matajiro, was the first in his family to gain public office, and made it as high as minister of communications in the cabinet. However, it wasn’t just a matter of his having a male heir to continue holding on to the family’s Yokosuka constituency. His daughter, Yoshie, fell in love with a political aide in the government (not her father’s, apparently), and they eloped because her parents forbade the union. Once the deed was done, however, Matajiro made the best of it and allowed his new son-in-law, Junya, to change his name to Koizumi, thus becoming an omukosan. It was a fortuitous decision. Junya was handsome and won election easily to the lower house. The couple then produced Junichiro, whose own approach to continuing the line was much less romantic, as pointed out in the column. The woman he married was just out of college and according to a book by Taeko Ishi (about dynastic families), the new wife was effectively shut out of the family, which was and still is mainly managed by Junichiro’s sisters. She wasn’t even allowed to eat meals with the family (which is quite large, including in-laws and children, all living within the same compound). After she divorced Junichiro and his mother died, she showed up to the funeral to pay her respects and was prevented from coming into contact with her ex-husband or other members of the immediate family. She had to wait in a separate room with her youngest son, whom, reportedly, Junichiro has met only once. This is the man Shinjiro wants to take after as a father. God help Christel Takigawa, unless, of course, she’s already in on the plan.

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Review: Rocketman

This is the second big budget biopic of a major flamboyant 1970s male rock musician who eventually came out as gay to be released within the last year, and while the differences between Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are notable, the overall impressions are so similar that the differences will be neglible over time. In that regard, the Freddy movie wins because it came out first and made a ton of money, thus partly exhausting the market for this kind of movie. The gap in box office receipts may also have something to do with the fact that Mercury died 20 years ago and Elton John, played here by Taron Egerton, is still very much with us—in fact, the release of the film, which his husband produced and he oversaw, coincides with his big final world tour.

First off, I belong to that slice of society who believes Elton John is a genius, that he was the respresentative singles artist of the 70s; and while I haven’t really listened to him with much attention since the late 70s, I still feel he has as much to contribute to popular culture as any man his age. But the point of the film is not to reinforce any of those notions; rather, it wants to set the record straight before John becomes a fond memory, and to a certain extent it’s brutal in its depiction of his addictions and insecurities—much more so than Bohemian Rhapsody was with regard to Mercury. Both men were central to the glam rock ethos, even if they weren’t necessarily considered the epitome of the form. What they shared and derived from the genre was an affection for camp for its own sake and scrutiny of the rock life as their subject matter. Bohemian Rhapsody, with its endless stream of behind-the-scenes nudges and mouth-openers, is a truer testament to that ideal, while Rocketman, which is basically musical theater, is closer to the feeling of the ideal.

Consequently, the songs, which everyone knows, aren’t always performed as songs, but rather presented as production numbers, muddying their purpose, which is to clarify and intensify certain emotional episodes in John’s life. They don’t appear in chronological order and sometimes feel oddly misinterpreted by the production team. The songs are as entertaining as always, but they add less to the story than they would have had their progeny been elaborated upon, as the songs in Bohemian were. And while childhood trauma is the life blood of Hollywood biopics, young Reginald Dwight’s is presented as if he’d been born into a Ken Russell production. It’s old-fashioned filmmaking, thus spoiling the nostalgia potential by doubling down on it. The good stuff, the stuff we didn’t really know that much about—like John’s teen career backing black American musicians on tour in the U.K.—also has a layer of fantasy to it, but the kick of discovery makes it work.

And the love story at the center of movie, between John and his straight lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), is so blandly platonic that you wonder if Taupin might have felt short-changed. He comes across as a really dull boy compared to his writing partner. Some may complain that we learn nothing of their writing process, but exploring those sort of mysteries are not the film’s mission, which is to sensationalize a life that its protagonist was never able to handle. Mercury died of AIDS, cut down in his prime by a disease he caught. He never had the chance to burn out. Elton John, on the other hand, overcame his demons a long time ago, and has cruised ever since. Rocketman, as entertaining as it is, is nothing more than a victory lap, a means of showing his fans that they were right to love him all along, even if they stopped listening a long time ago.

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

Rocketman home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Paramount Pictures

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Peter Fonda interview, 2002

Here is an interview I did with Peter Fonda in 2002 for the Japan Times on the occasion of the rerelease of a restored version of his directing debut, The Hired Hand. For the sake of context, I should mention that I’m pretty sure Fonda was stoned during our conversation. I can’t seem to find this on the JT website. 

Peter Fonda is on the phone from his home in Montana. He says he just finished mowing the lawn and in a week or so will begin shooting a new movie in Canada called “Polly Yesterday.” According to the 63-year-old actor, the film’s storyline “begins with the death of [the Rolling Stones’] Brian Jones in 1969 and progresses all the way up to now.”

Since Fonda is considered at least half responsible for “Easy Rider,” the 1969 movie whose popularity revolutionized American commercial filmmaking and helped define the hippie counterculture, being pegged for something like “Polly Yesterday” sounds like typecasting. “Yeah, it should bring back some memories,” he says. 

Fonda seems to be in the memory business right now. Having seen his artistic credibility reconfirmed with a best actor Oscar nomination for “Ulee’s Gold” in 1997, he was then tapped by Steven Soderbergh for “The Limey” to play what was essentially Captain America, his character in “Easy Rider,” had the pot-smoking biker survived those shotgun-toting rednecks and grown up to invest his cocaine money in a record production company.

For the past year or so, he’s been reliving 1970-71, restoring his directoral debut, “The Hired Hand,” a Western that almost no one saw when it came out. “It only played on 52 screens for two weeks,” he says, though he’s not completely sure why Universal Pictures made no effort to promote it. He suspects the studio “lumped it in with ‘The Last Movie,’ which came out about the same time.” “The Last Movie” was “Easy Rider” partner Dennis Hopper’s own infamous follow-up to that seminal film, and, according to Fonda, “a disaster.” 

Despite being butchered by Universal while Fonda was out of the country, “The Hired Hand” has since garnered an admiring cult. “Martin Scorcese presented the restored version at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. He loves it and was helpful in the restoration process.”

Fonda himself initiated the restoration. “There was a retrospective in San Francisco a few years ago, and they showed ‘The Hired Hand.’ The print was so bad and the music had been scraped off in some parts. I tried to find a decent print and couldn’t. So me and my editor snuck into the vault at Universal and everything was there: the camera negative, the interpositive, a semi-releasable version, and the NBC television cut which had us puking with laughter it was so bad.”

Fonda made a deal with Universal’s Ron Meyer and raised the money for the restoration. “Now they’re thinking of buying it back,” he says with a chuckle. “I think that’s very funny.”

The changes weren’t that difficult. “I actually made most of them when I first took the film to Europe with [co-star] Warren Oates. I brought along a hot splicer and would go to each print just before it was screened and take out the things Universal had put in that shouldn’t have been there. I had long hair and a beard, and they had no idea who I was, just a freaked-out hippie attacking the film. But I knew which reels to go for. I was able to lift these two pieces out, hot splice them together, and not lose sync. That means there were only six or seven prints in the world that were close to my ideal.”

Finally, it’s payback time. “I think Universal feels foolish, because the press is making a lot of noise about this being a lost treasure. If they want to distribute the film in the U.S., they have the means. And they can make DVDs, which will be marvelous because then I can include different things that people have heard about over the years. We’ll get to show some of the cool shit I had to cut out. It was [Oscar-winning cinematographer] Vilmos Szigmond’s first film, and we can have him talk about it. Historically, it’s very cool.”

He might even talk about how he came upon the script. “I was in London in 1969. The British censors had finally allowed ‘Easy Rider’ to open, and my associate producer, Bill Hayward, and I went there for the opening. I got a call from a woman I knew, who said she promised a friend, Alan Sharp, that she would show me his script. I went from there to the continent where we dubbed ‘Easy Rider,’ and between Paris and Rome, I read the script. I turned to Bill Hayward and said, this’ll be our next movie. It was so well done–the language, the feeling for the American West–and this by a Scotsman who had never even been there.”

Perhaps because it was not written by a Hollywood hack, the script favored character development and atmospheric detail over the usual horse opera cliches. Fonda picked up on this aspect and fashioned what could be called the first impressionistic Western. He says he deliberately teased out the Biblical and mythical elements inherent in the story of a man who abandons his family and then, after seven years of roaming, tries to insinuate himself back in their lives. “When we scouted locations in New Mexico we were looking for a real ghost town. Because Del Norte, as it’s called in the movie, represents Hell. The Rio Grande is the Styx.”

Some critics see “The Hired Hand” as the missing link between the more traditional Western and the “revisionist” movies of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. “What was different for me is that a woman is at the center. Me and Warren Oates are in the movie more, but it’s Verna Bloom as Hannah who’s the true center of the movie. She is the axle. The rest of us just turn around her.”

In this regard, the movie was revisionist in more ways than one. Hannah’s sexual candor may seem tame by today’s standards, but it caused problems in 1971. “NBC said, we can’t have her say that kind of stuff. But the movie loses all meaning without that beautiful scene between Verna Bloom and Warren Oates on the porch. That was cut out of the TV version. They couldn’t handle a woman saying, ‘It doesn’t matter much if it’s you or him. Just down in the dirt sometimes, or in the hay.’ 

Another reason Fonda would like to see a DVD version is that it will finally offer the public a chance to own the spare, guitar-based film score, which has never been released. “One man, Bruce Langhorne, did all that. Universal was mad. ‘Peter, you can’t just hire your friends. What’s he done?’ But he’s a virtuoso on 52 stringed instruments. He could play all the parts in a symphony. His picking hand has a thumb stump and two fingers end at the joint. I want people to hear that. I invited Alan Sharp to a special screening of the restored version in L.A., but he couldn’t come. He said his main regret was that he couldn’t hear that music one more time. I mean, I want the CD, too. And you know what [Langhorne] is doing now? He makes hot sauce.”

Fonda made a Western because he thought it would help him break out of the image straitjacket of “Easy Rider,” though he admits that the two films contain themes that are strikingly similar. “Both movies are journeys; people trying to find things, themselves. In both I find myself dead, but at least in ‘The Hired Hand’ my partner survives to clean up the mess I made. In the beginning of the movie, Robert Pratt falls on his ass, and it’s just another way of saying ‘we blew it’ [a signature line from “Easy Rider”]. We’re not as civilized as we think we are.” 

He even admits that there’s a lot of himself in Harry, the character he plays. “My own marriage was falling apart. I was away a lot making movies.” In the end, it’s obvious that if he had to be remembered for one thing, he’d prefer it be for the Western rather than the hippie biker flick. “Everybody thinks, ‘I wanna see him on a motorcycle smoking marijuana.’ But instead you get me on a horse, without pot, moving slowly. And there’s no rock and roll [laughs]. But Verna Bloom rocks. Warren Oates rocks. And Bruce Langhorne definitely rocks.”

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Review: The Price of Everything

There are few capitalist recreactions as confounding and uninteresting to the hoi polloi as investing in art. Though everyone understands the concept and can perhaps appreciate the economic dynamic at work, most people find the effort involved, not to mention the enormous amount of money needed, to be beyond the pale. Nathaniel Kahn has thus managed to make a documentary for those of us who don’t see the point, if only to clarify that the point is not as esoteric as we think it is. Art is money and always has been. It’s just that in our post-modern world the artists have figured out a way to make it pay for themselves now rather than others in the future.

And, of course, some stubbornly try to not make it pay; or, at least, not make themselves slaves to money rather than their art. In order to present this dialectic, Kahn gives us the comically rhyme-fixated duo of Jeff Koons and Larry Poons, two artists who represent opposing axes of the art-commerce matrix. Koons is the former investment banker-turned-conceptual artist who is probably the richest maker of art in the world at the moment, having learned quite quickly how to leverage auction houses to make his future art more valuable. Kahn’s most important contribution to the conversation is showing how auctions don’t merely make dead painters even more famous, but also how past works of living artists boost their standing for future works, which is why Koons can get a couple of million for one of his balloon animals since the owner knows he can sell it down the line for even more.

Poons, on the other hand, is a former wunderkind abstract expressionist who essentially turned his back on the commercial art world and retreated to the underground to work on things that he had not intention of selling. But as Kahn shows, even that kind of reputation counts for something monetarily. It’s only a matter of time that interest in Poons, cultivated by art aficionados who would like to see him reclaim his place in the canon, develops into a kind of frenzy, and when he premieres his latest monumental piece—a painting that takes up a whole room—the cognoscenti are out en masse. Kahn doesn’t take this fable to the next level, and we don’t know if Poons, who is already quite old, cleaned up, but you can bet somebody else did thanks to his resurgence.

The documentary has other deep dives worth pondering, in particular its portrayals of a clutch of wealthy collectors who really do seem to have nothing better to do. Their understanding of the value of the work they own is not limited to monetary concerns—they know their aesthetics—but under Kahn’s close scrutiny their explanations add up to little more than a scrim of cute idiosyncrasies. In that regard, money actually makes more sense as a measure of the value of a work of art. We really have come that far, and gone that low.

Opens Aug. 17 in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

The Price of Everything home page in Japanese.

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