Review: All Is True

It was only a matter of time before Kenneth Branagh, the still-living film actor most popularly identified with Shakespeare, portrayed the Bard himself on screen, and for what it’s worth and despite the stupid schnozz, there’s something heartening and even a bit surprising in his impersonation, namely an effort to confound any sort of expectations. Branagh’s Shakespeare, caught at the end of his life, after he’s retired from writing and managing his theater company, is a man who not only knows his worth, but likely understands his place in history, and Branagh plays this aspect without the kind of hindsight navel-gazing one usually gets in the biopics of “great men in their twilight,” but rather with a wistfully sad acknowledgment that it means very little if you’re not around to enjoy it. And that’s something we all have to address, even if we aren’t famous and world-changing. On the other hand, the movie itself feels like a greatest hits collection of rumored moments that never quite deliver the pleasures promised.

The main plot point is that Will, after returning to Stratford-upon-Avon from his decades-long self-exile as an artist and businessman in London following the destruction of the Globe Theater in a fire, reckons with the fact that he has no male heir, since his only son died as a child. His older wife, Anne (Judi Dench), who won’t let him forget her years alone as he pursued the tanshin funin life, and his two daughters, Susanna (Lydie Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder), who know they can’t compete, emotionally or legally, with the memory of their dead brother, are, at first, no comfort to him, and he tries to channel his melancholy into gardening, a pastime that amuses neighbors and fans, who treat him as if he were an aging rock star. By itself, this plot line is rich with possibility, but the script by Ben Elton keeps getting sidelined by distractions, the most satisfying of which is a brief sequence when the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) drops in to remind Will, and the audience, that he was once the target of some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated love sonnets, a legendary story that’s elevated to “did-he-or-didn’t-he” status by the conviction evident in the chemistry between Branagh and McKellen. Nevertheless, it feels gratuitous, as if it were something that Branagh & Elton felt had to be covered even if it didn’t fit into the story.

In that regard, the subplot about Judith marrying a local tradesman, mainly to provide her father with a male heir, feels more central to Branagh’s theme, which is that the survival of the work didn’t mean as much to Shakespeare as his name being passed on through the patriarchy. This hint of sexist privilege is emphasized by his initial resistance to Judith’s attempt at writing poetry, which is essentially a larger gloss on his neglect as a family man. It’s understandable that Shakespeare was a flawed human being, but Branagh attempts to force the matter of his redemption in the end, which feels false and frivolous. When offering up a personal theory of a man’s life, it’s best to stick to one story.

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

All Is True home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 TKBC Limited

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Media Mix, March 8, 2020

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about Yoko Tajima. It’s perhaps appropriate that the column is being published on International Women’s Day, though the timing of Tajima’s renaissance is completely coincidental. In truth, she never went away, and her semi-regular appearances on a certain talk show that is exclusively broadcast in the Kansai region mostly stick to the template described in the article. She’s the token feminist who everybody else gets to pile on, though, for the sake of clarity, she’s really the token liberal. This particular show, or, at least its original host, the late Yashiki Takajin, is famous for its reactionary opinions. Of course, in the end, the opinions and political stances of the participants is not important. What’s important is that sparks fly, titillating viewers in the process, and that’s always been Tajima’s strong suit as a TV pundit because she never backs down. Make of that what you will.

But one aspect I didn’t discuss in the column and which should be mentioned in this light is Tajima’s short-lived political career. In 2001 she was elected to the Upper House as a proportional representative of the Social Democratic Party but resigned in the fall of 2002, ostensibly because she didn’t like the SDP’s stance over the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea. However, during the “Session 22” program cited in the column, she said she quit because she had been encouraged by two “bureaucrats” to draft bills related to family issues, and after she submitted them to the Diet the two bureaucrats were transferred overseas, depriving her of institutional support. As a result, no one even read her bills, including people in her own party, so she concluded that the SDP wasn’t for her. She also hinted that she already knew many of the politicians she worked with in the Diet, including those from other parties, quite well through her work as a pundit on “TV Tackle,” and, in actuality, got along with them outside the halls of Nagatacho, but once she was a politician herself they treated her coldly. Ironically, the only person she said who made her feel welcome was the prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, who was the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, nominally her nemesis. He always took time to talk to her as a colleague and in a friendly manner.

Still, the impression I got from this discussion is that Tajima, in line with her TV image, is mostly impatient when it comes to expressing her views. On TV and in print she says exactly what she wants to say and people can take it or leave it, but in politics she has to work with others to achieve whatever vision she has, and, obviously, she doesn’t have the wherewithal for compromise. Another famous TV personality, the late Kyosen Ohashi, quit his Diet seat for almost the exact same reason. He was used to being in charge on TV, but once in the national assembly he had to compete with other voices, and that’s something he couldn’t tolerate.

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Review: Judy

Usually, I don’t comment on acting when I review a film, mainly because I expect professionalism from everyone involved and good acting should be a given. Normally the acting is good, so there’s no point in talking about it unless it’s extraordinary in some way. With this movie about Judy Garland, however, I feel it’s necessary to discuss Renee Zellweger’s performance, and not just because it earned her an Oscar, but rather because of what it says about imitation and how we tend to judge quality by measuring verisimilitude. Zellweger doesn’t look much like Garland and she makes up for this shortfall by focusing on physical and vocal tics. She’s not entirely successful on this front, but, inadvertenly perhaps, a compelling character comes through, and whether or not it’s Garland isn’t really important, though I imagine to some people it is. In any case, the movie, which isn’t particularly well made, could be much worse if this character were done differently.

This realization came to me during Zellweger’s first big production number, “By Myself,” which is a knockout, but not because she sounds that much like Judy Garland. The actor seems to have decided that it would be pointless to try to match Garland’s tone, and so she simply turns the song into a tour de force of overdetermined vocalise. The song builds on its sense of drama organically and you feel exhausted at the end for both Zellweger and Garland. She may not be Judy, but this was probably what it felt like to see Garland perform at her most florid. And in a sense, the rest of the movie doesn’t need to keep hitting this kind of high because we are meant to understand that Garland is on the way down anyway.

In fact, she would be dead about a year after the events chronicled in Judy transpired. It’s 1968 and Garland has run out of money, which is bad since she has divorced from her agent, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), and wants full custody of their two children. Luft is somewhat magnanimous about the arrangement but practical in the sense that he can’t see Judy dragging their kids around to her performances. She even puts them on stage, not so much to exploit them but rather to give them something to do. Judy, of course, is a wreck, and one of the movie’s biggest miscalculations is to psychoanalyze her downfall by referencing multiple flashbacks to her childhood when she was bullied and molested by Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), and while it’s clear that these incidents damaged her self-esteem, her problems are mostly bound up in an ego that doesn’t know its own strength. So when she’s offered a lot of money to do a residence in London she takes it even though it means leaving her children behind and exposing herself to the kind of scrutiny that she no longer has the patience for.

Based on a play, the script has too much detail and not enough development. Frightfully anorexic and popping pills to beat the band, Garland can barely make it on stage every night and thus gives her game handlers a rough time, but we’ve seen these scenes of the temperamental star so many times before that we can pretty much chart their arcs of misery down to the second. This is Judy as the insufferable harridan, a reductive portrait that only Zellweger can save from utter horror. Though she leans too heavily on Garland’s storied fragility, she shows how a lot of Judy’s problems were self-inflicted in the sense that she knew exactly how bad she was being to others, and yet when she is on stage and in her element, or hanging out with two adoring gay fans, there’s a humanity that comes across with startling urgency. A better director than Rupert Goold might have expanded this quality to enliven the whole movie, so, yes, Zellweger deserves a lot of credit for making the film watchable, but an Oscar? I guess that’s how you judge these things in real life.

Opens March 6 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Judy home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Pathe Productions Limited and British Broadcasting Corporation 2019

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Review: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Critics have at long last realized that the development of Chinese art house cinema over the last decade has been deeply influenced by American and European film noir. The influence probably goes back further, and, for what it’s worth, film noir as an aesthetic idea is so deeply imprinted on film theory that it seems hardly worth mentioning. Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which has nothing to do with the O’Neill play, is drenched in both the mood and the attitude prevalent in classic film noir, and thus comes across as a kind of primer for what Chinese art cinema has turned into. The fact that it was something of a hit in China shouldn’t really be surprising.

As with a lot of underworld-set noir, the plot is twisty, even if close attention to detail doesn’t necessarily reap any special rewards. The movie’s time line moves fitfully back and forth between the present day and the year 2000 without being clear about the shifts. Luo (Huang Jue) has returned to his hometown of Kaili, where he once ran a gambling den, in order to attend his father’s funeral and decides to track down an old lover, Wan (Tang Wei). Bi makes the copious flashbacks to that relationship seem like dreams in that their narrative logic springs from an entirely different sensibility than the one that governs the present-day story. Though both strands take place mostly at night, the ruminations on the past are decidedly darker, overshadowed by what feels like a depressive state of mind. This feeling comes from the gradual revelation that Luo and Wan were planning on escaping their dead-end town to Macau, a scheme that apparently didn’t work out.

What happened in between isn’t clear, but it doesn’t seem to have been very good. Luo has mostly drifted, the residue of missed opportunity curdling in his brain like spoiled milk, which is why his desire to see Wan again becomes an obsession. The noir elements become acute as he follows the usual shamus routine, visiting a friend of Wan’s who is now in prison, seemingly a victim of Wan’s fickle behavior, sidetracking to a former colleague who gets caught up in his own memory of gangster deals gone bad. All the while Luo smokes countless cigarettes and looks at the ground. A little of this goes a long way, and when the movie enters its famous 60-minute single take—in 3-D, no less—as Luo’s journey really does take him deep into a night that seems artificially rendered, the sense of contrivance becomes almost too much. It’s mesmerizing but confounds whatever linear plot development Bi has accomplished up to that point—as if he’s abandoned the movie he started and cultivated so carefully for a kind of free-form experiment. It’s successful in and of itself, but leaves the viewer confused and frustrated. Only people who are prepared to be impressed probably will be. The rest of us would rather know what happened.

In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (3-D, 03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Picadilly (2-D, 050-6861-3011), Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas (2-D, 03-5979-1660).

Long Day’s Journey Into Night home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Dangmai Films Co., Ltd., Zhejiang Huace Film & TV Co., Ltd. – Wild Bunch/ReallyLikeFilms

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Media Mix, March 1, 2020

Osprey in action

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about new flight paths in and out of Haneda International Airport, and the Japan-U.S. security alliance’s role in the matter. Given the amount of news that has gone on since I started writing this column two weeks ago, the issue may seem less momentous given that there may be fewer flight coming in and out of the airport during the next month or two, but the security alliance endures regardless of acts of God like epidemics. And it’s worth discussing in greater depth the reporting that Shigeru Handa conveyed during the Democracy Times conversation cited in the column. As noted, Handa, who has written books about the alliance, was mainly talking about the Osprey, a notoriously fickle piece of machinery when it comes to keeping it in the air, and one that would seem peculiarly unsuited for a country like Japan where military facilities are, by necessity, dangerously close to populated areas. Also, Japan’s climate is temperate, meaning hot summers and cold winters. Handa stresses at one point that the Ospreys deployed by the U.S. military elsewhere in the world are almost all in places where temperatures are high year round, like the middle east. There are a few Ospreys in Alaska, but they don’t seem to be used for much and, in any case, Alaska is very sparsely populated. Handa describes two joint military exercises, one called Northern Viper, which was carried out in Hokkaido, and another called Forest Light, which is carried out in various other places in Japan. When the weather was cold, the Ospreys had difficulties, apparently, compared to other aircraft—something to do with de-icing equipment that forced at least one Osprey to make an unscheduled landing at an airfield in Sendai while it was on its way to Chitose in Sapporo.

Consequently, the Osprey requires more than the usual amount of training flights so as to get pilots used to different climate situations. In the column, I talk in general terms about how the U.S. military jealously controls the airspace above Japan, reserving a good portion of it for its exclusive use, but also using the rest of it without much concern about how it will affect Japanese commerce or the lives of citizens. This includes the cost, a matter that has been in the news because President Donald Trump is demanding the Japanese government pay more to host American forces. Handa claims that the U.S. already charges Japan for a lot of things that are, objectively speaking, wasteful and redundant. The Forest Light exercises cost Japan ¥2.8 billion last year, which he says is outrageous given that the time period is so short. And the U.S. raises the price every year without really giving any reasons. In the past, it used to only cost ¥360 million. Next year, it’s estimated to be ¥3.1 billion. Japan has no say in the matter, or, at least, they don’t dispute the amount they’re asked to pay. With regard to the Osprey, Handa says the story is even more ridiculous. Though the Japanese Self-Defense Forces don’t like the Osprey and don’t have any use for it, they are being forced to purchase 24 over the next several years. Handa says the problem is not just the billions of yen needed to buy the aircraft. The maintenance is even more expensive. Though the Osprey will ostensibly be kept in Okinawa, the only place in Japan equipped to maintain the machines is the GSDF base in Kisarazu in Chiba Prefecture, where Subaru has a helicopter repair facility, which is important because Osprey are famous for breaking down. So most of the work is not strictly “maintenance” but rather full-on repairs, and the Osprey has become such a lemon for the U.S. military that parts are always in short supply, so the Subaru folks will likely have to wait a long time for parts to arrive from the U.S. Handa says that 8 Osprey brought over for use by the U.S. military have already had to be replaced because they were almost inoperable due to maintenance problems. And Japan pays for all of this, which is why the U.S. isn’t worried about it.

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Review: Les Miserables

As has already been pointed out, the title of Ladj Ly’s debut feature is a kind of piss-take on the classic Victor Hugo opus, a move that both provokes curiosity and confounds expectations. It is about “poor people” in the sense that a put-upon population is pitted against their so-called betters, but Hugo’s story was classist to the core, while Ly’s is more about conflict born of authoritarianism. The “betters” in his case are represented solely by the local police contingency in the Paris banlieu of Montfermeil, where immigrant cultures live in various states of near-destitution. Crime is not exactly rampant here, but it is a mode of survival and thus the tension between the residents and the cops is ever-present and prone to eruptions of emotional if not physical violence.

Ly starts out in fourth gear, with footage of France’s 2018 World Cup victory sparking joyful dancing in the streets that takes the viewer from the center of Paris to Montfermeil, where the celebrations are nipped in the bud by the police, though Ly wisely focuses on one patrol car manned by three members of the Street Crimes Unit, two of whom are thugs. The third, Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), is a novice on his first outing, and his discomfort is palpable as his partners harass teenagers gratuitously and destroy a girl’s cell phone when she has the audacity to record said harassment. Ly gives the cops a certain measure of benefit-of-the-doubt by presenting life in the neighborhood as being as much dog-eat-dog as just-getting-by, especially in his finely attuned presentation of the gangs who mostly run things here. As it turns out, the police rely as much on these ad hoc semi-criminal organizations as they do on their sense of entitlement to keep the peace. The problem is that some youth in the community trust neither the police nor the gangs, who are run by adults just as dismissive of their needs as the authorities are.

Ly further complicates this delicate dynamic by making one of the bad cops, Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a Malian, just like the director, and while he isn’t as boldly offensive as his white partner, Chris (Alexis Manenti), it’s clear he resents where he came from and feels protective of his hard-won position in the SCU, a combination of factors that leads to a sub-tragedy of its own. Meanwhile, Ruiz observes all these interactions with growing alarm, sensitive to the possibility that it could all blow up into something much worse than the kind of tantrums the police normally deal with. The disaster, in fact, is sparked by Ly’s only real miscalculation in the production, the pursuit of a scamp named Issa (Issa Perica) for the theft of a lion cub from a Romanian circus. When the cops try to arrest Issa, Gwada injures him badly and the scuffle is caught on camera by a drone piloted by another minor resident, Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), who is more interested in sexual voyeurism than catching police in the act. It doesn’t matter, because so many parties—not just the cops, but the gangs, also—have a stake in keeping matters under wraps that Buzz now becomes the object of pursuit, or, more exactly, the SD card in his drone does.

Though Ly keeps the action taut and the emotions suitably fraught, the confluence of plot elements that bring on the apocalyptic ending feel more contrived than they need to be, which is a minor fault but a major distraction. Les Miserables uses documentary styling to full effect but its action movie storytelling compromises the overall impact.

In French. Now playing in Tokyo (check first to see if theaters are open) at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Bunkamura Le Cinema (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).

Les Miserables home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Srab Films Lyly Films Rectangle Productions

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Review: For Sama

Though it’s not vital to appreciating her achievement, Waad al-Kateab was not a trained filmmaker when she started recording her day-to-day existence in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo in 2012. At the time she was studying for a business degree, and while protests against the regime of the dictator Bashar as-Assad were growing, the civil war that eventually overran the country and destroyed Aleppo had yet to reach its deadliest phase. The beginning of this remarkable documentary contains the kind of casual everyday videos you’d expect from a 26-year-old woman who is pursuing her dream of a better life. They are hopeful and even playful at times. Al-Kateab is clearly on the sides of the rebels, longing for the day when Assad is gone, but as the national army and its proxies start bombarding the town, first to destroy rebel forces and then the IS contingents that move in to take advantage of the chaos, loyalties fade from the picture because survival is the first priority.

It is vital that al-Kateab show her happy wedding to Hamza, because he is an emergency medical doctor, and thus provides al-Kateab with a context to present the siege and the accompanying violence. The title refers to their daughter, since the record of the violence is meant as something she will inherit in case her parents die. Sama will understand how they lived through such a hellish experience. The footage has an immediacy intensified by its subtext as a kind of potential last will and testament. As the bombs get closer and the mangled bodies rushed into the hospital become more plentiful, the impulse to flee is more pronounced, but al-Kateab and Sama stay with Hamza, who has work to do even in a facility that itself is being destroyed from without. She records so many near-death experiences on her part that the movie becomes almost unwatchable, and yet as a cinematographer she has an instinctive talent for knowing how to frame horrifying tableaux. Certainly the most stirring cinematic moment I’ve experienced in recent years is the scene where a stillborn baby cries itself to life after several heartbreaking minutes of seemingly useless exertions by the pediatric staff. More to the point, her voiceover, much of it provided as she records, is precise without being reductive. Sometimes she miscalculates, as when a mother whose child has just died in front of her berates al-Kateab for recording her. Al-Kateab seems to understand that her actions are ethically questionable, and yet she perseveres with the conviction that these images are important.

The world does need to see this, and that is where al-Kateab’s co-director, Edward Watts, who put together the footage long after it was shot and then added some stunning drone shots of the entirely wiped out city, comes in. Al-Kateab is bent on documenting everyday life in hell, where people still try to hang on to normality. Watts gives it a narrative arc and a larger news context that is never intrusive but nonetheless impressive in its scope. The pure craft on display is perhaps the most hopeful think about For Sama. Someone thinks this is worth fussing over.

In Arabic and English. Opens Feb. 29 in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Shibuya (03-5766-0114).

For Sama home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Channel 4 Television Corp. MMXIX

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