Review: The Good Liar

The first thing that needs to be said about The Good Liar for those who look to reviews for recommendations is that it’s essentially a straightforward adaptation of what sounds like a trashy thriller novel made respectable by the casting of two of Britain’s finest veteran actors. That description alone should be enough to let you know whether you want to see it, and if it isn’t then probably you shouldn’t, because, as directed by supreme hack Bill Condon, it offers little in the way of surprises or deep thought.

Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen play Betty and Roy, two single senior citizens who meet in London through a dating website. Betty is recently widowed and Roy long-divorced, and both approach their rendezvous cautiously, using aliases at first, but once they find they are comfortable with each other, they relax and open up—or so the audience is meant to believe. The title gives away more than it should, and less than 20 minutes into the film we learn that Roy is a professional con man in the process of pulling off a large-scale securities scam. Betty is still a work in progress, as it turns out that Roy plans to bilk her of her 3 million pounds in savings.

The main obstacle is Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Torvy), an academic who is researching Albert Speer and harbors a great deal of mistrust toward people of Roy’s seemingly dodgy background (strangely for such a meticulously plotted story, his isn’t that bullet proof). However, more to the point, as Roy’s nefarious scheme takes shape he finds he has feelings for the trusting and seemingly naive Betty, and thus the viewer is forced to wonder if he will carry that scheme to its completion.

Needless to say, things become much more complicated before any kind of resolution presents itself, and many of these complications run off on tangents that don’t make much logical sense, though, on paper, I imagine they gave readers more of a reason to keep slogging through a story they’d probably read many times before. The skills incorporated into the making of The Good Liar can’t quite cover up its sodden familiarity, and its initial lightness of tone—I thought it was going to be a comedy—is continually undermined by nasty business that seems either gratuitous or desperate. It’s a movie with pedigree but no class.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011).

The Good Liar home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Bron Creative USA Corp.

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Review: Hustlers

The post-2007 recession will continue to supply movies and TV dramas with endless examples of capitalist venality and the resulting suffering of the masses, but so far there’s been what seems like an even divide between comedy (The Big Short, etc.) and melodrama (99 Homes, etc.). Hustlers, which is based on a true story, is stuck somewhere in the middle in terms of entertainment value. Essentially a feature-long revenge fantasy against the moneyed assholes who caused the meltdown—not to mention moneyed horndogs—the story’s real-life particulars have obviously been ginned up, and for once it’s a good thing.

Our nominal hero is Dorothy (Constance Wu), who, at the beginning of the film, is the new girl at an upscale Manhattan strip club circa 2006. It’s the height of the go-go securities surge propelled by improper trading policies, but the movie isn’t concerned with the how or the why of that disaster. Dorothy is still learning the ropes, which mainly entails getting customers to pay for lap dances. Predictably, she doesn’t really know what to do, but soon falls under the tutelage of the club’s veteran pole dance queen, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), and Dorothy is liberated not only of her squeamishness but of any misgivings she’s had about entering this line of work in the first place.

Director Lorene Scafaria revs up the sexiness in line with the general female empowerment theme without doing damage to either, though it’s not entirely clear why she structured her story as multiple flashbacks within flashbacks, a strategy that also calls for whiplash changes in POV. Ramona seems like the obvious focus here, and not just because Lopez has a headlock on the character, but Dorothy is conveyed as the member of this coterie with the most sympathetic background, having grown up in lower middle class Queens with her debt-ridden Chinese grandmother. But just as Dorothy starts making really good money, the bottom falls out of the economy, taking most of these Wall Street high rollers with it. After losing her job and trying to fit into a series of 9-to-5 gigs over the next several years, she’s approached by Ramona to get back into the game, only this time the strippers will do things their way, picking up marks, drugging them, and then taking them to clubs where they do runs on their credit cards. Though strictly illegal, the marks don’t say anything because, well, they’re marks, and they don’t want others, including their wives, to know what they’re up to after hours.

Scafaria keeps the laughs and the thrills coming in equal amounts, though there’s too many cash-and-champagne montages of the quartet of hustlers (a true model of diversity—Asian, Latino, Black, White) savoring their scams. Naturally, it will all come crashing down around them, and while there’s nothing surprising about these women’s fall Scafaria handles it with the kind of skill and attention to detail you’d see in a taut Sidney Lumet production. And while I see the narrative purpose of the framing device with the investigative reporter (Julia Stiles), every time it’s accessed the movie loses a bit in terms of momentum and tension. At times, Hustlers comes across as a refreshingly original take on several topics that the movies have translated into cliches over the years, but some old habits are really difficult to shake.

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

Hustlers home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 STX Financing LLC

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Review: Knives Out

At this late date there’s little originality to be squeezed from the rind of the classic drawing room murder mystery epitomized by the work of Agatha Christie. Personally, I’ve always found the genre, with its strictly structured setups, carefully dropped red herrings, and over-determined reveals, unsatisfying since with each new story there are necessarily diminishing returns in terms of excitement. More to the point, the structures and sentiments required by the genre leech the stories of anything identifiable. The murder and subsequent investigation might as well be happening in Middle Earth.

The only thing you can do with the genre at this point is make fun of it, and certainly with Knives Out Rian Johnson means to parody not only the form but the cinematic formalism inherent in famous movie adaptations like Murder on the Orient Express, the obvious inspiration for the story here. However, as with Christie’s carefully wrought puzzles, Johnson’s unraveling of the entertainment aspects of these mysteries is so self-referential as to render the whole enterprise more academic than amusing.

Filled to the brim with clever star turns, the movie’s status as a meta production overshadows whatever entertainment particulars it offers, but generally speaking the jokes are pretty good. Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, a very successful mystery writer who dies one evening at his palatial home, presumably by his own hand, which cut his own throat. Still, the police (Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan) are obligated to carry out an investigation, during which the southern-fried private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, purposely exaggerating his New Orleans gentleman drawl), drops in to ask some questions of his own. When family members under interrogation ask what this interloper is doing in the room, they are told he was hired by an unknown person of interest to carry out his own research. Though the sequence gives us some idea of Benoit’s stylized methodology, the main purpose seems to be to introduce the parade of possible suspects, almost all of whom are closely related to Thrombey and have a stake in his fortune. All are also thoroughly repugnant in one way or another, thus turning the tables on the usual Christie strategy of throwing ringers in among the virtuous and the virulent. All the suspects in Knives Out are either snakes or idiots, except, of course, for the main suspect, Thrombey’s personal maid and nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who was the last to see him the night he died. Marta is the butt of the second good joke in the movie in that she is an immigrant, though none of the other members of the family can correctly remember which South American country she’s from.

In the overall scheme of things, Marta is both the most central character to the mystery and the movie’s only complex character. Everyone else is one-dimensional by design: Michael Shannon’s dull son in charge of Thrombey’s publishing; Jamie Lee Curtis’s grasping, condescending daughter; Chris Evans’ flamboyant playboy grandson; Don Johnson’s anally protective son-in-law; Toni Collette’s painfully obsequious widowed daughter-in-law. All have their reasons for wanting Thrombey dead, and all those reasons have to do with the fact that their own fortunes are directly tied to his success.

It is this socioeconomic dynamic that serves as Johnson’s thematic lynchpin, since he weaves the classic mystery style into an overarching narrative about the American Dream and what it means in the age of Trumpism. It’s a game attempt to subvert the genre, but in the end the genre must be served by a mystery that is not only airtight but thrilling. Johnson fails to have it all three ways.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), White Cine Quinto Shibuya (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Knives Out home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.

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Review: La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn)

When you look at the life of French novelist Romain Gary, there are a lot of incidental notes that could make for fascinating sidetrips by themselves. One is that he is the only French writer to have ever won the Goncourt Prize twice under two different names, which, as it happens, is the only way you can win the Goncourt twice since French law prohibits the same writer winning it more than once. The other incidental I want to know more about is the story behind Gary cowriting the script for The Longest Day, an English language movie that, until Saving Private Ryan, was the most memorable film ever made about D-Day. Gary’s take on the war is especially valuable if you take his memoir, Promise at Dawn, for what it says it is. Personally, I have my doubts, since so much of what happens in the story is almost beyond belief, but maybe that’s just a function of director Eric Barbier’s style of storytelling.

He frames it within a larger story of Gary (Pierre Niney), already a bestselling author and married to British editor Lesley Blanch (Catherine Mc Cormack), in Mexico in the 1950s during the Day of the Dead festivities when he develops a headache he thinks will be the death of him. A lifelong hypochondriac, Gary’s wails of suffering are indulged by Blanch who hires a cab to take them three hours to a hospital in Mexico City, and during the ride she reads the manuscript of his memoir. This scene seems gratuitous, but it does set up the vital premise that Gary is an obsessive writer, a man who can scribble under the most trying of circumstances.

Those circumstances were mostly provided by his mother, Nina Kacew (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a Polish Jew who, according to her, gave up a promising career as an actress in Russia to raise Romain on her own. And she doesn’t just raise Romain. She instills in him an ambition to become, first, a French ambassador and, second (and at the same time), the greatest writer in the French language. When Romain was a little boy, Nina made her living selling hats to snobby women (read: anti-Semites) in the city of Vilnius, but once she had the chance she dragged her son to Nice, where she manages a hotel while pushing Romain to ignore all other considerations except writing.

Thanks mainly to Gainsbourg’s fiercely weird portrait, Barbier’s style makes sense in these formative scenes, but once Romain sets off on his own, first to Paris for an education, then to England and North Africa to fight for the free French after the German invasion, it becomes less credible as a means of telling what amounts to a ripping yarn. The main thrust of the theme is that Nina’s overbearing childrearing technique has had its desired effect, and while Romain writes his ass off in any situation, all the while enduring rejection letter after rejection letter, he suffers mightily from neuroses of inadequacy that affects both his sexual performance (though he seems to have plenty of partners with which to prove that inadequacy in slapstick fashion) and his fitness for battle, not to mention life’s normal vicissitudes. Nevertheless, the film highlights a number of anecdotes each of which would have made The Longest Day even more exciting than it actually was, including a nearly impossible mid-flight, mid-battle sequence in which bombardier Romain talks the blinded pilot of his stricken bomber to a bumpy but safe landing.

But it’s the perfect and perfectly melodramatic ending that finally gives the viewer pause—no way it could have happened this way, you think. It’s a finale worthy of William Styron, a contemporary of Gary’s who also suffered from bouts of delusional depression. Unlike Styron, however, Gary died from suicide, which adds a certain verisimilitude to Niney’s equally overcharged performance. It’s a big story about a big theme, so even for a memoir it probably has a right to be a bit over the top.

In French and Polish. Opens Jan. 31 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

La promesse de l’aube home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017-Jericho-Pathe Production-TF1 Films Production-Nexus Factory-Umedia

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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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