Review: Tár

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) isn’t the first cinematic protagonist whose entire being seems designed to be disagreeable, but it’s difficult to tell if writer-director Todd Field, making his first movie in almost two decades, wants the viewer to pick up on this intention so early in the game. Tár is a world-class orchestra conductor whose intelligence and talent are unquestioned, and right away Field makes this clear with a live interview that presents Tár’s intelligence and talent in such unimpeachable terms that the viewer can’t help but wonder if something isn’t afoot. Can anyone be this self-assured about not only their art, but their existence as a very important person? Part of the wonder of Lydia Tár is all the aspects of her public persona that might have been a drag on her career in the past—her gender, her homosexuality (not that it hurt Lenny, but he kept it under wraps), her arrogance and extravagance—are flaunted. After all, she lives in Berlin (“the place to be”), where she is music director of the “greatest orchestra in the world,” in palatial splendor with her romantic partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), who also happens to be the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert master. At the moment the movie takes place, Tár is embarking on two of the biggest events of her career: Publishing her memoir and recording a definitive interpretation of Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

Field’s indications that all isn’t right in the realm of Tár have a telegraphed quality that call attention to themselves, and so the viewer simply waits for the other shoe to drop. The first indication is when Tár, teaching a Julliard class of wannabe conductors, ridicules a Black student for not professing the proper respect for Bach because to the student Bach is the standard bearer for the white patriarchy in music. The second indication is her dismissive and often condescending treatment of her assistant, Francesca (Noemie Merlant), who can’t seem to do anything right; or, more exactly, isn’t perfect enough for Tár, the ultimate self-styled perfectionist. Eventually, we come to the conclusion that the videos that pop up throughout the movie of Tár acting improperly in various circumstances public and private are the work of Francesca, whose resentments come to a boil after Tár promotes a young Russian cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), over much more seasoned professionals to play the Elgar concerto with the Berlin Phil. Field’s playfulness comes into its own in this plot turn because the viewer is meant to understand that Tár is right—Olga is more exciting and compelling for this endeavor than any of the famous veterans being pushed by management, but certain parties, mainly Francesca, see it as yet another example of Tár using her power to take advantage of an attractive young woman, and it proves to be the last straw.

Much has been made of Tár’s comeuppance and Field’s interrogation of so-called cancel culture, and so his conditioning of the audience’s gag reflex whenever Tár/Blanchett becomes too full of herself is itself disagreeable. Visually and aurally, Tár is flawless. It flows as gracefully as a Berlin Phil performance, and the accumulation of detail that precedes Tár’s fall maintain the action and dialogue at a fever pitch. But this precision gives the overall development a predetermined quality that lets the movie down. At one point, Tár’s working-class American upbringing is exposed in a way that suggests she is ashamed of it, and you wish Field had explored this aspect more, even if it’s a theme that’s been done many times before. I’m sure the director, whose self-assurance is every bit as indomitable as his subject’s, could have made this old theme fresh again.

In English, German and French. Opens May 12 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Shibuya White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Tár home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Focus Features LLC

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Media watch: Resolution of defamation case better late than never, but still too late

Shin Sugok (bengo4.com)

On May 1, the legal affairs website Bengoshidotcom reported on a press conference given by human rights activist Shin Sugok of the citizens group Norikoe Net. Shin talked about the Supreme Court’s decision on April 26 to reject an appeal by the defunct production company DHC TV in its defense against a defamation suit brought by Shin related to a news report broadcast by the program News Joshi in January 2017 on the satellite channel Tokyo MXTV. In Sept. 2021, the Tokyo District Court ruled that the program had defamed Shin, as well as other people who had protested U.S. bases in Okinawa, awarding her ¥5.5 million in compensation. The Supreme Court judgment finalizes the decision and the compensation. It also ordered DHC TV to post an apology on its website to Shin. 

The two-part News Joshi report on the movement to protest the construction of helipads for the U.S. military in the northern part of Okinawa called the protestors “terrorists” and, as translated by Asahi Shimbun, said that Shin had provided “financial support to and agitated participants of the anti-military movement who did not hesitate to use violence and commit criminal activities.” The Tokyo District Court ruled that Shin, in fact, offered ¥50,000 to a “citizen correspondent” to cover airfare so that the writer could report first-hand on the demonstrators’ activities, and that the money’s purpose was not to “instigate the opposition movement.” Following the News Joshi reports, right wing elements on the internet implied, without any proof, that Shin was taking money from Chinese sources to support the anti-base movement. Shin sued DHC TV for spreading fake news through News Joshi, which it produced and whose purpose was to destroy her reputation.

During the press conference on May 1, Shin said that had she lost the case she would have had to live with the label of being “anti-Japanese” for the rest of her life. Given the obsessiveness that right wing elements have brought to the matter of anti-base protests in Okinawa, it’s probably safe to say that they will always consider Shin “anti-Japanese.” In fact, the online abuse she received while the case was ongoing compelled her to flee to Germany in 2018, where she worked at a university. “It was humiliating to run away,” she said. “But some doctors helped me survive.” Shin pointed out that her demonization was intensified by two incontrovertible realities that her oppressors find intolerable: her family background is Korean, and she is a woman. So although she did in the end win her case, in the greater scheme of things “they succeeded,” she said, because they were able to “silence a Korean woman,” which was their aim. 

Another point that Shin wanted to make was that discrimination, whether it be against ethnic and sexual minorities or women, is big business. DHC TV was run by the cosmetics and health supplement company DHC, whose CEO is a famous racist and right-wing opinion leader. News Joshi was cancelled some years ago, and for all intents and purposes, DHC TV no longer exists since it changed its name to Toranomon Television. There has been speculation that these changes came about, at least in part, due to the lawsuit, and the ¥5.5 million in compensation that the courts awarded Shin is significant, since she asked for ¥11 million. When Japanese courts do rule in favor of plaintiffs in defamation cases they usually award amounts that are a very small portion of the money demanded, so half should mean something. But as Shin indicated at the press conference, in the end, the people who spread fake news about the Okinawan demonstrations got what they wanted because the public probably doesn’t even know about the resolution of the case. The mainstream media mostly stopped covering it after the suit was filed. The loudest voices always get the most attention, even when they are spouting lies. 

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Review: EO

It’s no spoiler to say right at the outset that Jerzy Skolimowski’s impressionistic take on the life of a donkey ends with the claim that absolutely no animals were harmed or otherwise inconvenienced during its making, even if there are scenes where the donkey and other creatures are depicted as being mistreated or even killed. In fact, this particular film should open with such a message, because while most viewers will probably assure themselves that filmmakers of Skolimowski’s calibre are not monsters, it wasn’t that long ago that directors wouldn’t think twice about hurting animals for the sake of art. The point about EO, though, is that the world is not only a cruel place, but a ridiculous one, and while the donkey’s adventures in the land of humans often seem fraught with potential suffering, it’s comparable to the suffering that humans inflict on one another. 

But unlike Bresson’s famous donkey movie, EO has a more abstract effect, and not just owing to Skolimowski’s fantastical visual sense. Opening with a psychedelic scene using red strobes, the movie sets its four-legged protagonist into a relatively comfortable situation as an act in a traveling Polish circus. EO is loved unconditionally by his trainer, a young woman named Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska), who, nevertheless, can’t hold onto him when the circus goes bankrupt (in the midst of demonstrations protesting animal exploitation, no less) and EO is sold off to a stable where he carts food for show horses. Skolimowski seems to be making a case for a class system among hoofed critters, but in any case, EO appears to have the better life because the show horses here give off the vibe that they resent their exploitation. Without any explanation, EO is then sold to a farm where he is visited by Kasandra for the last time, a farewell that seems to upset EO to no end, causing him to escape in search of her and thus begin his aimless odyssey through worlds both natural and manmade. Many of these adventures have a picaresque quality that play up EO’s innate innocence, though, in fact, he can be proactive, as when he kicks a furrier unconscious while the latter butchers captive foxes for their skins. Even when he’s a victim, the brutality is leavened by a sense of absurdity, as when he walks into a soccer match and somehow brings good luck to the home team only to end up getting beaten by hooligan fans of the losing team. Certainly, the most bizarre episode has him rounded up by poachers who are after horses, but manages to escape when the guy delivering him is shockingly murdered in the parking lot of a truck stop. And I don’t even know what to make of the Italian student who adopts EO and brings him back to his villa, where his stepmother, played by Isabelle Huppert, suggests some sort of sexual intrigue straight out of a Visconti epic. 

Viewers’ appreciation of all this will have less to do with their love of animals than with their ability to attribute to EO the qualities of a hero. Except for the scene where he pines for Kasandra (who, honestly, doesn’t deserve his love) EO never demonstrates any agency as a lead character, but that seems to fit Skolimowki’s metaphorical purposes. He’s cute and passive, and so his destiny, which is handled without added drama, feels all the more tragic and troubling. Of course, I’m glad the six donkeys that played EO weren’t traumatized at Skolimowki’s hands, but the character didn’t deserve the fate he literally wandered into. It may be the cruelest joke of all.

In Polish, English, Italian and French. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6359-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

EO home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Skopia Film, Aliena Films, Warmia-Masuria Film Fund/Centre for Education and Cultural Initiatives in Olsztyn, Podkarpackie Regional Film Fund, Steta Kurltury Wroclaw, Polwell, Moderator Inwestycje, Veilo

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Review: One Fine Morning

Hot on the heels of Francois Ozon’s Everything Went Fine (though I acknowledge that in some territories the release order was the reverse) comes another French movie about a woman struggling with her father’s end-of-life arrangements. And while the circumstances are notably different in terms of financial wherewithal and how the arrangements are supposed to be realized, both films make striking attempts to connect with the viewer through credible empathy: This is something you’re going to have to go through yourself, probably more than once. And in that regard, Mia Hansen-Løve’s more contemplative, emotionally fraught film strikes deeper at those nerves that will always be raw due to whatever frictions we experience in our dealings with parents—or families in general, for that matter.

Like Ozon’s female protagonist, Emmanuele, Sandra (Lea Seydoux) is the product of an academic upbringing, but unlike Emmanuele Sandra hasn’t benefited materially from that situation as much. She works in Paris as a freelance German and English interpreter, and is translating a book in her spare time more or less as a means of maintaning her intellectual cred, though once her father’s neuro-degenerative condition worsens, she doesn’t have any time to spare. In addition to taking care of her father, Georg (Pascal Greggory), a retired philosophy professor who grew up in Austria, a chore she shares with several other related women, including her sister (Sarah Le Picard), mother (Nicole Garcia), and Georg’s current partner (Fejria Deliba), Sandra is raising an 8-year-old daughter, Linn (Camille Leban Martins), alone, since her own partner died five years earlier. Seydoux’s performance and Hansen-Løve’s direction create a character who is obviously overwhelmed by her responsibilities and yet seems almost enlivened by them. In an early scene in which she visits her father, who is still living alone in his book-stuffed apartment, she has to talk him through the steps necessary for him to unlock his front door, and the patience she exhibits is heartbreaking. It also sets the tone for not only the movie as a whole, but our way of processing what happens to Sandra. Again, unlike in Ozon’s movie, where addressing the stricken father’s condition was mainly a matter of tolerating his offensive personality, here Georg has no real input into what happens to him, and because of his less privileged financial situation, Sandra and her family are forced to move him from one facility to another until they can secure an affordable permanent residence. In the meantime, Sandra has embarked on a love affair with her late partner’s best friend, Clement (Melvil Poupaud), a self-styled “cosmochemist” whose married status posits the usual tensions such relationships entail, and while initially it’s all about sex (“I had assumed my love life was behind me”), Sandra, at least, finds herself in need of a more grounded emotional experience given the precarity of the rest of her waking existence. 

Hansen-Løve doesn’t have to belabor the various conflicts that afflict Sandra’s life because there is always the certitude that things will change, and the appeal of the film as encapsulated in its title (also the title of Georg’s unfinished memoir) is that change is both inevitable and what impresses us most about the past. If resilience is the movie’s indomitable theme, the everyday redemption that Sandra enjoys for simply doing the right thing—even when doing the right thing means being miserable—is what makes it so affecting. 

In French. Opens May 5 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707).

One Fine Morning home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 LFP-Les films pelleas/Razor Film Produktion/Arte France Cinema/Dauphin Films/Mubi/CN6 Productions/Bayerische Rundfunk/Zack Films

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Media watch: The inevitability of the immigration law revision

Ushiku Immigration Center in Ibaraki Prefecture, where many undocumented foreigners are detained (Tokyo Shimbun)

We’ve written in the past about the Japanese government’s treatment of asylum seekers, and the revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law that the ruling coalition has been working on for years to close inconvenient loopholes was supposed to be passed two years ago, but wasn’t due to issues with timing and public opinion. We wrote about the specific problems with that bill in March 2021, when it wasn’t certain it would fail, but it did. Now it’s back, and the media are saying it will likely be passed this time. 

As we also wrote at the time, the original revision was mostly accepted by the mainstream media because all they did was parrot the government’s talking points. The exception, as is often the case with government policy, was Tokyo Shimbun, which in the meantime has continued to cover the matter without compromising its editorial conscience. After the revised revision was approved by the Lower House Judicial Affairs Committee on April 28 with the votes of four parties—the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito; Nippon Ishin no Kai, and Kokumin Minshuto—Tokyo Shimbun explained that the LDP’s next step would be to get the revision passed in the Lower House in “early May.” Summarizing the purport of the bill, the newspaper said it is meant to “solve the problem of people remaining in detention for a long time,” a situation that has led to at least two detainees dying in custody, even if they weren’t necessarily asylum-seekers. The reason for the long detention under current law is that, while a self-identified refugee is in the process of applying for asylum they cannot be forcibly deported, but since they are by government definition “undocumented” they must be detained. Over the years, this sort of detention of foreign nationals has become a huge PR problem for the Japanese government, since it draws the attention of overseas human rights organizations, including some associated with the UN. As has always been obvious since the first revision was proposed in 2021, the government has no intention of giving in to these groups but rather is trying to avoid the whole problem of having refugee applicants sitting in jail for months and even years. The new revision effectively sets a limit for asylum applications at three, meaning after the third rejection, the applicant can be forced to return to their home country, regardless of whether they attempt to reapply. Critics of the revision have said, in Tokyo Shimbun’s words, that if it is passed in its present form it would be like “pressing the button for these refugees’ execution,” meaning that they would be sent back to the countries they escaped from and there would likely face arrest and further persecution, maybe even death. The government has said that the purpose of the three-time application limit is to prevent “abuse” of the system, which, for all intents and purposes, does not really consitute a system at all. As we have written repeatedly, applications for asylum are routinely rejected by immigration authorities (who have the sole authority to detain them—Japan is the only rich country in the world where courts have no say in immigrant detention, meaning they do not receive the due process guaranteed by the Constitution), who essentially say they don’t believe that the applicants are in any danger in their home countries because they do not submit sufficient “documentary proof” of their persecution. In other words, they can say anything they want, which usually comes down to the judgement that self-identified refugees are lying about their situations and coming to Japan for “economic reasons.”

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Review: I, Olga Hepnarova

Tomas Weinreb’s and Petr Kazda’s fictionalized reimagining of the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia, in 1975, maintains a brutal fascination for its subject, played with unstinting sad-sack bravura by Michalina Olszanka, with an almost comical attention to detail. Even in the early scenes, when Olga is sent as a 13-year-old to a psychiatric hospital-cum-juvenile detention center following a suicide attempt and is violently bullied, come across as mockumentary takes on the idea of Eastern European brutalist cinema—long takes in black-and-white and low contrast lighting, with amateurish actors doing their best not to look at the camera. This aesthetic aligns with the filmmakers’ preference for not giving too much away, and while the source of Olga’s suffering is easy to discern, the particulars are never clear. She obsesses over her patrimony, though there’s nothing in the early scenes to indicate which of the men in her nominal household is supposed to be her father, if any. Her mother is a physician who can use the state system to get Olga the care she needs (including medication, which is how she attempts to kill herself), but that’s all the information we have about her—that, and she seems unmoved by Olga’s professed pathology. “You look angry,” one new acquaintance says to her later on. “I always look angry,” Olga replies, as if looking were being.

The middle part of the movie is more interesting in the way it develops Olga’s character both apart from her identification as a social incompetent and within a closed circle of people. Particularly noteworthy is the way her therapists, unlike her mother, actually attempt to empathize with her situation, which appears to be a comment not only on the relatively advanced state of socialized medicine in Czechoslovakia but an acknowledgement of how Olga’s peculiar predicament was something that could be understood by a fairly wide cross-section of people. Having missed out on a large chunk of school while institutionalized, Olga gives up on education and finds work as a driver (of both people and goods), a profession for which she has a talent. Living on her own in a drafty hut that she treats as a pigsty, Olga makes some attempt at a normal life, but her need to feel oppressed and mocked always asserts itself. After she embarks on a series of ravenous lesbian relationships she actually expects the medical establishment to help her get a new girlfriend as part of her treatment, and when her doctor says “finding you a partner isn’t healthcare,” she adds homosexuality to the ever-growing list of attributes that only prove to herself she’s hopelessly damaged. 

As the title implies, much of the movie is told through Olga’s perspective, mostly diary entries in which she keeps warning herself that the only recourse she has is to kill someone so as to prove to society that what they’ve done to her is inexcusable, and yet when she carries out her deadly plan it’s still shocking, probably because the visceral quality of the scene contrasts so starkly with Olga’s enervated behavior. In court, she tries to make a philosophical case for her murderous rampage, and during psychological investigations into her motives, her interrogators, like the doctors before them, seem genuinely perceptive of her reasoning. With her chain-smoking, preternaturally lean physique, and perpetually downcast demeanor, Olga Hepnarova often looks like a bad stereotype of the disaffected teenager, but apparently Czechoslavia was filled with such people. The fact that Olga was hanged might indicate that so many others like her didn’t follow their disaffected attitude to its natural extreme. It’s as if Weinreb and Kazda wanted to question whether her pain was real or just another adolescent pose.

In Czech. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

I, Olga Hepnarova home page in Japanese

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Review: In Our Prime

Ever since his lead performance in Oldboy, Choi Min-sik has come to represent, at least to international movie fans whose diet of Korean films tend to center on well-known fare, the Korean idea of the antihero: a deeply flawed individual who is made to pay for his sins in extreme ways and, for better or worse, is redeemed by this process—even if Choi’s filmography reveals a wider range of characters. Given the Korean predilection for revenge tales and purple melodrama, Choi took this kind of persona to the bank, but in his twilight years he’s turned into something else, a kind of post-redemption figure who wears his victimhood like a badge. In his latest film he plays a North Korean defector who lays low by working as a night watchman at a prestigious prep school. As it turns out, his desire to cut a modest figure is multivalent, and it’s the viewer’s desire to learn what made him such a hermit that gives the story its potent appeal, because otherwise the movie does nothing new or interesting.

The protagonist is actually a student, Ji-woo (Kim Dong-hwi), who is attending as a “welfare case,” meaning an honors student who can’t afford such a school because of his socioeconomic situation (widowed mother without education). Painfully aware of his circumstances, he’s not so much bullied as given the opportunity, usually against his will, to prove his worth, and one night while smuggling in booze for his dorm mates, he’s caught by the night watchman,  Hak-sung (Choi), who reports him to the school. The punishment is loss of dorm privileges for a few months and, embarrassed to go home, he endeavors to sleep in one of the school’s abandoned classrooms, where, of course, he encounters Hak-sung again. As it turns out, the night watchman was once a storied math prodigy, and Ji-woo can’t afford the kind of math tutors his classmates patronize. Once he understands Ji-woo’s special status, Hak-sung agrees to teach him advanced calculus under certain conditions, which mostly boil down to not giving a fig about tests and scores and applying oneself to the study of math as if it were a sacred calling.

Aside from Hak-sung’s philosophical diatribes about the real meaning of numbers, most of the development in the first half of the movie adheres to the kind of action prerogatives you see in sports films, but once his true motivations come out, the story takes on multiple meanings and deepens its critical interrogation of not only Korea’s warped education system, but also the fraught, unknowable emotional and logistical difficulties that communist defectors have to navigate in order to just survive in South Korea. The screenplay is clever even if it relies too heavily on big, obvious reveals and changes in tone that feel phony—the scene where Hak-sung and a female student play what sounds like a K-pop tune on a piano that is supposedly based on a numerical extrapolation of pi is sublimely ludicrous. What saves it is Choi’s indelible projection of a grizzled survivor of moral misadventure. 

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

In Our Prime home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 showbox and Joyrabbit Inc.

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Review: The Highway Family

Character actors, especially those who specialize in villains, are by definition cast within a fairly narrow range, while marquee stars prefer to work in their wheelhouses because that’s what makes them and their movies money. Jung Il-woo is one of Korea’s most bankable leading men whose career has mostly been in TV historical dramas and fairly light romantic stuff. In Lee Sang-moon’s feature debut, he plays the paternal head of a homeless family of four whose mental capacities seem to be at a diminished level. The kind of subtlety the part demands would be a challenge for any actor, and while Jung can often be affecting in ensemble scenes, he inadvertently overwhelms the movie with a pathos that burns a little too brightly. 

Jung plays Ki-woo, who, along with his pregnant wife Ji-sook (Kim Seul-ki) and two young children camp out at highway rest stops in the Korean countryside. For food, Ki-woo cadges cash from motorists, saying he lost his wallet and will pay them back later. Most people are good, though a few demand more answers than Ki-woo is willing to give, so he keeps the kids nearby for sympathetic reinforcement. Lee develops the story slowly so as to provide some idea of how this family gets by as a family, and for the first 45 minutes Ki-woo’s motivations remain a mystery. If anything, he comes across as the storied hippie subjecting his family to some sort of whim about free will and independence. But then he’s arrested after a middle aged Good Samaritan, Young-sun (Ra Mi-ran), gives him a large amount of money and then spies him begging again at a different rest stop and calls the police. The authorities detain him but not his family, and, feeling responsible, Young-sun puts the three up in her used furniture store. Having herself lost a son recently, Young-sun and her husband informally adopt Ji-sook and the two kids, who, it turns out, cannot read or write. As they warm to their new surroundings, Ki-woo simmers in jail and his nascent mental illness manifests as violent paranoia. He escapes to reclaim his family.

As with many Korean debut dramas that attempt to tackle a social issue, The Highway Family has a tough time maintaining an even tone. Though Ki-woo’s escape is meant to highlight the fragile state of his mind, it’s played almost as slapstick. More problematically, Lee gradually unspools the back story that got this family into the situation they now find them in, and it’s rich and affecting enough to make the melodrama and thriller aspects feel unnecessary and distracting. Ki-woo, as it turns out, has had a tough time of it, as has Ji-sook, but the frantic climax seems imported from another movie, and Jung’s determination to do it proud only makes matters worse.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

The Highway Family home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Seollem film, kt alpha Co., Ltd.

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Review: Red Rocket

It was obviously going to be a tall order for director Sean Baker to top or even equal his last film, The Florida Project, an epic exploration of 21st century survivalist poverty in the capitalist milieu represented by the titular state’s reliance on Disney Enterprises, and Red Rocket certainly maintains his cred as the most compelling chronicler of the American socioeconomic underbelly in that he evokes true empathy with his characters, regardless of their shortcomings. Our protagonist, the former L.A. porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), is from the get-go a morally compromised individual, showing up shirtless and bloodied at the broken-down mid-Texas bungalow home of his estranged wife and former AV partner Lexi (Bree Elrod) and meth-head mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), begging for succor. Neither woman wants to accommodate him, but he’s a charmer in his own snakelike fashion and eventually gets a shower, and then some clothes, and then food and a place to sleep.

Mikey is in almost every scene of Red Rocket, which passes itself off as a comedy in much the same way that Baker’s earlier film, Tangerine, did, which is to say it looks squarely at the ridiculousness of the situations that Mikey, a preternaturally unsympathetic hero, repeatedly places himself in. Though it’s not entirely clear why Mikey had to leave L.A. in such a state, he reacclimatizes to his old home town quickly, using his native smarts and bullshit talents to ingratiate himself into the lives of other folks who, given time to think matters out clearly, wouldn’t normally give Mikey the time of day. After failing to secure a legitimate job, he drops in an old acquaintance, Leondria (Judy Hill), who deals marijuana, and starts selling her wares to guys at the local oil refinery despite Leondria’s warnings to stay away from “big oil.” Quickly reestablishing himself as a player with money to burn, he starts paying rent at Lexi’s, treats his shy, ne’er-do-well neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) to strip club sojourns, and plans his return to Hollywood in various nefarious ways, the most serious of which is to sponsor a teenage donut shop employee, Strawberry (Suzanna Son), as a porn ingenue once she turns 18. 

Except for Lonnie, who worships Mikey and hangs breathlessly on all of his tall tales of swordsmanship, everyone sees through his veneer of scalliwaggery, including Strawberry, whose willingness to have regular sex with someone more than twice her age has less to do with exploiting her own seductive powers than with what appears to be a real desire to remake Mikey into her own ideal. In the scheme of things, we endure much of Mikey’s hot air in anticipation of his comeuppance, and it’s something of a slog, not because Baker’s direction is slow—it’s some of the most assured work he’s ever done—but because the character just isn’t that interesting. He’s a type we’re too familiar with, and while Rex does imbue him with a distinct personality, Mikey’s shtick is essentially something you’re asked to put up with. When the just deserts are served—on a platter of cliche, no less—you wonder why it took so long. 

Opens April 21 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

Red Rocket home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Red Rocket Productions LLC

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Review: Mariupolis 2

Because of their nature as recordings of real events, documentaries often come with their own dramatic context, and in the case of Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicius’s sequel to his 2016 film about the titular Ukrainian port city, much has been made about his return to Mariupol shortly after the Russian invasion in February 2022. Mariupol 2, which chronicles only 7 days in an area about the size of a few city blocks, doesn’t provide any background or incisive commentary about the reason for the invasion. It simply records how one group of people cope with the constant bombardment. But once you understand that Kvedaravicius was captured by Russian troops right after this footage was shot and then summarily executed, the movie becomes something else. As it happened, Kvedaravicius’s partner, Hanna Bilobrova, and his editor quickly cut the footage and had it ready to be shown at Cannes less than two months later. Whether such a film, hastily thrown together without narration or contextual information, constitutes a valuable document is up for debate, but at the time it premiered it stood outside any critical consideration.

Mariupolis was a love song to a city. Mariupolis 2 complements it by showing how the city is gradually being destroyed, and for the most part Kvedaravicius keeps shooting from the same vantage points to show how buildings and skylines are changing in the course of his week there. The center of the action is a Baptist church where neighbors have fled for sanctuary, sleeping in close quarters in the basement and cooking large pots of soup using whatever materials they can scrounge up. Smoke is pervasive and the sound of artillery, both distant and close-range, is constant. The only violence is suggested. Two men enter a bombed out residence to retrieve a generator, stepping over two dead bodies in the process. Conversations are necessarily incomplete, and while some do address the politics of the war—one man insists that things were better when the Soviets ruled the city, though he says it out of earshot of others—there’s never a feeling of taking sides. Mariupol has a sizable ethnic Russian population.

As the director carefully moves away from the church, he catches more scenes of destruction. This particular area contains a lot of small industry, and the resignation of the factory managers and employees who sift through the rubble is particularly chilling, because the war, after all, has just begun. Watching these men try and make sense of what is happening around them becomes all the more disconcerting at one year’s remove. How many are dead? How many were captured? We know Kvedaravicius is gone. Though Mariupolis 2 has little meaning without a more elaborate explanation of the war, until the war actually ends its power to affect will remain potent. 

In Russian. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Mariupolis 2 home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Extimacy Films, Easy Riders Films, Twenty Twenty Vision

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