Best Albums 2018

The album as a delivery device for music has been dying for more than a decade now, or, at least, that’s what the pundits say. What struck me more than anything about the way new music was presented this past year is how the album form was adapted to the way streaming has changed our mode of listening. This is only partially due to technological changes. The idea of the album as a unified work of art that developed in the late 60s changed organically over the years as the sheer volume of available music has grown exponentially. Two of the “albums” on my list would, under old rules, be categorized as EPs, but were nonetheless presented to the public as albums in the sense that they were designed to be heard in one sitting. The fact that they’re brief could be taken as a sop to the shorter attention spans brought about by online lifestyles, but I’d like to think they turned out the way they did because of a particular vision.

By the same token, several of the releases on this list clock in at around 30 minutes, making them albums in accordance with time scales common in the 1960s but less robust price-performance-wise had they been released in the 1990s, when CDs were king. CDs are not only no longer king, they are becoming increasingly difficult to find. So the album as an integrated unit of musical performance has little relationship to cost for consumers any more because they can stream anything for one monthly fee or purchase invidual songs. Or they can download/share stuff illegally, which is still a thing and probably always will be. But the shorter album lengths may, inadvertently or not, keep the album format viable for at least a bit longer, and that makes me happy. There’s still nothing more satisfying that sitting down for forty minutes and absorbing a set of songs united by theme and sensibility. I just wish I had as much time to do that as I used to. Continue reading

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Best Movies 2018

I lost my last paying gig as a movie reviewer this year, which means I now watch movies for free, in every sense of the term. I still get invited to press screenings, and attend one or two a week, but writing about them has become more or less a hobby, though publicists and distributors seem to pay attention when I post the reviews on this blog. What’s that worth, I’m not sure, other than the notion that they’ll keep me on their mailing lists. Maybe they’re just being polite. God knows, I feel sort of silly if I tweet links to movie reviews. I have no idea who’s reading them, and haven’t really checked to see how many people are.

Consequently, I only see movies I think I’ll like, or films that people are discussing so that I can see what all the fuss is about. I missed a few that might have ended up on this list if I had had more presence of mind, so it’s hardly comprehensive in that regard. I don’t have as much of an option to watch films after they’ve been released, because there’s only one theater complex near where I live and they mostly show major films. The only movie on this list I didn’t see at a press screening was The Lost City of Z, which didn’t have a press screening and played for only two weeks at a small theater in Tokyo. I had wanted to see it, so I actually made the time to.

As always, the movies on this list were released in Tokyo during the 2018 calendar year in theaters. I subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime but I haven’t included any streamed movies here because I’m still doctrinnaire about these kinds of lists. In any case, I didn’t see any on TV that I would have included. I have yet to watch Roma, which didn’t play at any theaters in Tokyo before being streamed, unless you count its one screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival, which I also missed. Maybe next year, I’ll start including streamed movies here, but for now I’ll stick with being old-fashioned. Continue reading

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Review: A Star Is Born

It didn’t take much to make the latest iteration of A Star Is Born better than its immediate precedent, the Streisand-Kristofferson vehicle, which has become something of a camp classic while retaining its critical rep as a dog. Nevertheless, there are parallels worth exploring, the most obvious being the provenance of their four respective leads. In 1976, Kristofferson was probably better known to the general public as an actor than he was as the singer-songwriter that first brought him fame. Casting him as an arena rocker seemed predicated on his particular hirsute handsomeness, but his naturally gruff amateurism made the character, if not the performance, more sympathetic than it should have been. Streisand, on the other hand, was playing as furiously against type as her own immediate forebear, Judy Garland, had been in the 1954 remake: one of the hugest stars of the moment pretending to be an ingenue. This push-pull between her image and Kristofferson’s at the height of rock’s ascendance in pop culture was ridiculous to behold, despite a script by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne that turned the melodrama back on itself.

Lady Gaga is arguably on the same plane of career development that Streisand was at, but here she has the advantage of no acting experience. More to the point, her popular image as a chameleon whose appeal is at least partially credited to makeup and wardrobe and stage spectacle has been discarded for a disarming naturalism that makes her character, Ally, much more sympathetic than Streisand could ever be. Like Kristofferson, Bradley Cooper, as the country-rock star Jackson Maine, is going against his grain by singing and writing his own songs for the first time in a movie. In a sense, both Gaga and Cooper, who also directed, feel fresh, and that makes their romance on screen feel appropriate and believable.

But this sort of distinction only works for so long, especially in a movie whose story everyone knows pretty well. The differences are in the details—Maine first eyes Ally in a drag bar where he’s retired post-gig to nurse his alcohol jones, Ally is motherless but the apple of her limo driver dad’s eye (Andrew Dice Clay, being nice for once)—and the interesting addition of Maine’s older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), a failed musician who raised Jackson after their elderly father died and basically turned him into the musician he became. Though Bobby is the most blatant melodramatic device in the film, Cooper handles the dynamic with an eye on the development of the story as a tragedy that gives the overall contour of the plot more room to work its sad magic. Consequently, the chemistry between Gaga and Cooper is much more convincing than it was between Streisand and Kristofferson or, for that matter, between Garland and James Mason. The songs are also a hell of a lot better than the schlock in the 1976 version.

So why is that the movie felt flat in the end? Whatever my reservations about the miscasting of Kristofferson and Mason in roles that were out of their wheelhouses, they transcended their respective cliches by not trying too hard. Their tragedies were that their love was strong but their characters weak, and both actors recognized that once you are resigned to that truth, there’s only one resolution. Despite Bobby’s sage blandishments, Jackson never seemed to get this part—he might as well have been despairing over the tinnitus that threatened to stop his career. And Cooper underplays so skillfully that when he does the terrible deed you almost feel you’ve missed it. Ally’s grief is poignant without being particularly deep, and the big musical finish feels as gratuitously corny as it did when Streisand did it, except that Streisand is expected to be brassy and obvious. Gaga can’t be faulted for doing what she’s told, but she seemed strangely diminished.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

A Star Is Born home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment

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Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

I’m probably not the first person to think that Ralph Wrecks the Internet would have been a better title for this sequel to the Disney hit Wreck-It Ralph, since it would have taken better advantage of familiarity with the original. However, these days people know more about a Disney-related film before it’s released than after, and having enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph without necessarily being invested in it—the digital video games it referenced had no traction on my life back in the day—the possibility that the main characters—the lamebrained, sentimental, muscle-bound title character (John C. Reilly) and the sweet-voiced, diminutive, super competitive race car driver Vanellope (Sarah Silverman)—would be moving out of the circumscribed universe of arcade games into the infinite possibilities of the Internet—a world, for better or worse, that I am invested it—was immediately intriguing.

As with the Toy Story franchise and other contemporary fictional animated milieus, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses our proximity to actual pop culture in its favor. It’s not just the real games in the arcade, many of which are known to me only in passing, but the huge tech companies represented in the Internet world that Ralph and Vanellope pass into in their decidedly analog quest for a discontinued steering column for the game that is Vanellope’s whole reason for being. Both characters have no real concept of what the Internet entails, thus allowing the filmmakers to make of it what they want, and the analogies go beyond the clever and convenient into the realm of the sublime. Though at first the Internet’s landscape resembles a vintage version of a World’s Fair Futureworld on steroids, the way the various apps interact is brilliantly realized, and though people with little practical experience with Internet protocols might be lost, do such people still exist? (Or, more precisely, are people unfamiliar with Internet protocols going to see this movie?) Unschooled in the ways of capitalism, Ralph and Vanellope innocently bid up the price of the coveted steering wheel at an eBay auction, thus pricing themselves way out of their league and necessitating a visit to a YouTube high priestess (Taraji P. Henson) who will help them raise the needed credits to buy the part through meme-generating videos starring the clumsy Ralph. Meanwhile, Vanellope has become enamored of another racer (Gal Gadot) who exists in a Grand Theft Auto type game where the stakes are higher and more dangerous, thus opening her up to greater possibilities for honing—and showing off—her native skills.

There’s more, including a hilarious takeoff on Disney’s own princess legacy brand where Vanellope, a kind of princess herself, turns Snow White, Cinderella, and other royal denizens of a Disney website on to the joys of loose clothes and not having to pin your hopes on Princes. But as with the Toy Story movies, Ralph Breaks the Internet uses its clevel cultural references to make a larger point about connections that transcend the everyday needs of commerce. It’s a story about friendship and what friendship entails. Though cartoonishly simple at the outset, Ralph and Vanellope develop into complex beings whose emotional needs veer off in different directions, the result being the catastrophe indicated in the title. In that regard, Ralph Breaks the Internet comes the closest that a purely Disney animated film has to a Pixar movie, and joins Toy Story and Wall-E (but not Cars) as an effective vehicle for using non-sentient entities to reveal in a moving way the limits of our hold on humanity in an attempt to make us more human. It succeeds.

Opens in Tokyo on Dec. 21 in subtitled and dubbed versions at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Ueno (050-6868-5066), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (03-5367-1144), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002).

Ralph Breaks the Internet home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Disney

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Review: The Grinch

It seems, well, almost Grinch-like to complain about a new Christmas movie while we’re smack dab in the middle of the Christmas season, but, then again, The Grinch isn’t new. This is the third film iteration of the beloved Dr. Suess holiday story and people my age who grew up with the half-hour TV special will probably tell you that was good enough for them, especially when compared to the 2000 live-action feature film version starring Jim Carrey at his most scene-chewing obnoxiousness. Both that version and the latest one, a CGI animated creation by Illumination Studios, require a lot of padding to make a feature and Theodore Geisel had nothing to do with the script, so you sort of get what you might expect when Hollywood takes a classically idiosyncratic piece of art and tries to stretch it out.

The new Grinch‘s main selling point, in this regard, is that it gives the lead character, a green-furred grump who lives by himself above Who-ville, where everyone is preternaturally cheerful and would prefer Christmas come once every hour rather than once every year, a back story, meaning a reason for his grumpiness. This act of appropriation describes everything wrong with current pop culture. We have no need to know the Freudian damage visited on little Grinch in an orphanage, where his fear-hatred of Christmas was instilled. In a sense, everyone with a whiff of misanthropy—and that includes children—has always had a soft spot for Mr. Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose attitude toward the sentimental overkill of the Christmas Spirit is practically inspired. Similarly, the ostensibly sympathetic character of the little girl Cindy Lou (Cameron Seely), whose friendliness puts the Grinch’s teeth on edge, is custom built for first-time disappointment, which is why the ending of the original book is so powerful. The Grinch is simply converted by a purity of feeling he could never understand until it was revealed in all its extremity. Here, it’s all explained by Cindy Lou’s desire to bring some happiness to her overworked single mother, Donna Lou (Rashida Jones). Her only wish is to bring her mom some peace of mind for Christmas, which is a pretty wishy-washy thing for a kid to wish for.

The only thing you can really say in favor of the new film is that because it changes so many of the details—this Grinch seems to be a coffee addict, for one thing—it has some surprises, one of which is the Grinch’s dog, Max, who is no less cute than his progenitors but he gets more screen time to elaborate on his clever adorableness. And with Pharrell Williams narrating and Tyler, the Creator, providing the closing theme song, there’s a bit more street to the sensibility on display, a decision I will ask others to explain. The fact that it all sounds like crass commercial calculation to me obviously means I have my own Grinch-like tendencies to contend with.

Now playing in Tokyo in both dubbed and subtitled versions 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), Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas (03-5979-1660), Toho Cinemas Ueno (050-6868-5066).

The Grinch home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios

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Media Mix, Dec. 9, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the local press reaction to the two South Korean Supreme Court verdicts that found in favor of workers who sued Japanese companies for mistreatment during World War II. The main thrust of the column is that both the Japanese government and the Japanese media have condemned these rulings because they violate the 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea, which says that all wartime claims against Japan had been settled finally and completely. By sticking to this presumably airtight rationalization Japan gets to avoid talking about the legality of its colonial rule over the Korean peninsula. The Japanese scholars and experts cited in the column make legal arguments that say the treaty does not preclude an individual Korean’s right to sue a private company in Japan for something that occurred during the war, but, more to the point, these men say that it is morally beholden on the defendants to compensate their former Korean workers for the indignities they suffered under their employ.

Though the connection hasn’t been made by any media so far that I have seen, the debate over the Supreme Court rulings has special resonance now in light of the more immediate matter of allowing a greater number of foreign workers into Japan. Regardless of all the hair-splitting involved in determining which of the Korean workers during the war were “forced” to toil in factories and mines, it is obvious that the majority, if not all, were misled before they started work and mistreated afterwards. One of the few media pieces I saw that seems to have provoked feelings of wholesale remorse among Japanese readers was a letter from a 90-year-old Japanese man published in Tokyo Shimbun explaining his adolescence living in a mining community on Sakhalin in 1944. He describes Korean workers rummaging through sewage for scraps of food that were thrown out, and how the image has haunted him ever since. During the nine months he lived there, he saw many Koreans die of starvation and exposure, and nobody cared. The situations at other mines or factories may not have been as dire, but there are enough stories like this, told by both Koreans and Japanese, to convince anyone that Koreans were at best second-class citizens despite the fact that the Japanese authorities considered the peninsula part of Japan. In fact, Yasuto Takeuchi, a scholar cited in the Asahi article, said that one of the ways recruiters convinced Koreans to come to Japan to work was by telling them they’d “become the Emperor’s subjects” if they took these jobs, the implication being that they would remain inferior to native Japanese if they didn’t.

A similar attitude informs the acceptance of foreign laborers into Japan right now. Though the conditions are not as terrible as those suffered by Koreans during the war, there have been many cases of technical trainees not being paid and having their passports withheld by employers in order to keep them under control. And after it was reported last week that several dozen trainees died during their working stints in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refused to even discuss the matter, much in the same way that the administration he represents doesn’t want to talk at all about Korean laborers during the war. Foreign workers will presumably now be treated better, but by refusing to acknowledge their rights as members of the community and, by extension, their human rights as individuals, the Japanese government absolves itself of responsibility in the long run. The media harps on the “popular” belief that these foreign workers will not be accepted by the average Japanese person and/or will not be willing to assimilate, a presumption that would appear to be self-fulfilling. In any case, things don’t seem to have changed as much as you might expect after 70 years.

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Review: Our Departures

As a Canadian film acquaintance put it, Our Departures is a classic Shochiku release: sentimental, not too dramatic, and warmly funny in spots. It’s also about the importance of family, even if the family in question is unconventional, but, then, that seems to be the point. Jun Kunimura plays Setsuo, a veteran train driver in rural Kagoshima who is set to retire, much to the chagrin of his superiors, who, due to depopulation, don’t think they can find a replacement soon enough. Setsuo, a widower, lives alone in that kind of stoical self-sufficiency real men in Japanese films tend to manifest. One day, a young woman, Akira (Kasumi Arimura) and an elementary school-age boy, Shunya, show up on Setsuo’s doorstep. They turn out to be his estranged son’s second wife and son, who have come from Tokyo to inform Setsuo that his son died suddenly. Apparently, Akira tried to call many times but Setsuo has a habit of not listening to his old-fashioned message machine.

There isn’t much that’s new in Yasuhiro Yoshida’s direction, and the story is emphatic in its boiler plate development, even if the contours of the story sometimes feel forced. (People tend to die too conveniently) Setsuo’s instant family has nowhere to go since being evicted from their Tokyo apartment and so set up house with him and his ghosts. Preternaturally unfazable, Setsuo reacts with neither excitement nor irritation to the arrangement, while Akira becomes increasingly disillusioned with regard to her father-in-law’s lack of regret in causing his son to leave some years ago. Apparently, the son didn’t want to become a train driver like his father and wanted to get as far away from Kyushu as possible, and they never spoke in the meantime. Shunya, however, loves trains, and Setsuo is shocked to learn that he inherited that love from his father, who, according to Akira, was thinking of moving back to Kyushu before he died.

Probably the most radical aspect of the story is Akira’s determination to raise Shunya, who is the product of her late husband’s first marriage, on her own, which is something you don’t see in your average Shochiku family drama, but in a sense that compulsion gives her a reason to become a train driver herself, which is central to the movie’s reason for existence since Our Departures is a tie-up with the local train line depicted. And in that regard, the movie, while overlong and underpopulated (Arimura isn’t a seasoned enough actor to bear the bulk of the screen time), is thoroughly decent in its depiction of train work and culture, not to mention its seemingly effortless ability to evince tears. The best way to approach Our Departures is knowing exactly what to expect. If you do and you like this sort of thing, it’s practically a masterpiece. 

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (03-5367-1144), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Marunouchi Toei (03-3535-4741), Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas (03-5979-1660).

Our Departures home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Kazokuiro Film Partners

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