Best Movies 2019

The Report

As it’s that time of year again, here are the movies I liked the most these past 12 months. As usual, in order to qualify a film has to have opened in at least one Japanese theater during the calendar year, a condition that is becoming trickier with the spread of streaming. Netflix has released movies overseas in theaters for short periods of time before streaming them online in order to satisfy diehard cinema freaks and also to qualify for Oscars. In Japan, such a service isn’t really required or demanded, and yet Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which ended up on a lot of lists this year, did play in one Tokyo theater for two weeks, as did The Two Popes. Both are now being streamed on Netflix Japan. I’m not sure about Amazon Prime movies. I saw The Report online, but can’t find any evidence that it was released in any Japanese theaters beforehand. The ringer in this case is Scorsese’s The Irishman, which did screen at the Tokyo International Film Festival in November, but I’m not sure if it played in any standard theaters in Japan as a bona fide release. Normally, that would disqualify it for my list, since I don’t include festival movies that haven’t yet been distributed in Japan, but times are changing, and The Irishman was pretty good, thus its appearance here, if only as a film worth mentioning. My main misgiving is that I missed two theatrical releases that probably would have wound up on this list, the Swedish film Border and Claire Denis’s High Life. I trust they will show up on WOWOW sometime in the new year, but then it will be too late for the sake of this blog. Continue reading

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Heavy Trip

Though This Is Spinal Tap effectively made it difficult to make fun of rock musicians, particularly those of the heavy metal variety, in movies for eternity, there’s enough native ridiculousness in the genre for extraneous exercises in parody, a dispensation that directors Juuso Lantio and Jukka Vidrgen exercise in Heavy Trip. It helps oodles that the movie takes place in a small hick town in Finland, a country that, thanks to its air guitar contests that have become world famous, already possesses an air of pop cultural ridiculousness. Approached in those terms, metal has the same basic appeal as professional wrestling. It’s a rarefied art form whose ostensible attraction is bogus. In the case of wrestling, people pretend to fight. In the case of metal, people pretend to adhere to a lifestyle that’s toxically misanthropic (and male). Both characterizations, however, are misleadingly reductive, since the fake fighting in pro wrestling still requires special athletic skills to pull off, while metal musicians get their fake points across with genuine musical chops.

Heavy Trip‘s parodistic strong point is that the quartet in question, Impaled Rektum, has only the misanthropic facade with which to declare themselves headbangers. The clown-makeupped bassist, Pasi (Max Ovaska), the group’s resident myth-maker, labels their music “symphonic, post-apocalyptic, reindeer-grinding, Christ-abusing, extreme war pagan, Fennoscandian (?) metal,” a description that has no purchase in reality, except for the “reindeer-grinding” part, since the group’s rehearsal space is in the basement of guitarist Letvonen’s (Saumuli Jaskio) parents’ reindeer abattoir. Otherwise, the group’s emotional dynamic is best represented by lead singer, and movie protagonist, Turo (Johannes Holopainen), who sings in the usual carcinogenic howl-growl but is so overcome by stage fright that the first thing he does when performing in public is puke onstage, a decidedly metal move under certain circumstances but not in this small town. With his long straight hair and lack of self-confidence, Turo is the constant target of homophobic slurs from town yokels, but he has a typical crush on blonde flower-shop employee Miia (Minka Kuustonen), who seems to like him but is dating the local creep, lounge singer Jouni (Ville Tiihonen).

Despite this romantic sub-plot, Heavy Trip doesn’t have much of a narrative arc. As you can probably guess based on the above precis, Impaled Rektum goes from zero to hero over the course of its 90 minutes, but in true metal style they do so in an idiosyncratic way that involves the humorous death of one member and his replacement by a certified crazy person, as well as the theft of an automobile, grave-robbing, crashing a Norwegian metal festival (Norway, in this cinematic universe, is a kind of Valhalla), presumed terrorist activity, and a whole lot of suspension of disbelief. The directors are obviously working with a limited budget, and, as is often the case with comedies of this ilk they try to take advantage of it, as in a scene where Turo wrestles with a vicious badger in order to prove that he isn’t the wuss he really is. Essentially, all they do is attach a stuffed animal to Turo’s back and have him contort dramatically. That’s a pretty good metaphor for a lot of death metal, but when you fixate on the cheesiness, you aren’t doing yourself or your movie any favors.

In Finnish, Norwegian and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

Heavy Trip home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Making Movies, Filmcamp, Umedia, Mutant Koala Pictures 2018

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment

Review: Parasite

The class dynamics exploited in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, certainly the movie of the year regardless of what you think about it, gives rise at first to comedy of the most uncomfortable kind. This has always been Bong’s strong point, though when he’s off his game it’s usually because he has trouble maintaining his comic tone. In movies like Okja and Snowpiercer, which belong to sci-fi or fantasy genres, keeping that tone wasn’t a big problem, though the lack of consistency did make those films feel less important by the end than the way they felt at the beginning. Because Parasite takes place in a relatively realistic social setting the tone is especially important.

The Kim family lives in a basement apartment whose specific structural disadvantages—the toilet is situated on a rise that requires scrambling up a wall—are obviously funny by design. The Kims are poor and Bong doesn’t have to get too deeply into their situation to make that apparent. The father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), hasn’t had a regular job since the recession, and so the whole family, mother (Chang Hyae-jin), college age son (Choi Woo-shik), and teenage daughter (Park So-dam), do piece work for a local pizza franchise, and not particularly well, adding to their misery only slightly but goosing the laughs. It’s not that poor people are funny, but they are pathetic. They are, in fact, the definition of the word “pathetic,” and that seems to be Bong’s point. When you’re as desperate as the Kims, you become natively clever or you die.

The cleverness is inculcated in the children. The son, Ki-woo, is smart enough to go to college, but he has no money. One day an old high school pal who is attending college offers him a deal. He wants to go to the U.S. for a semester, but he’s got a choice gig as a tutor to a teenage girl from a rich family. He obviously feels something for this girl and doesn’t trust his similarly well-off classmates to be alone with her, so he asks Ki-woo if he’ll sub for him while he’s away. Ki-woo naturally wonders how he, a mere high school graduate, is going to be accepted as a tutor, and the friend says, just lie. Lying is, of course, the biggest challenge to the clever, and Ki-woo takes to it like a duck to water. He interviews at the Park family’s Bauhaus-magnificent home and the mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) is taken in by the subterfuge. It is almost too easy, in fact, and thus the stage is set for an insidious home invasion by the entire Kim family. The daughter, Da-hye, gets hired as an art tutor to the Park’s ADHD-addled elementary school-age son. The elder Kim is soon the Parks’ trusted chauffeur. And the mother, through some particularly nasty sleight-of-hand, is installed as the new housekeeper. The Parks do not know these people are related to one another, and it’s this secret that keeps the first half of the movie humming with comic potential and which Bong quickly turns on its head. The second half is still a comedy, but it’s the darkest comedy you will probably ever see.

Bong has always been a meticulous storyteller, but while the tale he spins here is a doozy, he does occasionally fall victim to impatience, resorting to deus ex machina devices and weird turns of slapstick just to get over speed bumps in the exposition, but even as the Kims’ desperation shifts to sly victory that is quickly pulled from under them by circumstances no one could have foreseen, the comic tone never flags. The laughs are couched in discomfort, but they’re no less heartfelt, since the class dynamics at play never change and, as Bong implies, never will. He’s not interested in giving the rich their comeuppance. If anything, he prosecutes the Kims for thinking they could get away with their lies, but he still thinks they have a right to their dreams. If he’s less solicitous to the Parks it’s not because he denigrates their wealth and ease, but rather that wealth and ease has made them uninteresting. The only reason the Kims can take advantage of them is that they have become numb to their situation. The tragedies (there is more than one) that unfold in the second half of the movie have as much to do with the spiritual ennui of the comfortable classes as they do with the grasping neediness of the uncomfortable classes. Bong isn’t a sociologist. He’s a master filmmaker who knows how to use what the audience knows to get them to respond to his stories, which in this case is a whopper.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068). Opens wide on January 10.

Parasite home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 CJ ENM Corporation, Barunson E&A

Posted in Movies | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

As the most notorious serial killer in American history—quite an accomplishment, if you think about it—Ted Bundy has been the focus of volumes of journalism and analysis and scads of films, mainly documentaries. Director Joe Berlinger, who made this circumspect profile of the killer, played with unusual subtlety by Zac Efron, has already made a doc series about Bundy, but apparently he wasn’t done with him. The narrative sectionalizes the part of Bundy’s life in the late 70s and early 80s that occurred afer most of his many murders had been committed, while he was living in Florida with a single mother named Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins) in relatively conventional middle class comfort. Much of the movie, in fact, it from Kloepfer’s point of view. She meets Bundy in a bar, and per his post-arrest reputation, he is charming and solicitous, even to a woman saddled with a kid, a situation she has been conditioned to believe is a deal-breaker for any long-term romantic relationship. Their first night together he doesn’t have sex with her, and makes her breakfast the next morning.

Berlinger occasionally shifts POV to Bundy, which seems odd for this kind of movie, because we all know what he did and what he’s probably still capable of. The film never shows us his murderous acts, though sometimes they are described, since Bundy is still killing young women and their deaths are being reported on the local news. When Berlinger sticks to Kloepfer, he gets a lot of mileage out of her suspicions and growing terror, even as she enjoys what appears to be the attentions of a serious, handsome man who wants nothing but the best for her. Essentially, the director is taking the piss: Trying to put the audience in Koepfler’s shoes while dangling bits of business in front of our noses that show Bundy is at least “suspicious” of being involved in these murders. The idea seems to be to give us an idea of how Bundy got away with it for so long. He was hiding in plain sight, a nice guy with a steady, loving girlfriend. Ideally, Berlinger wants us to question our own suspicions as much as Kloepfer questions hers.

To say he doesn’t succeed is perhaps asking too much of Berlinger’s process, but it seems like a lot of wasted energy when we know the outcome from the beginning. Nevertheless, Efron earns his star billing and Berlinger knew what he was doing when he cast him. It’s not just that Efron looks eerily like Bundy. It’s that you can never get a bead on him as a human or a monster, and that’s all the movie needs to make its point, not this gaslighting business. The movie necessarily takes a deep dive in meaning after Bundy is arrested and put on trial, since Kloepfer turns into an accessory after the fact, so to speak—Bundy even hooks up with a new girlfriend after he’s denied bail. In any case, the trial has already been covered many times (it was televised live), so there are no surprises like the ones that highlight the first half of the movie. Berlinger obviously thought this man was still ripe for the pickings, but maybe he’s just too infatuated to quit.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001).

Extremely Wicked home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Wicked Nevada LLC

Posted in Movies | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Review: 3 Faces

In his last samizdat production, Taxi, Jafar Panahi spent almost the entire running time behind the wheel. He spends a good portion of his latest movie also in a car, thus in a way extending a cinematic style perfected to obsessive lengths by his late mentor Abbas Kiarostami, many of whose last films took place in moving vehicles. For Panahi, the device takes on an extra layer of meaning, since he is banned from making movies for 20 years by the Iranian government. His first two forbidden works were resolutely indoor affairs, but with Taxi and now 3 Faces he endeavors to get out of the house, and cars provide just enough cover for him to scratch his creative itch without being noticed (cameras are by necessity very small when filming in a car, and no crew). However, here he’s also incorporated a long automobile trip into a story that takes him far from Tehran, into the mountains bordering Turkey, where people are familiar with his celebrity but not close to any government organs that might risk his being exposed.

The story he has fashioned around this conceit is probably his most expansive and conventional since going underground. Playing himself, he is driving the well-known actress Behnaz Jafari to a remote mountain village to find out if a girl who purportedly hanged herself after failing to get in touch with Jafari actually died. The girl (Marziyeh Rezaei) records her last minutes with her iPhone, saying that she desperately wanted to talk to Jafari about her own discouraged desire to become an actress, and when the older woman never replied she saw no future for herself. Jafari tells Panahi that she has no knowledge of these attempts to contact her, and is frantic with guilt and worry, and so talks him into accompanying her into the mountains, a trip that requires riding over rough, winding roads for hours. Occasionally, they have to stop for an hour or two to let a herd of cows or a cart pass.

Structured as a kind of missing persons mystery, the film follows the cosmopolitan pair as they are recognized by villagers who fete them as lavishly as they can. They beg off unsuccessfully but in order to find out if the girl really did kill herself they have to be indirect and discreet with their questions, a strategy that leads to misundertandings both serious and humorous. In his other post-ban works, Panahi had to work around his limitations, but here he seems almost recklessly liberated by the resources at hand, allowing seemingly ad libbed conversations with locals to veer off on odd tangents. The overall feeling is of strangers stranded in a strange land—many of the pair’s interlocutors speak only Turkish and not Persian—and as Panahi and Jafari find it increasingly difficult to get at the truth, the death they hope is a hoax seems to permeate everything they encounter, because life in a hardscrabble environment like this one means always living in death’s immediate shadow.

But the film has its surprises, the most potent of which is how unexpectedly dramatic it is. The implication of the suicide, regardless or whether it was real or staged, is that freedom of thought is even more of an illusion the further you get from the relative open-mindedness of the city. Though the girl tried to contact Jafari, a worldly woman whose impatience with the villagers is striking, it is with Panahi that her story resonates. She deigned to kill herself out of frustration with being kept from pursuing her dreams, while Panahi has somehow overcome his own proscriptions. What can he tell this girl when he meets her? It’s the movie’s most compelling mystery.

In Persian and Turkish. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

3 Faces home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Jafar Panahi Film Production

Posted in Movies | Tagged | Leave a comment

Media Mix, Dec. 15, 2019

Heizo Takenaka

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the so-called shock of moving the 2020 Olympic marathon and walking race from Tokyo to Sapporo. As pointed out in the column, the International Olympic Committee has every right to unilaterally move events outside the host city and even the host country if they deem it necessary. Last week, in fact, it was announced that the surfing competition for the 2024 Paris Olympics will take place in Tahiti, which involves not just moving the event out of the city and out of the country, but out of the hemisphere. I anticipate that the column will be met by some criticism of the sort that says I am just finding new excuses to bash the Olympics, which is true to a certain extent, but I am under no illusion that the 2020 Olympics will be cancelled (unless there’s a natural disaster, which is not impossible). Nor do I think people who attend the Olympics in Tokyo will not enjoy themselves. Despite the naysayers, all Olympic Games usually end up with a net sum of happy memories, even if they often plunge the host city into a state of near bankruptcy. Tokyo’s budget will be more than ten times its original quote in the bid proposal, but Tokyo residents and Japanese citizens alike will suck up the debt and carry on.

The real point of the column is calling out hypocrisy. The Tokyo bid was built on a lie—nice weather—that everyone knew was a lie, and it’s only now that the relevant authorities are figuring out ways to avoid some of the consequences. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike can pout and complain as much as she likes but when you choose to do business with the IOC you have to understand that it’s their Games and not yours, and they are into this for the long run, which is why the Olympics has almost nothing to do with the ideals it has always tried to pass off as its core principles—world peace, sportsmanship, individual accomplishment. As Gentaro Taniguchi, the veteran sportswriter referenced extensively in the column, points out, money and nationalism are the two engines that drive the Olympics now, and the IOC not only knows that but encourages it, because they understand that those two elements are the only ones needed to perpetuate the Olympics as the kind of grand world event it is supposed to represent. An irony I didn’t discuss in the article is that Russia, as a national team, has been banned from the Olympics because of widespread institutional doping, but given the amount of money athletes need just to make them competitive at this level, why is doping vilified so stringently? Because it offers an athlete an advantage that can be attained without the kind of physical work normally associated with a “winning edge”? The fact is, the more money you have, the more edge you’re likely to attain. The difference can perhaps be explained, but not persuasively if you really get down to it.

The real hypocrisy is not in the money that’s put into the Games, but rather the money derived from it. It’s not clear that the temp agency Pasona became an Olympic partner with the knowledge that it would earn its contribution back and then some by gaining contracts for supplemental workers, but they probably at least hoped for such a dividend on their investment. One aspect of the matter I didn’t mention is that the chairman of Pasona is Heizo Takenaka, a former Diet member and cabinet official who remains one of the government’s most trusted economic advisors. He, more than anyone, understands how private enterprise can benefit from getting involved in public enterprises like the Olympics. In that regard, he’s the opposite of a naive idealist, and the perfect Olympic factotum.

Posted in Media | Tagged | Leave a comment

Review: Sorry We Missed You

At this point in his career Ken Loach is neither anybody’s fool nor anything less than what he resolutely says he is in his films—a staunch socialist muckraker with no qualms about using rough sentimentality to drive home his political points. Consequently, he’s been more appreciated and honored at continental film festivals (Cannes, especially) than he has by international critics and his fellow Brits. His latest, in fact, may be his most scathing indictment of late stage capitalism, not to mention his harshest rant against what the UK has become socioeconomically in the 21st century. Though film purists will obviously see it as yet another over-the-top screed, in light of yesterday’s general election, it comes across as nothing less than a libertarian horror movie.

Loach’s target is the gig economy. Ricky (Kris Hitchen) is a tradesman whose work fell off steeply following the 2008 recession. He’s barely managed to support his wife, Abby (Debbie Honeywood), and two kids thanks mainly to Abby’s work as a freelance home care nurse. When he’s offered the opportunity to “be his own boss” by signing a franchise deal with a delivery service, he jumps at it, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. His aim is understandable—he hopes the relative freedom of working as many hours as he can stand will finally allow him to buy a home—but his understanding of how this brave new world of zero-hour contracts works is severely lacking, and his first mistake is his biggest one. Instead of renting a truck he decides to buy one and that entails having to sell his own car, which Abby needs to get to her “clients.” Abby now has to schlep around on public transportation, which is quite difficult considering how far flung her charges are, not to mention that the nature of her work involves visiting some of those charges in the middle of the night due to emergencies she’s feels obligated to attend to out of a sense of responsibility.

So what with Ricky busting his ass to not only cover the payments on the truck but justify his taking a busy route that obliges him to follow it on the nose in order to avoid penalties, and Abby taking longer and longer to complete her rounds, their two kids, 15-year-old Seb (Rhys Stone) and 10-year-old Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), are mostly left to their own devices. In the case of Seb, that means flexing his artistic impulses for tagging, which eventually gets him in trouble with the law. Liza Jane, meanwhile, is losing it on a subtler level, wetting the bed and secretly harboring schemes to make her parents regret their employment decisions.

As with all Loach’s work with his trusted scenarist Paul Laverty, Sorry We Missed You (the title is taken from the printed notes Ricky leaves at delivery points where no one is at home) is obsessed with a naturalism that’s often too naturalistic for its own good. Ricky’s working class volatility is depicted as being as integral to his problems as are the cut-throat conditions of his “self-employment,” but despite the sometimes hackneyed displays of venom and frutration, Loach and Laverty respect the intelligence of both his characters—even the unsympathetic ones, such as Ricky’s burly supervisor—and his viewers. These are basically complicated people with complicated reasons for making decisions that turn out to be bad, which is why the discomfort that churns in your stomach with each tragic turn of events feels more terrifying than any similar sensation that hits you while watching some jump scare-riddled slasher flick. Because this shit is happening right now somewhere in the world to many, many people, and that means it could easily happen to you, too.

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Sorry We Missed You home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Sixteen SWMY Limited, Why Not Productions, Les Films de Fleuve, British Broadcasting Corporation, France 2 Cinema and the British Film Institute 2019

Posted in Movies | Tagged | Leave a comment