Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Thanks to Japan’s complicated publicity machine, the sequel to the successful movie version of the very successful ABBA-inspired jukebox musical Mamma Mia! arrives well after most of the rest of the world has decided it’s a better movie than the original. The first thing that strikes me is pity for Meryl Streep, who basically saved the first movie from  mawkish amateurism with her native ability as a stage performer and willingness to parlay her appreciation of the songs into a silly nostalgia romp. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything at this point by saying that Streep’s character is deceased in the sequel, a move that may have been production-oriented (Meryl may have simply thought once is enough) but was probably strategic, since the plot is divided into two parallel storylines taking place in different time periods. In the present, we have Donna’s (Streep) daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), preparing to reopen her mother’s Greek hotel, with or without the aid of her famously three fathers, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and Harry (Colin Firth). The other storyline depicts the early 20-ish Donna, played by the other young blonde go-to actress of the moment, Lily James, coming to the Greek island in question for the first time and meeting the three men who will seal her fate as not only a single mother of distinction, but a popular travel destination entrepreneur.

What most people find more agreeable about the sequel is that the musical numbers have been more carefully integrated into the plot, but only barely. For one thing, the two storylines don’t necessarily speak to each other in meaningful ways, and could have easily been spun off as separate films (a lost box office opportunity, I’d say, since the success of the sequel indicates it could be turned into a franchise). Considering that that producers decided to reprise some of the big hits from the original, it’s obvious they don’t think people will be put off by any redundancy. Jukebox musicals, in fact, thrive on redundancy, on the immediate satisfaction of the overly familiar. But the one thing that Here We Go Again definitely has going for it is that it also has a lot of what might be called ABBA’s “deep cuts,” songs that weren’t hits but nevertheless are familiar to anyone who bought their albums. And that’s the real appeal of the movie: Regardless of how wince-inducing the story and the characters become, the viewer anticipates the next production number, which arrives pretty quickly in a movie like this. “Instant gratification” would have been a more appropriate subhead than “Here We Go Again.”

And, again, everyone by now knows that Andy Garcia plays the Spanish love object to Christine Baranski’s horny pre-doddering Tanya if only to provide a contextual excuse to revive “Fernando,” and Cher shows up at the end as Donna’s still-living mother to convey dispensation to her granddaughter’s project, as well as (it’s implied) a lot of money. That Cher gets to sing not one but two ABBA songs is more than just gravy. Of all the big stars who have appeared in these two films she’s the one best suited to deliver the Swedish group’s outsized pop anthems. Whoever decided to hire her is a genius.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (03-6861-3011), 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).

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Universal Studios

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Media Mix, Aug. 26, 2018

Mitsuyo Hoshino’s book “Moshimo Maho ga Tsukaetara”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about children orphaned after World War II. As described in the column, the Japanese media has avoided the topic for years and most likely decided to finally cover it because, as with many controversial subjects related to the war, the generation that experienced it firsthand has almost died out. The war orphans were quite young when the war ended, but they’re now in their 80s. Of course, some freelancers and smaller media have talked about the orphans for years, and one of the people who has been instrumental in drawing attention to them is Mitsuyo Hoshino, who is not a reporter but rather a woman, now 84, who lost her parents and four siblings in the Tokyo air raids. Like many children in the capital during the war, she was evacuated to the countryside. According to various media who have interviewed her, she kept her memories of that time to herself until 2013, when she visited a war archive in Sumida Ward. The experience prompted her to convey her memories through drawings, many of which were of war orphans she saw on the street after the war when she returned to Tokyo. (She herself was not a street child) In 2016 she self-published a book of these drawings and later the publisher Kodansha commissioned a larger book that supplemented the drawings with Hoshino’s writings about orphans in Tokyo, Yamagata, and Kobe. Hoshino has told reporters that her motivation was simple: Nobody had written much about these children and so she wanted to record their experiences “so future generations will understand” what happened. In the sense that her book may have opened the door for major media to finally approach the subject, her hope wasn’t in vain.

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Review: Pop Aye

The titular elephant in this Thai film is named after the iconic cartoon sailor, though I can’t really fathom the title’s unconventional spelling. In a way, the linguistic disconnect expands on the movie’s sometimes jarring juxtaposition of universal themes and local particulars. The hero is a successful architect, Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), who is going through the usual mid-life crisis (failing marriage, loss of direction, etc.) and one day happens upon a man trying to move an elephant along a Bangkok street. Convinced the elephant is Popeye, his childhood pet when he lived in the deep countryside, he buys the animal off the man and sets out to “bring the elephant home” on foot. In other words, Pop Aye is a classic road movie of self-discovery except that we have no insight into the mindset of one of the members of the entourage.

Several times during the movie, the director, Kirsten Tan, suggests that the elephant isn’t what Thana thinks he is, but this subtext of self-delusion becomes inseparable from the general feeling of total incompetence. Thana may have once been a good architect, but he now seems lacking in basic motor skills and common sense. Through flashbacks, we learn that even at work he has become little more than a figurehead at his company. The young bucks are running things. Similarly, Thana’s relationship with his wife is thwarted more by his inability to communicate directly than by the usual breakdown of affections that accompany a longterm romantic partnership. Thana’s pathetic, but it’s difficult to feel sorry for him.

Consequently, the misadventures that characterize the road trip through hot and dusty countryside are difficult to comprehend from a dramatic standpoint. It’s obvious Thana is longing to recapture some of the simple joy that he remembers from his childhood, but nostalgia is a fickle mistress: she only reveals what her lover wants to see and hear. It’s thus a pleasant turn of events when Thana meets Jenny (Yukontorn Sukkijja), a transgender woman, in a roadside bar who seems to complete Thana in ways other characters, including his wife, do not. There is no sexual tension but, especially in a moving scene where they perform a karaoke duet, a shared feeling of being different and, in each other’s company, relaxed with that feeling. Encounters with other interlocutors—a suicidal drifter, Thana’s uncle who raised him, presumably in an indifferent manner—are much less consequential, though that may be an unintended result of Tan’s underwhelming directing style.

Through it all, the elephant (named Bong, who, interestingly, gets top billing) is mostly a cipher. Even animal lovers will have a hard time finding him cute or endearing. He’s a vehicle in more ways than one, a means for Thana to confront his own obsolescence as a man and member of society. Elephants get a pass in Thailand, apparently, and Popeye expresses no particular feelings toward Thana that we can discern. His presence is merely grounding and calming, as if Tan were afraid Thana by himself was too distressing a figure to focus on.

In Thai. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

Pop Aye home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Giraffe Pictures Pte Ltd., E&W Films, and A Girl and a Gun.

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Review: The Girl Without Hands

The Brothers Grimm story from which this French animated film has been adapted is not one of their more famous ones, but it has all the non-Disney hallmarks that have made the fairy tale-meisters the darlings of comparative lit majors. It’s fixated on graphic violence and sublimated sex, but it’s also about the human capacity for cruelty that goes beyond the kind of cartoon villainy we’ve come to expect from stories like this. The fundamental reason the story is so powerful and suggestive is the animation itself, which not only eschews CGI, but also the kind of cell-craft that most people are familiar with.

Sebastien Laudenbach is mainly a brush and ink painter, and he draws his figures in impressionistic but wholly dramatic style over washes of pure watercolor. The images flicker naturally, as if alive in a flame, and with his knack for distinctive facial expression, Laudenbach can alternately charm and terrify on a dime. This style ably brings to life the story of an unfortunate girl, which is as lean as the drawings.

She is, naturally, from a poor household, and her desperate miller father sells his apple tree to the devil for gold. However, when the father made his misbegotten deal, his daughter was in the tree, and the devil is thus unable to claim his sale because the girl’s purity makes it impossible for him to touch it, so he forces the father to cut off her hands as further payment. The girl flees both her father and the devil and eventually meets a prince who gifts her two golden hands. That would seem to be her salvation, but the prince must go off to war, and, pregnant, she is left in the care of the prince’s gardener, who is slow but kind.

From this point the story becomes increasingly fantastic and difficult to follow in terms of plot clarity. The devil returns in various disguises, perhaps as a means of stealing the girl’s child, and eventually a river takes the form of a woman who defends the girl. Though the viewer can get a sense of the moral that the Grimms were aiming for, these flights of narrative fancy may simply be Laudenbach’s take on the story, as a means of depicting in visual form the callousness of human nature, which becomes almost palpable on the screen. Though abstract in theory, the effect of the animation, and of Olivier Mellano’s beautifully spare score, is literal and affecting. People will do what they will if they think they can get away with it.

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

The Girl Without Hands home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Les Films Sauvages – 2016

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Review: Tully

Charlize Theron’s second feature with director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody is more sentimental than Young Adult but every bit as irreverent, which may sound like a contradiction in terms. Theron plays Marlo, the pregnant mother of an autistic kindergarden-age son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), and a nine-year-old daughter, Sarah (Lia Frankland). Her devotion to her children is unconditional and almost tragic in the contours of the difficulties she faces. Marlo knows that Jonah causes problems for the staff at the school he attends and is guiltily thankful they even accepted him—that is, until the principal brings up the possibility that he might be better served somewhere else. This early in the story you can see her slow meltdown begin, and though Cody cagily deflects our attention from the real issue a pattern is set that keeps the viewer off balance.

As usual, Cody’s dialogue is clever and pointed, but her past movies dealt in characters with flaws of their own making. Marlo has her personality problems, but she is mainly a victim of her surroundings, no matter how supportive those surroundings can be. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is mostly removed from the parenting sphere since he’s busy running a business that was set up for him by his wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass). In other words, he has his own challenges, and for some reason Cody and Reitman give him a pass. He loves his wife and his kids, and he helps when he can, but given the magnitude of Marlo’s slow descent into self-doubt, he seems almost willfully clueless about her situation.

Oddly, and, more to the point, tellingly, it’s Craig who offers a solution. He’ll pay for a “night nanny” named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) after the new baby is born who will watch the kids while Marlo takes time to collect her wits and unwind—maybe even have some unguarded sex with her husband (an episode that Cody treats with her usual measure of cynical humor). Predictably, Marlo and Tully bond to the exclusion of almost every other character in the movie. Some will say Tully, who is cheerful, resourceful, and infinitely patient, is too good to be true, a quality that Reitman plays up too much, deepening the predictability of the story arc as it veers toward something ominous and not funny at all.

Reitman manages to keep these thorny issues in line, but as a writer Cody isn’t rounded enough to do bittersweet. It’s one or the other with her, and while the film isn’t sour, it can be inadvertently manipulative. Tully is one of the more thoughtful takes on modern motherhood as a state of mind separated from it natal primacy. It’s all about expectations, but by concentrating only on two sensibilities’ approach to the issue, it’s limiting to the point of claustrophobia.

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

Tully home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Tully Productions LLC

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Aretha Franklin

I first heard Aretha Franklin when I was 11 years old, listening clandestinely to my small transistor radio tuned to WABC (or was it WMCA?), which was tucked under my pillow as I was supposed to be sleeping. Like my mother I was an insomniac, though unlike my mother I would eventually outgrow it. We had strict bedtimes and it always took me several hours to fall asleep, so I would put my radio under the pillow and listen to music, or to Jean Shepherd tell stories on WOR.

When “Respect” came on that fateful night it struck me in a weird and wonderful way. The wonderful part is obvious to anyone who’s heard the song, but I use “weird” because the passage of time makes it difficult to explain exactly what I was feeling, but the fact that that moment still remains clear in my brain proves the unique staying power of the chemistry of the song. At 11, I was still processing popular music, which dominated my world, even while I lacked the critical faculties to explain why. And it wasn’t as if Aretha was the first “new artist” I had grappled with in my short life. In hindsight I have to contend with the feeling of that moment, of hearing something both old and incredibly fresh. I think it was the boldness of the performance that struck me. At the time I was still enamored of Motown, whose commercial priorities were meant to appeal as equally to a white boy like me as they were to the black kids who were their main constituency. I was still a bit intimidated by James Brown, probably because of the primacy of his art, the raw calculation of his rhythms and the directness of his voice. I heard these same qualities in “Respect,” but for some reason–because it was being sung by a woman? because of the more conventional structure of the song?–I felt immediately drawn into the performance, which was at once confrontational and warm, accusatory and exuberant, provocative and inviting.

In a nutshell, this was something new–not the music, but my reaction to it. Aretha was the first artist this AM radio-loving preadolescent really acknowledged as something new and different, even if she was, as a singer and performer, a culmination of all the great black music traditions that came before her. To me, it really was a religious experience; certainly the first and most powerful impression a new song ever made on me, and the very fact that I can remember that feeling fifty years later so unambiguously proves to me that I’m still alive and still vital in mind and body. The very fact that Aretha isn’t any more just makes me confused and incredibly sad. Whenever I listen to her music I have a direct connection to my childhood that can’t be broken. And the life in the meantime has been so much better because of it.

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Review: Viceroy’s House

Given the casting of Hugh Bonneville in the role of Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India before independence, it’s easy to guess that the producers wanted direct comparisons between this dramatic recreation of the summer of 1947 and Downton Abbey, though it more rightly resembles Upstairs/Downstairs in its contrast between the political machinations of the British overlords and the romantic goings-on among the servants in the titular establishment.

But to say that selling point does a disservice to the historical magnitude of the subsequent partition that created Pakistan and forever plunged the subcontinent into lethal, genocidal squabbling is perhaps too much. For sure, the complications of the deal have been filtered down into a cynical play for post-colonial “security” on the part of the British, which, while true up to a point seem here more informed by dramatic stimulation than accuracy. More troubling is using the forbidden love between a Hindu valet (Manish Dayal) and a Muslim secretary (Huma Qureshi) to represent the tragedy of partition in a dull, hackneyed way that has more to do with Bollywood than the Merchant-Ivory quality drama model that writer-director Gurinder Chadha obviously had in mind. Mountbatten and his idealistic wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), are also perhaps too on-the-nose sympathetic to make you believe things happened the way they did. When Edwina summarily fires a middle-aged career female English servant for complaining that a native servant is “standing too close,” you know character development is not one of Chadha’s strong points. Similarly, Michael Gambon’s British government fixer practically announces himself as the fly in the post-independence ointment as soon as he shows up scowling and genuflecting. Gandhi and Nehru and Jinnah are stock players asked to play gods and don’t quite get it.

But, of course, if you really want to know what happened, you should read a good history book. (My recommendation: Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann) Viceroy’s House, despite its exaggerations and romantic affectations, will at least suffice in conveying the magnitude of bad colonial practice, no matter how well-meaning (Dickie’s motives are the purest). One might call it the ultimate cautionary tale except that Britain subjugated the sub-continent for three whole centuries. Suffering and stupidity are inevitable.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Viceroy’s House home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Pathe Productions Ltd., Reliance Big Entertainment (US) Inc., British Broadcasting Corporation, The British Film Institute and Bend It Films Ltd. 2016

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