Review: Incredible But True

Like fellow French filmmaker Michel Gondry, Quentin Dupieux favors plots governed by fantastical, absurd elements, but while Gondry has very definite narrative goals in mind Dupieux seems so hung up on the elements themselves that he can’t quite get them to add up to a story. In his latest economic (74 minutes!) feature, a couple, Alain (Alain Chabat) and Marie (Lea Drucker), purchase their dream house in a leafy, luxurious suburb, in spite of, or perhaps because of, two strange holes in the living room—one on the ceiling and one on the floor. The real estate agent explains the holes openly and at length: When a person enters the hole on the floor he or she exits via the hole in the ceiling, and in doing so time for that person jumps 12 hours into the future while they also become three days younger.

The comic possibilities of this setup seem endless, but Dupieux limits himself to one that, despite the short running time, exhausts its mojo right away. Alain finds the hole a bit intimidating, but Marie can’t get enough of it, and, sure enough, as the movie progresses she becomes visibly younger and, in the process, puts a notable strain on their marriage that no counseling could alleviate. Adding injury to an already farfetched concept, there is a parallel storyline involving Alain’s unpleasant boss, Gerard (Benoit Magimel), who decides to replace his penis with a new electric model that should last longer and work more efficiently as he gets older. 

What Marie and Gerard have in common is a wish to allay the indignities of aging, and for a while Dupieux exploits the humor inherent in such vain pursuits with success. It’s when he tries to offload the plot development onto a more disturbing track that the movie loses its bearings, not to mention the viewer’s faith in the whole enterprise. One thing about Gondry’s ridiculous fantasies is that they revolve around people with real problems and recognizable lives, but no one here, even the relatively grounded Alain, feels genuine. Incredible But True is just an exercise in clever ideas that have nowhere to go.

In French and Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).

Incredible But True home page in Japanese

photo (c) Atelier de production-Arte France Cinema-Versus Production-2022

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Media watch: Doc maker’s first narrative feature to tackle 1923 quake massacre

Tatsuya Mori

September 1 marks the 99th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake, in which more than 100,000 people perished. Local governments use the occasion to carry out preparedness drills for major quakes. A few localities also hold memorials for victims, including Japan-resident Koreans murdered en masse by vigilante groups, whose rage was stoked by baseless rumors that Koreans were poisoning wells and carrying out other acts of terrorism. At the time, the Korean peninsula was under Japanese Imperial rule, and there was an underground resistance movement that attempted to throw off this rule, though the vast majority of Koreans killed after the quake had nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, it’s been well documented that the police and military not only did little to stop the random massacre of Korean residents, but that they also participated in some of the killings.

The memorials to the Korean dead don’t get a lot of media attention. In fact, most Japanese probably don’t know much about the massacre itself since it isn’t something that’s taught in school or covered in textbooks. As with similar matters related to pre-1945 Japan-Korea relations, there are disagreements about the number killed. Officially, it’s only a few hundred, but some scholars claim the real number is as high as 6,000. Consequently, there’s almost no mention of the massacre in Japanese popular culture, but that will change soon. An article that appeared in the Aug. 29 Asahi Shimbun reported on the first narrative feature by the noted documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori, which will tackle one isolated incident that occurred during the killings.

Mori’s most famous work comprises two long documentaries about the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, which carried out the deadly sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. As he told Asahi, the Aum movies embody a theme that has obsessed him his whole career, and which his new film will continue to explore. What fascinated him about Aum followers is that they appeared so rational and even-tempered. They did not outwardly manifest qualities that many people would characterize as being evil, and yet they allowed themselves to be party—in many instances through direct action—to evil deeds. That’s why in his new movie, whose working title is “Fukuda Mura Jiken” (Fukuda Village Incident), he will endeavor to take the point-of-view of the perpetrators of the killings, which took place in a village that is now in an area of Noda, Chiba Prefecture. The killings he chronicles took place on Sept. 6, 1923, or five days after the earthquake itself. 

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Review: Bullet Train

David Leitch is one of those handful of directors to be continually blessed with big Hollywood budgets to realize his ambitious action-movie dreams. A former stunt man who knows how to stage a fight so that it’s more interesting than exciting, he personifies the kind of cinematic mindset that feels all the technical tools at his disposal must be exploited effectively in order to realize a sustained entertainment vision, which goes without saying. In his case, this vision is the depiction of brutality that no one could ever take seriously, but at least in Deadpool2 he was working with a parody of the overblown superhero franchise that has dominated Hollywood for two decades. Bullet Train, loosely based on a novel by Japanese writer Kotaro Isaka, seems to have no subtext whatsoever. It is what it is—a garish, ultra-violent, impossibly convoluted exercise in snarky attitude and criminal preposterousness.

If the movie succeeds, at least half the credit should go to Brad Pitt, who seems fully invested in the stupid story mainly because it fits into his wheelhouse so perfectly. Pitt plays Ladybug, a hired assassin who, following a long layoff due to a traumatic injury and months of therapy, decides to become a different kind of hit man, one with a zest for life and a more forgiving philosophy. Obviously, his handler, Maria (Sandra Bullock, in a performance that is literally phoned in), doesn’t see this as being helpful, but she gives him a fairly easy assignment on his first day back: Retrieve a briefcase that is being transported on the titular high-speed express from Tokyo to Kyoto. “I don’t need the gun,” Ladybug says when he picks up his assignment package. “Take the gun,” says Maria.

And, of course, he needs the gun. The briefcase is apparently filled with lots of money that two other assassins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry) were supposed to deliver in a ransom deal but are keeping for themselves. There are a number of other shady but colorful types on the train eager to not only secure the briefcase, but dispose of Ladybug, since each one seems to have something against him. These various agenda do a deal on Ladybug’s head that Pitt conveys with his patented confused dude sensibility, constantly asking his opponents as they attempt to shoot, stab, or beat him, “What’s your problem?” 

If the eventual multiple reveals fail to engage the viewer’s imagination it’s because real life in any recognizable form never enters the story, and even the fantasy elements involving old yakuza families, Mexican cartels, and Michael Shannon as the epitome of Asian inappropriation (for laughs, of course) end up cancelling one another out through sheer overkill. Occasionally, the script, adapted by Zak Olkewicz, attempts to humanize the characters by presenting their respective back stories, but it only adds to the confusion. I have no idea if any of this was in the original novel, and it’s pointless to point out the disconnects between what you get on screen and how things really are in Japan, because Japan is simply a convenient construct to exoticize what is at base a pedestrian crime comedy. The only localized aspect I appreciated was the running joke in which Ladybug’s repeated attempts to get off the train were thwarted by the Shinkansen’s strict rule of keeping the doors open for only 30 seconds at each stop. Hey, I’ve been there. 

In English, Japanese and Spanish. Opens Sept. 1 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Piccadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Bullet Train home page in Japanese

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Media watch: Asahi focuses on the reality of Okinawan women’s lives

Protest against US soldiers’ violence toward Okinawan women

Asahi Shimbun’s regular Koron feature typically asks three experts to contribute short essays on a designated theme. On Aug. 24, the column’s topic was the status of Okinawan women on the 50th anniversary of the prefecture’s reversion to Japanese control after being under U.S. occupation since the end of World War II. Okinawa, which was once a self-contained kingdom, has always been an outlier among Japanese prefectures for various reasons, some of them related to its culture. Consequently, the rest of Japan tends to view Okinawans as being distinct; and, in fact, even Okinawans think this as evidenced by their use of the word “Yamato” when they refer to the rest of Japan. However, the image that most Japanese have of Okinawa is that of a carefree place ideal for sightseeing, what with its tropical climate, and conducive to families with children, since Okinawa’s birthrate is always the highest of all the prefectures. 

One of the contributors, Prof. Yoko Uema of the University of the Ryukyus, attempts to dispel this image in her essay, first by pointing out that Okinawa is also perennially the poorest prefecture in Japan and thus would naturally be the most difficult place to raise children. However, prejudices on the main islands prevail and so the reality of children’s and, by extension, women’s lives is not generally known. 

As she points out, the reason the birthrate is so high on Okinawa is because birth control, whether utilized before (preventive) or after (abortion) possible conception, is not a facet of everyday life the way it is in the rest of Japan. Another statistic that distinguishes Okinawa is that the average age of women when they give birth for the first time is lower than anywhere else in Japan. And because income levels are also the lowest, not to mention the fact that after-school daycare and child welfare are very difficult to secure, many young mothers cannot afford to raise their children and usually leave such matters to their own mothers or female relatives. In addition, Okinawa has both the highest marriage rate and the highest divorce rate in Japan, as well as the highest portion of residents who remain single their entire lives. 

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Media watch: Opinions about state funeral show the limitations of public surveys

NTV asks why a state funeral

Polling and public surveys suck up a lot of media oxygen, especially with regards to political issues. Earlier this year, the justice ministry questioned the public on the separate married names matter. Over the years the portion of respondents in such surveys who said they think married couples should have the right to choose whether they want to maintain separate names had been increasing, but for this most recent survey that portion went down. Then some commentators noticed that the methodology used in the questioning had changed and wondered if that had anything to do with it.

It’s a topic we plan to go into in more detail in the near future, but it has prompted us to look at surveys more carefully. At the moment, the press wants to know whether people feel they should pay for the upcoming state funeral for former prime minister Shinzo Abe, a decision that was not made by all representatives of the public, meaning the Diet, but rather by the Cabinet, whose members all belong to the ruling coalition that Abe headed for many years. Consequently, surveys of people’s opinions would seem to be called for, but the results weren’t entirely instructive.

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Review: DC League of Super-Pets

Having pretty much fallen out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe out of sheer exhaustion, not to mention general apathy, I likely would find any future MCU installment totally incomprehensible, since much of its appeal (not to mention economic justification) seems to be in keeping up with all the various narrative threads. The DC Cinematic Universe appears to be more forgiving in that the only through story is that of the Justice League, which nobody is that interested in anyway. So I could enjoy this animated sideshow about Superman’s pet dog, Krypto (Dwayne Johnson) and some newfound super-critters actually saving the asses of the whole Justice League because I had absolutely no investment in the ongoing saga, if, in fact, there is a saga.

And since the Superman back story is even known by people who grew up in caves in the Himalayas, Krypto’s status as Superman’s best friend doesn’t need a lot of exposition, so the jokes about how you take a super-dog for a walk (actually, you fly) and just how keen a super-dog’s sense of smell is (super keen) can pour out freely. And everyone also knows that green Kryptonite takes away Superman’s powers, so we don’t have to go into that when the big guy’s nemesis, Lex Luthor (Marc Maron), wields it to capture Superman and then the rest of the Justice League. It’s thus up to Krypto to save his master, but he can’t do it alone. The cleverest, and some might say wokest, element of the plot is that Krypto essentially deputizes a motley group of animals rescued from a shelter who have already been accidentally infected with super powers from orange Kryptonite, though at first this crew—a pig, a turtle, another dog, and a squirrel—don’t really know how to control their newfound abilities, so Krypto has to train them, and the resulting montage is quite humorous in that it makes fun of any other training montage you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie.

Of course, with superhero pets you have to have a supervillian pet as well, so there’s the guinea pig Lulu (Kate McKinnon), who is mainly doing evil in order to win Luthor’s love, just as the super-pets are doing good so as to endear themselves to the various members of the Justice League they are saving. The script makes a bit too much of this quid pro quo loyalty thing, especially the squirrel, a species I never equated with affection for humans, but they make a joke out of that, too. Much has been written in the American press about the expensive array of voice actors on board—John Krasinski, Kevin Hart, Natasha Lyonne, Keanu Reeves, Olivia Wilde—but except for Reeves none made much of an impression on me aurally, so I wonder if the money was worth it. Still, I’d sooner see a sequel to this than any future adventures of the Avengers. 

Now playing in J-subtitled versions in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Marunouchi Piccadilly (050-6875-0075), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024). (Also Japanese dubbed versions in other theaters)

DC League of Super-Pets home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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Review: Swan Song

Udo Kier’s indisputable status as a living screen legend is not based on his skills as an actor, his charisma, or his looks, but rather on his ubiquity. Since he first started acting in the late 60s in Europe (born in Germany, but active everywhere in almost any language) he’s appeared in hundreds of films and TV series, usually in smaller, stranger roles that were nevertheless vital to the story or general mood. Though I’m sure I’d seen him before, he made his first big impression on me as the baby from hell in Lars von Trier’s experimental Danish horror-comedy series Kingdom, a role that required his head to appear on the top of a prosthetic infant’s body as he wailed horrifically. 

Though Todd Stephens’s Swan Song is full of trite observations, his casting of Kier as retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger—a real person—is inspired. For once, Kier gets to be the lead, and he makes the most of his idiosyncratic character, not so much by exaggerating every gay stereotype at his disposal, but by infusing those stereotypes with his own unique penchant for the kind of weirdness he’s cultivated over a half-century career. He doesn’t adapt himself to the part, but bends the part to his distinctively indefatigable will.

Pat is wasting away dramatically in a nursing home, spending his last days hoarding napkins, clandestinely smoking More cigarettes, and dreaming of his days as a drag stylist/performer in a gay bar on the outskirts of the Republican stronghold of Sandusky, Ohio, where he was also the hairdresser to the town’s richest wives; that is, until a former protege, Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge), set up shop and stole all his clients. Most of this happened in the distant past, when a flamboyant type like Mr. Pat, as he was known, could live fairly openly among conservative Christians as “the town eccentric” thanks to the economic protection of the community’s matriarchy, but after his lover, David (Eric Eisenbery), dies of AIDS, he loses the house they shared and with it most of his straight friends and patrons. He sees his time in a cinder-block facility as a fitting cap to a fabulous life that ended in disappointment. And then fate, in the form of a lawyer, shows up in his room with an offer. His main socialite customer back in the day, Rita (Linda Evans), has died, but in her will she requested that Pat do her makeup and hair for the funeral. At first, he refuses out of grudging resentment for her betrayal of him, but soon he sees the opportunity as an excuse to bust out of his confinement, which is more mental than physical.

What follows is an entertaining if overly sentimentalized odyssey through small-city America as seen by its marginalized residents, in this case LGBTQ folks who, unlike in Pat’s day, are now more or less accepted —his old gay bar’s drag night is now a tourist attraction, though one that’s going out of business—which gives the movie an extra layer of melancholy. At one point, Pat, dressed in a pastel green leisure suit he picked up at a Goodwill store, tells an old friend that he “wouldn’t even know how to be gay any more.” As a journey of the soul, Pat’s stroll down memory lane is often bitingly funny, but Kier knows exactly how to play the somber notes against the cutting quips, even if there are a few too many scenes where he shares the screen with players who don’t seem to get him as an actor. That’s the thing about Udo Kier. He’s so intense, that it may take years of exposure to comprehend his true genius. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

Swan Song home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Swan Song Film LLC

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Review: Zola

Characterizing Zola, which is based on a viral 148-tweet Twitter thread that appeared several years ago, as a comedy makes sense only if you have a cautious attitude toward social media. The whole story chronicled in Janicza Bravo’s cinematic adaptation of the thread, as well as the experience of watching it all on screen (any screen), is fully integrated in language that mostly developed online (there are even scenes with subtitles in “standard” English) and attitudes shaped by the kind of interactions you only find on certain platforms. For one thing, I can’t tell say if A’Ziah King, the author of the thread and one of the producers of the movie, is endeavoring to tell a true story or is making this all up, because the medium itself is structured in such a way that receiving something related there as “reality” ends up being a chump’s game. And, in a way, that’s why Zola succeeds, and not just as a comedy: It owns its thrills and weird little moments as elements that organically emerge from the way this story is being told.

The story itself sounds Tarantinoesque. The titular protagonist (Taylour Paige) is a Black waitress who bonds, almost against her will, with a white female customer, Stefani (Riley Keough), who has so thoroughly appropriated nominally Black diction and “attitude” that she comes out the other end as a kind of cartoon character. Stefani is a stripper/dancer, and when she finds out that Zola herself used to dance, she invites her on a road trip to Florida where she has some lucrative dancing gigs lined up. Zola needs the money, though her boyfriend is suspicious, as he should be. When Stefani comes to pick her up for the ride down south, Zola is surprised that she’s not alone but accompanied by two men: Stefani’s somewhat clueless boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun, retooling his character on Succession), and an anonymous mystery man (Colman Domingo). 

The road trip gradually moves into dangerous territory, as Zola soon discovers that she is expected to do more than just dance, and that the gig, which the two women initially called a “‘ho trip,” is actually just that. Bravo expertly alternates the plot development between straight up exposition and Zola’s hilarious Twitter-like asides. Often the action is not funny in principle but made so by Bravo’s choice of camera placement and editing devices (most of the film is made to look as if it were shot on iPhones). In one scene where Stefani services a parade of white men, Bravo keeps the focus on the men and their pitiful exertions rather than on Stefani. Moreover, Zola, who is determined not to participate in these transactions, essentially gets out of them by masterminding means—using social media, of course—with which Stefani can make more money than she would normally get working with the mystery man, who turns out to be a pimp, and a typically abusive one. Zola even sort of saves the whole crew when things go really sideways after Derek naively befriends a guy on the street who thinks he has this particular stretch of Tampa sewn up when it comes to prostitution.

Just as Stefani’s accent is so farfetched as to pass beyond offensiveness, Bravo’s handling of King’s baked-in cynicism is so earnest and stylistically bold as to make the ethically problematic actions of all involved truly hilarious. Throughout the movie, Zola keeps saying how this story is about how she “fell out” with Stefani. That concept alone is so ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh everytime she brings it up. Who would ever “fall in” with such a person?

Opens Aug. 26 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Zola home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Bird of Paradise

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Media watch: Olympic legacy update

Ariake Arena

One of the supposed benefits of holding the Olympics is the “legacy” it provides for the future. As is almost always the case with the Games, these benefits tend to be understood in economic terms—use of specially built Olympic facilities and attendant profits from Olympic-related goods and resources—that often end up being negative. Much has already been made of the fact that almost all the facilities built for the Olympics, including the new National Stadium, will be a drag on the economy because whatever revenue they bring in from hosting events won’t be enough to cover their maintenance costs. 

So far, of the six facilities specially built for Tokyo 2020 the only one that has any chance of returning a profit is the Ariake Arena on the waterfront. In an August 22 article, Asahi Shimbun reported that the arena, built mainly for volleyball and wheelchair basketball, had finally resumed operations after a year of preparation with a concert by the veteran J-pop trio Perfume. On August 26 it will host the Japan gig for American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish. 

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Media watch: Olympic sponsorship deals an open secret

As we pointed out in this space a few weeks ago, the investigation into possible bribes paid to Tokyo Olympics official Haruyuki Takahashi, which led to his arrest last week, might not have happened if Shinzo Abe were still alive, mainly because of the timing. Most of what prosecutors dug up on Takahashi’s dealing with Aoki Holdings, an official sponsor of the Games, was pretty much out in the open even before the Olympics took place. And while reportedly prosectors starting looking into Aoki last spring, they didn’t really get serious until after Abe’s killing on July 8.

A fairly good explanation of how cavalierly the whole bribery matter was handled by those involved was provided by journalist Itsuro Goto in an interview with Aera.dot that appeared August 9, or about a week before the arrest. Goto points out how the Japanese organizing committee for the Tokyo Games had lobbied the International Olympic Committee to change the rules regarding sponsors. Prior to Tokyo, official sponsorship deals were limited to one company per industry. The IOC’s logic in this regard is that if you limit sponsorship to one company per industry, that company can maximize its exposure, thus getting more bang for their sponsorship buck. The IOC can charge a huge amount of money for such exclusive exposure and use of the Olympics logo and resources while guaranteeing that no competitors can get within a mile of an Olympic venue or broadcaster. But Dentsu, the advertising company that practically ran the Tokyo Games, and for whom Takahashi once worked, lobbied the IOC—through the organizing committee—to get rid of the exclusivity and allow more than one company in an industry to be sponsors, saying that while an exclusive sponsor could be charged a lot, multiple lower-level sponsors would actually bring in more money for the IOC since so many companies wanted to be sponsors but couldn’t afford to bid that high for the exclusive contract. 

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