Review: Norman

Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is a freelance political fixer, and in popular fiction terms such a description conjures up visions of slick men in three-piece suits juggling cell phones and commanding transactions of millions of dollars in fees and payoffs. Norman is anything but. We first see him badgering his nephew, a lawyer named Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen), for the contact information of one of his clients. Though Norman talks as if he’s experienced in the world of political connections, Cohen’s reaction is caution veering toward alarm. There’s something between the two men that’s unexplained but points to general mistrust on Cohen’s part of not only Norman’s motives, but his effectiveness. Norman is a hustler, but unlike the stereotype, he’s not a particularly good one.

Nevertheless, Norman’s annoying persistence eventually pays off, and he gains the confidence of the Israeli Deputy Minister of Trade (Lior Ashkenazi) by gifting him with a pair of shoes he could never afford for himself. However, the payback isn’t immediate. In fact, it’s three years before the deputy minister, now the prime minister, spots Norman at a political conference in Washington and, thanks to the attention, Norman is suddenly the talk of the town, the town meaning New York, where the cream of the Jewish political world live and work, rather than the nation’s capital. And for a brief time, Norman is a star, but as writer-director Joseph Cedar has been suggesting all this time, it’s the only time in Norman’s life he will be in that position, and his fall is the tragicomic comeuppance of the ultimate self-deluding man.

Along the way, Norman’s stories about a dead wife and daughter, not to mention his many allergies, become themselves the stuff of myth; his boasts of connections squandered in the past misty and frivolous. All Norman has going for him is his limitless capacity to debase himself for benefits that are never really clear. Ostensibly, he’s trying to help a New York synagogue receive much-needed funding for improvements, and he leads the rabbi (Steve Buscemi) so far on that in the end he does more infernal damage than he would had he done nothing at all. Was he striving so hard for the good of the synagogue, or for his own reputation, which, heretofore, amounted to pretty much nothing?

If this sounds like a plot better served by literature than cinema, Norman doesn’t present the kinds of highs and lows you might expect from a conventional political thriller like, say, Ms. Sloan. It’s mainly a character study, but in Gere’s skilled hands, the character never really comes clean in our minds. Norman’s follies are a mystery to us. Maybe to him, too.

Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Norman home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Oppenheimer Strategies, LLC

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Review: Searching

What’s immediately compelling about Aneesh Chaganty’s thriller is its cleverly curated mise en scene, which takes place on a computer desktop. The story unfolds in a series of screenshots depicting photo files, browser searches, chat messages, Tumblr posts, Facebook timelines, and, most provocatively, Skype conversations. By obviating the need for placing the viewer’s POV directly into the action, Chaganty has more control over the mystery elements of the story, which is just as well because that story is pretty trite.

The computer usually belongs to college student Margot (Michelle La), whose widowed dad, David (John Cho), tends to be preoccupied with work and doesn’t really have much of a clue as to what Margot is really about. One day she doesn’t come home from a meeting with her study group and David is unable to get in touch with her by cell phone. When hours stretch into days and the police detective (Debora Messing) assigned to the case is unable to move the investigation along quickly enough, David unlocks his daughter’s computer and starts his own investigation. What he finds out is surprising and disturbing, since it would seem he doesn’t know as much about Margot as he thought he did. Chaganty’s point—that the technology which makes our lives easier also works to hide us from one another—isn’t particularly original, but he works the conceit with flair. Since the director jumps from one device to another, the movie occasionally loses focus along with a good measure of tension. Though the mystery is involving as long as it remains a mystery, there aren’t a lot of thrills along the way. Essentially, with each piece of the puzzle that David finds our anxiety increases, but without any feeling of physical presence, Searching remains a mouse click away from relevance. It’s innovation in the service of the banal.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Searching home page in Japanese.

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Review: In Jackson Heights

Jackson Heights, located in the western part of Queens and serviced by numerous subway and bus lines, has been called the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world. Add to this legend the fact that it was the first place in New York City to launch an annual Gay Pride parade in the wake of the murder of a gay Latino man, and you’ve pretty much got the reason for why Frederick Wiseman spent the better part of 2014 patrolling the streets, hanging out at community meetings, and visiting the myriad small businesses that service the area. In Jackson Heights runs more than three hours, and yet you get the feeling that Wiseman only scratched the surface. His main concerns are commerce and ethnic dignity. He loves just pointing his camera at store fronts and dropping into nail salons, tattoo parlors, and gay bars just to see what’s going on. He also spends a lot of time with a group of Spanish-speaking business owners trying to come up with a strategy in their battle against developers who are finally targeting the neighborhood because it seems to be the last low-rent but vital commercial stronghold in not only New York City, but the whole New York metropolitan area. These confabs are fascinating in the way they not only explain what these people are up against, but also their philosophy about making business something that gives as much to the community as it takes.

Wiseman tries to be an equal opportunity documentarian. In addition to copious footage of Spanish-speaking residents—Colombians, Mexicans, Dominicans, Venezuelans, all of whom are caught up in World Cup fever as it unfolds over the summer—he visits mosques and Arabic classes to get a flavor of Jackson Heights’ Muslim population, sits in on a funny cram school for mostly Indian and Pakistani would-be cabbies, and pops in on a butcher shop that slaughters live chickens for halal food. He also spends a lot of time in the company of city councilman Daniel Dromm, a gay man who we see plotting a school redistricting fight and feting the “mayor” of Jackson Heights at a coffee shop filled with randy senior citizens. The LGBT constituency is particularly vital, what with transgender self-help groups carrying on in several different languages, and Mayor Bill De Blasio starting the aforementioned Pride Parade, the first time a sitting NYC mayor has done such a thing.

As usual, Wiseman’s style is peripatetic, but he keeps circling back to the area’s Jewish Community Center, which seems to have been a sanctuary not only for the gay community back in the late 70s and 80s (a group of gay seniors are seen discussing whether or not to move to their own venue and deciding the synagogue has been too good to them) but also for immigrant groups. Elderly Jewish women bemoan their longevity in the halls and cafeterias, and a Holocaust memorial service is juxtaposed against a Catholic mass aimed at undocumented Latinos. Even the Alabama-bred Christian missionaries who proselytize on the street seem to belong somehow. Though the film was shot during the Obama era, it’s subtext about the inherent rightness of inclusiveness—not only in terms of moral integrity, but economic and social efficacy—seems particularly pointed in during the Trump takeover. A film of the moment if ever there was one.

In English, Spanish and Arabic. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

In Jackson Heights home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2015 Moulins Films LLC

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Review: Smallfoot

Though the sardonic comic style that drives the best parts of this feature has become the default mode for Hollywood animation of late, the physical gags are more in line with the classic Looney Toons shorts of yesteryear, so it’s no surprise that Warners produced and distributes Smallfoot. Set in the Himalayas, the movie is given plenty of opportunity for characters to drop long distances into the snow, screaming all the way.

Even the cultural premise on which the story is based is goofily anti-PC in the best Chuck Jones manner. We’re among the legendary yeti, those creatures of myth whose only proof of existence is large footprints in the snow. Reversing the cliche, the yeti themselves have a mythology about “Smallfoots,” meaning the human race, which some believe and others don’t. In any event a whole narrative has evolved over what Smallfoots represent, none of which is taken seriously by the filmmakers. If anything, the mythology mirrors our own ridiculous need to believe in ghosts and boogeymen. More interesting is the yeti’s religious dogma, which revolves around a collection of prophetic stones that no one questions except a small group of free-thinkers whose ideas are seen by the establishment (i.e., a shaman called the Stonekeeper) as threatening the security of the yeti civilization. But the most pointed, and hilarious, manifestation of this mythology is the daily practice of ringing a gong to announce the sunrise (which they think is a giant snail), performed by launching a yeti from a giant slingshot head first into the brass disk. The result of years of this sort of thing it a decidedly flat head.

The character with the honor of carrying out this painful routine is Dorgle (Danny DeVito), the father of the protagonist, Migo (Channing Tatum), who can’t wait to assume his birthright as the ringer of the gong. However, one day Migo encounters a crash-landed airplane containing a Smallfoot (James Corden), who is actually a down-on-his-heels TV adventure host trying to find a big story. Instead, the story finds him, but when he escapes and Migo tries to tell the other yeti that Smallfoots do exist, they doubt him and the Stonekeeper (Common) tries to disavow the discovery, since it could undermine his and the stones’ authority. Naturally, the rebel group believe Migo and spur him to leave the safety of the yetis’ high mountain enclave to prove that Smallfoots do exist. Meanwhile, the TV host is back in a foothills village plotting a means of reconnecting with the “monster” he encountered, but this time with video camera in tow.

Though the plot is little more than functional, the jokes hit-or-miss, and the musical numbers disposable, the total unseriousness of the project is disarming and, in the end, infectious. Smallfoot aims for an audience below the age of 12 without sucking up to their parents, which means the scatological humor and death-defying slapstick rule the visual component. Certainly the best joke is having the English dialogue of the yeti, much of which is presented as borderline ebonics (half the voice cast is made up of celebrities-of-color like LeBron James and Zendaya), rendered as roaring and grunting when heard by the humans. Abominable it ain’t.

Now playing in subtitled and dubbed versions in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011).

Smallfoot home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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Media Mix, Oct. 14, 2018

Publicity poster for “Doctor X”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the Japanese media’s depiction of women doctors, or, at least, one TV drama’s depiction. What prompted the column was the cited article in Shukan Gendai, which openly defended the Tokyo Medical University’s practice of shaving points off of examination scores for female applicants in order to reduce those applicants’ chances of being accepted at the school. The university’s, as well as Gendai’s, rationale is that women are more likely to leave the medical profession when they marry and have children, thus robbing Japan off much needed medical expertise, especially in the realm of surgery. If women were allowed to compete for medical disciplines openly, then, in the future, says the magazine, there will be an “increase in the number of doctors who cannot perform surgical procedures.”

It’s an odd turn of phrase, but the scare tactic is obvious: Your chances as a patient of surviving certain diseases will be diminished because there will be fewer surgeons to treat them. What’s particularly galling about this forced connection between presumed choices and medical productivity is how dependent it is on circumstances that aren’t that difficult to overcome. One is already mentioned in the column, which is that women are not as physically strong as men and therefore cannot cope with the demands of surgery. It’s one reason why women doctors do not opt for surgery when choosing a discipline. Since there are women surgeons working without any known drawbacks all over the world, this is a facile argument.

But Gendai really shows its hand when it tries to knock down the proposal that Japan should just train more doctors in general rather than limit any demographic from attaining medical licenses. After all, Tokyo Medical University only accepts a certain number of applicants, whether they be male or female. If the overall number were increased without handicapping women, the issue of fewer surgeons would go away. The problem with this idea? The Japan Medical Association doesn’t want to increase quotas, presumably because more doctors means lower average salaries. Also, most doctors work in private clinics, not hospitals, and if there were more doctors there would be more competition for patients. If this is one of the reasons for discrimination against women doctors, then Gendai should insist the JMA change its ways, but instead it doubles down on the supposition that women still won’t want to be surgeons and the “consequences” of such decisions will be dire.

The limitations demanded by the JMA also play into another bogus theory of why women are not cut out for medicine: work load. Doctors, especially emergency room professionals, often have to work punishing hours, and women, the magazine contends, can’t handle the burden as well as men can. This theory is not limited to medicine; in all occupations in Japan, real dedicated employees–read “men”–are expected to go the extra mile to prove their worth as workers or professionals, and women don’t necessarily buy into this ethic. That’s probably true, and for good reason. It’s stupid. Overworked doctors may be the norm and something of a romantic cliche, but it is in no way an ideal situation. A larger pool of doctors would solve this problem, and women have to be included. It’s not rocket science, or, to use a more apt metaphor, brain surgery.

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Review: I Kill Giants

Barbara, the preteen protagonist of this earnest work of empathy, played by newcomer Madison Wolfe, is one of those troubled free spirits who channels her anxieties into flights of fancy that threaten to spin out of control. She wanders forests and beaches with a pair of rabbit ears on her head and clutching an old, worn purse, gathering mushrooms and laying bait for giants, which she believes exist. As the title of this movie, adapted from a graphic novel, suggests, Barbara thinks it is her mission to slay these creatures, and even though the director, Anders Walter, depicts them on screen, the viewer is constantly reminded by other elements in the story that they represent something darker in Barbara’s unconscious.

It takes a while for the reason behind Barbara’s anxieties to reveal itself, and in the meantime we have to contend with the girl’s actual life situation, which includes a house full of boys glued to video games (none of which seem to feature giants) and an older sister (Imogen Poots) who runs everything and, thus, is charged with keeping Barbara from falling apart or disappearing. She has a new friend named Sophia (Sydney Wade), who for some unexplained reason is from the UK (the movie’s setting appears to be Long Island), and is attended to at school by a counselor (Zoe Saldana) who tries her best to address Barbara’s demons without scaring the girl off.

These various plot points conspire to make I Kill Giants a fairly compelling study of adolescent unease, but the movie can’t quite shoulder the burden of its confused and often trite exposition. It’s like way too many other movies and stating the names of those movies would only reveal the source of Barbara’s psychic pain, though I guessed it as soon as the movie stepped into her home. What the film has going for it is its juxtaposition of real and fantastical elements, but Walter obviously wants it to be a probing drama about despair and how an unformed personality copes with it. He brings nothing new to the subject.

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

I Kill Giants home page in Japanese.

photo (c) I KIll Giants Films Ltd. 2017

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Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Though based on a best-selling kids’ story written in 1973, The House with a Clock in Its Walls feels overly determined as a film, as if it were conceived and developed from scratch by a bunch of Hollywood executives. Some find it curious that torture porn maven Eli Roth directs what is basically a Harry Potter concoction with a few more jump scares and less literary ambition, but by now Roth is firmly in the establishment, and the movie has already proven to be his biggest box office hit to date.

The story is so hackneyed it should be declared public domain material. It’s 1955 and a newly orphaned 10-year-old, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), arrives at the Michigan home of his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), who is his new guardian. Since Black always plays outsized characters, it isn’t immediately obvious if Jonathan’s odd manner of speech and checklist of peccadillos is part of the character or simply the usual Black acting conceits. Actually, it’s a bit of both, but suffice to say that his gothic mansion provides more interest than his personality quirks, and that seems to be the point. Jonathan, it turns out, is a warlock, and the house hides a secret that he’s been trying to uncover for years.

Lewis’s first impulse is to demand his uncle teach him magic, as well, a slightly odd reaction for a boy who’s just lost his parents, and Roth misreads the interaction by playing it strictly for laughs. There’s an old-school screwball vibe to the quick back-and-forth that intensifies theatrically with the appearance of Jonathan’s friend and fellow wizard, Florence (Cate Blanchett), and while the actress should know how to handle this kind of banter, having once played Katherine Hepburn, she can’t quite fit herself into Black’s antic rhythms.

Nevertheless, Black is the main attraction here, mainly because the story hits all the predictable marks without ever getting either scary or particularly exciting. As indicated in the purposely verbose title, the plot has to do with a doomsday clock hidden in the mansion by a previous occupant, another wizard named Isaac, who is meant to add still another layer of comic veneer but, as played by a miscast Kyle MacLachlan, mainly comes across as dull floor wax.

Kids may very well eat this stuff up, but the tone is so relentlessly upbeat, despite the end-of-the-world premise, as to render moot any balancing poignance in Lewis’s situation. Adults only have to ponder their affection for Jack Black as a movie actor. If he’s not your cup of tea, avoid at all costs.

Now playing in Tokyo at 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 Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (03-3982-6388).

The House with the Clock in Its Walls home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC

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