Media Mix, Jan. 17, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the methods used by politicians to avoid responsibility for poor choices. In the column I mentioned two examples of “dinner meetings” where the official protocol for gatherings as stated by the government panel on the COVID-19 pandemic was violated. The Harbor Business article where I got most of the information listed many others, and what ties them together, in addition to the excuses that violators came up with to explain their actions, is the lack of what Harbor Business calls “a sense of crisis.” Reading through the anecdotes, you get the feeling that the people involved don’t think they did anything wrong, which means they probably don’t consider the virus that much of a big deal. This is, of course, a common sentiment, and, to a certain extent, understandable if not particularly defensible. Nevertheless, as public servants, all these people are required to at least put up the appearance that the directives they supposedly support have some kind of meaning.

In that regard, the most startling anecdote was the one involving LDP lawmaker and former cabinet minister Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, who went on a bender at a “drinking party” with members of the local “fishing industry” on Christmas Day in Toyama, collapsed, and then had to be taken to a hospital by ambulance. Though Mainichi said his injuries were minor, Harbor said he required “emergency treatment.” Miyakoshi apologized but not so much for violating the COVID restrictions. He seemed more concerned about looking like a fool. At any rate, at the time of the incident Toyama was experiencing a sharp spike in infections and medical facilities, including ambulances, were being stretched. In another case, Naoichi Takemoto, the 80-year-old IT minister, was cited for attending a party fundraiser at an Osaka hotel on December 18 that was attended by 80 people. Actually, as Harbor found out, Takemoto himself was not at the fundraiser, but rather at a “study session” in a different room of the hotel at the same time where he supposedly discussed “national politics” with whoever was in the room with him. Harbor implies that “study session” is just another term for “drinking party,” and later Takemoto and two of his aides tested positive for the virus. Then there was a party held by 30 members of the Saitama prefectural assembly on December 15 to commemorate the year’s last session. All the attendees were LDP politicians and their excuse when the press later chided them for breaking a prefectural guideline asking residents to refrain from bonenkai was that they just showed up to the restaurant, ate quickly, and left. Given that the party was at a Chinese restaurant where diners share dishes, it’s difficult to believe they didn’t party at least a little bit. But my favorite story was the one about 14 members of the Nishio city council in Aichi Prefecture attending a drinking party on December 18 at an inn for the purpose of helping the inn, which was having economic difficulties due to the pandemic. Harbor said it was a “full-scale” affair, complete with three “female companions,” meaning women expressly hired to attend to the needs of the male participants.

Posted in Media | Leave a comment

Review: Just 6.5

Casual moviegoers, and perhaps even more dedicated ones—the kind who try to keep up on world trends—may harbor misunderstandings about Iranian cinema, thinking that it divides neatly between socially relevant domestic fare, like the movies of Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), banned art house outliers, and films about children. Though all of these forms exist in plenitude, they don’t explain the economic vitality of the movie business in Iran, so Just 6.5, a police thriller that, when it was first released in 2019 proved to be the biggest non-comedy box office hit in Iranian history, is extremely instructive; a potent combination of cutting social commentary and fast-paced crime actioner.

The title refers to the estimated 6.5 million drug addicts in Iran, a serious problem exacerbated, according to some of the exposition, by the country’s draconian narcotics laws. Convicted drug pushers are sentenced to death, regardless of how much they peddle, so they try to peddle as much as they can and, in the process, create as many addicts as possible. The result of these extreme circumstances is illustrated in the opening scene where a band of cops raids a warren of dilapidated factory buildings populated by homeless drug users, and then chases one breathlessly through narrow alleyways until the prey falls into a ditch at a construction site and is promptly buried alive by an unknowing bulldozer operator.

This frantic opening, as good as anything you’ll see in an American cop movie, introduces us to the main police operatives, led by the frustrated upward-climbing veteran Samad (Payman Maadi) who, like all great cinematic law enforcers, is a mixture of protector and enabler, a man who understands how to game the system in his favor, whether that be in the service of a promotion or nailing a criminal. Non-Iranians may have problems sifting through the various motivations at play, especially when Samad himself is being investigated for possible corruption (warranted, it would seem), but the implications are unmistakable: bureaucratic protocols enacted to protect the government from blame in the spiraling drug problem hamstring law enforcement operatives, thus compelling them to resort to “extraordinary” methods. 

Writer-director Saeed Roustayi makes the most of these dynamics, especially in scenes that take place within Iran’s infamous prison system, where large, filthy cells are so packed with arrested addicts that they sleep standing up. (Reportedly, Roustayi used real addicts as extras, and it looks it) Even more shocking is the velocity of the judicial procedure, which flies by so fast that it’s difficult to figure out what’s proper and what’s not, but in any case Roustayi doesn’t spare us the grisly outcome. This visceral presentation is couched in a carefully wrought story whose moral boundaries are constantly breached by our feelings for the various characters; not just the ethically compromised Saman, but also his nemesis, the obscenely rich drug dealer Nasser (Navid Mohammadzadeh), a ruthless kingpin who nonetheless has a huge extended family to support and protect and feels genuinely guilty about the lives he’s ruined in pursuit of what he calls security. More significantly, the technical aspects of this grueling film (135 minutes) are as good as anything you’ll find in Hollywood or South Korea. I hesitate to say that Just 6.5 depicts the real Iran, but what it does depict is harrowing and exciting. 

In Farsi. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku K’s Cinema (03-3352-2471).

Just 6.5 home page in Japanese

photo (c) Iranian Independents

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment

Review: King of Thieves

Were it not based on a true story, this heist film would have likely been derided as just another excuse for providing employment to that cohort of British male actors who have pushed past 65. In that regard, it’s quite a coup: Michael Caine, Ray Winstone (only 60, actually), Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay. They play a contentious bunch of over-the-hill career criminals who come together to rob a safe deposit vault where scads of expensive jewelry are stored. It’s obvious that the “king” of the title refers to Caine’s character, Brian Reader, who has been out of prison for a number of years and happily married. When his wife dies suddenly, a shady relative of hers, Basil (Charlie Cox), shows up at the funeral and makes him an offer he isn’t likely to refuse. Basil is a safecracker who knows the IT contractor of the bank where the jewels are stored, and he says he can get Brian into the vault. At first, Brian, who promised his wife he would never go back to crime, refuses, but at 77 he doesn’t have much to look forward to and eventually his resistance wears down in the face of Basil’s continuing entreaties. Brian quickly puts together a team of old criminal acquaintances, some of whom are still in the game and others who long to be back in it. It’s a heist movie cliche that director James Marsh initially gets right.

However, he’s less successful with the inevitable corollary to that cliche—that too many cooks spoil the broth. The thematic kernel of the true story was that, given the complexity of the caper, the thieves assumed that the police would assume that the culprits were younger and more financially resourceful, but, actually, it seems the cops caught on pretty quickly and only because the group couldn’t hold it together as a group. Much of the first half of the story involves Brian’s plan, which is, frankly, quite brilliant. But when it goes wrong in the initial stage he bolts the enterprise, leaving it to the rest of the crew to finish it, which they do, successfully. Difficulties arise when they have to fence the jewels through Billy (Gambon), who has a drinking problem. In any case, once the seed of doubt is sown, everything falls apart, and even Brian, who is no longer technically involved (but wants his share due to the fact that he owns the rights to the plan), gets fingered. 

One’s enjoyment of King of Thieves greatly depends on how much you like watching old actors take the piss, because there are some really hardboiled set pieces involving our heroes spitting f-bombs at one another in a fever of rapturous proportions. Winstone, of course, is the master of this kind of thing, but Courtenay, in the end, steals the movie with his self-pitying malevolence. But the script never quite fulfills the ad campaign’s promise to deliver the story of a robbery that reportedly shocked the UK with its ingeniousness, meandering along as if the scriptwriters themselves were suffering from iron-poor blood. 

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

King of Thieves home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Studiocanal S.A.S.

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

Media Mix, Jan. 10, 2021

Internet cafe

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the government’s extension of a tax break for home buyers. Due to end-of-year deadlines, the column was written at the end of 2020, about two weeks before the current state of emergency was declared, and it will be interesting to see how this SOE will affect housing in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures. As mentioned at the top of the column, remote work situations have convinced some people that they should move out of the capital, and since part of the SOE statement encourages even more working-from-home measures so as to relieve commuting stress it’s likely the exodus will continue and may, in fact, even intensify. At the same time, economic pressures brought on by the SOE may increase unemployment or push down incomes, thus making it more difficult for some workers to make their rent or mortgage payments. The only news reports we have seen about recent foreclosures have been anecdotal and not explicitly connected to the pandemic, but in any case the government hasn’t released any statistics showing whether mortgage payment delinquencies are on the rise, but maybe it’s too soon. Reportedly, the government was planning to extend a mortgage relief measure usually implemented in the event of a disaster to cover homeowners affected by the pandemic. As mentioned in the column, the government’s rent relief program has been extended until March. In mid-December, Tokyo announced it was making about 1,000 “rooms” available for homeless people, most of them in hotels, but they would only be available for a month. If more renters are kicked out of their apartments, 1,000 rooms would seem to be hardly enough (the cost to the prefecture, according to media reports, is about ¥500 million), even if the program were extended beyond one month. Also, many part-timers and occasional workers who live in Tokyo spend their nights at places like internet cafes, whose situation during the SOE hasn’t been clearly explained. If they are closed, or their hours attenuated, then a large number of these people will be literally left out in the cold. The authorities’ general negligence when it comes to rental policy and affordable housing becomes even more of problem during a crisis like this pandemic, and as with the spread of the virus, the matter of shelter for people of less means is likely to get worse before it gets better. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Best Movies 2020

The Disciple

Needless to say it was a pretty bad year for movie-watching, or, at least, it was bad if you wanted to watch movies in a theater. I’m not averse to watching movies on smaller screens (I draw the line at tablets, though), and I don’t necessarily think that the whole “collective experience” is central to one’s enjoyment of the cinema. What I like about theater-going is the immersion, the idea that your entire attention is fixed on one thing. At home, whether I’m watching a movie on my computer or my TV (42-inch), there are still distractions, and, in fact, I’ve found myself doing that thing I once swore I would never do in my movie-watching activities, which is stop watching a film part-way through and come back later to finish it. 

But since March I have watched most new releases on smaller screens. Distributors stopped holding press screenings in screening rooms around that time, and though they resumed them in mid-summer, I was reluctant to go back. The screenings mandated masks and social distancing by limiting the number of attendees, but it still seemed risky, and as infection numbers in Tokyo waxed and waned it was difficult to determine if things were improving. At any rate, movie theaters reopened, with restrictions, and people got back into the habit of seeing films in theaters, as evidenced by the huge popularity of Demon Slayer, now the biggest Japan box office hit in history. However, because the release schedules, especially for foreign films, had been derailed, promotion campaigns also had to be recalibrated or abandoned altogether. In the midst of this confusion I may have been bumped from a few mailing lists, but in any case, bigger foreign films were pushed ahead or dumped in theaters without much ceremony, including press coverage. Since I no longer write for a regular publication about movies in a dedicated way, I don’t rate very high, but I know most of the publicists, and they know me and they seem to appreciate when I show up and write about their films on this website, mainly because it seems to be the only place in Japan where somebody writes in English about new releases of foreign films. There are, of course, plenty of places where you can read about new Japanese movies in English, and, as I’ve said in the past, I stopped being interested in Japanese cinema around the turn of the millennium. Actually, I think things are improving now, what with the ascendance of world class directors like Kore-eda and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but I didn’t see that many Japanese films this year, anyway. The two I did see that I liked won’t be released until sometime this year: Kazuo Hara’s epic documentary Minamata Mandala and Yujiro Harumoto’s media-bashing drama A Balance, both of which I wrote about here after seeing them via the Busan International Film Festival’s press screening platform. I missed Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, which I probably would have appreciated. Other than that I don’t really think I missed anything of particular value. 

But in terms of foreign films, I missed quite a few that did manage to open in Japan and which I had wanted to see. The main reason I missed them was because I was not invited to the press screening (if, in fact, there was a press screening) and/or when they were finally released they likely played at one or two theaters in Tokyo and I mostly stayed away from Tokyo at certain times last year. These include Claire Denis’ High Life, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Leigh Whannell’s Invisible Man (which I think was rapid-released at the end of summer without a proper media campaign), the Brazilian award-winner Bacurau, the Irish animated film Wolfwalkers, and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Consequently, I didn’t really feel justified in making a best-10 list, but I think I should at least acknowledge the new releases that made a strong impression on me. And while, as I said above, I react to movies on smaller screens differently than to ones seen on larger screens, I have included streamed films because that, increasingly, will be something I have to accept if I want to continue following the latest releases, and I very much do.

Continue reading
Posted in Movies | 2 Comments

Best albums 2020

For what it’s worth, the pandemic improved my capacity for listening to new music for reasons that are all too apparent, especially to people like me who tend to be rather compulsive about hearing everything that comes out. During past “normal” years I had to struggle with this compulsion since I had other things to do and life, as they say, is short. These year-end lists are just the occasional, inevitable products of this compulsion, and so because I spent much more time at home in 2020 (and had less paid work for the same unfortunate reason), I could listen more intently and for longer periods of time to new releases. Frankly, it became something of a slog, since my conscientiousness got the better of me. I’m sure I wasted way too much time that could have been better spent gardening or finding a publisher for my book. Resorting to music in such a way is a classic procrastination gambit, unless, of course, you make a living from listening to music, which I no longer do (though I still deduct music purchases on my tax return). In any case, the one good thing that came out of all this is that it took less time to come up with the following list, since I didn’t have to revisit so many records out of forgetfulness or neglect. And for that reason, I am also fairly confident that the contents of this list won’t change in the coming months, which usually happens once I start discovering stuff on other people’s lists. (D.C. Fontaines, anyone?) And, yes, I’ve listened to both Punisher and Rough and Rowdy Ways enough times to know I like them but not that much. Though most of the records listed below were didactic, I needed music that did more than enlighten. It had to take me out of the house, even if was only in my imagination.  

Continue reading
Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Media Mix, Dec. 27, 2020

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the difficulties faced by elderly people of limited means when it comes to health care costs. In the column, I cite a lecture given by Dr. Hiroshi Honda where he explains his own difficulties in 2018 trying to find a nursing home for his father, who had serious cognitive dysfunction. Though his father had paid into the kaigo insurance system that has been in place since 2000, there were no openings available at any facility he could find that accepted kaigo insurance. The only alternative was a private nursing home, which he said he couldn’t afford. We have been going through the same sort of situation lately with my mother-in-law, which is one of the reasons I wrote about the matter. Like Honda’s father, my mother-in-law has dementia. Though she is capable of holding a conversation, she “sees” people who aren’t present and tends to repeat herself. The main problem is that her husband, who is younger than her, has decided he doesn’t want to take care of her. Moreover, he won’t pay for anyone else to take care of her. Both he and his wife live on national pension benefits and have no savings. Fortunately, their house is paid for. In essence, the kaigo system should cover my mother-in-law’s care, since that is what it is for, but when she was examined by a kaigo official she was given a grade of 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most severe. Consequently, she isn’t eligible for anything but the most rudimentary care. In addition to her cognitive dysfunction, she also has serious mobility problems, but since she can stand up (barely) it isn’t considered that bad. In order for her to be admitted to a “special” nursing home that accepts kaigo payments, she would have to have a grade of at least 3, which means the person is for all intents and purposes bedridden. As a grade 2, my mother-in-law could access day services, either at a facility or in her home, but she would likely have to pay for part of these services herself. That is, if they were available. The problem right now is that the kaigo system, like almost all care systems in Japan, is sorely understaffed. Though she is eligible for someone to come a few times a week to look in on her, there is no one available to do that. Also, she can’t drive to a day care facility, so all the money she would save through the kaigo system would go to taxi fares. 

Since her husband (I hesitate to call him my father-in-law because Masako, who is not his biological daughter, hasn’t spoken to him in decades) refuses to care for her, she is practically living alone. She has one son who lives in the same house and who says he will take care of her, but he is unemployed and can barely feed himself. Of course, that is what the authorities want—children to adhere to the  spirit of oyakoko—since they would prefer not having to take on the burden of elderly care, even though everyone over the age of 40 is required to pay into the kaigo system every month until they die. If my mother-in-law were a grade 3, she could get into a special nursing home, and when Masako looked into the matter she found that most, like the one Honda talked about, have long waiting lists, but whereas Honda said he had to wait one year, Masako found that the wait now is more like four years. Private nursing homes typically demand a deposit of at least ¥10 million and then charge around ¥200,000 a month. There are public facilities that accept elderly people of limited means, but, of course, those are also difficult to get into. One solution would be for her to qualify for welfare, which means she could go to a facility and the government would pay much of the cost, but because she lives with her husband she doesn’t qualify for welfare. Masako suggested she get a divorce, which would automatically make her eligible for assistance, since her husband refuses to take care of her anyway, but he also won’t grant her a divorce. In any case, this is what the program does: it forces people to game the system in order to attain the care they need. For instance, her best bet would be to become substantially sicker since then she could enter a hospital and national health insurance would pay for it—or, at least, most of it. That, of course, is a nightmare scenario, but it seems to be a method that a lot of people turn to because they can’t care for their parents or grandparents at home.

Posted in Media | Tagged | Leave a comment

Review: Song to Song

If timing is everything then it will be interesting to see how Terrence Malick’s 2017 feature fares at the box office in Japan during a pandemic. It has less to do with logistical issues — I predict the movie will be streaming before long — and more to do with the subject matter and the movie’s attendant air of laconic privilege. Reportedly the last in a trilogy of movies that takes place in our modern world (a theory that is somewhat proven by the fact that Malick’s latest film is set in the past, like almost all of his most famous titles) Song to Song nevertheless feels uncomfortably dated if only because of its ill-timed release in Japan. It is set in the world of commercial popular music and many scenes were shot backstage at the Austin City Limits Festival. Seeing hordes of people rocking to the likes of Iggy Pop and the Red Hot Chili Peppers feels sadly anachronistic, like, “those days are gone for good.” 

But even if you approach the film as happening in a distant past, its whole mood seems strikingly out of touch with conventional human experience. Revolving around a romantic triangle consisting of an up-and-coming singer-songwriter, BV (Ryan Gosling), an arrogant, self-centered record producer, Cook (Michael Fassbender), and a young woman, Faye (Rooney Mara), of drifting purpose and appetites whose own musical ambitions seem to be stunted, the story always seems to be passing by its subjects as it meanders on to the next fuzzily conceived anecdote. The viewer is a passenger in a car zipping by — just as they start to understand what they’re looking at out the window it’s on to the next scene. 

Most of these scenes come across as elaborate, almost childish renderings of romantic foreplay. There are lots of instances of either BV or Cook rolling around on a bed with Faye in some very high-end properties (BV lives for a time in a high-rise, while Cook’s abode is a rambling modernistic mansion on the water) while whispering sweet nothings (“just tell me a complete lie”). Since Malick’s script doesn’t follow any kind of chronological order, we often see the end of a relationship before the beginning or the middle, and, because the movie is long, the impression is that Faye was Cook’s plaything before she took up with BV, whom Cook is grooming for stardom but, in the end, betrays by stealing his copyrights. However, such a precis is way too generous in terms of plot dynamics. The movie is not really interested in story protocols like motivation of character development. If anything, the three principal actors seem to be playing off images they cultivated in previous films, which makes the whole “indie music scene” setting all the more preposterous. When you have these A-class movie stars rubbing shoulders with genuine rock musicians like Patti Smith, Tegan & Sara, and Lykke Li, it breaks down your ability to suspend disbelief. Add to that the fact that, except for a few times when he sits listlessly at a piano pecking out a melody, we never see BV actually doing music, not in a studio or, for that matter, in a live setting; a decision that, given the tenor of the film, feels like nothing more than laziness. 

But as always, Malick, thanks mainly to his long-time cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, manages to offer up some moving tableaux that brings the director’s penchant for the godly grandeur of the natural world to bear on a decidedly artificial one. The rich-and-famous atmosphere created here may be overly familiar and, due to the music biz references, hackneyed, but it can also be breathtaking, especially when it’s used to highlight certain dramatic points that would otherwise feel tossed-off, such as Cook’s impulsive marriage to a diner waitress (Natalie Portman, looking like anything but) that eventually destroys her and her mother (Holly Hunter); Faye’s brief fling with a French woman (Berenice Marlohe); or BV’s sojourn home to meet up with his estranged, dying father. It’s sort of maddening that these episodes are shoehorned in for the sake of dramatic credibility, but they work if only because Malick understands the appeal of dramatic conventions. It’s just that his conceptions in this case are fundamentally corny. A cameo by Cate Blanchett as a rich woman who takes up with BV is totally superfluous and makes you wonder what Malick wanted out of the character. Obviously he has no trouble attracting expensive talent, but given the enormity of his own you only wish he could find better uses for others’.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Song to Song home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2017 Buckeye Pictures LLC

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

Media Mix, Dec. 20, 2020

Sugako Hashida

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the stalled engagement of Princess Mako and Kei Komuro. In the column I cite an Asahi Shimbun Koron piece. Koron articles typically include personal essays by three writers, and I mentioned two of them in my column. The third was written by Sugako Hashida, the veteran teleplay writer, famous for the long-running “home drama” Wataru Seken Oni Bakari, a saga about several generations of a middle class Tokyo family. I’ve always found Hashida to be annoyingly verbose. She’s the type of writer who has her characters give long, unnatural speeches that attempt to explain everything, whether it be about a development in the story or about life itself. Like many big shots in show business, she gets away with a lot because no one edits her. Her imperiousness extends to her view of the world and, especially, the “Japanese family,” of which she is considered an expert, though her views are quite reductive. 

In her Asahi comment, she says she initially had no interest in Princess Mako’s marriage simply because she has no interest in the imperial family, but after she was asked to write about it she studied the matter as covered by the weekly magazines and she now thinks it is interesting. That’s because she can look upon Mako’s situation the way she would one of her home dramas, which are invariably filled with “meddlesome relatives.” She confesses that she started writing about fictional families in order to confront the problems taking place in her own family, in particular the bad notices her housekeeping and cooking skills received from her in-laws. She channeled her anger into her scripts, which explains the long-winded, often self-righteous speeches. 

Nevertheless, she says she tries to consider every angle of a problem that arises in her stories, meaning not just from the viewpoint of one person, but from the viewpoints of everyone affected. That said, she then confesses that as she gets older she automatically takes the sides of older characters, and in the case of Princess Mako’s floundering betrothal she takes the side of her father, the Crown Prince, and if that makes her a “gawking old lady,” then so be it. Since I’m not really sure how the Crown Prince really feels about his daughter’s marriage—as I said in the column, his comment sounded equivocal to me—I’m not really sure what Hashida is talking about, but the essay does read like something that one of her characters would say; i.e., very little about Princess Mako’s dilemma and a lot about Sugako Hashida. Maybe that’s what Asahi Shimbun wanted.  

Posted in Media | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Review: Book Club

In a time when going to the movies is considered by many an endeavor fraught with peril, the choices made by Japanese distributors and movie houses invite extra scrutiny. Here we have a frivolous American romantic comedy originally released in 2018 starring three of the 70s most reliable Hollywood female actors and a fourth who mainly made her mark in the 80s, thus appealing to a certain layer of Japanese boomers who might still want to see a film in a real theater, but I’m probably overthinking the matter. Most likely, the distributor bought the film more than a year ago and has just been trying to get it into a venue somewhere, and thus feels lucky they can actually get a theatrical slot in order to boost the inevitable VOD release, which is probably only weeks away.

That said, the movie has its predictable but nonetheless peculiar charms, all of which are contained in the aforementioned casting of screen vets long in the tooth. In fact, it’s easy to get the impression that director/co-writer Bill Holderman didn’t actually develop his script until he knew which actors would be on board, because the characters are suspiciously tied to their players’ public images, which, of course, are mostly shaped by the roles they are known for in the past. Diane Keaton plays a cognate of herself who is conveniently named Diane, a recently widowed septuagenarian who wouldn’t mind getting back in the dating game but for her daughters’ queasy objections. Jane Fonda’s Vivian is a riff on Fonda’s Grace & Frankie character’s horny rich senior citizen, who may have lost her mojo in bed (though God knows she tries) but can still get it up for business. Candice Bergen takes the long view on the prim young woman she played in Carnal Knowledge, but for laughs this time. She is Sharon, a long-divorced judge who hasn’t had sex in 18 years and is perfectly OK with that. The outlier, Mary Steenburgen, seems to have been cast only because Jill Clayburgh is dead. Of the four central women, her Carol is the only one with a living husband (Craig T. Nelson), albeit one who isn’t interested in whoopie any more. 

The title refers to an excuse for getting all these characters together in one place where they talk not so much about the novels they’re reading but rather about their own thwarted dreams and hopes while under the influence of wine, which is the fifth long-toothed character in the story and the only one that seems to be in every scene. I approve if only because the alcoholism on display is never demonized but simply presented as a side effect of the privilege these people enjoy as women who had to navigate the shoals of unreliable men to achieve that privilege. The impetus for the late sexual soul-searching is E.L. James’ racy bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that the quartet initially pooh-pooh for its gratuitous salaciousness but nevertheless devour more readily than anything since Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying when it first came out, just so you can understand how long this book club has been operating. 

The subplots that show these women taking a chance on post-menopausal sexual intrigue (well, except for Vivian, who has been getting it all along, albeit without any kind of satisfying emotional investment) are much less interesting than the book club sessions themselves, which entertain through a combination of frank discourse on the indignities of aging and the actors’ skill at turning their respective screen iconographies into a compelling ensemble. In contrast, the veteran male actors (Andy Garcia, Richard Dreyfuss, Don Johnson) seem stranded on the reef of cliches endemic to this kind of movie. Holderman knew exactly what would appeal to the audience and focused on that, and, in a way, it’s nice to see a filmmaker go with what so obviously works, even if nothing about the end result has anything to do with real life.

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Book Club home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2018 Bookclub for Cats LLC

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