Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Reportedly, Barry Jenkins wanted to do an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel before he directed Moonlight, and the consensus seems to be that the only reason he got a green light to tackle Baldwin’s tricky story of tender love in the jaws of gross injustice was his previous movie’s Best Picture Oscar. By most measures, If Beale Street Could Talk is the superior film, though it likely won’t gain the same amount of attention; which isn’t to say both films are significantly different in terms of style and mood. Jenkins might be too tasteful, in fact, but then so was Baldwin despite the undercurrents of anger that course through his writing. There are moments of such incandescent beauty in Jenkins’ film that you almost can’t believe it’s about a man being railroaded for the crime of rape.

As with Moonlight, Jenkins wisely does not attempt to make his characters “understandable” or sympathetic to white viewers. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are sweethearts of an almost classic sort. They’ve known each other since childhood, growing up in Harlem in the 1960s, and entering their 20s they fall in love and Tish becomes pregnant, news that is not met with the usual gnashing of teeth on the part of their parents, who, despite their dynastic differences and a brief moment of shocking violence, celebrate the event with a bottle of cognac. The joy is short-lived, as Fonny, an aspiring sculptor who seems to be making a name for himself—he’s already got his own loft—is arrested for raping a Puerto Rican woman by a racist policeman who has it in for Fonny. The movie is bifurcated between attempts by Tish and the two families to hire a lawyer and convince the accuser, who is conveniently back in Puerto Rico, to change her story; and, in fitful flashback, the story of Tish and Fonny’s love affair. Jenkins is nothing if not careful, describing both developments with a slow, close attention to detail that brings out the story’s tragic elements without making too much of them. Tish and Fonny’s love is delicate and deep, while the case against Fonny is, in contrast, immovable, like a huge boulder lodged in a crevice.

Jenkins’ signature shot is the hazy long take, which renders many scenes as dreams, or, perhaps, because they’re usually narrated by Tish, filtered through her memory. A recollection of a meeting that Fonny has with an old friend, which took place supposedly at the same time as the rape and thus would offer Fonny an alibi if his friend weren’t an ex-con and thus automatically rejected by the D.A., is uncharacteristically vivid, the conversation notably naturalistic, the mood relaxed, and thus seems separated from Tish somehow. If Jenkins fails to bring the expected tension to Fonny’s legal problems, it only accentuates the notion that black people, both then and still now, know that once the white man has them where they want them, there’s little they can do. If Beale Street could talk—a reference to New Orleans, not Harlem—it would likely scream in frustration, but Baldwin and Jenkins would rather we see how love still has the power to make the worst of matters survivable.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063).

If Beale Street Could Talk home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Annapurna Pictures, LLC

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Media Mix, Feb. 17, 2019

Yoshihide Suga

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about two instances that appear to demonstrate government attempts to limit journalistic activities. In the case of Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki’s dogged questioning style during press conferences at the prime minister’s residence, I mention that many of her colleagues in the press club resent this style because they think it makes their job more difficult, presumably because she uses up time that others might use to ask questions, or, generally speaking, by putting Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in a foul mood. Make of that what you will, but the point is that no one else, except Asahi Shimbun’s Akira Minami, who is now on sabbatical working with the newspaper workers union, follows up their questions when Suga equivocates, which is all the time. A related point I didn’t mention in the column was Mochizuki’s motives. On a recent installment of his talk show at Videonews.com, freelance journalist Tetsuo Jimbo mentioned that some press club reporters grumble that Mochizuki asks questions about topics that she doesn’t intend to write about, thus suggesting that they think her badgering is more or less a gratuitous gesture meant to draw attention to herself. Be that as it may, since no one else is asking such penetrating questions it can hardly be considered gratuitous. I say badger away.

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Review: The Favourite

The recent death of Albert Finney revived interest in the movie that first made him a star in the U.S. (he was already a sensation in the U.K. thanks to Karel Reisz). Tom Jones attempted to obliterate the stuffy British costume drama with its focus on the low stakes bawdiness that was prevalent in 18th century literature but theretofore ignored by the movies. Whatever its worth as art, it paved the way for a more nuanced, naturalistic take on the historical record. The Favourite is a natural outcome of that legacy, and in the hands of provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos it goes beyond earthy effrontery. Like Lanthimos’s other works, it is sublimely ridiculous, and thanks to a witty script (not written by Lanthimos, but rather by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) that ridiculousness for once has a firm narrative footing.

Supposedly based on some kind of truth, The Favourite invades the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who, reigning over England in the early 18th century, has problems with affairs of state that she isn’t expected to understand, mainly because she’s a woman, but also because of her wayward personality as a result of more than a dozen miscarriages. Constitutionally unwell and in possession of a temperament that’s wildly unstable, she relies on her lady-in-waiting and part-time lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who not only arranges her toilet and keeps her on as even a keel as possible, but mostly dictates affairs of state, including an impending war with the French. Into this cozy nest steps Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), whose own fortunes have been squandered by her father’s gambling habits. She comes to Kensington Palace a “fallen woman” to take employment with the household staff under Sarah’s direction, and the first thing she does when leaving the stage carriage is fall into a deep puddle of muck.

There’s nowhere to go but up, and the rest of the film is essentially the story of Abigail’s resentment-fueled rise in the palace, propelled by her competitive nature, prodded ever upwards in reaction to Sarah’s haughty attitude. As a caustic romantic triangle, all of whose points are female, the story necessarily trades in certain stereotypes associated with cats and claws and using feminine wiles to get ahead. Abigail eventually worms her way into the queeen’s good graces after sussing out Sarah’s Achilles Heel, which is that nobody seems to know about their affair, but rather than expose it, she studies its ramifications and finds ways to make it work for her. First, she marries up by luring the scheming, self-important Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who fancies himself a statesman of some discernment, into her plan without his knowing. Buoyed in society by the match, she gains access to the queen and quickly steals her affections, but, of course, Sarah is not one to mess with.

What’s refreshing about The Favourite is that its cynical take on romantic manipulation for social betterment is balanced with a close study of historical exigencies that deepens not only the theme but the comedy, as well. The dialogue is almost too deliciously baroque for its own good, but it’s used in situations, like the one where Abigail pleasures Robert in the most hilariously distracted way, that really take advantage of Lanthimos’s talent for weirdness. Henry Fielding, and Albert Finney, would no doubt approve.

Now playing in Tokyo at 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).

The Favourite home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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Review: Aquaman

To anyone who filters the DC Comics cinematic universe through the overwhelming success of the brand’s rival, Marvel Studios, Aquaman the movie is best seen as a reply to the Thor series, which is where Marvel pointedly plays up the most ridiculous attributes of superhero blockbusters. Aquaman the character has always fit into a dodgy slot in the realm of comic fantasy as a guy who is half Atlantean-half American and talks to fish. And while there’s plenty to laugh at in the movie, its interminable length and earnest attempt to stuff as much “incident” into its two-and-a-half-hour running time leaches all the humor out of it.

The main difficulty faced by director James Wan is not so much the visual challenge of making underwater action scenes feel credible—for what it’s worth, they look perfectly OK—but rather squaring the epic prerogatives of an aquatic empire with the relatively real-world concerns of modern-day landlubbers. Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is the son of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), who has escaped the royal confines of her birthright, and the human lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), who discovers her half-alive and washed up on the rocks below his keep. Atlanna eventually returns to Atlanta and Arthur grows up a bastard, but the main reason he’s bullied as a child is his affinity for fish and all things marine; and for most of its first 30 minutes the film makes for a compelling origin story. It’s when Arthur has to confront his fishier half that things become problematic plot-wise and thematically.

For one thing, the script relies too heavily on the viewer’s understanding of the mythology of Antlantis, which feels almost made up on the spot. Then there’s the surfeit of characters whose rationalization of good-vs.-bad becomes baffling very quickly. When Mera (Amber Heard) arrives at the lighthouse to beg him to claim his birthright from his evil half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), the stakes seem clear, but then the writers throw in lots of complicated iconography, including a trench where exiles are punished, an extraneous super-villain named Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a trusty royal advisor (Willem Dafoe), and a plot by Orm and his father, King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) to make war on the human race. It’s this last bit of story that brings Aquaman into his own, but getting there proves to be a confusing, incoherent journey. The battles are vivid and ingeniously staged, but when things calm down the compositions feel overly stylized, like those tacky environmental paintings that were so popular in the 80s. Momoa, it should be pointed out, takes the ridiculousness of his character in stride, and the movie would have been funnier if it weren’t so damned busy.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Toei (03-5467-5773), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Aquaman home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Warner Bros. Ent. and DC Comics

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Review: First Man

Damien Chazelle’s third feature is an oddly circumspect blockbuster. Though this biopic of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong fits neatly into the big-budget hero stylings of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, its focus on a character who was basically unknowable makes for a striking contrast in tone. The action set pieces are as good as space movies get, while the expository drama has a purposeful flatness that often feels inert. And while Ryan Gosling doesn’t look anything like Armstrong, his patented lack of affect sort of prepares you for the Enigma of Neil. In those rare instances where some sort of meaning peaks through the blank facade, the viewer feels they’ve learned something monumental.

In the domestic scenes, what works usually feels accidental, but that may be due to Chazelle’s command of his mise en scene. Though we’ve been bombarded by any number of films set in the early 1960s lately, First Man feels more comfortably situated in the age, not so much because of its detailed production design but rather its leisurely pacing. Life in these United States, mostly Houston and the Midwest, where Armstrong lived before moving to Texas to join the Apollo program, is strictly regimented, which is perfect for Armstrong’s meticulous sensibility. So when his very young daughter dies of a brain tumor, the news feels telegraphed, stressing its inevitability and the idea that Neil and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), have more than enough time to process their grief despite Neil’s work obligations. Janet herself is an unabashed full-time homemaker in a time and culture when such a calling was normalized to the point of a fetish, but the script by Josh Singer avoids the cliches of the over-worried astronaut wife by making Janet’s anxiety an almost tactile experience. She’s the red hot emotion-burner next to Neil’s cold-as-ice egghead, but you can see how that difference makes their marriage work, though it could only work in this particular milieu.

The movie also nails the peculiar occupational environment of the space program, which is portrayed as being neither macho nor super competitive but rather a job still in the process of achieving definition. Neil spends quite a few evenings popping beers with the other astronauts, who tend to be more emotionally demonstrative. If he fits into this boys club it’s because he understands before anyone else that teamwork is the soul of the program. Comradeship is not romantic wish fulfillment but a life-or-death requirement for these men. And when the movie finally enters into the Apollo 11 mission, you appreciate not just Armstrong’s stoical, over-achiever’s mein, but also his love for his fellow workers. The quasi-religious overtones of the visuals—the dusky browns reflecting off the surfaces of the dinky capsule interior, the deep blue-greys of the powdery dirt under Armstrong’s feet as he steps on the moon’s surface and delivers his famous line—bring home the real feeling of accomplishment, obviating most of the ethical struggle Armstrong felt with the cost of an enterprise that many believed wasn’t worth it. Chazelle himself often seems to wonder if it was worth it himself, beyond its obvious utility as a further means of proving himself to be Spielberg’s most natural heir.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

First Man home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios

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The Cramps 1998

In commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the death of Lux Interior, here is a review I wrote for the Japan Times of a Cramps concert that took place some time in 1998 at Club Citta in Kawasaki, Japan. 

The decision to have Japan’s most famous amateur rock guitarist, Guitar Wolf, open for the Cramps at their Tokyo area shows is understandable, since both artists channel early American rock and stake their professional reputations on outrageous stage antics.

Stage antics can’t always hide musical incompetence, and in Guitar Wolf’s case they aren’t meant to. I have his album. I’ve even listened to it twice. But I didn’t recognize a thing he played at the June 13 show at Kawasaki Club Citta. What I heard was thirty minutes of the same three chords augmented by the standard vocabulary of rock epithets and the kind of stage moves perfected by everyone who was ever a Ramone. 

But the clincher, the move that sealed Guitar Wolf’s fate as last year’s weird Japanese rock act, was when he pulled a guy out of the audience, strapped his guitar on him, and prompted him to continue the song already in progress. The kid didn’t know how to play and since the song didn’t suffer for it we in the audience are supposed to realize that it isn’t the music but the spirit that matters, which is, of course, a load of crap. I’ve seen him do this before and I know he does it at every concert. Spirit has nothing to do with it.

So Guitar Wolf was a poor choice for an opening act, since his example served as a reminder that the Cramps, in addition to plugging the same glam-trash rockabilly and Nuggets-era psychedelia for more than two decades, have done the depraved sex thing on stage thousands of times. On the back of their latest album, “Big Beat From Badsville,” there is a warning to “proceed with caution” because the band “that dares to be different” has come up with “more music of anti-social significance designed with the fiendish in mind.” No matter how ironically you put it, insisting that you’re still shocking after all these years will strike some as a bit desperate-sounding.

After all, lead singer Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, who formed the band during New York’s peak punk period in the mid-seventies, have reached that age when physical decadence goes beyond being an aesthetic statement and becomes an everyday fact of life. 

Ivy, dressed in a striped one-piece bathing suit, large-mesh black stockings, and vinyl stiletto boots, still looked pretty good, but Lux exuded every one of his forty-odd years and then some. Set below dyed black hair, his pale complexion and deep set eyes gave him the appearance of the ghouls he often sings about. On top of that there’s the lean, abused body and the grossed-out sissy convulsions that come in waves as he sings. If he ever quits the Cramps he can probably make a career as the Emcee in touring productions of “Cabaret.”

The rhythm section of fey blonde bassist Slim Chance and notably normal-looking drummer Harry Drumdini maintained a reliable throb throughout the ninety-minute performance, while Ivy set the tone with her standard battery of I-IV-V chord progressions and familiar 50s & 60s riffs (Duane Eddy twang, Link Wray rumble, Standells freak-out).

Lux took the stage in a long, black coat, gag sunglasses (the ones with eyes painted on the lenses), and sheer black gloves. The band moved swiftly from “Cramp Stomp” to “Love Me” to “Garbageman” before Lux finally threw off the coat to reveal a shiny skin-tight black ensemble. It looked pretty hot, and I don’t mean style-wise.

Once the coat was gone, the music picked up. “Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon” and “God Monster” provided a one-two punch of Lux’s favorite reference — B-grade monster movies (the new album is dedicated to the late Cleveland TV schlockmeister Ghouldini). This was followed by “It Thing Hard-On,” one of the better songs from “Badsville,” which describes perfectly the singer’s ideal badass rocker. “Well, the doctor pulled me out and smacked me in the can/Wiped me off, took a look and said ‘It’s a man’.”

On the raunchy and slippery “Goo Goo Muck,” and the even less inhibited “Hot Pearl Snatch,” Lux prostrated himself before the temple of Poison Ivy, while the guitarist rewarded his attentions with icy indifference, an attitude that never changed the whole evening. “The city is a jungle and I’m a beast,” he screamed, but rather than sounding like a statement of purpose the humiliating posture revealed it as an admission of unbearable sexual frustration.

Even when effecting youthful cool on “Teenage Werewolf” (which Drumdini played with oversized femurs) and “Sunglasses After Dark,” Lux came off as an adolescent in a state of denial about his miserable sexual prospects. The low-down style that the band values has less to do with the demimonde chic of the New York Dolls — the band that first inspired them to form a group — than it does with the juvenile garbage culture of Mad Magazine and “Big Daddy” Ed Roth. 

For those who had come to rock out, however, the Cramps’ thematic carryings-on didn’t make up for what was in the end a monotonous musical attack. There was a knot of fans in front of the stage who boogied the whole show, but everyone else held back and looked merely curious. During the 10-minute destructo encore of the Trashmen classic “Surfin’ Bird,” the crowd perked up, but it had nothing to do with the song. 

Like Guitar Wolf’s audience participation gambit, Lux’s violent post-set behavior has become an obligatory signature flourish. After swallowing the microphone whole, climbing the speaker stacks and jumping off, rolling around in agony, and then pulverizing the mike stand, Lux peeled off his costume and exposed the sad source of his creative inspiration. Most people had to strain to see above the heads in front of them, a few laughed, and everyone forgot about the music.

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Review: Hannah

Thematically and structurally similar to 45 Years, which also starred Charlotte Rampling as the wife of a man who undergoes a startling change in situation, Andrea Pallaoro’s heavily circumscribed character study is less emotionally involving but more evocative. Set in France, the movie keeps its focus on the title character, an unassuming and undemonstrative housewife whose husband (Andre Wilms), we gradually learn, is about to embark on a lengthy prison stay. The opening sequence, which finds Hannah dutifully packing a back for her spouse, is so devoid of dramatic signifiers that as the truth reveals itself the viewer may find himself questioning his eyes…though not his ears. There is virtually no dialogue for the first ten minutes or so.

The unnamed husband’s crimes are never explained, though in Hannah’s subsequent encounters with friends and family it’s easy to get an idea of the nature of his trasngressions. These encounters are situated in daily routines that include acting classes whose purport is purely expository. Indeed, Hannah seems as incapable of empathizing with fictional characters as she is with her husband’s alleged victims, though her son (Simon Bisschop) is explicit in his determination to have no more contact with his parents. Whatever sins the father committeed, the son sees the mother as complicit. To us she seems oblivious.

The difficulty of the movie is in Pallaoro’s decision to divorce these brief spurts of melodrama from the overall tone of the film, which is so evenhanded as to be almost hypnotic. At one point, while visiting her husband in prison, her stone face fads, but only for a second, when the husband hints that, of course, he isn’t guilty of the crimes he’s been accused of. If anything, Hannah’s steely demeanor may not just be a front to avoid thinking of her responsibility in the matter, but also a means of denying the obvious; and as the movie wears on her self-contained quietude takes on a desperate cast, a form of acting in and of itself, even if the only audience is herself. Her suffering is indirect; not a function of pain but rather one of avoiding pain. Pallaoro keeps the tension taut through intractable closeups and a sound design that reminds us that Hannah exists in the real world, even if she seems trapped in her own self-created hell. You wait for her to unravel. And wait some more…

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707).

Hannah home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Parner Media Investment-Left Field Ventures-Good Fortune Films

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