Review: Vice

The comic challenge for Adam McKay, who made his name with Will Ferrell vehicles, in depicting the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney is not that no amount of satire could make the George W. Bush administration seem more ridiculous than it was, but that we already have a near perfect lampoon of the venality of Washington D.C. as represented by the second-in-command: Veep. Granted, McKay, as he did with The Big Short, is attempting to graft semi-serious real life matters onto frat boy stock situations, and there certainly wasn’t a bigger mess of frat boy toxicity than the Bush II White House. The real problem with this kind of approach is that the actors seem to be having much more fun than the audience is.

That’s mainly because those of us who lived through the years when, as this movie so bluntly tells us, Cheney ran the country like a big defense contractor can’t help but recall how much the country suffered for his hubris—and is still suffering. Cheney’s now famous tendency toward the manipulative is ripe for the kind of man-baby farce McKay trades in, but there is only one scene in Vice that takes full advantage of this confluence of meaning, and that’s when Cheney (Christian Bale) is convincing Dubya (Sam Rockwell) that it is the latter’s idea that he come on as his running mate. Though Cheney’s wife, Lynn (Amy Adams), believes that Dick should run himself, the man knows that he would probably not be elected because…well, he’s an asshole—he knows it, and so do the American people. But if a clueless moron like George W. Bush were elected and he was his backup, he could pretty much do whatever he wanted, and to the Cheney that McKay has pasted together, power, regardless of how it’s used, is the only thing he cares about.

And confluences don’t come more unfortunate than 9/11, which fell into Cheney’s lap like a big, beautiful present, since he was still strongly connected to Halliburton and could make tons of money, pretty much on the up-and-up. McKay tries to frame Cheney’s machinations as the product of a youthful inferiority complex that manifested as alcoholic binges interrupted by miraculously Machiavellian opportunism. He practically bullied his way into a job with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrey) during the Nixon administration, even though by all appearances the two men couldn’t stand each other. In any case, Rumsfeld may have been maybe the only person in Washington more cheerfully dishonest than Cheney. He was a great teacher. As was Henry Kissinger when Cheney graduated to a higher office in the Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) administration.

McKay’s most valuable point is that the same dozen families have been directing U.S. policy since the 60s, regardless of who is nominally in charge. Though the point has been made better before, McKay doesn’t present it in paranoiac terms. It’s farce, and while he doesn’t second guess Cheney’s penchant for evil, he implies with the SNL-sketch style development that the American people pretty much deserve an asshole like Dick Cheney. There’s not a whole lot of curiosity on McKay’s part in trying to figure out why someone like Cheney literally got away with murder, and in a way that’s the scariest thing about Vice: Dick Cheney’s story is not a cautionary tale. It’s entertainment at our own expense.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Vice home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Annapurna Pictures LLC

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Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

The time frame of Paul McGuigan’s slice-of-life biopic of actress Gloria Grahame isn’t specifically stated, though the first scene takes place in a rundown dressing room in Liverpool in 1981 as Grahame (Annette Bening), long washed-up as a film actress, prepares to take the stage for yet another performance of The Glass Menagerie. She has already met and fallen in love with a local aspiring actor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), who is much younger than she is, and McGuigan hints throughout the movie that Grahame had a penchant for much younger men, even for boys. However, the film focuses on her relationship with Turner, which is limiting in terms of what it tells us of Grahame’s life as an artist and a human being. It’s also dramatically lazy, since the plot is a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards that seem to cover a long period of time but actually only cover a few years, and the development is just one drunken fight after another, many in Liverpool, where Turner was raised, but also in New York and Los Angeles, all followed by desperate reconciliations and punctuated by the recurrence of the breast cancer that eventually killed her at the age of 57.

McGuigan’s problem is that he seems to be saddled with Turner’s memoir of the affair as his source material, and once he’s into it there seems to be no escape. Consequently, he over-relies on whatever chemistry Bening and Bell can conjure up, and while the former displays her peculiar empathy for older women with emotional problems, Bell’s acting is all reactionary. This tendency is especially annoying in scenes involving his family, who are bizarrely OK with Peter having sex with a much older, unstable woman, simply because they are starstruck. That said, Julie Walters, who plays Turner’s mother, is much more believable in her role as a supportive parent than is Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Grahame’s imperious mother as if she were trying out for Lady Macbeth. Since I don’t take Redgrave lightly in any role, I have to imagine the problem is in the part as it’s been written.

Invariably, the viewer is driven to Wikipedia to fill in the holes in Grahame’s life left gaping by the movie, and what you learn makes you desperate to see Bening play her in something with more breadth. After all, she was admired by her peers, especially Bogart, and earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in The Bad and the Beautiful in 1952. In the mid-50s she was considered one of Hollywood’s few actresses with the chops to play pretty much anything with class and rigor. Then she was quickly tossed aside, reduced to the kind of stage tours that kept sending her back to places like Liverpool. Some of these points are touched on, but for the most part Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool takes its title was too literally. Though much of it is set in the storied port city, and Grahame almost did die there, she, in fact, passed away in New York.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Film Starts Don’t Die in Liverpool home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Danjaq LLC

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Media Mix, March 31, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the effort to increase the number of female candidates in this month’s prefectural and municipal elections. By all accounts, the effort has been unsuccessful, and the column explains various reasons as reported in the press. Near the end of the piece I mention in passing a Mainichi article that outlined in disturbing detail the harassment and psychological abuse many female politicians have to endure, even from their own supporters. I could have written an entire column on this topic since Mainichi wasn’t the only media to report on it, though some tended to treat it in sensational terms. The usual pattern is that a male supporter gets close to a female candidate and after she is elected he demands more face time with her, and if she doesn’t offer as much attention as he thinks he deserves, he starts stalking and maligning her on social media. In many cases, the woman reduces her public appearances so as to avoid any possibility of coming into contact with her harassers, thus undermining her effectiveness as a public figure. One woman from Machida told Mainichi that she only goes out in public if she’s with other members of the assembly. “They enjoy it when I seem intimidated,” she said of her harassers (there’s more than one), “so I want to be in a position where I can always get help in such situations.” As another woman says, it’s very difficult to log off of social media or even block certain people because politicians have to make themselves available to their constituents. Another woman said she was told to just put up with it, because all public figures have to be effective in dealing with such problems. In other words, it’s part of the job; though it isn’t part of a man’s job, specifically. In that regard, even on a less scary level, almost all the women talked about normal casual harassment related to their gender. If you get pregnant, people complain because they think that means you won’t be able to fulfill your job as a lawmaker. More to the point, in matters of political disagreement, a man will take special offense if a woman politician opposes his viewpoint and use her sex against her. As the example of the young New York congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, shows, this is not a problem limited to Japan, but in America, at least, women who push back are supported in public. In Japan, that seems to be less likely, and the women in the Mainichi article imply that they don’t get much help when fighting against this kind of abuse, and that includes lack of support in the media, whose own attitudes about female politicians may simply exacerbate the problem.

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Review: Dumbo

At this writing, the new CGI live-action Dumbo is being slated as a likely box office smash, thus justifying Disney’s faith in director Tim Burton as the kind of edgy filmmaker they can trust with their family fare. Inherent in this proposition is the idea that, of course, there is no intention of supplanting the original animated version of the story, but rather to simply give it more relevance for an audience whose tastes in technology are presumably more sophisticated than they were in 1941, but that’s a load of bull. Disney owns the story and the images and thus controls how those elements are reconfigured for a new generation. The real idea is to exploit a property, and nobody expects Burton, regardless of his reputation for the weird and the wondrous, to make anything other than what Disney approves of. And if you hold Alice in Wonderland up as an example of what Burton can do in the face of corporate control, remember that it was probably the worst reviewed film of his career. Neither Burton nor Disney seems willing to test each other in the same way this time.

On the Burton tip, the changes amount to bringing in a bit of safe morbidity in terms of history. The main character, aside from the baby elephant, is a World War I veteran named Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who, missing an arm, returns from battle in 1918 to both his immediate family—a young son and daughter—and an extended one—a middlingly successful traveling circus run by an ineffectual Barnum wannabe, Max Medici (Danny DeVito). While Farrier was in Europe, his wife died, so he relies on the other circus staff to help him take care of his kids, who have become more attuned to circus life in his absence. Since Farrier can no longer partake of his previous vocation—training and riding trick horses—he’s put in charge of the other animals’ care, including the elephants, one of whom quickly gives birth to a clumsy male calf with ridiculously big ears that turn him into the laughingstock of the Big Top. But, of course, the kids adore him and take it upon themselves to make sure he fits in.

Though these plot points differ in some aspects from the original story, they adhere to the general spirit, which is that Dumbo has to overcome some sort of adversity in order to “belong,” which is where the flying comes in. Through an accident, the two kids, one of whom, Milly (Nico Parker), is a budding scientist, discover that Dumbo, when provided with a certain stimulus, will flap his ears and lift off the ground. To his credit, Burton stages the little pachyderm’s public debut as a real attraction in a fairly thrilling and delightful way, and for a moment, at least, his Dumbo looks as if it may be as affecting as the original, but then capitalism has to muck everything up.

Because once Dumbo is a hit, a big entertainment mogul named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) swoops in and buys the struggling enterprise in order to install it in his amusement park called Dreamland, with Dumbo as the star attraction. The park, located on Coney Island in New York, is an impressive concoction, a debased, pompous slab of gaudy chutzpah that could be mistaken for Burton thumbing his nose at Disneyland, but if there’s anything the suits at Disney can handle it’s irony. They did a really good number on it in the famous “princesses” scene in Ralph Breaks the Internet, but Burton doesn’t really know what to do with this concept except to go through the usual motions toward a climax that’s every bit as desperate as the ending of a Marvel superhero extravaganza: loud, violent, pointless. Though he retains the maternal rupture that made the original so emotionally indelible, here it’s subsumed in a lot of distracting spectacle. Capitalism wins again.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (03-5367-1144), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002).

Dumbo home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Disney Enterprises Inc.

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Review: The LEGO Movie 2

The big reveal at the end of the first LEGO Movie was one of the most brilliant in the history of animated films, since it capped a fairly hilarious mock-dystopian story with a credibly affecting framing device that not only put the mock-dystopian story into proper perspective, but gave it an emotional force that you couldn’t have expected given the overall comic thrust of the movie. Obviously, the sequel isn’t going to be able to deliver the same kind of thrill. As they used to joke in the old Looney Tunes shorts when the guy blows himself up to impress a vaudeville talent agent, yeah, it’s great, but you can only do it once. 

Nevertheless, on the road to the sequel we’ve already had two LEGO-associated features, and while The LEGO Movie 2 isn’t as sharp and startling as the first one, it’s definitely more coherent, and much funnier, than The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Ninjago Movie. In the four years since the first one ended, the city of Bricksburg has become the LEGO version of Los Angeles in Blade Runner, and is now called Apocalypseburg. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) of the eternally annoying sunny disposition is back as the protagonist, still pursuing the mildly transgressive Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) with middling success owing to that disposition. The reason for Bricksburg’s declining fortunes—though actually the result of preadolescent prerogatives outlined in the continuing framing device—is periodic invasions from outer space aliens. Emmet rallies Batman (Will Arnett) and other superheroes to fight the aliens, but they lose easily, and Queen Watevra Wa’nabi (Tiffany Haddish), the leader of the Systar System, kidnaps Emmet’s confederates and attempts to brainwash them. Emmet, meanwhile, has hooked up with the cool space adventurer Rex Dangervest (also Pratt) to save his friends, but, naturally, it ends up being Lucy who saves everyone, including Emmet. 

Though the wonderfully nonsensical songs and cannily knowing pop culture references never flag in the humor department and, thus, can be something of a pleasant distraction from all the development, the development is worth paying attention to, even when it veers into the seriously absurd, as when Batman discourses on the various incarnations his persona has gone through at the hands of his overlords here at DC-Warner Brothers. Eventually, the ostensible Bricksburg story intersects with the framing device, which didn’t happen in the first movie, and while it isn’t as memorable as the first movie’s denouement, it’s inventive and thought-provoking nonetheless. In other words, you really do need to see The LEGO Movie to fully appreciate The LEGO Movie 2, but you’ll love The LEGO Movie 2 for its own sake.

Now playing with subtitles in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011) at 10:55 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. only.

The LEGO Movie 2 home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./The LEGO Group

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Review: Shock and Awe

In the wake of the recent Mueller report and the disappointment felt by those who hoped it would hasten the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, Rob Reiner’s earnest paean to the old-fashioned virtues of hard-hitting newspaper journalism may, in fact, only serve to rub salt in those wounds being nursed by liberals like Reiner himself. Shock and Awe chronicles the painstaking research that the Knight Ridder newspaper group carried out to prove that the weapons of mass destruction Bush II posited as the reason for invadeing Iraq in 2003 were essentially made up. Almost every other media outlet in America bought the administration story, so Knight Ridder should have come to represent what’s left of responsible journalism, but for the most part journalism didn’t survive the Bush years, as we can easily tell by the shrill tone used to cover both the Obama and Trump administrations. The lesson the Trump folks want us to take away from Mueller is that the mainstream press can’t be trusted, which is also what Shock and Awe tries to tell us.

This isn’t to say Knight Ridder and Fox News exist on the same plane of responsibility, but it does explain how herd mentality can cut both ways. Thus the movie already has one strike against it, since its obvious partisan leanings make it polemical from the get go. Reiner casts himself as KR’s Washington bureau chief, John Walcott, who despite his constant pronouncements about getting facts and concentrating on statements that can be corroborated tends to couch everything in pseudo-philosophical received wisdom that’s usually less profound than it sounds. The government is expected to lie? What else is new? This somewhat irritating tone is exacerbated by his two lead reporters, Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and Warren Strobel (James Marsden), whose adherence to these principles are not so much bred-in-the-bone but rather adopted as a kind of dogma.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with upholding sound tenets of responsible journalism, but in making that the central theme of the film he loses track of the story about the WMDs, whose complexity isn’t sorted out the way, say, the Watergate intrigue was in All the President’s Men, which is the gold standard for this type of movie. What Alan J. Pakula got right was that the intrigues themselves were enough to draw the viewer in, and once there, the viewer understood the importance of responsible journalism. In Shock and Awe, the two journalists are constantly running around, chasing leads, and running up against official stonewalling. But the mechanics of the fraud that Bush & Co. perpetrated on the American media and public are buried beneath platitudes and smug posturing about how the New York Times (Judith Miller is royally dissed) and the Washington Post fell for the lies while Knight Ridder didn’t. Does the mass media deserve the blame? Of course. Was Knight Ridder’s work vindicated by the passage of time? No question. But in journalism the value of work done well is simply being right. It’s not about lording it over your nominal competitors and adversaries.

Opens March 29 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

Shock and Awe home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Shock and Awe Productions LLC

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Review: On the Basis of Sex

Given her current role in keeping the U.S. Constitution on an even keel during these politically stormy times, it’s not surprising that there are two feature-length films about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and by most lights the Oscar-nominated RBG is the more rigorous of the two simply because it’s a documentary. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better movie. RBG is mostly a tribute to Ginsburg as a guiding personality for the 21st century, and while it explains her accomplishments and their effect on not only the legal landscape of America but the status of women, it does so in a manner that highlights her qualities as a woman rather than her mind. On the Basis of Sex is a dramatic recounting of Ginsburg’s early career centered on the case that brought her attention as the leading gender rights advocate of the 20th century, and while it tends toward easily processed characterizations in the mode of Hollywood biopics, it gets into the nitty-gritty of legal procedures more deeply than RBG does. When the phrase “radical social change” comes up—more than once—it has genuine meaning.

The film establishes its sexist context with hackneyed assurance, showing how Harvard Law School grudgingly accepts Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) as one of a handful of its first batch of female students in the mid-1950s. As it happens, her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), is already a student there, and when he contracts testicular cancer and is required to undergo debilitating radiation therapy, she takes on his class load in addition to hers so that she can tutor him on his subjects. Though the details of this part of her life are over-emphasized for dramatic effect, they do show how gender identifications played out in her everyday life. Much is made of Ginsburg’s lack of culinary skills—Martin turns out to be the much better cook, probably out of necessity—and even when, after graduation, Martin lands the choice position with the big New York law firm and Ruth doesn’t due to her sex (though all of her interviewers are keen to point out what a brilliant legal mind she has), after she takes up a teaching job it is portrayed as being much more socially relevant—and occupationally challenging—than Martin’s better-paid tax law consultancy. RBG stresses the marriage, but On the Basis of Sex shows how the mechanics of the marriage, and not just the intimacy and equitable nature of the union, provided Ginsburg with the impetus to forge a new way of framing gender discrimination. After all, it is Martin who suggests she take as her first-ever case as an advocate the matter of a middle-aged caregiver (Chris Mulkey) who has been denied a tax break usually given to wives who take care of their parents or parents-in-law simply because he is a man.

Given the ironies inherent in such a case in the early 1970s, it’s surprising RBG didn’t cover it at all, but On the Basis of Sex dives into it head first, showing how the difficulties of the presentation before the court was intimidating even for the age’s firebrand female civil liberties attorney (Kathy Bates) and the ACLU, which, as represented by the legendary Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), was still susceptible to certain sexist tropes, if only for the purpose of playing Devil’s Advocate. Unfortunately, director Mimi Leder steeps the legal niceties of the case in the briny broth of court melodrama, and while it’s good for providing more than a few instances of throat-catching emotion, it tends to make it seem as if all gender discrimination problems were solved in one legal swoop. RBG proves that wasn’t the case, and that there was still a long way to go (still is). Neither movie is perfect, but if the topic interests you, I recommend seeing both movies. They ably complement each other. RBG opens in Japan in May.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Humax Cinema (03-3462-2539).

On the Basis of Sex home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC

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