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Disappointing tale tramples on post-tsunami sentiments
14 July 2019
Nagi Machi seems to be a vehicle to show off the edgy acting skills of post-SMAP Katori Shingo, shedding his 'idol' skin to play a paunchy gambling-addict who manages to create more guilt and regret in his already over-burdened life. That aspect is the film's one successful element. Katori has range and depth, and does a sterling shift here potraying the complexity of a man filled with self-loathing and unable to break free of addiction, or overcome regret. The character is cut from the same cloth as Casey Affleck's in Manchester by the Sea.

The problem is, all the other elements beyond Katori's performance are woefully inadequate (with the exception of the acting by other principals, which mostly holds up). The script meanders along and lacks any sense of pace. It is both strangely un-involving and sentimental. There is a murder, but the characters interact in roughly the same tone and emotional level in scenes before and after the murder. If you pluck a scene at random and ask someone who has not seen the film to guess if the scene came before or after the murder, they would be baffled. There are cartoonish one-note yakuza, a taciturn old fisherman who lacks any sense of reality, and a schoolgirl daughter who seems to make only one friend, and only because he recognizes her from childhood. Katori's character battles gambling addiction, but the scenes of him betting are cookie-cutter, repeating the same information and in no way growing or progressing the narrative. There is the cliched, drink-too-much-and-fight-too-many-guys scene of self-destruction, taking place at a summer festival. No doubt the festival was re-created to add colour and culture, but nothing else in the film says 'summer.' The murderer is depressingly easy to spot. The cops are as sloppily written and as one-note as the yakuza. The camerawork goes hand-held too often and for random reasons. Slow-motion is employed at inappropriate moments, most noticeably when the characters react to the murder. The music at this point is also wildly unsuitable.

In a truly sinful movie, the most egregious sin is setting this in post-tsunami Miyagi, and yet giving no sense of how people are coping - or failing to cope - with the aftermath. Every now and then the film nods at 2011, such as a comment about a sea defence wall being built, but most of the time this film could be happening anywhere. That rich present-day Tohoku storyworld is under-utilized, or more accurately ignored, and it feels like a violation. The end roll plays over real-life underwater footage of the wreckage from the town that now litters the sea bed. This is a final nod to the location and the tragedy that feels too little too late, and is tonally out of sync with the banal melodrama we have just witnessed.

In short, a decent addition to Katori's showreel, but otherwise uninteresting.
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Born with It (2015)
quietly powerful
3 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
An elementary school boy leaves the big city in Japan to live in a provincial town with his mother. At school, the other children find him exotic and wonder why he can speak Japanese, even though he does not 'look Japanese.' But, of course, he is. Events then take a sinister turn when one of the boys realizes his new classmate is black, and his textbook about AIDS only shows black people, and so assumes his new classmate has AIDS.

This is a clever set-up for the narrative and the second-act complication is both amusing and disturbing, as one eminently sensible classmate tries to convince the new boy that he most assuredly does not have AIDS. The new boy looks for answers and reassurance from his mother. His efforts, and predicament, are conveyed naturalistically and are persuasively authentic.

The open-ended resolution is low key and perhaps this is most appropriate, as the film leaves you with questions rather than attempting to force pat answers and provide pithy resolution. The film explores universal questions of belonging, and frames them in a timely and pertinent context with regard to modern-day Japan. This is mature, subtle filmmaking, both enjoyable and thought-provoking.
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Shoplifters (2018)
Koreeda at the top of his game
9 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
On the day I watched Shoplifters, the news in Japan was dominated by the story of a 5-year-old girl, beaten and starved by her parents, writing messages in her notebook begging for love. An eerily similar storyline is threaded through Shoplifters, but Koreeda's prescience is no accident - he engaged with similar stories in his 2004 film Nobody Knows. Family, in various degrees of warping, is the focus of Koreeda's opus.

Shoplifters concerns a three-generation family living on the fringes of society. Dad apprentices his son in the art of shoplifting, telling him things on a store shelf do not actually belong to anyone. He also tells the boy that only stupid kids have to go to school, which is why he doesn't. The older daughter performs in a seedy red-light peep show, and Mum works in a low-paid laundry job, searching pockets for any stuff she can pilfer. They live with granny, though any time a visitor comes they all have to hide themselves.

This warm but abnormal family is slowed revealed to be conjoined in ways we did not expect. The catalyst for this is Dad and son bringing home a neglected 5-year-old girl they come across abandoned on an apartment balcony on a freezing winter night. The girl comes home with them, and slots into the family, a pattern, we slowly realise, that has been repeated in the past. Granny was 'picked up,' and the son seems to have arrived by similar means. Their warmth and humanity is at odds with the illegality and disregard for social mores. Society judges such people, but by allowing us intimacy with them, Koreeda shows how society is also judged by them - and found wanting.

The slow revelation of the family's background, the naturalistic interactions, the judicious spacing of shocks and surprises, are all evidence of a master filmmaker in perfect sync with his material. The performances are sublime. Franky Lily and Kirin Kiki are Koreeda regulars and both are tonally perfect here. Koreeda shows that he still has a deft touch with child actors, first seen in Nobody Knows, a film that garnered a Cannes acting award for 12-year-old Yuya Yagira. Jyo Kairi has resonances of Yagira, both in his physical characteristics and his mannerisms. The maturity of his performance is stunning. Sakura Ando is outstanding as the mother-figure, made wise by bitter experience but also upbeat in her approach to life. Her threat to kill a minor character is chilling. One scene, where she performs straight to camera, answering a question on what her 'children' called her, rips your heart out.

There are many set pieces to enjoy here. A sharing of noodles on a humid summer day was one favourite; listening to, but not seeing, a firework display was another (what a metaphor for this family's peripheral status!). But the joy comes from the way the whole thing gels and shimmers, and provides steely insight on contemporary Japanese society, and the human condition. These are flawed individuals and Koreeda does not avert a critical gaze from their individual responsibility. The film explores big questions on living a good life and taking responsibility in an uncaring society. A simply stunning film.
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well-worn J-cinema fairytale pap
19 March 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Two university students meet and form an unlikely friendship, that throws up the possibility of an even more unlikely romance.

Heavenly Forest is a perfect example of how the TV aesthetic is strangling Japanese cinema. All the acting is over-acting, with Miyazaki signified as 'cute' by virtue of the fact that she bobs her head ever so slightly after she talks, chews her bottom lip, and does not know what a hairbrush is for. Tamaki raises his eyebrows in shock and surprise, and lowers them when mystified or concerned. All these young people look wonderful, and are suitably backlit and rendered in soft focus. Tamaki gets in with the 'in' crowd who all seem to smile, camp, swim and have fun without any real world concerns or connections. Tamaki's burden is a rash on his side, for which the only medicine he can get carries an anti-social stench. Given that eczema in the form of 'atopi' is practically an epidemic in Japan and that many medical treatments exist, this particular representation is borderline insulting to the sufferers. Tamaki is never put right regarding his self-stigmatization. Miyazaki also suffers a mystery ailment that stunts her growth and eventually proves fatal. Shockingly lazy scripting that just conjures up a medical condition rather than strive to inject some authenticity or societal resonance to the narrative. In short, pure fantasy and escapism. The lack of plausibility in medical terms is symptomatic of the whole narrative, that forces conflict from unlikely coincidence rather than character choice, and resonates to absolute no sense of modern-day Japan. The university they go to is a strangely antiseptic campus, and the friendships seem robotic and perfunctory, like two people on a date in a mouthwash commercial.

In the climactic scene, Miyazaki is revealed to have been beautiful all along and capable of mastering the use of a hairbrush, a 'revelation' that has emotional impact only if you have never seen Miyazaki outside this film, or have never, in fact, seen a film. As is often witnessed in J-cinema, a character is dragged half-way round the world on very little information, only to be told someone has died. Email and the internet, like extended family and real-life problems, do not exist in these fairytale narratives. Tamaki's reaction to the photos, to plod lead-footed and open-mouthed across a gallery floor, is unintentionally comical. Glycerin tears abound. The music is plinky-plonky nonsense that batters your ears non-stop.

Saccharine, twee, and annoyingly aiming for 'cute' on every single beat, this film could be the flag-bearer for the ugly mutation TV has inflicted on Japanese cinema. The one caveat is that Miyazaki actually looks like she could act given better direction and a script that carries some intelligence. Picture postcard photography of beautiful young people in a mindless, shallow story.
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Sweet Bean (2015)
bean paste, leprosy, and learning to live again
19 March 2016
Warning: Spoilers
The manager of a small pancake stall finds his product is suddenly a neighbourhood sensation after an old woman shows up and changes his recipe. But old prejudices rear their head to scupper short-lived happiness.

This is a relatively prosaic outing for writer-director Kawase, a film that eschews the lyricism and frustratingly enigmatic self-orientalising tropes of Moe no Suzaku or Mogari no Mori, for a greater concern with narrative cause-and-effect. Masatoshi Nagase is suitably brooding and mysterious as the weary manager of the stall, tolerant if not indulgent of the inane chatter of schoolgirls who occupy his workplace like a clubhouse. Kirin Kiki is her usual charismatic and maverick self, managing to bring humanity and pathos to a role that could easily have been cloying and maudlin. The storyline of the older women bringing hope to a man with a crushing past works well, Tokue proving a catalyst to stop the manager going through the motions and start living again. The film also functions as an educational piece on the discrimination historically meted out to sufferers of Hansen's disease, or leprosy, in Japan. This part is less effective, following the well-worn trope of having a schoolkid come along so the adults can relate the hidden history she knows nothing about. Heavy-handed and flat, it ill-serves the narrative, and slightly trivializes an ugly but fascinating aspect of Japan's social history.

Kawase does not totally leave behind her shamanistic/animistic leanings: there are the usual hand-held shots of sunlight glinting through treetops, and some cod-philosophy on the power of the moon. She hones excellent performances from Kirin and especially Nagase, whose edges seem all too brittle and authentic. A small film with a big heart, that makes a quiet but powerful point.
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under-realised characters, poorly executed film
26 January 2016
A brother and sister travel to Paris, but the sister has a hidden agenda. When the brother is left stranded, he bumps into a fellow Japanese and an unlikely holiday romance blossoms.

At the 75-minute mark, this film takes a new, interesting direction. Miho Nakayama at that point reminds us that she is a formidable actress, and Osamu Mukai as the stranded Sen gives subtle, nuanced reactions to the new developments. Very few viewers are likely to get to this point though. The first five minutes are tough to get through - a ridiculously clunky set up sees Sen abandoned by his sister at the banks of the River Seine, followed by an equally incredulous, almost slapstick sequence where Nakayama slips on Sen's passport and pantomime falls to the ground. From then on we have basically a Paris travelogue with two highly implausible characters. There is no shading, sub-text, or sense of lives lived off-screen with these characters. There is no need to wonder what they are thinking - they tell us, talking to themselves in empty rooms and on the streets, in brazen spouts of exposition. There is no need to wonder what they are feeling: Sakamoto's plinky-plonky score is layered on wall-to-wall throughout, even over dialogue, of which there is lots. There is no will-they-won't-they suspense built up between the potential lovers, more a resigned sense of "Jeez, get on with it!" Paris is photographed home video style, no use of light or shadow. There is no discernible colour palette. The director favours hand-held shots and for the most part framing and composition are shoddy and sub-par. Technically, it looks like beginning student filmmakers got to shoot with an A-list cast.

Shunji Iwai's name is connected to this, but it is an Iwai plot with no Iwai poetry, or Iwai visual flair. Sen's infantile younger sister has her own playpen drama with her boyfriend in a slightly annoying sub-plot. The whole thing remains frustratingly unresolved.

The introduction of Aoi's backstory in the final third hints that there was an engaging story to be told with these characters, but the filmmakers missed the chance. In sum, a mishmash of ordinary made-for-TV aesthetics and amateurish screen writing make this instantly forgettable.
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Damaged humanity
9 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Kanta is a young man working as a day manual labourer, a role he drifted into after leaving school as soon as the law allowed. Living hand-to-mouth, stuck in a cycle of drink abuse, visits to prostitutes, and dead-end jobs, a glimmer of hope appears when he is befriended by Shoji, who offers up catalyst opportunities with the cute girl in the local bookstore. However, the demons Kanta carries inside him are not so easily exorcised.

Screenwriter Shinji Imaoka offers up a fascinating character study, superbly executed by Mirai Moriyama in an outstanding performance. From beginning to end, we are forced to shift our understanding of Kanta. You cannot help but pity a man - at 19 still in many ways a child - who has had to carry the burden of having a convicted sex offender for a father during his formative years. But then he does something disgusting like lick a girl's hand and you begin to suspect nature may win out over nurture. Aimless, amoral, conniving and at times misanthropic, Kanta is nonetheless human and frail. You see few paths for redemption in a modern Japan where Kanta's coworker is summarily dispensed with when a workplace accident renders him disabled, and for Kanta, the only avenue of negotiation for rent disputes are threats and insincere apologies.

Director Yamashita keeps it all plausible and authentic. At times Kanta's excesses evoke visceral disgust, as his various methods of ejecting bodily fluids - and one attempt at solids - are framed in close-up. At other times there is a light, jaunty tone to proceedings, often dictated by the music which may just be deployed ironically, given the hopeless drudgery of Kanta's day-to-day existence. The comedy is threaded in nicely, and never done for its own sake. Kanta's re-union with his ex-girlfriend and her new beau is funny and terrifying in equal measure. Kanta seems to have the worst life imaginable, till we meet his ex and glimpse the hellhole existence she endures.

Kengo Kôra plays Shoji as a guy trying to do his best for a friend while never losing his wariness. His patience is admirable, and the loss of it forgivable. Atsuko Maeda as love object Yasuko injects a difficult role with an element of mystery. Quite why such a well-balanced, intelligent young woman would indulge a shifty, creepy NEET is an active question that Imaoka's writing and Maeda's acting skill make come alive. In the hands of lesser talent, this would appear a flaw in the narrative. In modern-day Japan isolation, loneliness and withdrawal from society is practically an epidemic, and all three characters in some way embody elements of this.

In the end, Kanta may have found an escape. Or we may be seeing the dream that is the regret of a dying man in a rubbish heap. The film fittingly concludes with questions rather than answers. The social commentary is apt and incisive, but it is the character of Kanta, as unfathomable and memorable as Travis Bickle, that stays with you long after the final credits.
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the death of screen writing
1 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
In an age where film-making is ever more commercialized and insulting of people's intelligence, The Force Awakens comes along to put the final nail in the coffin of bold, imaginative screen writing. These writers were given a golden opportunity. A beloved franchise had lost its way with a trilogy of ill-conceived prequels. A hiatus ensued that allowed for critical reflection, and time enough to prepare a script that honoured the mythology of the earlier episodes, while marking a fresh departure in terms of new characters, story lines, surprises and updating for the children who are coming to the third trilogy that will be their Star Wars. That was the mission: clear and unmistakable.

The response? An embarrassing rehash of Episode 4 with gaping plot-holes and a blatant disregard for any of the above concerns. How bad must the story ideas that were discarded be if a thinly-disguised re-boot is all they could manage? I suspect the ideas were not bad, but deemed too risky in our risk-averse times. The Internet is riddled with analysis of the plot-holes and so need no analysis here, but I have never felt so world-weary in a cinema as I did watching those X-wings attack a Death Star aiming for a porthole that is a fatal structural flaw. The equivalent in the real world is visiting an elderly relative who tells you a story she has forgotten she told you a hundred times before, though part of you suspects she knows she told you and doesn't care that you have to listen to it again.

As for disrespect of all that has gone before, and shoddy filmmaking, the appearance of Luke takes the biscuit. Why is he just standing on a cliff (of a planet far, far away that could only be Ireland) waiting to turn round? We are told he is rumoured to be in an ancient Jedi temple, so a glimpse of some artist's idea of what an ancient Jedi temple looks like would have been greatly appreciated here. Instead, Luke is rushed on-screen in clumsy fashion, to ensure we all turn up for Episode 8.

I get that they have to sell toys, and can forgive the light saber tweaks. I get that times have moved on, and applaud the gender and colour diversity in casting. I also get, depressingly, that they knew we would turn up in droves no matter what story they gave us, and so the screenplay was a less than major concern for them. This is not the only Hollywood film to desecrate the honourable craft of screen writing, but it is the most conspicuous, and possibly egregious. Disappointed is not the word for the emotion evoked by The Force Awakens - 'swindled' would be more precise.
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human frailty
11 December 2015
A handsome high school boy begins an affair with an older married woman. When their sex tape ends up on the internet, various lives are changed forever.

The themes of adolescent coming of age, socioeconomic class divisions in Japan, and family dysfunction, are all common concerns of modern-day Japanese cinema. Protagonist Takumi, too damn good-looking for his own good, seems surrounded by women - a doe-eyed classmate, his married sex friend, and a single-mother at a home which doubles as a Natural Birth clinic. Takumi gets to have the unusual experience for a teenage boy of experiencing the sweat, stench and tears of life coming into being first-hand.

The sexual politics are wryly observed and the sexual encounters framed in a manner that strips them of their eroticism and makes them touching and vulnerable. Tomoko Tabata as Anzu is perfect as the needy housewife trapped with a useless husband and a (slightly overdrawn) domineering mother-in-law. Another story intrudes late in the narrative, that of Takumi's friend Ryota (Masataka Kubota). Less blessed in the looks department than Takumi, and with a mother who cares little about her offspring, unlike Takumi's devoted and wise mother, Ryota's fickle mix of jealousy and loyalty towards Takumi proves destructive.

The characters are strong and engaging and the story would draw you in, were it not for the odd decision to structure this as a triptych, with an overlong final third devoted to Ryota's plight. This leaves Takumi and Anzu off-screen for a good half-hour right when we are most interested in seeing their reactions. Cut by at least 20 minutes, and telling all these characters tales chronologically, this would be a much more involving film. As it is the structure is a massive flaw in an otherwise mature and admirable film.
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thin and airy slice of life melodrama
13 November 2015
When their estranged father dies, three sisters decide to take in their younger half-sister to live with them in Kamakura, despite the fact that she is the daughter of the woman who wrecked their parents' marriage.

Koreeda seems intent on paying homage to Ozu here. The rhythms of family life are laid out in detailed scenes on cooking, funeral rituals, and memorial services. The more traditional landscapes of Kamakura, including heavily foregrounded cherry blossoms, feature prominently. And nothing much happens, which is the film's most damaging failing. Sachi (a one-note Haruka Ayase) seems content with her married lover. Any conflict she may feel over her situation is buried deeper than the audience can see. Yoshino, exuberantly played by Masami Nagasawa, always picks the wrong guy, ending up broken-hearted and out of pocket. A possible redemptive story line with an under-used Ryo Kase is left unexplored. Kaho may or may not have a romance going with her boss (we never find out). And the waif taken in, Suzu, (a charismatic Suzu Hirose) knows more about their father than any of them, but merely hints at complexity, and never mines it.

Shinobu Ohtake shows up as the recalcitrant mother about an hour in, bringing brief hope that her appearance might bring about a volatile mix. The situation, however, is snuffed out as quickly as it flares up, and we are back to wistful looks off-camera and bike rides through softly falling cherry blossom petals.

Koreeda faithfuls Kirin Kiki and Riri Furanki show up in roles that are practically cameos, unfortunately reminding us that Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son are so much more powerful and complex.

This is a light, delicately observed film, so much so that it is too slight and so simply floats and vanishes rather than takes root. Like Air Doll this is, unfortunately, simply Koreeda in an indulgent moment.
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Entourage (2015)
glib, nasty, dumb
13 November 2015
Knowing nothing of the TV show I wandered into this film expecting a parody of celebrity culture. After viewing, I got home and Google-ed 'Entourage misogyny.' The results of that search confirmed that I am not alone in wondering how such a stream of women-hating invective made it to our screens, attracting big-name cameos along the way.

Apparently the filmmakers think constantly referring to women as broads and chicks, and having the four leads tell us who they would and would not f#*k, is acceptable because "It really is like that in Hollywood." I am sure it is, but the point is how you frame it. You can satirize it, you can excoriate it, but this film tamely lauds and celebrates it - unless, of course, the whole thing is a massive trick on the audience, though I don't think Ellis and cronies are clever enough to attack a massively exploitative medium through a massively exploitative film. 'Drama' continually goes on about who he would or would not bang. Ari (such a shame to see the massively talented Jeremy Piven indulge this toxic waste) wishes his wife's tits were bigger. One character has unprotected sex with two women on the same day. The "consequences" in terms of unplanned pregnancy and STDs are brought home to him - except it is all a joke! Phew! Back to slo-mo shots of jiggling bikini-clad eye candy.

I struggle to find anything positive to say about this film. Haley Joel Osment has evolved into a decent adult actor. Two of the cameos - Liam Neeson and Thierry Henry - are funny (though it is Piven who drives the humour in those scenes). The rest are bad, with some truly awful. Mark Whalberg gleefully plays nudge-wink with his drug-dealing, race-baiting past, while Kelsey Grammar is clunky. Ronda Rousey is especially culpable in an extended cameo, mimicking the guys' vocabulary by going on about who she will "let f#*k me." Really Ronda? Really?

This is a dumb film made by dumb filmmakers aimed at an audience they believe dumber than themselves. Unbelievable that such levels of misogyny are celebrated on screen in 2015, ironically in the same year Suffragette is released. Shameful.
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Learning to love our chains
2 October 2015
A teacher carrying out research on a remote beach finds himself caught in a trap engineered by local hicks. The teacher is an intellectual: he feels sure his wits will enable him to manufacture an escape. But release gets ever further away, and his surroundings draw him in more and more...

In film school, a teacher told me a story about narrative. A man, obsessed with crossing a hole full of water, works feverishly at the undertaking. He has no success, until one days he wakes and finds the scorching sun has evaporated the water. The man goes to the tap and re-fills the hole. Woman in the Dunes is that premise on a grander canvas.

Jumpei is a sophisticate who, while grateful for the hospitality afforded him by the locals, also takes that gift as his social right. The woman who is his host has no such airs and graces, but her self-awareness and social awareness are far more refined than Jumpei's.

The world the film creates is both uncanny and all too familiar. Sand has never seemed so complex, so seductive, so intimidating. Jumpei and the woman are forced to shovel sand to survive. Aren't we all? Jumpei and the woman come together as a couple because of limited options. Many couples will sympathise. Given the chance to fundamentally change his life, Jumpei opts for the status quo. The choice is momentous and banal, and universally understood.

Eiji Okada as Jumpei is outstanding, all bombast and outrage, and then quietly confounded. Kyôko Kishida as the Woman is simply mesmerising, comely and beguiling in the mode of the English milkmaid in British Victorian novels, but with a more aquatic air (the proximity of the sea is deliciously hinted at in this arid world of sand). The story is incredibly simple, almost a parable, but inhabited with authentic characters who give it three dimensions.

We all, at some point, settle. We all compromise. We all give in. This film takes that bleak reality and presents it to us wrapped in cinematic beauty.
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52 Tuesdays (2013)
growing up now
12 August 2015
A high school girl begins a year of sexual experimentation when her mother decides to become a man, and two older schoolmates invite her into their bohemian clique.

This Australian indie captivates through the performances of the young leads. Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Billie, the young woman who has to cope with parental separation, mum's transgender crises, and her own burgeoning sexual awareness, is riveting, a natural beauty who is testing her own strengths and boundaries. Dad (Beau Travis Williams) is over-eager to accommodate everyone, while James (as Mum now wishes to be called) is completely self-absorbed, documenting her transformation and spending the Tuesdays together with his/her daughter only talking about her/his own issues. Little wonder Billie creates a secret space and time to nurture and document her own transformation. These naturalistic, sweet but painful scenes of emerging with the three teenagers are the film's most authentic and touching. Sam Althuizen as Josh remains a mystery, a boy included for his gender more than his personality. The beguiling Jasmine (Imogen Archer) has her own family issues, and provides a brake to any self-pity Billie might be tempted to indulge in.

Del Herbert-Jane as Jane/James embodies the fluidity in gender identification that is the film's key motif. She has a fractious relationship with her own sexually ambiguous brother Harry (Mario Späte), the film's only truly annoying character, a product both of characterisation and performance. That motif is somewhat overplayed. It is deft when the characters all sport fake facial hair for a family goof around, but is hammered home in the changing facial hair fortunes of Dad, who seems to have a different degree of beard for every scene.

Billie's movie-within-a-movie works well and is in keeping with the digital nativization of teenagers of the period. Plot is less well-handled - a rush of all the characters to the hospital seems forced, and Billie's way of marking the conclusion of the one-year separation from Mum rather too showy. The uncle's interventions also seem random and intended to inject drama rather than emerging from character. But as a rites of passage tale the film triumphs, crucially on the casting and performance of Cobham-Hervey. Reminiscent of Kiera Knightley at her best, this young actress is one to watch.
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Gomen (2002)
the first blush of youth
4 August 2015
Sei is reading aloud in his Primary 6 class when his pubescent body betrays him. Suddenly alert to the delights of the female sex, he develops an instant crush on junior high school pupil Nao. Nao has more than younger boys to worry about, as her parents acrimonious divorce and father's failing business mean she is already growing up too fast.

Perhaps only in Japan could a film on primary school children experiencing first love feature close up shots of semen. The biological, visceral elements of this universal anguish are foregrounded in this narrative, which still somehow manages to achieve an authentic tone that will bring back bittersweet memories for many. Masahiro Hisano as Kei and Yukika Sakuratani as his muse Nao give naturalistic, endearing performances that drive the film. Sei's torment is heartfelt and gut-wrenching. It speaks directly to your own long-buried primary school self. Jun Kunimura is under-used as Sei's father, a worldly-wise temple priest. His one moment of offering advice, along the lines of there is no fathoming of the female species to be had, is a terrific moment of father-son bonding.

Where the writing falls short is in the depiction of the two mothers. Sei's mother gushes and delights in finding her son's crusty underwear under the bed, and tells all and sundry of his entry to puberty as if he had passed the entrance exam for Cambridge. Nao's mother, in the one scene that we get to see her, turns out to be equally frivolous and giggly. It is odd that the fathers are depicted with layers but the mothers are so one-note and fraudulent.

Charming and engaging, this film delights and entertains in equal measure. It reminded me of my own long-forgotten first crushes and squirming embarrassments. Nostalgia of the best kind.
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tasteless, pointless pudding
2 August 2015
New York, I Love You features an array of directing and acting talent who seem set on proving the adage that too many cooks spoil the broth. Apparently the filmmakers had two days to shoot and a week to edit. Also, they had to limit their screen time to eight minutes. By the quality of the writing I am guessing they only had half that time to write the scripts. Some stories go after slice of life, some surprise endings, some a fleeting moment of human connection in the unforgiving city. In such a collage you expect hit-and-miss at best, but what we get here is miss and miss-by-a-mile. Ethan Hawke and Bradley Cooper are given embarrassingly trite lines, and it is a crying shame to see Julie Christie embroiled in this mess. Eli Wallach takes a walk with his wife and they bicker. This segment, like many others, begs only one question: so what?

Anyway, why do we need a movie that is a homage to NYC? There are hundreds of movies that already function as love letters to NYC. And in real life, this kind of love letter leads only to acrimonious separation. "After all these years, you still don't understand me," sighed New York... *slams door*

Actually, for all the smoking that goes on, I suspect this is really a love letter to Big Tobacco.

Two stars for two stories - the pickpocket face-off with Andy Garcia at the beginning, and the Robin Wright Penn/ Chris Cooper segment. Partly because they kind of worked, but mostly because they were so much less annoying and meaningless than the other stories.
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victim and victimiser
1 August 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Yoko Maki was eye-catching in Like Father Like Son, exuding quiet strength. That role, however, afforded relatively little screen time, so it is reassuring to see she can up her game when front and centre in a role that is challenging, to say the least. Any narrative that has a rape victim willingly engage in a relationship with their rapist immediately sets itself a huge plausibility task. Sayonara Keikoku does not wholly succeed in meeting that challenge, but the fact that it does better than most is largely due to the quality of performance Yoko Maki and Shima Onishi bring to their respective roles.

A woman is suspected of killing her own child. She implicates a male neighbour in her testimony, and this sparks an investigation into the man's past by two tabloid journalists, the feisty Kobayashi (Anne Suzuki), and the world-weary Watanabe (Nao Omori). Harassed by his boss, ignored by his wife, Watanabe steals small moments of bliss away from work and home. The investigation into the man's past fractures the timeline of the narrative as the film cuts between a high school rape many years previously, and the present. The connecting thread, once established, strains visibly.

Personally, I went along with the story, and was involved moment-by-moment, without ever really accepting the plausibility of the premise driving it. But there is much to admire here, most of all Maki.
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fanaticism, murder, and the loss of innocence.
28 June 2015
Japan's infamous Red Army emerged from the tumultuous anti-Anpro demonstrations of the 50s and 60s. Anyone who has encountered Japan's current crop of apathetic, myopic undergraduates will be surprised to know just how active and radical their parents' generation were. Japan's present malaise seems to be a hangover from the excesses of those times, and Koji Wakamatsu sets out to chronicle in detail the worst of it, the events that led to the siege in a mountain lodge and a shoot out with police.

As much as the detailing for the historical cinematic record is the central concern, the film is also finely attuned to the depictions of a descent into collective madness. Idealists are taken in by demagogues as claustrophobia engenders paranoia and murderous intent. Maki Sakai as the ill-fated Toyama falls furthest, a naive college girl spouting creed she does not understand. Even before the darkness descends, she seems out of place. Go Jibiki is unfaltering as the relentless Mori, while Akie Namiki wears an evil stare that is positively unnerving. But it is perhaps unfair to single out certain performances in what is a collective triumph.

A three-hour-plus running time is gruelling at any time, and with a film that authentically serves up historical incidents that are difficult to stomach, it becomes a double punch. But there is something commanding about Wakamatsu's mise-en-scene, which along with the sublime performances, and hypnotic soundtrack, make one feel the viewing itself is a mission that must be completed.

As a record of an important episode in Japan's 20th century patchy flirtations with mass murder, the film is an outstanding triumph. As a representation of the chilling banality of evil, it is also shockingly plausible. The viewer is reminded of all manner of human failings, and of a singular triumph - the power of cinema to inform and edify. United Red Army is quite simply a masterpiece.
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Dirty Hearts (2011)
befuddled storytelling
30 May 2015
In certain parts of modern-day Japan, there are state primary schools where the majority language is Portuguese. The historical reasons for this go back to large-scale immigration to Brazil from Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. That Japanese diaspora were cleaved in two at the end of WWII, with many fanatically believing that Japan had won the war, leading to murderous internecine strife with those who accepted the truth of Japan's defeat, surrender, and the Emperor refuting his divinity. It is a fascinating tale, little known, and deserves to have a great film made about it. Unfortunately, this is not that film.

A raft of great Japanese actors fail to lift this flat, plodding narrative that has a made-for-TV aesthetic. Takako Tokiwa is the ostensible protagonist, a loving wife who watches her husband descend into a killer. Except 'descend' is not the right word, as a switch seems simply to be flicked. And the wife's response is, bizarrely, to take vengeance on chickens. Tsuyoshi Ihara never really evokes anguish or guilt. Eiji Okuda as the militarist driving force is slightly more plausible. But Kimiko Yo, who since Departures has hardly put a foot wrong, squeals and mugs her was through this in embarrassing fashion.

The direction never really lets the story grow. Ihara's moment when he realises his own gullibility comes and goes without pause. The break-up of the marriage largely takes place without the husband and wife sharing the same frame. The Brazilians seem to inhabit the town and then disappear completely as convenience for the scene dictates. The sense of the period, of Brazil, is absent, and any contextualization of why these immigrants are there, and how torn they might be between motherland and adopted homeland, is missing.

Some tales are so fascinating it is tempting to think they can tell their own story. But they can't, and the writers and directors on this project might want to bear that in mind.
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how one man changed a nation
29 May 2015
Rikidozan is a fascinating figure, a man whose very existence captures the schizophrenic love-hate of the self imbibed in the Japanese psyche. Emerging at a crucial period in Japan's post-war turmoil, he galvanised national pride by defeating bigger, stronger Americans one after another. The naivety of the ordinary masses buying into this manufactured folklore seems twee observed from this distance, but hunger for some kind of hope and national pride in those desperate times is impossible for current generations to imagine.

The film does a good job of depicting Rikidozan's rise to fame, his desire to succeed against discrimination and hierarchical relations, and the flaws in the man's character that would contribute to his downfall. Kyung-gu Sol in the lead perfectly captures the character. His Japanese is flawless, and he exhibits the hybridity of Rikidozan in his every gesture. Tatsuya Fuji as the oyabun who funds Rikidozan's path to glory is something we rarely see in films about Japan, a well-rounded, complex yakuza. He sees Riki as a business investment, but also has a surrogate parent-like affection for the man. But he never forgets his role as boss and mentor, and one of the tensions of the story is quite how long this man will go on protecting Riki.

Miki Nakatani as put-upon wife Aya is quiet and mysterious. The film becomes more interesting every time she appears, but unfortunately her role is under-written, and the part does now do her acting skills justice.

The first 60 minutes expertly chronicle Riki's rise, the odds he faces, and the significance of all this to post-war Japan. In the last 30 minutes the film sags and a sentimental tone creeps in. This culminates in a last scene that literally looks like it was shot in a giant snow-globe, with toe-curling melodramatic music to match. A tighter edit, and more cinematic approach, could have made this tale truly memorable. However, while the story of Rikidozan grips you, the patchy pacing and average technical skills on display are slightly disappointing.

At a time when banal nationalism is rampant in Japan, Rikidozan's story is a sobering reminder of the complex realities that confound Japanese identity. On a human scale, it is also a competent depiction of how one man's hubris can lead to a fall.
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of war, family, and sacrifice
23 April 2015
A brother and sister initiate a personal project to find out more about their grandfather, a World War II kamikaze pilot. When they discover their grandfather was universally regarded as a coward, their enthusiasm begins to wane. But the brother persists, discovering there is more to the story.

This is a subtle film, foregrounding the personal consequences of war for rounded, authentic characters. In the process, the film astutely stays away from either justifying or apologising for Japan's war actions. Jun'ichi Okada is a revelation as the pilot instructor who attempts to save his young charges from the excesses of his superiors, often at great personal sacrifice. He makes a promise to his wife, but then seems to compromise it in order to be loyal to his men. The resolution of this conflict makes for a powerful and well-plotted storyline.

The flashbacks to the war are engaging and dramatic, but the film's weak point is the bland Haruma Miura guiding us through the story. In a scene conspicuous for its shallow clunkiness, he berates his friends for equating tokkutai with modern-day suicide bombers. No real camaraderie seems to exist between the friends, and the whole scene seems designed merely to relay the point that modern-day fanaticism and historical Japanese 'heroism' cannot be equated. It is a fop to present-day rightist revisionism that is unworthy of the rest of the film.

Eien no Zero shows ordinary people living extraordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances. A thoughtful, emotional film that, casting flaws aside, proves cathartic and thought-provoking in equal measure.
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Frozen (I) (2010)
hanging out on the piste
16 March 2015
A simple premise is all well and good, but there is such a thing as too simple, as Frozen proves. Three college students go skiing and snowboarding, and end up abandoned high up on the ski lift. As the resort shuts down around them, they realise they are stranded for a possible five days. They set about making a series of life and death decisions, indulging in some undergrad 'meaning of life' chat on their downtime.

The male characters are engaging enough if fairly generic, but the whimpering, hysterical female is problematic to say the least. For too long the film is about people sitting in a chair talking about why they love their boyfriend, or why they don't have a girlfriend. This would be mind-numbing as a stage play, let alone cinema.

The film just can't get beyond the severe limitations of its setting. The dialogue would have to be sublime to make up for that, but instead we get bland. There is one nice little moment of anger, recrimination, and then reconciliation. But it is small return for the time investment Frozen demands.
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Breakfast at Tiffany's for the 21st century
22 February 2015
Erika Sawajiri is outstanding as flavor-of-the-moment model/actress Lillico, a diva held together by plastic surgery, who exorcises her own demons in predatory sado-sexual displays of domination on her minder (Shinobu Terajima in perfect counter-point). Lillico is self-aware, stating that she can't really act, and she's not a great singer. All she has is her looks, bought at great price, though the exact cost will only slowly reveal itself.

Japan's facile celebrity culture and the amoral voracity of its media are excoriated here. The social commentary scorches due to Sawajiri's unflinching efforts in making Lillico all too human. The casting is both professional and sly, as there is more than a little overlap between Lillico and the 'betsu ni' iteration of Sawajiri's own media persona.

Director Mika Ninagawa is best known for still photography, and it is this background that lets the film down. Too often we are offered a montage, beautifully shot, of angst ridden Lillico, rolling in the rain, hallucinating about butterflies and falling feathers (too obviously borrowed from American Beauty), or gazing as the camera slides poetically past her at the human carnage she has unleashed. Lovely photography, but at the cost of slowing the narrative to a standstill.

Lillico evokes Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, a country girl living a dream on borrowed time and shutting out the tawdriness that engulfs her. Instead of an older husband, it is a younger sibling who arrives from the past to burst the bubble.

The plot involves ugly profiteering at a medical clinic and the arm of the law closing in, though the police procedural scenes function only to offer up expository commentary that jars. The prosecutors talk and are lit more like Greek gods pitying mortals than civil servants trying to put a shift in.

Kaori Momoi as the shiftless boss does what she does best, that undefinable unsettling quirkiness perfectly suited to this role. Kiko Mizuhara also shows depth as the new idol who displaces Lillico from her perch, but turns out to be every bit as self-aware and jaded as her predecessor.

The way the film turns the microscope on fetishized beauty and celebrity is its strength, and with brisker pacing and tighter editing this could have been outstanding. Those flaws are a pity, given the magnetic power of Sawajiri.
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Win Win (2011)
life's complications
1 February 2015
A small-town lawyer fallen on hard times sees a way to exploit a rich client and help his family out of a financial hole. The plan works well till the client's grandson turns up, and then begins a process of unravelling and recrimination. Paul Giamatti is perfectly cast as the well-intentioned lawyer, a good man in an indifferent universe trying to keep it all together. Alex Shaffer absolutely nails the taciturn teenage Kyle. The offspring of a drug-addicted single mother, he gives off that world weariness and flinty edge that emanates from a child that has seen too much too young. The script is full of finely observed little moments, touches of pathos and humour, dotted with those little reversals that life lobs at us like hand grenades. When Kyle's mother shows up suddenly with legal representation, you can feel the knots in your stomach beginning to form. Genuine in its intentions, and stripped of sentimentality, this is a rewarding, entertaining film with no discordant notes.
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6 January 2015
Based on a true story of second-generation Japanese baseball players who are eternal losers until their captain Reggie figures out a way to level the playing field against their taller, beefier, Caucasian Canadian opponents. Their strive for success gives heart to their put-upon community, while also generating conflict across cultures and families.

The waterfront Japantown of early 20th century Vancouver is lavishly recreated in a sprawling set, but that scale is at odds with the modest ambitions of the narrative. Eternal underdogs finally having their day is a well-worn sports genre. Inter-generational conflict in immigrant communities is similarly familiar fare. The heroic arc that would be foregrounded by a Hollywood movie is eschewed here, apparently deliberately, though in favour of what emotional replacement it is difficult to say. The Asahi did go on to penant success, and that fact is depicted across one season when the Asahi turn around their fortunes. In the climactic game, the tension is created by Reggie stealing bases, and his teammates abandoning the bunt plays that have served them well over the season. But then we go to slo-mo, the sound drops off, and when we return to normality the season-clinching moment has passed. The umpire has made his call - off-screen - the opponents are leaving the field, and the crowd is cheering. The Asahi players stand around bewildered, as if they can't believe what has happened. It is a bathetic moment, one that jars because it suggest that the whole project of building self-belief has, in this moment of triumph, collapsed. This moment may be a fumble in the storytelling, or a bold attempt to show the everyday prosaic nature of such moments; either way, it makes for a less than satisfying viewing experience.

The moment is symptomatic of missed opportunities to provide catharsis for the audience. Reggie's sister Emmy has her hopes high for receiving a scholarship, but is refused because of her race. The news is delivered by her teacher and mentor, the woman who nominated her and knows her worth more than most. The mentor forced to deliver news that she considers unjust and goes against her own principles, to a brilliant, blameless student whose life will be changed forever by this decision. Two women, friends, forced apart by cruel social circumstances. The moment is ripe with drama, and yet the Caucasian actress - possibly an extra - delvers her lines flat, is hardly seen, and after a quick reaction shot of Emmy we are back to the baseball. The film is a montage of such missed opportunities and missteps.

The saving grace here is the acting. Satoshi Tsumabuki astutely realises less is more in his portrayal of reluctant leader Reggie. Koichi Sato as his pugnacious, ignorant father is cast against type but pulls it off. Mitsuki Takahata excels, her Emmy being humane, vulnerable, but also exhibiting some steel that inspires the players. A cast of famous Japanese supporting actors keep the level high.

Unfortunately, the script gives them very little to work with. There are various little melodramas swirling around the immigrant families and the failed assimilation of the community, but they are lite fare that are less than involving. Strangely, there is not a single romance subplot. Instead, we get a husband who prefers baseball practice to his bean paste family business. A son despairs of his father's return to the motherland. A hotel busboy is laid off. These stories are all surface level moments, with no depth, layers, or nuance. A cast of bar customers provides a Greek chorus on events, so the presence of a second chorus, hookers-with-hearts-of-gold who do no more than look down on the games and smile, is superfluous and time-consuming. The players are all supposed to be second-generation Japanese but their English gives the lie to that, while the Canadians seem mostly to have been cast from gaijin extras, exacerbating the gap with the Japanese pros who shine in their use of meagre fare.

Domestic audiences will enjoy the triumph of Japanese guile over gaijin brawn, though that message is somewhat tempered by the background newsreels of Japan's expanding military aggression. When Reggie thanks his father for bringing them to Canada, you sense he is more grateful for missing the Japanese draft than for any intrinsic attraction to Canada. International audiences will be less appreciative of the made-for-TV feel to the narrative, and the lack of emotional pay-off.
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clever, entertaining, moving
20 September 2014
Golden Slumber is a conspiracy tale about an everyday guy framed for a political assassination. It is a portrait of nostalgia and friendship. It is a critique of modern Japan's lapdog media and uncritical consumer citizenry. It is also slyly comic.

Nakamura studs his cast design with rockabilly boys, b-list starlets, aging anarchists, and an avenging outlaw, sprawled over 139 minutes, in a narrative that strains but does not break. It is all pulled together in some wonderfully moving moments, as motifs such as fireworks, teachers' gold stars, and personal quirks such as pressing lift buttons with one's thumb recur and are given layered meaning. Great scenes abound - the father telling his son through a media frenzy to escape is both hilarious, and a powerful dig at Japan's lynch mob media.

Yûko Takeuchi as a loyal ex has never been better. Teruyuki Kagawa is his usual reliable self, oozing menace. Masato Sakai leads the line as the naive Masaharu Aoyagi, the fall guy who learns to grow a pair as his troubles pile up. His expressions, both pure and embittered, reveal an actor who knows acting is reacting. The comedy is entertaining, but the emotional punch is perhaps surprising given the significant shift in tone it requires.

A clever, engaging script that holds you all the way. Highly recommended.
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