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KID STUFF
We gotta get out of this place

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Directed by
Jake Kasdan

Starring
Dwayne Johnson & Jack Black

Opens April 6 (119 minutes)

First off, this sequel to the popular Robin Williams-starring 1995 movie has little in common with it other than the fact that the plot is about young people who are literally sucked into a game. Twenty years ago, it was a board game, which was already a quaint relic of the target demographic's parents' childhoods. This time, the device is more relevant in that while the game is still a quaint relic to the adolescents of 2018, it's at least a video game, something they may be able to understand with authority. What sets the sequel several notches above the original is its exploitation of the social hierarchies that have been a staple of teen movies since the Ice Age. There's the self-aware, intelligent nerd, Spencer (Alex Wolff), his bully, the athlete Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), the hot cheerleader type, Bethany (Madison Iseman), and the unassuming female nerd, Martha (Morgan Turner). When these four come together by accident in the vicinity of the magical video game, they are transported to the game's video environment, a jungle in a kind of primordial world, and transformed into four of the characters from the game. So the nerd becomes the buff hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), the bully becomes the klutzy manservant Moose (Keven Hart), the female nerd becomes the curvy athletic chick, Ruby (Karen Gillan), and, most interestingly, the cheerleader turns into the portly male explorer, Prof. Oberon, whose casting—Jack Black—is divinely inspired. Consequently, the action prerogatives that govern the game are now overlapped with the hormonal urges of four kids who are peculiarly ill-equipped to carry out their tasks in the game, but in order for them to escape the game and return to their normal lives, they have to get through it, and to do that they have to work together, despite conditioned attitudes to the contrary. Director Jake Kasdan's main challenge is explaining the workings of the game without getting in the way of the character development (i.e., immature types learning to be adults real fast), and I, at least, never really got the game, but that may be due to the fact that I'm not the target demographic and have little patience for role-playing. But that doesn't mean I couldn't enjoy the film as entertainment. For sure, the adult actors seem to be having the times of their lives as they confront one perilous adventure after another. Johnson takes to his nerd persona like a champ and while Kevin Hart essentially just does his panicky black guy thing, Black is stoked to be playing a hot babe in the body of a four-eyed porker. The only real failure is Bobby Cannavale as the game-bound villain, a character who is already over-determined. Cannavale just makes him hysterical. -PB

Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5013)

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungler" (c) Sony Pictures Entertaiment Inc.

 

 

FUNNY BUNNY
But Bugs he ain't

Peter Rabbit

Directed by
Will Gluck

Starring
James Corden & Domhnall Gleeson

Opens May 18 (95 minutes)

This CGI-boosted live action adaptation of Beatrix Potter's beloved children's book series informs viewers right away that they shouldn't expect a romp through nostalgia. Voiced by James Corden, the titular bunny has been turned into a wise-cracking scamp enamored of scatological humor and practical jokes. That said, parents shouldn't despair they are taking their kids to see a vulgar abomination. Will Gluck's film has more in common with the Paddington movies than the Shrek series. And adults may actually appreciate the fact that Gluck does away with anything that smacks of gratuitous sentimentality. If the movie can be said to have a plot, it has to do with Peter and his gang of rabbit pals terrorizing toy shop manager Thomas McGregor (Domnhall Gleeson), after he inherits the country estate of his great-uncle, who kicked the bucket, it would seem, due to the stress of trying to outsmart the bunny brigade that made his life so miserable—though an addiction to junk food is suggested as well. That bit of plot-oriented business is really the only connection to Potter's original stories, and while the author did make her hero a rascal, it characterization was tempered by Miss Potter's anodyne water colors, which Gluck only alludes to by making sure Peter is attired in the classic blue jacket, but right away he also points out the naughty child's observation that Peter "doesn't wear pants." In any case, all-out war ensues between the younger, less-sure-of-himself McGregor and Peter's army of furry compadres, a conflict complicated by the human's burgeoning affections for a neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne), whose affections are clearly aligned with the four-footed denizens of the district, though they're diluted somewhat by Peter's breezy disregard for community politic. Since the plot is disposable, Gluck has ample opportunity for silly sight gags that work more often than they don't, and thanks to Corden's unexplainable cachet with a multi-cultural youth demographic, he brings a certain acceptability to up-to-the-minute jokes about twerking and food allergies (an allusion that has gotten the film in trouble, though the Japanese distributor hasn't deleted it). Peter's persecutions of the poor dork become sadistic to the point where you may take sides yourself. Home Alone at least had victims who deserved their poked eyes and virtual tar-and-feathering. McGregor is just immature and lost, and in that regard the old-fashioned production values repurpose the tonal contrasts to the film's advantage. By using the trappings of modern technology (animal traps, electronic security, etc.) against their human users, Peter takes a stand for the kind of sensibility that prompted Miss Potter to write the books in the first place. Peter is essentially the first environmental terrorist, but with a penchant for dirty jokes. -PB

Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060)

"Peter Rabbit" (c) 2018 Sony Pictures Entertainment (Japan)

 

Tomb Raider The King
 

Warner Brothers reboots the video game-based series that launched Angelina Jolie's sub-career as an action babe, this time with another young star just coming away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress—Alicia Vikander. Lara Croft's story is retold from scratch, and local fans will be tickled to learn that the impetus for Lara's following in the footsteps of her archaeologist father (Dominic West) is that, when he went missing 7 years earlier he was trying to locate the "lost tomb of Himiko," the ancient queen of Japan. However, too much of the movie is concerned with getting a purchase on Lara's streak of rebelliousness. She openly contradicts the boat captain (Daniel Wu) who is helping her retrace her father's movements before his disappearance. As a result, the movie seems less interested in her martial skills than her personality traits, but informed sources say that the mechanics of Roar Uthaug's film are closer to those of the original game than to the Jolie film series, which means real fans of the game are the target demographic, if they're still interested in such things. -RS

Now playing. (130 min.)
Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881)

 

A slick conflation of gangster cinema and up-to-the-minute social commentary, Han Jae-rim's political potboiler stakes its fortunes on Tae-soo (Cho In-sung), the ne'er-do-well son of a low-level criminal who survives the ruthless Korean public school system with his fists until he wises up to the fact that it's brains that will see him through. His hard work eventually lands him in the prosecutor's office, where he apprentices under the opportunistic tutelage of Kang-sik (Jung Woo-sung) during the administrations of not one, but four presidents. Han's use of documentary verisimilitude to flesh out Tae-soo's decidedly melodramatic rise to the top often feels forced but it does lend the movie a measure of relevance vis-a-vis current events. Tae-soo's eventual turn to the righteous end of his calling feels inevitable but the shift in tone at the end is so jarring as to make everything before it seem suspect. Obviously, Korean viewers will be able to glean more substance from the story's development, but despite the skill in the direction and acting, the writing is too conventionally schematic. -PB

Now playing. In Korean. (134 min.)
Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831)

 

Desperate Man Blues On Body and Soul
 

Originally released in 2003, this documentary about record collector Joe Bussard has a timeless theme compromised by dodgy craft. Bussard, a native of Maryland, is America's foremost archivist of pre-war blues, country, bluegrass, and jazz. In the basement of his house he keeps thousands of 78s in beige sleeves and a state of the art sound system. His enthusiasms are obvious: We first see Joe in his man cave sitting, smoking a cigar, and frantically bopping to some scratchy R&B. Joe has absolutely no use for any music released after 1950, meaning rock n roll. "Rock is the cancer of music," he says mischievously and, according to the filmmakers, with impeccable authority. We follow Joe as he travels the rural South, randomly knocking on people's doors, asking if they have records in their attics or garages he can buy. This is where he finds treasures, not on eBay, but in real places. Joe's passion is infectious and his stories of early musicians priceless, but the filmmakers seem intimidated and never really get to the bottom of his personal obsession. It's rather pedantic, in fact. -PB

Opens April 21. (52 min.)
Shinjuku K's Cinema (03-3352-2471)

 

Set in a sterile office complex attached to an abattoir, this Hungarian fantasy never thematically lives up to its formal rigor. Our protagonist is the slaughterhouse safety inspector, Maria (Alexandra Borbely), who adheres to a routine informed by an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Though she abhors human contact, she makes an exception for Endre (Geza Morcsanyi), a financial director with a useless arm who is at least 20 years older. The director, Ildiko Enyedi, takes her time getting to the romantic nub of the story, and on the way reaps the allegorical harvest of her rich setting. She takes particular care comparing the gruesome task of meat production to the grinding sexual innuendo seething through the workforce. It's in opposition to this ugly mood that our two imperfect heroes embark on their tryst, but rather than show how love survives even in such an environment, Enyedi is more interested in creating a supernatural connection between the two via dreams about wild deer finding each other. I suppose the two ideas are mutually supporting, but the symbolism often seems to be the goal rather than a means to its achievement. -PB

Opens April 14. In Hungarian. (116 min.)
Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645)

 

BLACK MAN'S BURDEN
Give it up for Africa

Black Panther

Directed by
Ryan Coogler

Starring
Chadwick Boseman & Michael B. Jordan

Now playing (134 minutes)

By now it's difficult to separate the hype surrounding this extraordinary blockbuster from its qualities as a work of art, and while art may not necessarily have been what the filmmakers were after foremost, they certainly endeavored to make this latest entry in the expanding Marvel Comics universe more momentous than other recent superhero movies. But even within the preordained structural conditions that come with Marvel movies, Black Panther stands out, and not just because almost all the characters are black. Director Ryan Coogler has already proven, with Creed, that he can take a popular and beloved predigested film series and make it fresh by rejiggering its focus to appeal to black audiences. What distinguishes Black Panther is its attention not only to the action details all moviegoers demand these days, but to the particulars of the black experience in nuanced and refined ways. The quick, effective opener explains the fictional African country of Wakanda and its development as a superior technological nation thanks to the auspicious arrival of a meteor eons ago carrying a vital metal called vibranium. The futuristic city built upon this element is kept mostly shielded from the world, but the tribes that thrive under its dominion continue to practice the ancient traditions, only with more responsibility because of their blessing. Wakanda is a utopia, and Coogler's genius is in contrasting it with the lot of people of color throughout the world, in particular African-Americans. The requisite conflict, in fact, is precipated by one of Wakanda's royalty, N'Jobu, exiling himself to California due to his objection to Wakanda's self-imposed neutrality in the face of his race's subjugation at the hands of "colonizers." He is sought out by his brother, T'Chaka, who finds him in Oakland and brands him a traitor, killing him in the process, thus setting the stage for when N'Jobu's son, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), challenges T'Chaka's son, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), for the throne of Wakanda. By this time, T'Challa is king, and thus assumes the identity of Black Panther, whose super powers are derived from vibranium, some of which is stolen by a white arms merchant (Andy Serkis) being chased by the CIA. This plot development makes for the only really uncomfortable bit in the movie, since T'Challa must work with the American government to get back his metal. It also means the CIA is instrumental in helping Wakanda fight off Killmonger's scheme to bring Wakanda out of the shadows and on to the world stage as a righteous defender of the oppressed, and it's hard not to argue with that, especially when it's couched in Jordan's street smart dialect. In fact, Killmonger's mission, even as it runs up against the noble heroics of Black Panther, never feels compromised. You almost wish he'd wipe that stupid grin off the CIA's face. -PB

Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063)

"Black Panther" (c) Marvel Studios 2018

 

Darkest Hour  

The Commuter

 
Like his previous screenplay forThe Theory of Everything, Anthony McCarten's script for this study of how Winston Churchill became the first man in Europe to stand up to Hitler is built on histrionic episodes that stretch reality. The difference is that the Hawking biopic encompassed a lifetime, while Darkest Hour covers less than a month. Though much has been made of Gary Oldman's Oscar-winning performance as Churchill, like the incredible makeup work that does half the job for him, McCarten's purple-faced dialogue and Joe Wright's overwrought direction allow the viewer to avoid nuanced understanding of what precipitated the crisis. We're meant to see that Churchill's wild temperament and huge appetites are what make a great leader in such an emergency, not to mention a wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) who humors every selfish bloviation. (What's a "great man theory of history" without a "woman behind"?) Though Darkest Hour is undeniably stirring, its motives on the eve of Brexit can't help but seem suspect when the only persons with any backbone in the film are Churchill and his plucky typist (Lily James). -PB

Opens March 30. (125 min.)
Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001)

 

Liam Neeson still hasn't lost his unique action star mojo, and this shrewd feature from the reliable Jaume Collet-Serra is one of his best. Neeson plays a middle class drone named MacCauley who is suddenly laid off by his New York insurance company without much in the way of financial security. Dejected, he boards his usual train back home and falls for the intrigues of a woman, Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him money in exchange for his participation in a "social experiment," that turns out to be something more. MacCauley has to find a certain person on the train and kill him, otherwise his own wife and son will be killed. Collet-Serra doesn't try to justify the ludicrousness of this story, but in Neeson he's got an actor who makes ludicrousness fun through the intensity of his desperation, which becomes nerve-wrackingly visceral as the plot grinds on. What makes The Commuter more than its dumb plot is the way Neeson and his director use the commonplaces of the commuter experience to vivify their action scenes. It's quite a ride. -RS

Opens March 30. (105 min.)
Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5013)

     
Call Me By Your Name Wonderstruck
 
Unlike his previous films, Luca Guadagnino's adaptation of Andre Aciman's novel has a solid plot line that sometimes confounds his natural desire to subvert narrative conventions, but it also includes those thematic touchstones so dear to his heart, namely the superiority of European culture despite its continuing decay. Seventeen-year old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) lives with his archaeologist American father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Italian mother (Amira Casar) in a gorgeous Italian villa. Per tradition, the father invites a grad student from the U.S. to study with him for the summer, and this year it's the charming, handsome, and devilishly intelligent Oliver (Armie Hammer). After circling for what seems an eternity, Elio and Oliver embark on a love affair that Guadagnino approaches with uncommon (for him) thoughtfulness. The attraction is based as much on mutual enmity (Elio finds Oscar too Americanly cavalier; Oscar thinks Elio's precociousness a shade) as on sexual attraction, and these two aspects are balanced with subtle dexterity. It's moving but might have been even more so if the trappings weren't so materially excessive. -PB

Opens April 27. In English, Italian and French. (132 min.)
Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001)

 

Once again Todd Haynes proves to be the most adept recreationist of mid-20th century America, but unlike in Carol and Far From Heaven, his storytelling here is overshadowed by his production design. Based on a children's book, the movie's parallel plotting shifts between 1970s and 1920s New York, to where children have run away in search of an absent parent. In the 1970s, preteen Ben (Oakes Fegley), deafened by a lightning strike, navigates the dirty metropolis to find his father after his mother (Michelle Williams) is killed in a crash. The girl (Millicent Simmonds) in the 1920s story is permanently deaf, and Haynes presents her scenes without dialogue and in monochrome, a trite conceit the director would normally ace, but here it blunts the story's emotional acuity. Julianne Moore appears in the 1920s story as the girl's entertainer mother and in the 1970s story as Ben's savior, but the obvious connections are not played for mystery, only for bathos. Haynes is pretty good at making sentiment affecting, so you may be wonderstruck at how ambivalently he reaches for your tear ducts. -PB

Opens April 6. (117 min.)
Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015)

     

 

THAT 80s SHOW
A little pop culture with your VR?

Ready Player One

Directed by
Steven Spielberg

Starring
Tye Sheridan & Olivia Cooke

Opens April 20 (140 minutes)

Steven Spielberg's return to sci-fi/fantasy territory after more than a decade seems like a calculated attempt to not show his age. Though most of the press surrounding Ready Player One has been about the original bestseller's reliance on the kind of 1980s movies that Spielberg had a hand in either creating or influencing, the movie is very up-to-the-minute in terms of gamer sensibility, and face it, most people Spielberg's age are not into computer games. I wonder, in fact, if Spielberg is himself. Consequently, one's appreciation for the nuances of the plotting and the character development will depend a lot not only on how well versed one is in computer game logic and minutae, but also one's patience in learning as you go. The story takes place in 2045, when the class divide has opened widely and most people spend a good chunk of their lives playing online virtual reality games, the most prominent of which is called Oasis, invented by the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance). As the name implies, Oasis lets people escape from the grind of their everyday lives, and there you can literally do anything. But the main scope of the game is a three-part quest that Halliday left behind, the winner of which earns the right to control Oasis. Naturally, a major corporation, IOI, is bent on completing the quest, but it's a poor kid from the "stacks" (a vertically oriented trailer park) of Columbus, Ohio, named Wade (Tye Sheridan) who figures out the secret to the quest, and under the guise of his game avatar he enlists the help of other gamers, Artemis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe). When the CEO (Ben Mendelsohn) of IOI sees how close Wade is getting to the prize, he pulls out all the stops to prevent both Wade in real life and his avatar from reaching the goal. Otherwise, the movie is one long chase scene and Spielberg doesn't weigh it down with a lot of exposition, though he does tend to get rather jiggy with the pop culture references (reportedly, the book had even more). An extended sequence that references Kubrick's The Shining even provides a precis on the differences between the movie and Stephen King's original novel. ("I don't like scary movies!" screams Aech as the elevator doors open...) Of course, it wouldn't be a Spielberg movie without some sort of underlying moral, and here it seems to be to "keep it real," meaning that despite the huge amount of resources put into gaming, people eventually have to address the mess of their waking lives, and while that goes without saying, Spielberg's depiction of the virtual world is such that you can see why no one ever wants to leave it. -PB

Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881)

"Ready Player One" (c) 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

 

Red Sparrow Oh Lucy!
 

The Cold War lives in Francis Lawrence's adaptation of a novel that has no right being a bestseller in a universe still occupied by John Le Carre. Though set in contemporary Russia, all the heady signifiers that made Le Carre's adaptations so irresistible—the toxic masculinity, the romanticization of betrayal—are ramped up to 11 in Red Sparrow. Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika, a prima ballerina who may or may not have been Tonya Hardinged by her dance partner, but in any case, her premature retirement sets the stage for her recruitment by an evil uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) into the country's spy ranks as a "sparrow"—a woman who entraps enemy agents through sex. After receiving her "training" from the frumpily doctrinaire Matron (Charlotte Rampling), she is sent to reel in a Vienna-based CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who is looking to reconnect with his Russian mole. The main problem is not the unnecessarily convoluted plot, which at least has the merit of cranking up the luridness, but rather the reliance on espionage cliches that no longer have any purchase in our post-Trumpian world. -PB

Opens March 30. In Russian-accented English. (140 min.)
Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5013)

  Atsuko Hirayanagi explores familiar screwball archetypes in her debut feature, and while most have been well presented by other Japanese directors, they've never attempted them in a cross-cultural setting. Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is an uptight, lonely single woman working a dead-end OL job in Tokyo and living in a frightfully messy apartment. She seems this close to self-annihilating breakdown when her saucy niece (Shioli Kutsuna) talks her into signing up for English lessons with her teacher, an earnest American named John (Josh Hartnett). With a pedagogic style that uses hugs and wigs to fortify the role play endemic to Japanese language learning, John wins Setsuko over, and she becomes enamored of not only her new persona, Lucy, but John himself. When he suddenly leaves Japan with her niece in tow, she is eager to join her annoyed sister (Kaho Minami) on the California journey to find them. There, the movie opens up in startling ways and you appreciate not only Hirayanagi's astute understanding of American differences, but also Terashima's empathy with an inherently unlikable character. -PB

Opens April 28. In Japanese & English. (95 min.)
Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211)


A Taxi Driver

Coco
 
Non-Korean viewers may need more back story than what's provided here in order to appreciate the historical import of Jag Hoon's film, but since Korean epics of this nature often use the past to their own melodramatic advantage, not knowing that back story in no way diminishes the emotional effect. After the coup of 1979, the military declared martial law and exercised a brutal crackdown on dissent. The widowed Seoul taxi driver, Man-seop (Song Kang-ho), only cares about his fares and his young daughter, and when he steals a customer from a rival cabbie because he's going south to Gwangju—a big payday—he could care less that the German journalist, Jurgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann), is secretly going to cover the rumored slaughter of student protesters. But in due time Man-seop not only discovers the truth, but also his own latent sense of righteousness. Though Eom Yu-na's screenplay is dense with both local detail and sentimental overkill, it's unflinching in its depiction of the atrocities. It's a genuine and infuriating human drama. -PB

Opens April 21. In Korean & English. (137 min.)
Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831)

 

All Pixar films address a child's burgeoning understanding of mortality. In their latest feature this dynamic is addressed directly. Set in Mexico and referencing with great respect that country's tradition of the Day of the Dead, the story centers on Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), the 12-year-old child of a family of shoemakers. Enamored of music but forbidden from playing it by some odd quirk of lineage, Miguel practices his avocation in secret, studying the work of legendary cowboy singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). When his family finds out, they demand he stick to shoemaking, and Miguel rebels by running away to audition at a local talent show, thus missing out on his family's Day of the Dead celebration. But on his way, Miguel actually finds himself in the land of the dead, where his family's secrets are revealed. Though informed greatly by tradition, Pixar's magical world is very much a closed system of wonder, tethered to the idea that the dead can only "survive" if they are remembered by the living. Great music. -RS

Now playing. (105 min.)
Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060)

 

FOURTH ESTATE INTRIGUE
Power grabs in the age of pay phones

The Post

Directed by
Steven Spielberg

Starring
Meryl Streep & Tom Hanks

Now playing (116 minutes)

Trust Steven Spielberg to make the Pentagon Papers story about 2018 rather than 1971, even as he zeroes in on the trappings of the time—rotary phones, newspaper trucks, cocktail parties—as if they were as vital to our understanding of the story as the Vietnam War itself. Nevertheless, Spielberg's anal attention to detail makes it easier to understand this convoluted tale, which was as much about the economics of newspapers as it was about Constitutional freedoms and the limits of the executive branch of American government. At the moment Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked the documents to the country's major newspapers, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), the owner of the Washington Post since her husband's suicide in 1963, was about to take the paper public. Until then, it had been a local medium with little national influence, something sober but ambitious editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) wanted to change. Much is made of Graham's decision to publish the damning documents after a court prevented the New York Times from doing so, against the wishes of her investors. Spielberg and his able screenwriters, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, reduce everything to intrigue, making the money issues just as momentous as the legal ones. Much is made, at least near the end, of how the struggle to get the Pentagon Papers to the public set the stage for the real battle between press and power that became the Watergate scandal several years later, since the combatants were two and the same, but Spielberg's peculiar skills as an entertainer are much more in evidence here than any on display in All the President's Men. Though the mechanics of journalism provide the most visceral thrills—standing by phones (pay phones, no less!) waiting for corroborating sources, poring over reams of documents looking for clues that no one even knows exist—it's really the scenes with Graham and her investors that give the movie its charge of transgression. With Hanks on hand, you can always expect a moralizing speech about something, and here he get a few about the responsibility of the press and the tendency for power to assert its absoluteness in the absence of scrutiny. The actor's folksy charm, however, can't erase Jason Robards' more convincing take on the character, but he's there at Spielberg's bidding, not the world's or even Bradlee's. And by casting actors who are nominally comedians in choice roles—David Cross, Zach Woods, and, most especially Bob Odenkirk as the reporter who essentially provided the shoe leather that old-school journalists depended on—he ground the thriller elements in everyday heroics. It's very exciting, to say the least. -PB

Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5013)

"The Post" (c) Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. and Storyteller Dist. Co. LLC

 

I, Tonya Butterfly Sleep
 

The gimmick behind this biopic of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) is that the movie tries to be as tabloid-ready as her life. Rather than present the unfortunate aspects of Harding's working-class upbringing as central to a tragedy, director Craig Gillespie works them for all their condescending comic potential. And as we simultaneously laugh and cringe at Tonya's crude tastes and potty mouth, her husband Jeff's (Sebastian Stan) DV explosions, and her mother's (Allison Janney) cartoonish tough love act, we are also entertained and enlightened, because better than any movie this season I, Tonya captures the schizophrenic frisson of the post-Reagan American dream. The Nancy Kerrigan maiming incident that got Harding banned from competitive skating, while meticulously explicated, isn't even the core of the movie. Rather, it's Tonya's heartbreaking and justified confidence in her formidable capabilities, despite every indication that a girl like her is never going to be taken seriously by the skating establishment. She ain't no hero, for sure, but she's great at what she does and she knows it. -PB -PB

Opens May 4. (120 min.)
Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001)

 

Having spent most of the last decade working on a documentary trilogy about architecture, South Korean Jeong Jae-eun returns to narrative filmmaking with this homage to Japanese soaps starring one of her personal heroes, Miho Nakayama, who practically invented the genre in the 90s. To further add to the tribute, Jeong's story is set in Japan and co-stars Korean heartthrob Kim Jaeuck as Chaeun, a Korean exchange student who becomes an assistant to Nakayama's middle aged novelist, Ryoko, before turning into her lover. When Ryoko's forgetfulness turns out to be early onset Alzheimer's she breaks off the relationship but Chaeun resists, insisting he be there until the end. Jeong treats the whole affair as Ryoko would in one of her bestselling romantic stories, meaning tastefully and with plenty of room for big emotional set pieces. Given that she's called upon to reveal a darker side to her character, Nakayama does better than expected, but she's no Bette Davis in Dark Victory. Even in her premature dotage she retains the poise of a true idol, because that's something else people expect. -PB

Opens May 12. In Japanese & Korean. (112 min.)
Kadokawa Cinema Shinjuku (03-5361-7878)

     
The Florida Project   In the Fade
 

In his previous feature, Tangerine, Sean Baker entered a marginalized subculture and found the dramatic kernel that made its situation general. In his newest film, the subculture is not so rarefied—poor residents of motels in the tourist enclave of Orlando—but the impulse to empathize remains. He focuses on children during summer vacation, especially the five-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a natural troublemaker and the only child of the wantonly irresponsible Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley's desperation is understandable, as is her anger at the world, though mostly she takes it out on other unfortunates, like Ashley (Mela Murder), who eventually forbids her own child from hanging out with Moonee when she learns they started a fire in an abandoned condo. It's obvious Halley turns tricks on occasion, and the motel manager (Willem Dafoe) looks the other way for as long as possible, but eventually the chickens come home. Baker sees this milieu as typical and extraordinary at the same time, and locates the tragedy at the heart of one of the "happiest places on earth."-PB

Opens May 12. (112 min.)
Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955)

 

Director Fatih Akin's most conventional film to date is part crime thriller, part comment on nationalist fanaticism in present-day Germany. Diane Krueger plays Katja, a former addict married to a former drug dealer (Numan Acar) who is Turkish. They work together helping other immigrants. They are survivors of personal bad choices, and their domestic happiness—they also have a son—is depicted as a kind of sanctuary. That well-being is shattered when Katja's husband and child are killed in a hate-related bombing. Katja knows that neo-Nazis planted the bomb but is unable to convince the authorities, who still don't trust her. Eventually, they catch some suspects, and Katja becomes so involved in their prosecution that she loses all perspective on her situation. The defendants' lawyers make a ridiculous case that Katja's and her husband's past transgressions somehow make them complicit in the deaths and Katja essentially goes off the deep end. The ending will satisfy a kind of reverse Death Wish impulse in certain moviegoers. It's exciting, even understandable, but not convincing. -RS

Opens April 14. In German. (106 min.)
Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670)

 

THE UNFAMILY
A searing take on Russian domesticity

Loveless

Directed by
Andrey Zvyagintsev

Starring
Maryana Spivak & Aleksey Rosin

Opens April 17. In Russian (127 minutes)

 

Andrey Zvyagintsev's Oscar-nominated feature is about a subject the movies have pondered forever—how a child does or doesn't survive a broken home. We are meant to understand that the boy in question, 12-year-old Alexey (Matvey Novikov), doesn't necessarily survive, though in what form is never made clear. The director is more interested in the broken home itself, and how it ended up that way. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rosin) are already separated when the movie starts, but due to Moscow's problematic housing situation they still legally occupy the same apartment, but spend the bulk of their time with their respective lovers somewhere else. In two crucial and meticulously staged scenes, Zvyagintsev lays out the emotional stakes. In one, the parents fight savagely over their individual but not very different senses of entitlement as the boy cowers in the bathroom, horrified by the implications. In another, each parent has sex with their partners in settings more calm and agreeable, but without knowing that Alexey is already gone. This sort of dramatic dynamic by means of subtraction is one of Zvyagintsev's trademarks, and it's never been used to more shocking effect. The audience knows, or, at least, suspects more than the characters do, and so we squirm as we watch them gradually come up to speed. As disagreeable as these people are—Zhenya has taken up with a rich older man, seemingly for the material perks, while Boris's younger girlfriend is already pregnant with his child—the viewer can't help be feel torn as they come to grips with the disappearance of a child they had obviously taken for granted for too long. If there's any disgust displayed it's mainly in the faces and attitudes of the constabulary who act as if this sort of thing happened way too often. Normally, the police in such movies are held up as either bureaucratic obstacles or dogged keepers of the public faith. Here, their actions are more nuanced, because they understand how modern life has simultaneously institutionalized a fake sense of domestic order and destroyed the bonds that once kept families together. As Zhenya and Boris pursue each fruitless lead and become the objects of damning insinuations by the authorities, they strike at each other with even greater emotional violence. The police are concerned but act as if this is what happens all the time. These parents are horrified by their own neglect, which doesn't change the lovelessness that drove their son away. In a sense, you almost hope the boy is never found. -PB

Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715)

"Loveless" (c) 2017 Non-Stop Productions - Why Not Productions

 

 

 

 

 

Movie Reviews by
Phil Brasor (PB)
R.Scott (RS)
Rachel Ferguson (RF)
Nicholas Vroman (NV)
Masako Tsubuku (MT)

 

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