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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: 13th

            There is a lot going on again in the news, including the GOP’s shameless efforts to deny health care to the poorest among us, internet privacy and net neutrality, the ongoing investigations into Trump’s Russia contacts, and the growing nuclear threat from North Korea (to name JUST a few), but this month I want to focus on one aspect of the Trump administration’s effect on society that might be slipping under some people’s radar; his executive return, through Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to the language and tactics of federal drug wars of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. 

            For decades, being “tough on crime” and finding creative ways to use mandatory minimum sentencing and other punitive measures to expand our nation’s jails became a political cottage industry all its own.  Since the 70’s, this has caused such a spike in our prison population that the United States now has the highest incarceration rate, as well as the highest raw numbers of incarcerated citizens, anywhere in the world.  The effects of this have been particularly concentrated within African-American neighborhoods, devastating minority communities in every corner of the country. 

            At long last, though, towards the end of the Obama administration, we finally had some grounds for hope that this was changing.  Amidst increasing partisan rancor, one of the few areas of common agreement was a growing realization across the aisle that our War on Drugs and the push for mass incarceration had been a terrible mistake.  De-criminalization of drugs like marijuana has been spreading state-by-state, Hillary Clinton’s past use of the term “superpredator” came back to haunt her during the primaries, and for a little while it looked like Congress might actually act to reduce or roll back harsh sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenses. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder used the levers of the federal government to push prosecutors towards using more reasonable discretion in sentencing, and the last months of Obama’s term in office included a flurry of Presidential pardons for people convicted of low-level offenses. 

            As far as federal policy is concerned, this has all been tossed out the window completely since Donald Trump took office and installed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.  Sessions has already started rolling back federal investigations into civil rights violations (including, but not limited to, those committed by police departments), encouraged more widespread abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws, pushed prosecutors to return to seeking the harshest-possible sentences for low-level offenders, and lavished praise on old drug-prevention programs like D.A.R.E despite literally decades of evidence that they did nothing to prevent drug use among children, and in some cases may have even made things worse.

            This is to say nothing of Trump’s most-most-recent horrifying speech, where he urged police officers to be even more violent when arresting suspects.  Even if the current public spat between Trump and Sessions does eventually result in Sessions leaving or being fired, it is overwhelmingly likely that whoever else fills the Attorney General role will be of the same mold, since this particularly cruel brand of “tough on crime” populism was one of the core features of Trump’s campaign.  No matter whose face heads it, as long as the GOP is in power, federal policy will continue to shift towards the racist and counterproductive crime policies of the Nixon and Reagan years. 

            The scope of this idiocy is breathtaking, the cynicism and hypocrisy mind-numbing, and the potential further destruction that could come down on African-American communities as a result of all this is sickening.  There is already a lot happening, enough to make it hard for most to keep up, and the centuries of complex and emotionally charged history behind all this is a particularly dense topic that can be hard to parse through, especially since our culture bitterly fights any effort to recognize the racism inherent in our society today.  

            Thankfully, Ava DuVernay (yes, that Ava DuVernay) proved herself more than equal to this weighty task with her follow-up to Selma, the Netflix documentary special 13th, which came out last year and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature.  Beginning with the titular 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which officially banned slavery throughout the country, she neatly draws us through how a tiny loophole in the original language allowed the eventual establishment of new forms slavery by criminalizing the very idea of blackness within our culture, and what effect that has had on current generations of minorities struggling to keep their hard-earned place in the sun.  DuVernay powerfully uses the visual medium of film to collect and present all this, including a brutal montage combining scenes from Trump rallies in 2016 with attacks on Civil Rights marchers in the 50’s and 60’s.  It is a visceral punch to the gut; it ranks as one of the best bits of historical filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and it was the primary (but not the only) reason I named this movie my Film of the Year for 2016

             Not that you should stop at just watching this movie; there is a bevy of excellent work out there, both artistic and scholarly, that tackle things like the myths of superpredators, the explicitly racist (and partisan) origins of the War on Drugs, and the current financial underpinnings of this sick subset of our economy, and all of them are worth your time.  This movie should merely be seen as a jumping-off point, as it clearly lays out the history behind all this while also pointing out some of the many ways we can push back and alter this system  going forward (provided, of course, we can find the collective will to do so). 

            It’s just one of many areas where history is rapidly catching up to us, but through movies like this we can quickly bring ourselves up to speed and do our best to not be blindsided by what comes next. 

            Stay strong, and keep fighting, my friends. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Nippon Review: Dynamite Wolf (Ossan No Kefei)

Ossan No Kefei (Dynamite Wolf): Written by Natsu Hashimoto, directed by Kohei Taniguchi.  Starring: Yota Kawase, Yusuke Matsuda, Haruto Kobayashi, Susumu Noda, Shiruya Jinbo.  Running Time: 71 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Dynamite Wolf follows the time-honored formula for a coming-of-age story revolving around a sport; establish the lonely, oddball nature of the main character and his small coterie of friends, have them discover through happenstance an entire sports universe previously unknown to them, arrange them to meet an older mentor-figure who himself is struggling for professional redemption, and watch their friendship bloom despite being deeply misunderstood by society.  Throw in a classmate bully who could (maybe) have a change of heart by the end, frustrated background parents, and a subplot involving authority figures at the school, and you have all the elements you need for a heartwarming tale of a boy finding his own little niche in the world. 

            Hiroto and his friends are all struggling over a simple questionnaire from the school asking all students to name their talent and to demonstrate it to the class.  Bereft of an answer, they spent their free time skipping stones into the river, until they notice a strange man on the other side who always spends his afternoons wrestling with a blow-up doll.  Intrigued, Hiroto follows hum and soon discovers a local underground wrestling scene, where the leading champion is one Dynamite Wolf, a mysterious figure whose real identity is unknown.  Hiroto becomes convinced that this lonely man by the river is THE Dynamite Wolf, and persuades him to teach him and his friends the art of professional wrestling, deciding that, at last, he’s found his talent. 

            There are a few twists the story takes from there, but while they are fairly predictable I won’t disrespect the film by spoiling them here.  This is a movie that follows its formula to a T, but does it so well that it really doesn’t matter in the end; this is a well-made, well-acted, fun, funny little film that hits all the notes it needs to, and doesn’t break itself trying to do more.  Hiroto and his pals have great chemistry together, and I was grateful the story never tried to toss an extra loop into the ring where they turn on each other over some silly misunderstanding; they know they can count on each other, even when they get on each other’s nerves. 

            Like with any solid movie, this film takes a world alien to my own experience (in this case, professional masked wrestling) and allows me to catch a glimpse of how someone can get so into it.  The filmmakers sought to shoot everything from the perspective of a child, and the best moments of the film succeed wildly in this regard, especially the first time Hiroto ever walks into a ring and sees a professional match for the first time.  It doesn’t reach spectacular visual storytelling heights, but it doesn’t need to.  It’s a small film that knows what it wants to do, goes out, and does it.  And that’s more than enough. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Nippon Review: Raise Your Arms and Twist! Documentary of NMB48

Raise Your Arms and Twist! Documentary of NMB48:  Directed by Atsushi Funahashi.  Produced by Documentary Japan.  Running Time: 121 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Amongst the many bits of Japanese culture that come across to a Westerner as particularly strange, few are as befuddling to someone like myself as the obsession with Japanese female pop idols and the supergroups they form.  Known mostly for relentlessly upbeat, schmaltzy songs with utterly nonsense lyrics, the contradictions and exploitations within this particular cultural industry have been debated in Japan for some time, but are still largely invisible to anyone not particularly interested in Japanese culture.  For such people, Raise Your Arms and Twist! provides an intriguing glimpse into a world I, and many others, neither know nor comprehend. 

            From what I gather, there are a number of these supergroups based in the city in which they were formed.  This film focuses on one in particular, NMB48, based in Osaka (the “48” refers to the number of girls officially part of the group).  We are taken behind the scenes to see the relentless work routines of the girls who form this group, most of whom are still just teenagers when they join.  We learn how the group was formed, that it has something of an underdog status compared to more established acts like AKB48 or HKT48, and we follow the routines of some of the head singers/dancers in the group, each one with their particular goals, desires, and reasons for becoming an idol in the first place. 

            And boy, are these routines exhausting.  There are near-daily live shows in smaller groups for select fans, unending rehearsals for the next performance, preparations for the major singles and music videos, conventions, and more, on top of their normal studies, since nearly all of them are still in school.  Much like the manga industry, it’s a massive factory system meant to churn out hits and produce silly amounts of cash, and people caught up in it are easily consumed by it. 

            This is every bit as true for the fans as it is for the idols themselves.  The biggest demographic for this particular type of pop idol are middle-aged, single men.  From a purely financial point, it makes sense to market to them- they have the means to buy CD after CD and pay premium prices for daily live shows.  They also have the time and cash to afford to come to handshake events, one of the oddest things I’ve ever heard of, where they literally get 30 seconds to shake their favorite idol’s hand until security steps in and forces them away (and they WILL force you away if you dally).  Following some of the more passionate fans and learning about them in parallel to the idols is funny, tragic, and a bit unnerving, all at once.   

            Arguably the biggest problem within the industry this creates is the secularization and objectification of these girls, which influences their lives in insane ways.  One such way rears its head in a scene where an older dancer, upset at having been stuck in the back for years, is finally presenting by the manager with the real reason they’ve been holding her back.  It’s one of the most irritatingly unfair, teeth-gnashing moments I’ve experienced in the theater this year so far. 

            Although the director of the film insisted he tried to maintain objectivity in presenting this subject matter, his distaste for the entire industry is clear throughout the film.  And yet, even with all the cinematic cards stacked against it, I still found myself drawn to it all more than I ever thought possible.  It is, on the one hand, horrifying to see how these girls are exploited, objectified, and used to turn a massive corporate profit.  But on the other hand, when you see the sheer energy, scale, and effort that go into every performance, I also found myself being able to understand why people can get into this.  It is impressive to see their shows.  Their energy is infectious if you’re in the right mindset.  As much as I could never envision supporting this sort of thing, I also found myself growing more and more emotionally invested in the stories of the individual girls interviewed, wanting to know more about what happened to them and where they are now. 

            There are not much in the way of new revelations for anyone already familiar with the broad strokes of the pop idol industry and its many demons, and some efforts at philosophical and artistic reflection on the film’s part often don’t jive with the rest of the movie, but this is still a fascinating and earnest work that leaves all its cards on the table, and allowed me to feel I’d gained a bit more insight into a place strange to my mind.  Which is, in the end, the whole purpose of documentary filmmaking. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Nippon Review: Eriko, Pretended (Mie O Haru)

Mie O Haru (Eriko, Pretended): Written and directed by Akiyo Fujimura.  Starring: Haruka Kubo, Atsuya Okada, Miki Nitori, Hiromi Shinju, and Mayumi.  Running Time: 93 minutes. 

Rating: 2/4

            Eriko, Pretended, the debut feature film of Akiyo Fujimura, centers around the curious job of being a mourner-for-hire, someone sought out by the deceased beforehand to fill out the seats at their funeral and ensure that people cry properly to help them pass into the next world.  Some of you may read that and initially assume it’s just another one of those weird Japanese things, but seat- and-crown filling is actually a tried and true ego-stroking measure across the globe, so hold back on the stereotypes there, pal. 

            The film brings us into this interesting field through the story of Eriko, your standard young adult protagonist in a deep personal crisis, with no passion or interest or idea in where she should go next.  She’s jolted out of her reveries when she hears her sister died in an accident, and she finds herself back in the country dealing with relatives she can barely stand, and trying to take care of a nephew she barely knows.  Intrigued by an old, local mourner-for-hire who seems to be able to make whole rooms cry at will, she decides to cast the die and see if this field of work is for her. 

            It’s a gentle, touchingly made film, but a bit underwhelming; the concept may have worked better as a short film, as the stretches to fill time are very noticeable in spots.  This is not a knock on the director, though, since that is a difficulty every filmmakers encounters at first.  Fujimura is able to bring a lot of her actors with fairly little; the two best shots in the film center on Eriko’s face as her emotions build up and up and up, and finally bubble over the surface.  It’s a role that effectively carries the feel of someone in deep personal crisis. 

            There are moments that bring much-needed levity to the proceedings- an audition interrupted by a request to perform an old beer commercial, and a hilarious scene where Eriko competes against rival mourners going way over the top- but unfortunately they are few and far between.  This is a film that could have benefited greatly from a more energetic tone, given it’s fairly quiet matter.  It is a unique and fascinating choice for a first film though, and I am very much interested in seeing what Fujimura decides to do next. 

-Noah Franc 

Nippon Review: Mr. Long

Mr. Long: Written and directed by Sabu.  Starring: Chen Chang, Runyin Bai, Yiti Yao, Sho Aoyagi, Masashi Arifuku.  Running Time: 128 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Perhaps the best way I could describe the character of Mr. Long is this; imagine if John Wick were Taiwanese, and could cook?  I know, it sounds a bit trite already to compare unstoppable hitmen characters to one of the best original action figures of the 2010s, but it really does fit here.  Mr. Long is impossibly good at what he does, stoic and cold in his bearing, and seemingly occupies a niche place within a dark, desperate world.   

            Mr. Long is sent out of his native Taiwan for a hit in Tokyo, which goes terribly wrong, but through a series of coincidences that only later become clear, he’s able to escape (barely).  He finds his way to what appears to be a shantytown of sorts, where the child of a smack-addicted Taiwanese woman finds him, brings him food and clothes, and eventually befriends him.  Mr. Long expects to merely have a few days to gather cash for a smuggling trip back to Taiwan, but he’s soon swept up in the fervent daydreams of a coterie of older Japanese living nearby; after learning just how good a cook Mr. Long is, they decide that he obviously must open a noodle stand near the temple, and plan everything out with nary a word from him. 

            What starts out as a graphic gangster film then turns into screwball comedy, as the silent, stoic, and (seemingly) emotionless Mr. Long finds himself dragged inexorably into the daily lives of the child that saved him, his troubled mother, and these hilariously pushy, borderline exploitative (scratch that- extremely exploitative) neighbors.  This is exacerbated by the fact that he can’t actually speak Japanese, and so mostly has no idea what these people around him are babbling about.   

            The film is anchored by a riveting performance by its lead actor.  For all his stern silence, he conveys worlds with every hardened glance at the world around him.  This is clearly someone who, long ago, learned of all the harshness of life, and can never be intimidated by it again.  This tough outer shell of his only cracks twice throughout the entire film, but boy, when it finally does happen, it is a genuine sock in the gut.     

            As chipper as the old folks are, though, and as adorable as the kid is, lives of gangster violence and drug addiction invariably create pasts that can never be fully left behind.  Pressed by Mr. Long’s forceful personality, the kid’s mother starts to pull herself into sobriety, only to be challenged at a crucial moment later on, and it’s in diving back into her story that the film inevitably returns to its dark origins.  This is a movie that goes unflinchingly into some hard territory, including severe drug addiction, depression, and suicide, and the mother’s powerhouse performance anchors those parts of the film that leave Mr. Long himself in the background for a time.  Her fate ends up being tied back into how the film started, and how Mr. Long was saved in the first place, but going beyond that would constitute major spoilers, and this is a film well-worth experiencing on your own. 

            Winding through all this at the same time that retired do-gooders are obsessing over a bowl of ramen involves quite a lot of emotional cork-screwing, the sort that most directors can only dream of pulling off, but Sabu works wonders here.  All the stresses, worries, and pressures finally build up to a climactic action scene that is absolute dynamite, one of the best scenes of hand-to-hand combat in a year already jam-packed with fantastic action.  From start to finish, Mr. Long is a trip, a remarkable experience that, in its best moments, is among the finest examples of genre-bending filmmaking to come out this year. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Nippon Review: Death Note – Light up the NEW World

Death Note – Light up the NEW World: Written by Katsunari Mano, directed by Shinsuke Sato.  Starring: Masahiro Higashide, Sosuke Ikematsu, Masaki Suda, Mina Fujii, Rina Kawaei.  Running Time: 135 minutes.  Inspired by the original manga by Tsugumi Oba. 

Rating: 2.5/4

            I still consider the original manga and anime of Death Note, written by Tsugumi Oba to be a bona-fide literary and animated masterpiece of storytelling, character design, atmospheric pacing, and suspense.  At the very least it remains an unassailable part of the Japanese anime canon, required for viewing for anyone wishing to have at least one iota of cred on the convention floor.  Ever since that initial lightning bolt, a number of efforts have been made to recapture its success, including (most notably) a live-action Japanese film based on the original story and (most recently) a Netflix original series based on the same.  This movie (and I will refrain from repeating its absurdly long title) is a continuation of that trend, providing an “official” sequel to the events of the original live action film. 

            An introduction reveals that Ryuk was not a lone actor in sending Death Notes into the world; after Light died, the King of the Dead decreed that anyone who found a fitting successor to Light/Kira would follow him on the throne, resulting in a large number of Notes being deliberately sent to the Earth.  The police catch on to this pretty quickly, and a new task force is soon formed to track down, collect, and seal away the Notes to prevent another Kira from rising again.  This force is, for the most part, an entirely new set of characters.  Matsuda and Misa Amane (to my horror) return, but otherwise these are all new faces and names, including the requisite ‘L’ stand-in, a protégé of his named Ryuzaki, whose main gimmick is wearing a silly mask when out and about that I actually found rather fitting. 

            For a wholly an unnecessary sequel as this was, I must admit I enjoyed watching it a lot.  You can only get anything out of it if you know the source material, but it’s slickly-made and well-paced.  Unfortunately, it just can’t quite capture the palpable tension that made the original story so compelling to follow.  It is also undone by a largely lackluster second act after a first act that is pretty well-crafted.  The notion of an expanded number of Death Notes in the world, and the added rules to their usage that follows, is a great concept, as is spreading the action around the world a bit more (because why should Tokyo have all the fun?), but none of the characters end up being memorable enough to stick the landing. 

            Having Matsuda back was great, but he’s not in the film nearly enough, and while it was fun to see Ryuk cackling again, he’s much more directly involved in the action in a way that somewhat contradicts his strict neutrality from before, which was a core part of what made his character so fascinating to begin with.  Instead of the chess-game turns and reversals that marked the climaxes of the original story, the last sequences of the film are mostly shootouts with helicopters and SWAT teams, and a final twist connecting the main police detective and Kira is not nearly earned enough to have more than a rote, perfunctory impact. 

            Ultimately, this is a film that neither had a reason to exist to begin with, nor manages to create one for itself by the end by being good enough to stand on its own.  It is not a bad movie by any means- like I said, I did enjoy it a lot- but I can’t recommend it to either die-hard fans or anime agnostics.  Which, in the end, is a death sentence of sorts for this kind of film.  As usual, it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie. 

-Noah Franc