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Movie of the Day

Counter-Espionage

Counter-Espionage is yet another movie I have watched without knowing anything whatsoever about it before hand. This one was chosen purely by its year of release, 70 years ago. I had no idea that this was only one film in a series of films with Warren William playing the detective “the Lone Wolf” or that other actors had played the same character before and since William.

Michael Lanyard, a.k.a. The Lone Wolf, first appeared in series of pulp detective novels by Louis Joseph Vance (1879–1933), with the first film adaptation being a silent short in 1914. It is hard to imagine Alfred Hitchcock wasting his time to read any of the novels or to watch any of the films, but Lanyard, as a reformed jewel thief who works undercover as a detective, has parallels to Cary Grant’s character in To Catch a Thief. In an early performance, Melvyn Douglas played the character in one film, before Warren William took over the role for nine films. Eric Blore, who played plotting butlers and waiters in several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, took the role of Jamison, Lanyard’s British valet, for 11 films, spanning three different actors in the lead role.

Although I’ve yet to see any of the other films, but this one seems to be unique in that is set in Jamison’s home turf of London. The whole city is constantly under the threat of German air raids, and taking advantage of the darkness of the blackouts, the Lone Wolf prowls into the home of a prominent British diplomat and steals the “beam detector plans” without which London is doomed to certain destruction. Although he appears to be selling out to a faction of German spies, it is actually a front as he works for the British. By coincidence, the American president happens to be in town (but not on screen), meaning Lanyard has to duck both the American Secret Service and the much more competent Scotland Yard. Although the film manages to express the on-edge atmosphere of London during the air raids, it is obviously shot in Hollywood and the mishmash of American and British actors and their respective accents gets distracting. Lloyd Bridges makes a brief, uncredited appearance as a waiter in a restaurant that serves as a front for the spy ring, and Forrest Tucker, who would later be known for TV’s “F-Troup,” is inexplicably cast as a British air raid warden.

This was by no means a great film, but the butler snobbery of Eric Blore makes it entertaining enough. It’s probably not worthwhile to watch the whole series, but I would love to track down the one film in which Melvyn Douglas makes an appearance, as well as the one with Columbia contract player Rita Hayworth.

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Movie of the Day

Escapade in Japan

I saw Escapade in Japan at a movie screening and networking event that is held roughly once a month at a cozy little restaurant in Tokyo. As with all of the other films I have caught at this event, this one was much, much more fun to watch with a group of like-minded people. Although there is a good deal of intentional humor in the film, we all roared with laughter at many subtle moments tat would only be funny to a group of Japanese who had lived aboard and expats living in Japan, which is exactly what we were.

The whole film is basically just an excuse to take Technicolor cameras from one scenic Japanese location to another, but the little bit of plot that is there is quite charming. Cameron Mitchell plays an American diplomat who has just be reassigned from the Philippines to Tokyo. His wife (Teresa Wright) shows up and tells him she is leaving him because she found out about the affair he was having at his previous post. Their 7-year-old son (Jon Provost) is put on a flight. When his plane has engine trouble, he winds up floating alone on a raft in the Pacific. Even though an uncredited Clint Eastwood flies in on a search mission, the boy is found by a fisherman and his wife. Tony befriends the fisherman’s son, who learned English by listening to armed forces radio. This is where the movie really begins. By the time the fishing boat docks, the boys are buddies. When the police come to take Tony back to his parents, the boys mistakenly think they are about to be carted off to jail and make a run for it. They conveniently make stops at music halls, temples, geisha houses and the like.

There are some funny moments where the police are portrayed as being totally incompetent at the simple task of finding two young boys, but it is mostly just one travelogue scene after another. But the little pieces that hold the plot together are quite charming. At 7, Jon Provost was already an accomplished child actor and was just about to start his long tenure on “Lassie,” which made him very famous. But Roger Nakagawa, who plays the Japanese boy, was appearing in his first and last film role. But the two really do a lot to carry the film, and were asked to do some pretty dangerous stuff, such as riding on a flatbed carriage of a moving train and climbing across the roof of a shrine in Kyoto.

But there is a more at work here than a buddy film between two boys. Just 12 years after the end of the war, the film relentlessly strives to humanize the Japanese, who were demonized in Hollywood a generation before. In Destination Tokyo in 1943, Cary Grant plays a submarine captain who tells his men with certainly that Japanese children are only seen as future soldiers. In this film, the Japanese police assure the worried American parents that their boy must be OK as people in Japan love all children, and children are never kidnapped.

 

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Movie of the Day

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I went to see this knowing I wouldn’t like it all that much, but I wanted to see Christopher Plummer, still acting in his 80s, as the rich elderly man still heartbroken over the loss of his niece 40 years earlier.

That was the only reason I wanted to see this, and really about the only thing I knew about the film never got around to seeing the trilogy of Swedish films or read the novels they are based on for that matter. I didn’t expect to judge a remake by comparing it to an original I had never seen, but that is exactly what I wound up doing.

The opening credit sequence features male and female forms of CGI mercury bashing each other to bits. While this looks impressive, it is totally unrelated to the film and plays out like the Nine Inch Nails promo video it is, a Trent Reznor cover of Led Zepplin. I was expecting the story to be transplanted to America, the way Insomnia was moved from Norway to Alaska and Let The Right One In went from Sweden to New Mexico. But I soon discovered the film is set in an alternative reality Sweden where the Swedish language was never invented and Swedes talk to other Swedes in heavily slurred English. The only principal actor who doesn’t try a Swedish accent is Stellan Skarsgård a genuine Swede. Although Christopher Plummer was good in his small but important role, I kept wondering why they didn’t get, Max Von Sydow for the part. (Evidently they tried.)

The whole enterprise of shooting a Swedish novel in Sweden with American and British actors doing not so subtle Swedish accents seemed so ridiculous too me that I lost all interest. When the separate paths of the disgraced journalist trying to save his reputation and the disaffected hacker finally cross, past the one hour mark, I had stopped caring. I had even forgot about the mystery of the missing niece, which is supposed to tie the two main characters together.

Instead of hanging on the plot, I was just thinking about the very blatant Apple product placement. At $90 mil, this is not even the most expensive commercial for the MacBook Pro (that would be Mission Impossible 4 at $145 mil). But at nearly three hours it is certainly the longest Apple commercial ever made. When a state-appointed case worker asks the titular hacker why she needs such an expensive computer, I was hoping she would say “oh, you’re right, I should be using a homemade Linux box with open source software. Thanks for pointing that out.”

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Movie of the Day

Tower Heist

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I actually enjoyed Tower Heist. I have never understood why Ben Stiller is considered a film star, and I think Eddie Murphy ceased to be funny decades ago.

My sole motivation to see big-budget Oceans parody was the promise of Alan Alda playing a Bernie Madoff-inspired Ponzi scheme billionaire. Alda broke with his archetypal  sensitive ’70s guy image with a small part in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, playing a full-of-himself millionaire TV producer, and played the antagonistic senator hounding Howard Hughes in the Aviator. I was expecting to enjoy the few moments when Alda was on the screen, and  cringe for the rest of the running time when Stiller and Murphy were paired up.

A heist film is supposed to be all about plot, but the plot here—about the staff of a luxury residential tower stealing back their swindled pensions from the Alda character—is very formulaic. And it is not even a very good formula, as there are subplots that are developed then dropped, and characters who are introduced and then just forgotten about. But what you can enjoy are the supporting actors, and with so many characters, you don’t have to wait long for a new one to pop up. It was nice to see Matthew Broderick, now pushing 50, returning to comedy as a bankrupt trader, Gabourey Sidibe is a highlight as a Jamaican-born maid and safe cracker, makes the role memorable even though it is not developed much in the script. One of the funniest characters is a Russian clerk studying for her bar exam on the side. I’d seen, but not remembered, Nina Arianda in a tiny part in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and she evidently she has mostly worked on Broadway, playing the Judy Holliday character in a production of Born Yesterday, which must have been perfect for her type of comedy. Her first film credit only dates to 2011, and she is only in this film for a few minutes, but I certainly hope she gets to play some bigger roles on screen soon.

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Movie of the Day

United Red Army

The newish Shibuya Auditorium theater in Tokyo is running a festival of two dozen films made in and about the turbulent year 1968. The film I wanted to see the most was United Red Army, but long-time controversial director Koji Wakamatsu, was making softcore pinku films in the ’60s, and rubbed elbows with many of the student leaders who founded the Japanese Red Army.

This is an important and acclaimed film, but also one that is hard to watch, and not only because of its three hour ten minute running time. The first hour or so was fascinating, mixing archival footage with dramatization to give background on the student protests of the mid-’60s. It was quite a shock  to see old footage of Shinjuku station in Tokyo being occupied by students who pelted police in full riot gear with rocks, not just because I use that train station every day, but because young people in Japan today are so politically apathetic.

As ridiculous and hated as the various Red Army factions became in the early -’70s, when then were highjacking and blowing up airliners, in the ’60s, they had some genuine issues to protest against. Most of the early student protesters were born in the tough years at the end or just after WWII, and were working to pay their own way through college, something that would be unthinkable to most Japanese college students today. So when universities around the country decided to raise tuition, most of them had a reason to protest, but motivations are largely left out making it seem like the founders simply have a good time protesting. But by giving themselves the name “Japanese Red Army,” they simply made it easier for the police to find them and arrest them, which is exactly what they did. The group almost immediately got entangled in pointless infighting, and about a third into this very long movie, one of the original founders, Fusako Shigenobu, departs for Lebanon to train with the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The movie could have followed her, which would have made for a more interesting (and much more expensive) movie, but is stays with the newly renamed United Red Army.

Here the movie because quite difficult to watch. The thirty or so members of the URA go to the middle of nowhere in the Japanese countryside to march on riverbeds with rifles in hand as part of training for the revolution that never comes. The two leaders Hiroko Nagata and Tsuneo Mori are tyrants who beat to the brink of death and leave out in the cold to die their followers, for infractions such as kissing or wearing make up. The movie never attempts to explain why these two are so evil or so maniacally devoted to their strange ideas of revolution or why more members didn’t run off. As the members die off, on-screen titles give their name, age and university, and pretty soon there is a casualty for every minute of screen time, including a pregnant women and a mother of a baby. As the audience is asked to watch a long seen of a young woman forced to beat herself up to prepare herself for better revolutionary training, I was wondering why a movie had to be made about these people.

After half of the members are arrested, the remaining five occupy a ski lodge taking the owner’s wife hostage for ten days and firing shots at their own mothers who had been flown in to try to talk them into surrendering. This section is also very long and tedious, but the actress who plays the hostage is a fine performer despite having only a few lines of dialogue. The whole point of this section, and indeed of the whole movie, is how ridiculous and misguided this group was, as one member is shown to be nearly shot for the anti-revolutionary act of eating a cookie which is deemed not strictly necessary for his nourishment. But a little more exploration of their motives, rather than a straight forward journalistic retelling of the facts, would have filled the long running time with a bit more depth.

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Movie of the Day

MASH

As I have often mentioned on this blog, one of the many nice things about living in Tokyo is the chance to classic films on the big screen. Toho Cinemas at Roppongi Hills was one of the few cinemas open yesterday on New Year’s Day, and when I was there to see Mission: Impossible, I noticed the were screening MASH today. I’ve seen this once before on DVD, but as with almost any other movie, seeing it on a big screen is a different experience.

A lot of criticisms have been leveled against Robert Altman’s MASH, namely that it is sexist, mean-spirited, racist, encourages doctors and med students to view themselves as superior and makes light of a very serious war, all of which are more or less true. Although this is a comedy, there is an anti-war message in between all the jokes, but it is subtle. Hawkeye and Trapper John never have to experience the horrors of war firsthand—the only gunshot heard in the film is used to signal the end of a quarter in a football game. But their long, overnight shifts sewing up injured soldiers who endless spurt blood take their toll on them, and the only way they can keep sane is to behave like spoiled (and heavily alcoholic) children when off duty. The film does succeed in conveying what a strange situation the characters are in. It is something that was lost in the TV series, which ran far too long for its own good, as the more graphic content from the operating room could be shown on television, so you are left with just the silly gags. There were no laugh-out-loud moments for me this time around, and as a long-time resident of Japan, the scenes supposedly shot here, but obviously shot in Southern California, were a bit offensive. But it was nice to spot a young Bud Cort, and like most Robert Altman films, there is a quirky atmosphere you can enjoy until it unravels into chaos in the final scene.

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Movie of the Day

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Desperate to see a film in a theater on New Year’s Day, I resorted to seeing this popcorn flick, as it was at the only theater I knew of that was open today.

I have never seen any of the Mission: Impossible films, although I was somewhat interested in the first one, as I happened to be in Prague during filming. I have also successfully avoided most of Tom Cruise’s film, with the only one I remember watching being one of his first, The Outsiders. The series has probably continued too long, leading to a grammatically awkward title with both a colon and a hyphen. A few weeks ago, I happened to be at Roppongi Hills to see another film when Tom Cruise and company came through to promote the Japan premier. Cruise is incredibly popular in Japan, and he took time to shake hands with as many fans as possible, even as his security was urging him to move on. For some reason all the buzz put the idea of actually seeing the film.

As an action film, this does what it is supposed to. I found myself being somewhat entertained by the action sequences, despite a somewhat silly plot involving a mad professor who wants to create world peace by destroying everyone to reset civilization. The highly publicized scene of Cruise scaling the outside of the The Burj Khalifa Tower is pretty awkwardly written into the script which jumps from Moscow to Dubai, but does create a genuine sense of vertigo and suspense. The chase and battle scenes come one after another, with not much to link them together, but they are are well-filmed and choreographed, pulling even a reluctant viewer like myself in. I did, however, feel a bit sorry for Simon Pegg, who is a great comedic actor, and is here reduced to playing Cruise’s geeky sidekick. Tom Wilkinson shows up for a few minutes to add a bit of much needed class, and Ving Rhames, who was evidently in the first three films, shows up for a few minutes to collect a pay check.

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Movie of the Day

The Gay Divorcee

One of the great joys of living in Tokyo is the number of small theaters that specialize in running classic films. One of them, Cine Vera, is run by a former entertainment copyright lawyer who decided it would be more fun to run a theater. Going to see my last film of 2011, late in the afternoon of December 31, I expected to be one of a handful of other viewers, especially since it is a ’30s musical. I was pleasantly surprised to find the medium-sized theater nearly full. As the house lights went down and the crackly soundtrack started over the Radio Pictures logo, I realized how nice it was going to be to view this as a projected film in a theater with a live audience, the closest I will ever be able to get to watching the original film in a theater in 1934.

The Gay Divorcee is a frivolous film with a light plot. It is also a very funny film, and the audience burst into loud laughter at several points in the film, something you don’t get watching a DVD at home. This is the second Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, but the first which was really molded around their on-screen dynamic. Astaire looks young and very, very thin, and there is an appearance by an 18-year-old Betty Grable singing the silly song “Let’s K-nock K-nees”, and Edward Everett Horton, who plays the lawyer unsuccessfully trying to plot the separation mentioned in the title, must have been born old, as he looks as just as worry-worn in this as in the dozen of other films I have seen him in. The really laughs are from two of the supporting characters. Alice Bradly as Ginger’s flighty aunt can raise a laugh with just a confused look, and Erik Rhodes, as the Italian lover hired to be the correspondent in the divorce case, increasingly mangles the password meant to introduce him to the divorcee: “chance in the fool’s name for fate.”

What a great movie experience to end the year with.

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Movie of the Day

My Favorite Brunette

Like many Woody Allen fans, I was surprised to find out that he is a life-long fan of Bob Hope, who also seemed to me, from the TV specials I had seen as a kid, very unfunny. In the 2002 TV special “Woody Allen: A Life in Film,” the Woody admits, “I do Bob Hope all the time. I am just nowhere near as good, but I do him all the time…It is shameless how I steal from him. I don’t mean steal the content of jokes, but I do him, I lean on him. Why people don’t see it is because I am not as good. He is the genuine article.” In the interview, the director points to Love and Death as his own film that is most influenced by Hope, and that since that is one of my favorite early Allen films, I decided to finally watch some early Hope films.

There have been plenty of parodies of film noir—especially in the ’80s with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid—but not so many when the genre was more or less still current. My Favorite Brunette works well as a parody of a noir detective film, with Hope playing a wisecracking baby photographer who is mistaken for the hard-boiled detective (Alan Ladd) he shares an office floor with, and takes a case from the irresistible title client ( Dorothy Lamour). Hope has some pretty funny one-liners that poke fun at the requisite narration in films like Double Indemnity. Woody Allen mentioned in the TV interview that in Love and Death he is playing someone pretending to be a hero, even though he isn’t one at all, something Hope did “in all of his movies.” That is certainly what he does in this film, which opens at San Quentin prison, where hope is awaiting execution. Peering into the execution chamber, he quips “Gas… Haven’t even put in electricity yet,” but then gets wobbly knees as he tries to walk away.

Everyone joins in on the fun as Peter Lorre parodies his own roles in several film noir classics, here playing one of the henchmen of a criminal mastermind who is plotting to have an actor impersonate a baron to get a piece of land rich in uranium. Lon Chaney Jr. plays a dumb lug of hospital orderly, and even British character Reginald Denny is a good enough sport to do comedy while keeping his usual erudite screen persona.

I found Bob Hope funny in this, but at times the film suffers as a parody of film noir because of Hope, and the necessity for every joke to be tailored to his comedic style, frequently breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience and making references to Bob Hope the celebrity.

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Movie of the Day

Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story

There are documentaries in which the skill and technique of the filmmakers overshadows the subject matter. I think of When We Were Kings, the Mohammed Ali documentary, as one of these, as I loved the story even though I have no interest in boxing. But there are other documentaries in which the subject is so overpowering that it overshadows the art of the film itself. Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story falls into this category.

It is the unbelievable but true story of a normal Japanese family that was torn apart when their 13-year-old daughter Megumi didn’t come home from after-school badminton practice. Her parents never gave up searching for her and hoping for her return, until they learned a grave truth 20 years later: their daughter was abducted by North Korean spies, spirited away to the closed countries, and forced to teach Japanese language to North Korean spies. The story takes one unexpected turn after another, but the Yokotas never give up their fight to meet their daughter again, standing on street corners and collecting signatures. Megumi’s mother transforms from an average housewife into a tireless political activist, meeting with top leaders in Japan and the US.

The story is close to me, as I was living in Japan in 2002, which Kim Jong-il made the surprising announcement that North Korea had in fact abducted Japanese citizens, including Megumi Yokota, and the story was in the news constantly. Today, Megumi Yokota’s name is still very much in the news, as a South Korean newspaper has just published a report of woman living Pyongyang with Megumi’s birthdate, and daughter of the same age. Her parents, who are now approaching their 80s, have just appeared at a rally to repeat their belief that their daughter is still alive. As I watching, I realized that tomorrow is the 34th anniversary of Megumi’s abduction, which only served to make watching the documentary all the more sad.

As a film, Abduction is powerful and emotional, but also uneven. The filmmakers make a wise decision to tell everything from the eyes of Megumi’s parents, as all they have of Megumi are some still photographs. But a times the narrative structure is a bit sloppy. Much of the film is put together through archival footage taken from Japanese TV, which makes the shakily shot new footage shot cheaply by the directors.  And I found the soundtrack music a bit, well, cheesy at times. But it is still a very powerful documentary. It does not offer anything in terms of closure for the viewer, or for Megumi’s parents, who at the close of the film, and earlier this week in the news, believe their daughter is alive. This is what makes the film so haunting, despite some of its technical shortcomings..

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Movie of the Day

On The Sly

This is only the second film I have seen so far in the Tokyo International Film Festival, which started the day before yesterday, having completely missed the first day. But I am going to try to make up for it by seeing more in the coming days. One of the great joys of going to the Tokyo Film Fest, or any film festival for that matter, is seeing a film you know nothing about, and finding that you love it.

This film was that kind of experience. The story line is simple: a young girl, a single child, goes on her usual weekend trip with her parents from Paris to their country home. During the drive, Cathy muses from the back seat of the car that her parents don’t even see her, something she tests by stepping out of the car as they go into a gas station before almost driving off without her. After a weekend of being ignored by both her parents, on Sunday evening, she slams the door of the car, only she is on the outside rather than the inside. There follows her various adventures in the woods around the home, evading her parents and the police her come searching for her.

What makes the film so engaging is that is is made entirely from the perspective of the little girl. The faces of the parents are never seen, we only see glimpses of the back of their heads or hands, and always from a low angle, as a child would see them. We hardly hear them speak, except to yell the name of their daughter when they finally realize that she has gone missing. Cathy doesn’t speak either, although her narration goes on and on, giving us an insight into how children think. When she encounters a stray dog in the woods, she perceives it first as a monster, and then almost immediately sees it as a friend. Camera angles and movements all mirror her own perspective, making it a wonderful example of subjective cinema. Finally, the young actresses’ performance is natural without trying too hard to be cute, something that was probably only possible because she is the real-life daughter of the director, who also plays the father in the film. All these work together to make it a beautiful example of a low budget film with a handful of characters, that is pulls you into its own world.

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Quartet!

Even though I live in Tokyo, I don’t see new Japanese films as often as I probably should, and when I do, I am sometimes disappointed. The Tokyo International Film Festival is a good chance to remedy this every year, and I try to see as many Japanese films as I can, but I have to make compromises to see films from other countries that will probably never been shown in Tokyo again.

Quartet! is the first film I saw in this years TIFF, having completely missed the first day. This is pretty typical weepy Japanese fare, extolling the virtues of making sacrificies for the family. In this case, it is a junior high school boy who has already displayed considerable talent on the violin, who struggles to save his dysfunctional family by getting them to form a classical music quartet. His parents have long since given up on music careers, as has his his older sister who gave up the flute and became a juvenile delinquent. Finally getting the family together, he is invited to join a proper orchestra, and must make the choice between his future career and his family, as everything builds up to a very predictable and very sentimental climax. The movie hits all the cliches, including a scene of the main character riding on the back of a motorcycle while clutching the waist and snuggling the shoulder of the person they have a crush on, something that is in just about every coming-of-age film to come out of Japan since the invention of motorcycles.

This all sounds pretty bad, but the music is good. The fact that many of the actors have backgrounds in music or are working musicians, including an orchestra conductor playing himself, certainly didn’t hurt. Another thing that saved the movie is the perfomance of Ayame Goriki as the deliquent daughter, who eventually picks up the flute again. Although the is given all the stereotypical high school girl mannerism and speech by the script, Goriki has a talent for expressing emotion. The film was shot in Urayasu city, which was heavily damaged by the March 11 earthquake, and many volunteers from the town cooperated in getting the film made, an unexpected turn that is featured in a slideshow during the closing credits and in all the marketing materials, and this backstory may be better than the actual film.