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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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..

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.

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.

Farley Granger

Veteran actor Farley Granger died on March 27. As a testament to the longevity of his career, his death came nearly 64 years after he started filming his first leading role, in Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut, They Live By Night, and with last screen credit, in The Next Big Thing (2001), a fairly recent memory, even if it was in a forgettable film. Granger’s passing also severs one of the few remaining living ties with Alfred Hitchcock. Even decades after the two made two films together—two of the director’s best, by the way—Granger graciously fielded questions about Hitchcock in interviews, and appeared in documentaries and DVD featurettes.

Granger was born to upper-middle class parents in San Jose in 1925. The stock market crash of 1929 hit the family hard, and Granger’s mother enrolled him in the same dance and drama studio where Judy Garland and Shirley Temple had gotten their starts, perhaps hoping an early show biz career would help the family financially. Although he never became the tap dancer his mother was wishing for, his natural, lithe athleticism would benefit him in his most famous role as a tennis player in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and the dramatic training would prepare him for decades on the stage.

Granger landed small parts in his first two films—The  North Star (1943) and The Purple Heart (1944)—while still in his teens. He enlisted in the Navy during WWII, and returned to acting soon after leaving the service. His first film after leaving the Navy was in Ray’s They Live by Night, which was filmed in 1947, but not released until 1949 due to Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO. In his early career, Granger was known for his handsome, clean-cut image, but he also excelled at playing vulnerable characters. This began with They Live by Night, in which Granger plays a man wrongly convicted of murder, who escapes with two fellow convicts, and is forced by them to commit actual crimes while on the run. The film not only foreshadowed Bonnie and Clyde by 20 years, but also established Granger as a dramatic actor.

While They Live by Night was floating in limbo, unreleased, Hitchcock ordered up a print of the film, and cast Granger in Rope as Phillip, the weaker-willed of the two young men who murder an old school chum in the interest of committing the perfect crime. The two roles were carefully written, but Granger brought a twitchy vulnerability to the role of Philip. It is really this that is memorable in the film, more than Hitchcock’s tightly choreographed camera and the apparently unbroken single long take.

Granger worked again with Hitchcock three years later in Strangers on a Train, playing a young, semi-pro tennis star dating a senator’s daughter, who seems to have everything going for him until an emotionally unbalanced man draws him into a murder plot. Again it was Granger’s ability to deliver a delicate mix of determination and anxiety that made the role a memorable one.

After the role in Hitchcock’s masterpiece thriller, Granger appeared in the light farce Behave Yourself! (1951), playing the hen-pecked husband of a need woman (Shelley Winters), who gets mixed up with mobsters after adopting a dog trained to sniff out a stash of ill-gotten loot.

Granger and Winters seem to me an unlikely couple on the screen, so I was surprised to learn that they were a romantic couple in real life, and had a friendship that lasted till Winters died in 2006. As Granger revealed in his very dishy 2007 memoirs, Count Me Out, he was bisexual and made no distinction between his relationships with men and women.

Granger was dating Arthur Laurents at the time the writer was building up the screenplay for Rope with Htichcock. Hitchcock was disappointed when two of his original casting choices for Rope—Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift—decline roles that were implied to be homosexual, but was intrigued when he discovered that one of the replacement actors was involved with his screenwriter. Hitchcock would slyly invite the two men to dinners, but never mention their relationship. Over 60 years later Laurents would claim that Rope was still one of the most sensitive portrayals homosexuals (although they are also murders) ever to come out of Hollywood, something that was made possible by Granger, at the very beginning of his career, not shying away from the risks that other actors worried would end their careers. For Granger, the risk started his career, and throughout his long career he would live and work openly and honestly. “I have hidden nothing,” he wrote in his memoir.

 

 

Michael Gough

British actor Michael Gough died at the age of 94 this week in London. Most newspaper obituaries I have seen describe him as a “character actor,” but this appellation misses the main points of his career—its longevity, variety and distinction.

Gough was of the old school. He was born to British parents in what is today Malaysia in 1916. It was a time when British actors could emerge from the far reaches of the British Empire. Vivien Leigh was born just four years earlier in Darjeling, India. Gough was a concientious objector during World War II, something that must have carried some stigma in Britain at the time. He came into acting comparatively late. He earned his first screen credit at the age of 32, playing alongside Vivien Leigh in the  1948 version of Anna Karenina.

While Gough was not a Shakespearean actor of the stature of Ian McKellan or Derek Jacobi, he did play Shakespeare, appearing in a small role in Laurence Olivier’s Richard III in 1958. Although he was often relegated to smaller roles, he brought a certain dignity to these parts. I lit up when I spotted him in the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol. Not just because he was one of the British actors in a production made for American television, but because his traditional mannerisms brought a touch of authenticity to a small role as one of the bankers who asks Scrooge for a contribution to charity on Christmas Eve.

In the 1950s, Gough began appearing in Hammer Horror films and this gradually led him to roles that allowed him to poke fun at his own screen persona. In 1961, for example, he appeared in a horror comedy called What a Carve Up! (retitled No Place Like Homicide for American release). One of my personal favorites amongst his roles is in 1984’s Top Secret!, in which he plays Dr. Flammond, a scientist forced by the East Germans to develop super weapons. It is a patently silly movie. When Val Kilmer arrives at Fleurgendorf Prison with French Resistance members Deja Vu and Chocolat Mousse, the doctor notes the irony, as he was just one day away from finishing the tunnel he is digging with a teaspoon. Kilmer peers into the wall to see the Holland Tunnel, complete with a sign pointing the way to New Jersey. Gough was able to pul of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker silliness with a straight face and composure that even the late, great Leslie Nielsen couldn’t have pulled off.

In 1988, he got the role that has been mentioned at the top of all the obituaries coming out this week, playing Alfred Pennyworth, butler to Michael Keaton’s Batman. Gough reprised the role several times, while other actors donned the Batman suit. But the role was perhaps more important for beginning his association with director Tim Burton. Along with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, Gough was one of the veteran actors to be idolized by the much younger Burton, and enjoying a career renaissance through appearances in his big budget films

Already in his 80s, Gough returned to work with Burton in 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, playing the paranoid public notary of the village who is drawn into a supernatural conspiracy against his will. As his age progressed, he stopped appearing on the screen, but his sagely voice retained its power. In 2005, he came out of retirement for Burton to voice the character of Elder Gutknech, a netherworld wiseman who is the parallel of a priest “upstairs” voiced by Christopher Lee. Last year, he came out of retirement once again for Burton, voicing the Dodo Bird in Alice in Wonderland. Gough had previously played the March Hare in another production—a full 42 years earlier, yet another indication of the longevity of his career.

Real Genius

Real Genius is another film which I saw countless times on TV when I was growing up. Like just about every other North American boy of my generation, I had a mad crush on Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), the quirky, hyperactive female nerd of this film, to the point that she was really the only thing I remember from the film. Since I am revisiting ’80s films, I thought I might as well see it one more time. There were a few things I picked up this time around which I definitely didn’t appreciate when I was 12 years old, the first being the very nice opening song, “You Took Advantage of Me” by Carmen McRae.

Real Genius is a pretty silly film, overall, but not as silly as many ’80s films. Most of the movie is meant to be driven by a 25-year-old Val Kilmer playing a witty, wacky teenager, something he doesn’t seem entirely committed to, letting his cute bunny slippers do all the work. On the one hand, this is a fairly-well made buddy film about two young gifted men bonding, and even raises some questions about the ethics of how students’ research gets used. On the other hand, this film practically invented the most cliched of the ’80s film cliches: the pop song montage. There seems to be an endless number of “let’s work together to prove to the world that we are not losers” montages in this film. Real Genius was certainly not the first ’80s film to feature a montage, but it certainly has the most. They are cheesy and don’t do all that much to advance the story, but they are fun, as is the movie as a whole.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

It seems there were several big budget spectacles made in the mid-60s depicting the early days of automobiles or aviation. There is The Big Race, Monte Carlo or Bust!, both about car races, and this film, about a London-to-Paris air race during the early days of aviation. It’s hard to say what made these films so popular at the time, but they must have been, since they were obviously made on huge budgets and they kept making them. A common theme between this one and The Big Race is a female character trying to maker her place in a male-only field, something that might have ressonated with audiences during the femminist movement of the ’60s. Although in this film Sarah Miles, playing the daughter of the wealthy Lord who sponsors the race, can only hope to find a man who will agree to take her up in a plane, and the thought of actually pilotting one herself never seems to cross her mind.

Watching this in Japan, it was funny to see Yujiro Ishihara, the late brother of the current governor of Tokyo, representing Japan in the air race. Funny because his overdubbed voice has such an outrageous British accent. And seeing Robert Morley reading “good luck” from a Japanese phrasebook with the worse pronunciation imaginable made me laugh harder than I have in a while. And Terry-Thomas was funny as the British “gentleman” who does everything he can to cheat in the race. I have to make an effort to track down some of his early British comedies.