Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Other stuff seen in (or on the way to) Australia: My Beloved Bodyguard, War on Everyone, The Magnificent Nine, and Your Name

Yes, that’s right, I’m milking what a great time I had in Melbourne right up until I land in California for my next vacation, and then I’ll probably milk that until Montreal and so on and so forth. There won’t be a lot of movies in San Diego, because my evening activity will be baseball, but when I’m visiting other places, whether for work or fun, I’ll probably catch some movies, because I’m generally on my own and don’t drink, so not a whole lot of typical evening activities are really pitched at me besides movies.

Of course, I can’t exactly use my MoviePass on other continents, so I tend to try and concentrate on stuff that I can’t easily see in Boston (or which isn’t going to be playing in a spiffy format when I return). In this case, it was kind of funny how the various movies got chosen. For example, I get much more reluctant to watch a film for the first time as the presentation and environment decreases, and “on a plane” is about as non-ideal as you can get. I’ll still page through the options on the entertainment system to see what’s available just out of curiosity, especially when I’m on a Chinese airline and curious about how well what makes it to North America correlates with what people overseas actually watch. Still, when I’m halfway across the Pacific and it’s clear that getting some sleep isn’t going to be an option because I’m in a middle seat and the guy with the window is diabetic and needs to pee every couple hours, I’ll remember that Sammo Hung’s The Bodyguard was on the list and figure sure, why not?

Then when I’ve finally landed in Melbourne and want to (a) make sure I know the location of the cinema where the festival will be and (b) try to stay up long enough to be on something resembling local time the next day, I might as well look at what’s playing there, note that War on Everyone looks like something I would like and which went direct to video in America for no apparent reason (I mean, it’s got to be better than the C.Hi.P.s movie coming out in a couple of weeks that also co-stars Michael Pena, right?). I might also remember a thing on the internet about a super-popular Japanese movie getting a release date set for Australia but not the States, and check where that’s playing, then try to get there at the end of the day only to see it sold out. Two days in a row. Grr.

In more pleasant news, I went to the local film & television museum in between and noticed that they had pamphlets out for a Japanese film festival that was doing some shows there. Because I’m me, I pick it up, note that some shows are at the same theater as the other movie, and noting that one I would really like to see is playing at the same theater as the other one, I hatch a plan, buying tickets for The Magnificent Nine and while I’m at the box office, getting tickets to the next night’s subtitled screening of Your Name. It would probably have been easier to buy them online or grabbing the next day from the kiosk, but that can be tricky overseas; the postal code field for verification doesn’t match, and there are some places my cards don’t work (I can use my debit card at an ATM, but even in Canada, I can’t use it in movie-theater kiosks and some restaurants).

It amused me to see a big ol’ Hoyts sign on the theater, too.

When I was growing up in southern Maine and living there after college, Hoyts was a pretty ubiquitous chain (as in, they operated two of the area’s three or four multiplexes), although they seem to have eventually pulled out of the United States and gone back to concentrating on their home territory. I don’t recall whether my brother said they they or Regal were more miserable to work for as the Falmouth place got passed around, but I seem to recall him not liking either. Still, they’re what you’ve got in Australia, so no holding grudges on his behalf!

I do have to admit, I’m always a little disappointed when seeing a movie in a mainstream multiplex is basically the same on the other side of the world as it is back home. The Lido was a bit different, in that it often times seemed like a bar with screening rooms you went into after you’ve had your drinks, and you were kind of expected to hang out in the lobby, buying drinks and snacks to munch on until you went into auditorium, no more than five minutes before the expected start time, but the Hoyts was basically the same as the AMCs and Regals back home. I wasn’t exactly expecting them to have kangaroo jerky rather than popcorn, just curious about the possibility. I did notice that some of my go-tos tasted a bit off, though I have no idea how Coke Zero and Peanut M&Ms would vary.

One thing that was kind of odd was that all of the theaters I went to had reserved seating, but unlike back at home where even buying tickets to the box office pops up a seat map where you either jab at the touchscreen or give an exact location to the attendant, everywhere I went in Melbourne asked your general preference and then had varying definitions of what “on the centerline, fairly close to the screen” meant. On the other hand, though I didn’t get to test it, the multiplex seemed to handle 3D movies the way I’d want to if I ever opened a theater: Same price for 2D and 3D movies, with glasses available in a vending machine (or presumably at the box office), and I presume no frisking to make sure you had an unopened pair rather than the perfectly fine ones you paid $3 for a couple years ago. That would probably never fly here, as the studios want a piece of the 3D surcharge, but it seems obviously to be the most fair, least wasteful way to do it.

CANTONESE (The Bodyguard, aka My Beloved Bodyguard)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2016-ish on Air China flight #982 (random, crappy video)

Would I have necessarily had My Beloved Bodyguard on my radar if Asian Film Strike hadn’t tweeted out it’s 23rd poster (roughly), which was apparently drawn by a little kid with crayons? Maybe; I have, after all, traveled to the New York Asian Film Festival because Sammo Hung was a guest in the past, and have liked the guy ever since he had a show on CBS for a couple of years (that pre-handover period when Hong Kong stars and filmmakers were trying to stake out Hollywood careers rather than work for the Communists was kind of fun, if a bit odd in retrospect). How sticky it would have been, I don’t know. Maybe it would have fallen into the same gap some of Hung’s other recent films have.

But it didn’t, and I’m glad, both despite and because this movie is kind of an odd thing. It will, of course, be sold as an action movie, which is not technically untrue, although there’s really only one or two scenes where Hung gets to show his stuff. Instead, it turns out to be a fairly dark look at growing old in the twenty-first century; Hung plays Ding Hu, at various points a soldier, and an operative for a major personal security firm, but now living in a town on the Chinese/Russian border that has a smattering of North Koreans living there, with dementia starting to set in. He’s estranged from his family, and just well-enough aware of what’s happening to him that he discourages the locals who want to connect. Cherry Li (Jacqueline Chan Pui-yin), the pre-teen daughter of the guy next door who may be into some shady stuff (Andy Lau Tak-wah), is the one who is most determined to wedge herself inside her life, which may be helpful when her father disappears.

In a lot of cases, screenwriter Jiang Jun would find ways to pile extra action sequences into the movie - flashbacks to Ding in his prime, scenes where the bad guys show they mean business or Ding fends off some random mugger, that sort of thing. Instead, Jiang and Hung (who also directs) save it toward the end except for brief flashes and some small plot-advancing stuff that doesn’t really involve Ding. It gives a little poignancy to some of the cameos sprinkled throughout the film - aside from Yuen Biao as the local chief of police, there are a number of other retired martial-arts stars, some of whom apparently haven’t been in a movie in decades, playing the old guys hanging around on a stoop, hinting at a place where these guys go when they’re spent. There’s a sadness to the story that is not broken up in the way one might expect.

Full review on EFC.

War on Everyone

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2016 in Lido Cinema #7 (first-run, DCP)

John Michael McDonagh has made a couple of downright terrific films in The Guard and Calvary, and War on Everyone simply being pretty decent is enough to get one speculating as to whether he was being propped up by Brendan Gleeson or felt lost when the setting moved from Ireland to America. That, I think, is unfair; he’s made a funny movie, even if people don’t necessarily expect this particular sort of sharp wit in an American buddy cop thing.

The buddies are fun, though, with Alexander Skarsgard playing Terry, the kind of meatheaded one, and Michael Pena the wiseass Bob, both gleefully corrupt cops in Albuquerque who don’t particularly hide that they’re shaking people down and tell their captain (Paul Reiser) to lighten up about the bills for equipment and other property damage their methods lead to; it’s working out, right? That is, until Terry becomes more smitten than usual with call girl Jackie Hollis (Tessa Thompson) and that leads to butting heads with Lord James Mangan (Theo James), a businessman dipping a toe into the drug trade who is much more formidable than the street criminals they’re used to intimidating. But is Mangan or any of his crew actually that much smarter?

Well, no, and not that much more creative; villain roles in this sort of movie tend to be forgettable, because they’re running on the chemistry of the leads more than the actual plot. Eventually, things can’t help but seem a little rudderless - Terry and Bob are making a half-hearted attempt to keep their noses clean, Mangan is doing bad things but not uniquely threatening ones, and Jackie is getting caught in the middle, with Terry dragging her into the mess as much as vice versa. This sort of generic plot really has nowhere to climax except in terms of being more violent, so the bits where things start to come together in the end is mean and unpleasant without the zippy back and forth that makes it fun.

Full review on EFC.

Tono, Risoku de Gozaru! (The Magnificent Nine, aka Lord, It’s Interest!)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 November in Hoyts Melbourne Central #6 (Japanese Film Festival, DCP)

There’s a thread running through many of director Yoshihiro Nakamura’s best films that makes them leave an even better impression than they might, an often-upbeat ability to find power in community. Think of the seemingly-disconnected threads that come together in Fish Story, or the friendships that rescue a framed fugitive in Golden Slumbers, stories where connection is not so much the lesson that the protagonist must learn but the force which determines whether people will thrive or not. The Magnificent Nine is likely his most literal presentation of this idea, a friendly primer on what people can accomplish working together.

After a brief prologue, the film picks up in 1766, when sake brewer Juzaburo Kokudaya (Sadao Abe) is returning to his hometown of Oshioka with a new young wife (Maika Yamamoto), becoming reacquainted with old friend Tokuheiji Sugawaraya (Eita), a tea grower who explains the bind that the town is in - the feudal lord is broke, so he increases taxes; since nobody can pay, they go into debt; leaving town is seen as running out on your debts and gets you arrested, but without a way to pay them off; and a bad harvest exacerbates the cycle, with Jinnai Asanoya (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a fellow brewer and owner of the town’s general store, really the only one making any money. One night, Juzaburo idly ponders that if the people of the town were to pool what cash they had and make a loan to the lord, they could likely live on the interest. Toki (Yuko Takeuchi), the owner of the local bar, is especially taken with the idea, and starts organizing, although it must be done in secret, as the peasantry loaning to the gentry is technically illegal.

The plan is, of course, more complicated than that, needing, as you might guess from the English name it has been given, at least nine investors, back-channel approaches through friendly retainers, and some trickery with how certain commodities have different prices depending on whether they are paid for with gold and silver. I suspect that the exact mechanics of the plan Juzaburo and Tokuheiji come up with may be somewhat opaque, even for a Japanese audience, although Nakamura and co-writer Kenichi Suzuki (working from a novel by Michifumi Isoda) do a good job in making just enough clear that the general type and difficulty of the challenges the group faces is easy to follow, pushing the audience toward concern, discomfort, and relief as is appropriate, while also giving some appreciation of the balance of clever and desperate they must be to come up with this plan.

Full review on EFC.

Kimi no na wa (Your Name)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 December in Hoyts Melbourne Central #7 (first-run, DCP)

Last summer, some friends and I were talking about how certain great, much-beloved Japanese animators were retiring and leaving a void that the up-and-coming talents didn’t quite seem to be filling, at least as we saw it from America, lamenting the situation until it became clear that we didn’t know what we were talking about: Roughly a week later, stories started showing up about an animated movie that was a massive hit, breaking box office records in Japan, and it was weirdly gratifying as a fan to see that it was the latest from Makoto Shinkai, someone who has continually impressed since making the brilliant 20-minute short “Voices from a Distant Sky” solo on his laptop. Your Name will probably not achieve the same tremendous popularity abroad that it did in its native land - both its eccentricities and its broad appeal are rather specifically Japanese - but it’s still a fine film as well as a must-see for lovers of animation.

It introduces the audience to two teenagers who are opposites: Mitsuwa Miyamizu (voice of Mone Kamishiraishi) is a teenage girl who, though her father is the mayor of her small town, lives with grandmother Hitoha (voice of Etsuko Ichihara) and kid sister Yotsuha (voice of Kanon Tani) at the family shrine. The rites bore her, and she dreams of going to live in the city. This turns out quite literal, but with a twist - some mornings, she will wake up as a boy living in Tokyo, having to stumble her way through this other life. When she wakes up the day after that, it feels like a dream, except that her friends and family are asking her she was acting so weird before. So it’s probably no surprise to learn that Taki Tachibana (voice of Ryunosuke Kamiki), a high-school boy in Tokyo with a crush on Miki Okudera (voice of Masami Nagasawa), the manager at his part-time job, is having similarly weird dreams where he’s a girl in the country. It barely seems real until they start leaving each other notes on their smartphones, and start to wonder how this is happening and to what end.

Shinkai’s film became a sensation in Japan in part because he was able to tap into a number of facets of Japanese identity exceptionally well, finding much to love about both the bustling city and the more traditional village, and using Mitsuwa and Taki to bridge this divide in a way that many of the recent spate of nostalgic films couldn’t quite do in such a satisfying manner. Here, it’s possible - and possibly vital - to have a place in both of these worlds, rather than simply seeing them in conflict. Demonstrating it by having a boy and a girl switch places is a clever-enough metaphor on its own - it’s not hard to cast the country as feminine and the city as masculine - but it apparently works even better in this context; Shinkai has talked about how he found inspiration for the story within Japanese folklore, though he adapts it in such a way that this sort of gender-bending and spiritual exchange doesn’t play as the ancient mythology that gets tweaked or poked fun at.

Full review on EFC.

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