Thursday, October 07, 2021

Movies on Vacation: Blue Bayou and The Wife of a Spy

Seeing movies on vacation is always a bit odd, because it's hard not to think "I didn't need to travel 450 miles to do this", but then again, what do most people do in the evenings on vacation? The museums all close at 5:30pm, only one of the baseball games I went to Washington to see was a night game (Red Sox sweep!), and I can't really see myself sitting in the hotel lounge. I started at 4:25 on Monday, in part because there was the chance of rain in the forecast.

And, besides, I'd been remiss in getting to Blue Bayou while it was playing back at home, so this was probably my last chance to catch it in a theater, while there doesn't seem to be any sign of The Wife of a Spy playing Boston at all, so…

That's Landmark's E Street Theatre, which doesn't particularly resemble the one at Kendall Square so much as the one at Embassy Square in Waltham; which is odd because both of them have the feel of being existing facilities they moved into, although it's enough like the Kendall once the pre-show starts that one does kind of think "am i away from home or not?" once you're a few minutes in.

Still, the crazy thing is what's across the street from the building it is, by and large, underneath:

That would be Ford's Theatre, and it's hard not to do a double-take when you walk by that because, geez, you'd think that "a member of the cast may murder you even if you are the President of the United States" is the sort of thing which would drive a place out of business as opposed to having it be a going concern 150 years later. That is, of course, not the whole story - according to its Wikipedia entry, "an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement" and it was used for other purposes for the next hundred years before it was restored and reopened.

I kind of can't imagine seeing a play there - it's weird enough just seeing a movie across the street! - but then again, this place is across the street:

Lincoln's Waffle Shop. I guess it has lines in the morning and isn't bad food, but… kind of tacky? On the other hand, I probably would have eaten there at least once if I were able to get out of my hotel room before 11am or so most days. The area around the Mall is kind of intimidating in terms of getting something to eat when you're in a shorts and t-shirt combo for walking around, what with all the people in suits and ties because they work in and around the capitol. Tacky might be just what my sweaty self was looking for.

Anyway, I'm back home now, and hope someone in the Boston area will pick up Wife of a Spy; it's good stuff.

Blue Bayou

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2021 in Landmark E Street #8 (first-run, DCP)

As a fan of Justin Chon's previous two films as a writer/director, I find myself a little disappointed by the slightly bigger, more ambitious Blue Bayou, even though he seems to be following the same path: Create a character and setting of the sort that he would like to play as an actor even if he doesn't often get the opportunity, hang just enough of a story on it for the movie to have a starting and ending point, and let his cast do their work. Blue Bayou can get by with that for decent stretches, but sometimes it needs a little more.

The part he's created for himself here is Antonio LeBlanc, a tattoo artist whose prior convictions for stealing motorcycles prevent him from getting better-paying work as a mechanic. He and wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) have a baby on the way, and he's a committed father to Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), Kathy's daughter from a previous relationship. That's where things get tricky; Jessie's father Ace (Mark O'Brien) is a cop and has been pushing for more time with his daughter, and when his partner Denny (Emory Cohen) decides to make a stink on his behalf, it's Antonio who winds up in jail - and then handed over to ICE to start deportation procedures, as he was adopted from Korea at the age of three over thirty years ago and apparently neither his adoption or his marriage made him a citizen.

Somewhat unusually, the procedural mechanics of all this and how the immigration system is often built to be an inescapable trap are not anywhere close to the primary focus, and there is good reason for that. Building a movie in that way often shifts the story away from the likes of Antonio and rests it on the shoulders of those fighting for him, and while most probably wouldn't mind Alicia Vikander and Vondie Curtis-Hall (as the LeBlancs' lawyer) having a little more to do, that probably shouldn't happen a the expense of Antonio. The issue is that Chon doesn't have a better structure to go with instead, so there's a number of loosely-connected episodes that let him explore different aspects of the character but which mean that Antonio isn't really driving his story, but it's also not being driven by how he's at the mercy of an uncaring-to-hostile bureaucracy either.

The funny thing about all that is that Chon certainly seems to have zeroed in on the heart of the film from the very beginning in Antonio's relationship with Jessie. The film is in no way subtle about how being repeatedly rejected and tossed aside as a child formed Antonio and how he is determined that the same doesn't happen to Jessie, who has seen her birth father ignore her and fears Antonio caring more about his biological child. They are great together as Chon shows Antonio full of warmth and maybe a little prone to overcompensate in a way that makes his tendency to dig in elsewhere an extension of that rather than a flip side. Sydney Kowalske makes Jessie the sort of kid in a tough situation most in the audience will recognize something in, seldom seeming precocious or over-rehearsed when she shrinks or screams in reaction to all the adult things she doesn't understand. The bond between these two comes into sharper focus as the audience learns more about them. It can't carry the entire movie - Jessie's about seven and isn't going to be making important decisions - so Chon shifts much of the latter half to how Antonio and Kathy don't always have an easy marriage, especially with this pressure, with Vikander not missing a beat moving forward - but the film ultimately has to circle back around to Antonio and Jessie.

And if Chon is ultimately marking time between Antonio's arrest and his hearing, he's doing it with material that is decent enough on its own even if it's not what the audience is going to be invested in. A thread with Linh Dan Pham as an unlikely woman looking for a tattoo is so loosely connected to the story that it has a hard time doing its job of exploring just how out of place Antonio feels in Asian spaces, especially given the nature of his vague memories of Korea are, even if Pham impresses and those memories are suitably dreamlike and haunting, a blur of Korea and Louisiana that looks great shot on 16mm film. There's a decently-staged but predictable bit of crime in the middle. Emory Cohen plays Denny as about the monster you'd expect, but it's surprisingly easy to imagine Mark O'Brien's Ace and Toby Vitrano's ICE agent Merk as protagonists in their own films about becoming a better father or recognizing one's complicity in various abuses. This film doesn't really need that - it might be better and more focused without it - but one gets the feeling that Chon has had enough one-note supporting roles that he'll give his co-stars better.

It's not quite enough, at least not in the right spots - Blue Bayou hits the expected beats where it could afford to be a bit more creative and goes off on tangents when the audience would probably be happy to watch the cast play a thing out. The cast and crew give their all to a film that never quite finds the right balance between railing at injustice and telling the story of those stuck within that injustice, making it a decent movie but not the one it could have been.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Spy no tsuma (Wife of a Spy)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2021 in Landmark E Street #8 (first-run, DCP)

Almost all Japanese films are co-produced by television networks these days, and even if one doesn't recognize the logos before the film, Wife of a Spy has the look of a TV-movie or miniseries, specifically the sort of period mystery or World War II homefront drama imported from Great Britain that filled PBS or A&E schedules a few years back. It's both what it is and good camouflage for what director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and his collaborators are really up to, a sneakily clever little thriller that keeps the audience guessing but never in a way that undercuts what is being put front and center.

The year is 1940; the place is Kobe, and the film opens with Yasuharu "Taiji" Tsumori (Masahiro Higashide) overseeing a raid on the Raw Silk Inspection station, looking to arrest J.F. Drummond, a trader and suspected British spy. When he informs Drummond's contact Yusaku Fukuhara (Issey Takahashi) afterward, he isn't surprised, but dismisses the idea as absurd. Yusaku and his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi) - a childhood friend of Taiji's - are well-off enough to have servants with Yusaku quite cosmopolitan in his tastes, something Taiji warns Satoko about as Japan moves closer to direct conflict with the western powers. Comfortable and guileless, she doesn't think much of it until Yusaku and his nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando) return from a business trip to Manchuria: The beautiful young woman with Fumio, Kiroko Kusakabe (Hyunri) gives Yusaku a knowing look, Fumio suddenly quits his job to write a novel before he is drafted, and Yusaku starts evading questions.

And then there's the apparent murder.

That's where things start to get interesting and the audience can start to see Kurosawa's hand at play. He has, in the latter half of his career, branched out into more genres, but he made his bones in horror and thrillers, and even when he's doing something as seemingly conventional and non-supernatural as this, he's got a real knack for letting the audience feel a sort of pervasive wrongness, like the world has been knocked a few degrees off its axis and everybody is drifting further off course because their compasses aren't pointing in quite the right direction. It's the sort of thing that should mess with innocent Satoko in the same way it seems to have affected the men in her life, with Yusaku and Taiji seeming to grow a bit more determined under their friendly surfaces while Fumio loses his mooring, especially once she gets an idea of what's going on.

That's where Kurosawa and co-writers Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara get clever, though, withholding a pivotal scene in such a way that the audience can't miss that something is up, but making it hard to be sure exactly what that is. Has she thrown in with Taiji, looking for a way to follow her husband's treachery to other traitors, or is she doing exactly what she appears to be up to, joining his cause and thinking quickly on her feet to help him advance it? The film doesn't ever offer any particular hints that she's working some sort of double-cross, but its makers know that their audience knows the genre, and the fact that Satoko seemed a passable actress in her husband's amateur movie (a pulpy thriller that ends in betrayal, from the couple minutes shown) gives it credence and foreshadowing. Just that her initial instincts were to use some silk Drummond gave them as a gift to make kimonos rather than western dresses suggests that both options could be equally likely.

Either way, the viewer will realize that they have probably underestimated Satoko and start watching her extremely closely, and Yu Aoi turns in a performance that can hold up to that sort of scrutiny. There's never much doubt that the bubbly, charming Satoko of the opening is who she is under normal circumstances, but once the situation starts getting ambiguous, Aoi turns things up a notch rather than becoming sphinx-like, so demonstrative in her loyalty that one might suspect that Satoko isn't that good an actress, seemingly both thrilled at the possibility of transgression and adventure but worried about the very real danger and the stain of betrayal. There are two ways to read everything she's doing right until the movie finally makes the situation clearer, and even once the penny drops, the audience will be hard-pressed to look back and find anything in her performance or the story that was a complete red herring. As she's doing this, Issey Takahashi and Masahiro Higashide are keeping pace as former friends ever more committed to opposing principles, while Ryota Bando is a well-used counterweight to Aoi, playing the youth who seems smart and assured but cracks when he is challenged to reconcile his values.

That this is a TV movie and looks it is useful for catching the audience a bit off guard as well; even one knowing Kurosawa's reputation or the basics of the film can find oneself lulled into thinking along the lines of the cozier genres it initially resembles, so that once it takes a darker turn, it's genuinely unnerving, even though the film-within-a-film is hinting at a change from a caper to noir early. Kurosawa and his cast often tend to skew performances to feel a bit modern, perhaps to emphasize a message of free-thinking versus unquestioning loyalty. It's noteworthy that the limits of what can be shown in a television production limits some of what Kurosawa can show motivating Yusaku, especially since it seems to be relatively rare among Japanese imports in confronting the country's crimes in Manchuria, even obliquely.

Wife of a Spy has the raw materials to be an entertaining movie even if it were no more than what it appears to be at the start; instead, they build a movie that keeps the viewer guessing even as the end credits roll while still being thoroughly satisfying.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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