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film writing by nicholas vroman

Archive for July 2010

Beautiful Islands / ビューティフルアイランズ

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Unless assigned I try not to write about films I don’t like. Sometimes, though, because a film is so bad, or pretends to be something it is not, I am compelled to put my thoughts on paper. It’s akin to being a moral witness. By not saying anything, I myself become a complicitor and share the burden of guilt. This is something that I cannot bear, knowing that I have said nothing, letting guilt and shame ride me to my grave.

Where do I start with Beautiful Islands?  The ostensible reason for director Tomoko Kana submitting the world her extremely dishonest images is a nobel one – documenting the effects of global warming on three island communities, Tuvalu, Venice and Shishmaref. Three years of junkets to these disparate parts of the world have produced footage that looks like – well, three years of junkets. Taking advantage of her privilege, she not only failed to make a coherent film but it appears she didn’t even try.

Using minimal and misleading texts, she set scenes of islands disappearing from global warming. These islands most likely are and it’s not too premature to sound the alarm, but Beautiful Islands loads mis-statements, loaded images and intellectual flabbiness (or should I be more honest and say vapidity) not only don’t illustrate her (minimal) theme, but actively undermine it. If there is ever a movie that would hurt the cause, this is it.

For example, she set a case of disappearance of permafrost (caused by global warming) as weakening the frozen land of Shishmaref and the disappearing ice fields as allowing more and more violent winter storms to batter this newly defenseless land. However when she shows an image of frozen earth and images of winter storms that have always been common to the area she fails miserably. Where are the facts, Ma’am? And the images to support them. And when humanizing the dilemma, why not mention that the 1st Nations people who live on this island were once nomadic, but are now stuck all year on their traditional winter hunting grounds. Their now “permanent” settlement was never meant to be permanent. This is a big part of the tragedy of their current plight. Unmentioned?

And what about the Venice junket. Images of Venice flooding are a dime a dozen. It’s been going on for centuries. There’s been much talk, but not much done about it. Of course rising oceans will affect Venice, but it ain’t happening yet.  During high tides, Venice floods. But tell me, show me it’s more severe. Make the connection. Don’t just show me images of carnival!

There’s a sort of smugness to Beautiful Islands that appalls. It’s like Kana-san is saying, hey, I’ve been there and you never will, because it will be gone by the time you do get there. It’s a sort of perverse eco-tourism.

I’m all for activist cinema. Beautiful Islands isn’t. It’s inactivist cinema. A cinema that delights in the tragedies of others. That offers hopelessness and cynicism as the only possible solution.  She has attempted to justify her awful film by claiming it puts a human face on the upcoming eco-catastrophe. She fills the screen with a lot of cute kids. By any means, she has exploited the innocence of her unwitting subjects. In a word (or two), eco-porn. Of the worst sort.

To add insult to the injury of Beautiful Islands, her production company has developed an Iphone app that allows you to upload landscape and cityscape photos and presto chango, they show what these places will look like after the oncoming global warming flood. Here are some samples from it.

I decided to do my own flood cam (via photoshop) and took Laramie (7,200 feet above sea level) to see what its downtown would look like when the water rises.

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Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 11, 2010 at 10:20 am

Kawa no soko kara konnichiwa / 川の底からこんにちは / Sawako Decides

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Kawa no soko kara konnichiwa is a bit stealthier and less of a commercial trifle than it appears. Young and prolific director, Yuya Ishii, continues his explorations of losers and reduced expectations of contemporary Japan with incisive wit. Hikari Mitsushima (Love Exposure) effortlessly carries Kawa no soko kara konnichiwa as Sawako, a young woman beaten down by the vicissitudes of Tokyo and reluctantly returning to her hometown to run her ailing father’s failing clam-packing business. Between her own failures and emotional baggage, the concerted resistance of the small town folk working at the factory and her weasely love interest, Kenichi (Masashi Endo), she manages to overcome the obstacles. The twist, though, is in rallying around everyone’s, and her own, mediocrity. With deadpan accuracy and a bevy of great characters, Ishii sets up shibboleths and hilariously knocks them down. But the final scene, where Sawako accepts her relationship with Kenichi admitting “I’m stuck with him for life because I am below average,” the comedy suddenly deflates as the credits begin to roll.

Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2010

La vie moderne

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Over the last 10 years, famed photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon has been documenting through film and still photography the lives of peasants in his native France. La vie moderne follows visits over several years to a few farmers eking out meager livings in the high country of central France. The film is largely comprised of long static interview sessions in which taciturn farmers say barely a word. Depardon as the off camera narrator and interviewer is not a natural in the art of interview. He asks leading questions. He fills in the answers. By most means, the film shouldn’t work, yet La vie moderne is oddly affecting as he layers interviews, scenes of driving down long back roads and farmers going through their quotidian routines.  The enforced slow pace and beautifully composed shots gives the viewer ample time to get lost in weathered faces, the simple and profound human dramas of the participants and details of a traditional lifestyles that continue to endure despite the onslaught of the modern world.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 1, 2010 at 1:18 am

Café de los Maestros

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A Buena Vista Social Club for an old generation of tango players, Café de los Maestros by its music alone, lovingly evokes times long past. Director Miguel Kohan and composer Gustavo Santaolla (Brokeback Mountain, Public Enemies) managed to gather a rather formidable orchestra of tangueros from the big bands of the 40s and 50s into the studio to record a set of old favorites. Introducing a cast of virtuoso bandoneon players, guitarists, pianists, vocalist in the recording studio, Café de los Maestros takes a few breaks along the way for interviews, tasty old film and television cutaways, shots of Buenos Aires and moments of these great musicians listening, talking, living and breathing tango. The moments, interludes, and individual songs lead up to a breathtaking performance in the beautiful Teatro Colón. As pianist Carlos Garcia says in the beginning of the film, “If, when you hear a tango that is played well, you don’t feel your chest tremble, find something else to do with your time.” Café de los Maestros definitely will leave you trembling.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 1, 2010 at 1:14 am

Torso / トルソー

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Longtime Koreeda cinematographer (Nobody Knows, After Life) Yutaka Yamazaki’s first directorial effort, Torso, plows some similar ground to Koreeda’s Air Doll, but to much different effect. Torso covers the relationship between 2 half-sisters. The older one, Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe) is an uptight, disengaged urban survivor, whose only relationship is with an inflatable male torso. Her secret life of bathing, frolicking and having sex with this headless, armless and legless prosthetic is rudely interrupted when her half-sister, Mina (Sakura Ando) – all extroverted enthusiasm and blabber – appears at her doorstep running from her abusive boyfriend, the one person, or rather body, that never physically appears in the film. The torso and continuing variations of objectified bodies – perfume bottles, pillows, a dress-making mannequin and a gravure idol – becomes the underlying leitmotif of this sensitively rendered portrait of how individuals come to terms with their issues and problems.  The “strange” sexuality of blow-up doll attraction is rendered somewhat positively. Watanabe and Ando are perfectly cast and directed with a strained chemistry that once binds and separates them.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 1, 2010 at 1:11 am

SR: Saitama no rappa 2 – Joshi rappâ Kizudarake no raimu / SRサイタマノラッパー2 女子ラッパー☆傷だらけのライム / SR: Saitama Rappers 2: Chick Rappers’ Hurtful Rhyme

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Last year, SR: Saitama no rappa (AKA 8000 Miles), a downbeat and quirky comedy about hip hop nerds trying to make their mark in the wastelands of Saitama. Directed by Yu Irie, with the imprimatur of being the grand prizewinner at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, the film deservedly became a small cult favorite. With Saitama no rappa 2 (AKA 8000 Miles 2 – Girls Rapper) Irie breaks no new ground and in fact, basically retreads 8 Mile and the sort of self-effacing dysfunctional rap boasting that Eminem pioneered. In this case it’s a crew of decidedly amateur girl rappers who dream of a small big-time.  The film opens with Saitama 1 B-boys, Ikku and Tom coming to town. They run into young Ayoma (Maho Yamada), inspiring her to gather her girlfriends and work up their rap routine. There are some hilarious moments, particularly when the boys and girls meet up for a freestyle put down – the boys building a rap around “fuck Gunma.” Yamada shines in a fun, but clichéd, sequel. Watch out for #3!

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2010

Musubime / 結び目 / The Knot

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In Musubime (The Knot), director Yuichi Onuma moves from his tales of urban otaku to a chamber drama of small town sexual intrigue. Mukku Akazawa plays Asako, frustrated and married to a nice, but uninspiring working stiff, Taro (Masaki Miura). She also takes care of his father (Ueda Kouichi), suffering from the onslaught of old-age dementia, reacting with violence and increasingly bizarre behavior. She crosses paths with Keisuke, a taciturn and troubled laundry shop owner, and sharer of a dark secret with her. He lives with his wife, the bubbly Akane (Sou Hirosawa).  As secrets are revealed and relationships strained to breaking points, each character, save Keisuke, comes to revelations and resolutions. Onuma sensitively directs a perfect ensemble through a somewhat fantastic plot, but everyone is so good, disbelief is easily suspended.  His sense of the simple pleasures and boredom of Japanese small town life, the details of stunningly dull townscapes and the dark undercurrent of unspoken desires and community histories show Onuma expanding his oeuvre and his continuing critique and love of Japanese society.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 1, 2010 at 12:56 am