October 31, 2009

Do Cameras Offend?

(On Waseda-dori.)

"Step inside the bamboo ring with your left foot, walk up to the Jizo statue, place your hands together and chant the words to its left. Your bad luck will go away, and your wish will come true."

October 29, 2009

By the Heat of the Flame

Pilot's Frixion Point, a water-based ballpoint pen with a rubber tip attached at the end. Use the rubber end on what you've written, and it works like an eraser! My initial thought was that this would come in handy when writing resumes, as resumes in Japan have to be individually hand-written and don't allow any mistakes. Even using whiteout is verboten! (If you make even the tiniest mistake, you have to start over.) Alas, Pilot puts itself out of the running for Potential Lifesaver© by including the following warnings in the fine print:

"Do not use for forms or addresses."
-Because the info can be easily erased, I assume. But this includes resumes.
"When exposed to heat over 60°C, the ink will become invisible."
-This must mean the friction generated to erase the writing in the first place is approximately 60°C.

As a test, I wrote with the pen on a piece of paper and held it over the heat of a candle.
Like magic!

October 25, 2009

Tokyo International Film Festival, Day Six: "Based on a True Story"

Mary and MaxFive Minutes of HeavenWe all know that movies aren't real. But tack on the words, "based on a true story" on a movie poster, and we suddenly operate differently. Events of the film are open to closer scrutiny, and conversely, we're more willing to swallow the outlandish, thinking it must have truly happened. Two films screened on the sixth day of the Tokyo International Film Festival, Oliver Hirschbeigel's Five Minutes of Heaven and Adam Elliot's Mary and Max, were "based on a true story". But what does that mean, anyway?

Joe (James Nesbitt) still lives in Lurgan, working for a factory that makes egg cartons. A television program has offered to stage Joe and Alistair's first-ever meeting and film it. They're thinking reconciliation, but Joe is only thinking revenge. The five minutes of heaven is the murder of Alistair that Joe has been planning in his mind.

Hirschbiegel sets up the scenes leading to James' murder in careful detail
, utilizing cinematic conventions to nice effect as he segues into their staged reconciliation. Neeson's elegantly mournful Alistair contrasts cleanly with Nesbitt's angry, jittery Joe. A TV playing in the background in the 1975 scenes gives grave news of the Troubles, while in the present day scenes, we hear results of a football match from a car radio, indicating the change in the political and social climate. A neat trick with sound effects links the past with the present. When James is shot, the sound of Joe breathing is amplified as he stands frozen in fear. 30 years later, as Joe descends the stairs to meet Alistair for the first time, we hear once again the child's frantic breathing echoing in his head. 
Five Minutes in Heaven explores a real-life tragedy that occurred in Lurgan, Northern Ireland in 1975. 16-year-old Alistair Little, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and a Protestant, goes to the house of James Griffin, a Catholic, and shoots him three times in the head. The murder is witnessed by Joe, James's 11-year-old little brother, who is playing outside the house. 30 years later, Alistair (Liam Neeson) has served his years and now travels around the world, speaking out against the closed societal mindset that can become a breeding ground for violence.

A disclaimer at the beginning states the film is a fictional account based on true events. We're not told where fact ends and fiction begins, which creates a confusing situation for the viewer. In reality, when afforded a chance to meet, Joe refused to see Alistair. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert interviewed the two men separately, and working closely with them, wrote an imagined account of their exchange. Learning this after watching the film greatly changes the viewer's interpretation of events. What are we to make of a bruising fight between Alistair and Joe? Shot like Hirschbiegel's audition tape to direct the next Bourne Identity film, an initially cathartic moment becomes nothing more than wish fulfillment. It's all well for Alistair and Joe of the film, but what about their real-life counterparts? A complicated reality suddenly weighs heavily against the hopeful ending of the film.

Like Five Minutes of Heaven, Australian director Adam Elliot's Mary and Max is based on a true story. A stop-motion claymation film about a pen pal friendship between an 8-year-old Australian girl and a 44-year-old New Yorker, it sounds harmless. But anyone walking into the film expecting Wallace and Gromit hijinks needs to be warned: this bold but curious mix of quirky and dark is not for kids. Not unless you want to do a lot of explaining.

Mary is the little Australian girl, Max is the Jewish New Yorker. Mary's mother is a sherry-swilling shoplifter, her father is largely absent. Max attends Overeaters Anonymous and has stays at the mental hospital. Both desperately lonely, the two establish a snail mail relationship, beginning in 1076 and spanning two decades. (Max is voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the grown Mary by Toni Collete.) As they face personal ups and downs that test their friendship, alcoholism, Asperger's syndrome, unhappy marriages, and a suicide attempt work their way into the story.

(Mary's world in Mount Waverley, Australia, rendered in brown tones.)

Given the dark material, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the visual world of Mary and Max is such a downer. Elliot has created a highly distinctive world and his characters are one-of-a-kind. Working with a severely restricted color palette, he renders dried up, miserable Mount Waverley, Australia in tones of burnished brown. New York City, with its graffiti, grime, and gunshots, is constructed in shades of grey. The result is an almost willfully ugly film.

(Max's world in New York City, depicted in shades of grey.)

Elliot attempts to lighten up the proceedings by throwing in quirky details. At the beginning of the film, Mary is described (by Barry Humphries, the narrator) as having a birthmark on her forehead "the color of poo", and the clever-clever observations snowball from there. Max has a succession of pet goldfish, each named Henry and each dying in horrible ways. (Henry 8th! Henry 9th!) Slapped onto the bare bones of every scene, some are funny, most are exhausting.

But how much of this illustrious story is true? Turns out, Max, a Jewish New Yorker who has Asperger's and attends Overeaters Anonymous, has been the director's pen pal of 20 years. The two have never met. Mary is fictional. The film doesn't become insignificant upon this discovery, but the fairly tenuous link to reality leads one to wonder if a disclaimer was needed at all. Given that the characters' friendship is almost destroyed when Mary innocently exploits Max's disorder as a case study in university, one hopes that the real Max adores the film and life doesn't imitate art.

"Based on a true story" should always be taken with a grain of salt, but watching a film with the bullshit detector turned high won't make for a satisfying experience. Nor would a film be half as significant if we ignored its real-life roots. In the end, finding out the truth gives an added dimension to the films. Joe and Alistair's non-meeting exposes the difficulties of reconciling the tragedies of the Troubles, difficulties that can't be solved through a cease-fire or ideological weakening. And as for Mary and Max, it's nice to know that the fate Max meets in the film is not what befell him in real life.

October 23, 2009

Two Ways to Misspell "Tailor"

(In Tomigaya.)

Done and done.

The Scare Factor

A Jack-o'-lantern decorated with Gel Gems adorns the window of a children's clothing shop in Roppongi Hills.

If they're so cute, how will kids ever learn that these things are supposed to be frightening?

October 18, 2009

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007)

(Michelle Pfeiffer gets a talking-to from Mother Nature while jogging.)

Aspiration is one thing, actualization is another. Quite an obvious statement, but it's a thought that often comes to mind when watching movies. On paper, Amy Heckerling's 2007 film I Could Never Be Your Woman can be described as a romantic comedy. The lovers are Rosie (Michelle Pfeiffer), a TV producer and Adam (Paul Rudd), an actor who nabs a bit part on her show. The film aspires to be an examination of beauty-obsessed and youth-obsessed America in the guise of a May-December romance.

(Then 39-year-old Stacey Dash plays a high school student in You Go Girl, with Paul Rudd guest-starring.)

 In reality, I Could Never... is simply a mess. A mix of satire and formula, it begins, bizarrely, with Mother Nature (Tracey Ullman) pontificating on how humans are messing with the natural order. Her complaints are accompanied by montage shots of men and women getting liposuction, chemical peels, hair plugs, and Botox. We are introduced to Rosie, a single mother with the requisite hyperarticulate teenage daughter (Saoirse Ronan, so game she deserves her subsequent excellent role in Atonement). Rosie produces the cheesy You Go Girl, a show reminiscent of Saved by the Bell. Que thirtysomething actors playing teenagers spouting slang written by writers who are more or less pulling it out of their ass! Que the clueless boss (Fred Willard), the backstabbing blonde secretary (Sarah Alexander), and the diva TV star (Stacey Dash).

Then Rosie meets Adam, and the all-too-familiar "he's too young for me, I can't date him but he's so cute" push and pull commences, with zero subtlety and nuance. Given the film's pointed portrayal of teen-oriented TV shows that use actors too old to be teenagers, the casting of Pfeiffer and Rudd is deeply ironic. The then-47-year-old Pfeiffer playing a 41-year-old is a stretch, but what about then-36-year-old Rudd playing a 29-year-old? How meta.

As with Hollywood's recent influx of "cougar" roles for older actresses, (Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give, Courtney Cox in Cougar Town), Rosie is a deeply undignified, demeaning role for Pfeiffer. There is nothing entertaining about watching her screeching about her sagging face, engaging in a bitch fight with her secretary,
and acting like a general flutterbudget. Rudd fares better, seeing as his only requirements are to be cute, funny, and unfailingly sweet. He goes haywire in a wacky, freestyle performance and scores the only genuine laughs in the film.

Paul Rudd's character on the set of You Go Girl.

The film lurches from one disjointed scene to the next, as if someone filled a basket with strips of the film and ran away, dropping scenes as they went. The tone-deaf rhythms and desperate zeitgeist-channeling will come as a shock for fans of writer-director Amy Heckerling. While her directing efforts have been sparse in recent years, her successes are unimpeachable. 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with its mix of hilarity and honesty, is a benchmark film in the teen movie genre. The same can be said for her 1995 comedy Clueless, a film so trend-setting, teen-oriented films and TV shows were imitating its witty, knowing dialogue for years afterward.
I Could Never Be Your Woman
So why this train wreck? The glaring disconnection between scenes hints that the film was mercilessly trimmed by...someone. Rosie inexplicably appears dressed like a schoolgirl in one scene, and later , walks awkwardly as if she'd hurt her ankle, though it is never explained why. The film's delayed release couldn't have helped either. Shot in 2005 but shelved until 2008, after which it went straight to DVD, the film's jokes are too far removed from the original setting to work. (In one scene, Ronan's character sings a parody of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" re-written with lyrics poking fun at George Bush and Michael Jackson.) But there's no denying that the film has deeper fundamental problems in plotting and characterization. It may be aiming for romantic satire, but really, it's just a joke.

October 17, 2009

Tradition + Halloween

A pumpkin version of the traditional manjū, steamed buns with sweet red-bean paste inside. Aptly titled, "Halloween".

October 16, 2009

Twin Glares

Samurai spray-painted onto the outside wall of a restaurant in Takatanobaba.

A pair of kabuki eyes: guarding or policing? Emblazoned with the message, "Don't overlook crime", the stickers were distributed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as a crime prevention measure. Hey there, Big Brother.

October 9, 2009

Pleasure Boat Passing Through

A pleasure boat passing below the Kachidoki bridge over the Sumida river. Spot the pseudo geishas inside!

October 8, 2009

Sumo-wrestling Pigs

(In Ginza.)

Cutting an unappetizing figure but actually advertising a Nagoya-based tonkatsu chain. Can you trust a restaurant that claims to serve "miso-katsu beauty"?

October 6, 2009

Ghost Town (2008)

(In an early scene in Ghost Town, Ricky Gervais walks past a ghostly painting in his apartment.)

A bit of foreshadowing in Ghost Town, a comedy in where New York dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) gains the ability to see and converse with ghosts following a near-death (or technically death) experience. Greg Kinnear shows up as a ghost who tries to convince Pincus to take care of some unfinished business involving his widow, an Egyptologist played by Téa Leoni. As is par for the course, the deeply antisocial Pincus finds himself falling for her. In this particular scene, through, he's still safe in his misanthropic shell, unaware of what is to follow.

Ghost Town
Seeing "Gervais" and "romance" in the same sentence may not sound particularly appetizing, but the three actors easily work their angles like the pros that they are. Director David Koepp largely resists the urge to jerk tears from the audience (when you have a film set in a New York that is filled with ghosts, each holding an unfulfilled wish, tear-jerking seems like the default direction), and manages to bring a touch of elegance to the proceedings. Aided by a muted yet distinct visual style, what could have been deeply maudlin becomes a minor gem of a film: not particularly original, but very successful on its own terms.

October 5, 2009

Fish Don't Discriminate

(Tokyu Stay Hotel in Tsukiji.)

So long as it's big and blue, sky or sea, it doesn't matter.

October 4, 2009

Sign of Struggle

(Somewhere in the labyrinth that is Tokyo station, close to the Tokyo International Forum exit.)

Guess that brick house wasn't too strong after all.

Last Night (1998)

(Sandra Oh goes "grocery shopping" in Last Night.)

Out of all the apocalypse-themed films, the Canadian film Last Night has perhaps the most straightforward setting: the world as we know it is ending at midnight; what would you do? We follow a handful of characters living in Toronto as they spend their last remaining hours on earth. Patrick (writer-director-actor Don McKellar) leaves a final family dinner to face it alone, Sandra (Sandra Oh) tries in vain to get home to her husband after her car is destroyed, and Duncan (David Cronenberg), a gas company head, calls every single client to thank and assure them that they will receive electricity til the end.

(Don McKellar awaits the apocalypse.)

Last NightMcKellar's take on the then-imminent new millennium is a little morbid, but thankfully, he's more interested in exploring the ephemeral human connections than sensationalizing the situation. Scenes of Oh and McKellar's characters cramming a "getting to know you" conversation in a rush to feel intimacy, or Patrick's 80-year-old grandmother declaring to a fellow grandmother that the significance of death is wasted on the young are achingly wistful. The dystopian elements (rioting youth turning over cars and killing for the hell of it, abandoned and mostly looted supermarkets) don't always mesh smoothly with the emotion, and in particular, the zombie-movie score feels jarringly incongruous. But seen as a portrait of pre-internet domination era life, it does, in a way, feel as if the world of Last Night no longer exists. If an aughts version of this film existed, you can bet at least one character would wait out the end in front of the computer, transmitting a final goodbye to a YouTube audience.