December 31, 2011

All Good Things (2010)

A light is shed on a missing persons story in All Good Things

In All Good Things, the 1% literally get away with murder. Based on the true story of Robert Durst, the son of a New York real estate tycoon whose wife went missing, the film alleges that she was actually murdered -- perhaps by him. This is director Andrew Jarecki’s first attempt at a feature film (his previous work was the documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which focused on an even more uncomfortable topic). While it would seem somewhat facile to attribute the shortcomings of this film to his background as a documentary filmmaker, how else can we explain his interest in biographical detail and his refusal to tell the audience what to think? 

The film begins in a courtroom, where David Marks (Ryan Gosling) is on trial for a murder perhaps connected to his wife Katie’s disappearance 20 years ago. (The film avoids using the true names of the people they are based on.) We then flash back to New York City, 1971, when Katie (Kirsten Dunst) and David first meet.  He is running around town doing business in seedy buildings on orders from his dad (Frank Langella, as unpleasant as you would expect); she is an aspiring med student from a working-class family who has just moved into one of said buildings. Interspersed with the courtroom interrogation, we track their quickie wedding, their stint in Vermont as owners of a health-food store, and David’s summon back to New York, where he reluctantly joins the family business. 

Dad (Frank Langella) is unhappy with their marriage. This is one of the few instances in the film where the two are in the same shot together.

Jarecki takes you step by step through the demise of David and Katie, but holds viewers at bay when it comes to presenting a clear point of view on her disappearance. We see how David’s background shaped her fate: haunted by his mother’s suicide, which he witnessed as a child, on rocky terms with his powerful, controlling dad (who is naturally opposed to their marriage), and with a history of mental illness. However, when it comes to Katie's disappearance, Jarecki drops hints and suggestions about her murder while leaving the full details somewhat vague. Instead of coalescing all the information he's presented so far into a clear explanation, he instead turns tentative, leaving the film feeling like a working theory rather than a dramatization.

Who are you kidding? David tries to pass himself off as a woman.

This causes problems for the actors, in particular Ryan Gosling. As the troubled David, Gosling is so remote that you can hardly believe that he is the central character. Dull and sluggish, David doesn't seem charming enough to be able to ensnare Katie in their first encounter, and we don't see how he would be invested in whether she divorced him or not, whether she lived or not. By the time David shows up in the last third of the film and living in Texas as a woman, you've understood so little about him that it's difficult to even be fazed. 

A hard-eyed and disillusioned Katie.

Dunst fares better as the long-suffering Katie. Playing an average girl who marries up, way up, she goes for broke, subverting her initial blonde sunniness to gradually shift into a dead-eyed hollow of a girl. (No vain actress would let herself appear so haggard for so much of her screen time.) Forced to have an abortion, physically abused, and unable to escape from her marriage, it's the most uncompromisingly dark role she's had in her career so far, and she is compelling throughout the film. (Melancholia does not come out in Japan until February.) As the only penetrable character, her disappearance two-thirds into the film leaves you mourning.

A shot from the "happy times" montage, shot through the requisite golden glow.

The film’s last third is a limp to the end as it catches up to the present-day courtroom scene. It's then we see for certain that all the pieces Jarecki has been assembling so far aren't going to come together; the flashbacks merely build towards a whimper of a revelation. It fits with Jarecki's neutral stance: he isn't out to punish David, or provide him with a catharsis. This refusal to draw conclusions for the audience would have been a smart tactic if he didn't leave so much in the dark, leaving viewers at a loss as to how they should feel, or care. In the postscript, we learn the outcome of the trial, along with the information that David is now working as a real estate investor in Florida. You get chills, almost in spite of the film.

December 29, 2011

Todai's Hongo Campus

A couple of weeks ago, I took a walk through the University of Tokyo's Hongo campus. (Here are the famous red gates.)

We were merely passing by on our way to a museum, but the foliage was so beautiful, we took a detour through the campus and ended up forgoing the museum visit. There were so many couples and families walking along the gingko trees, enjoying the fall sun.

How old must this tree be?

Since I attended Waseda University, I was extremely jealous of the beautiful Todai campus. Waseda buildings are either run-down and colorless, or brand-new and generic. Few buildings that are commonly used by students give a sense of the school's history, or what the school stands for. These buildings say, "We are Todai, the best university in Japan. We have the history, we have the prestige, and we are proud of it." 

The fountain in front of the library.

A view from inside the library.

Deer heads and chandeliers could be seen from outside the library windows. I was surprised by the opulence of it all.

Sanshiro Pond, which dates back to 1615. It's not particularly known as a momiji-viewing (foliage viewing) spot, so we'll call it a well-kept secret.

An ibis kept pacing back and forth in the shallows, trying to catch fish.

Defying Gravity and Convention

On the Tozai Line, the most excellently pompadoured man I have ever seen in person. His military-style coat and off-white leather boots were impeccable as well. A man like that, you just want to grab him and ask him where he's going.

December 25, 2011

Christmas in Tsukishima

Tsukishima's Monja-dori, with its countless monja and okonomiyaki restaurants, and mom-and-pop shops selling everything from rice to old toys, may seem like one of the most staunchly traditional areas in Tokyo. 

However, even they are unable to resist the opportunity for decoration that Christmas provides.

Tastefully placed old stuff seems to be the appeal of this store. (I have no idea what their wares actually are.)

I fell instantly in love with this rotary phone cover. (Sewed using leftover fabric for the cushion covers, perhaps?)

A highly concentrated amount of advertising for such a small space. Note the Santa on the right, the tree in the middle and on the left, and the wreath. The bulletin board also shows a hand-drawn Christmas menu.

 "Please do not take these."

Oh please. We are looking at geraniums here, not even poinsettias.

Now if I were the owner, I would be worried about someone trying to steal this old-school stereo. (A classic Cicena.)

In the same way that Japan has created the tradition of couples going out on Christmas Eve, they have also made it a tradition to eat fried chicken for Christmas. Hence this man in a chicken suit, shilling Family Mart chicken on Christmas Eve. He clowned around with amazing commitment, but passers-by weren't impressed enough to actually buy anything.

Tokyo City Lights

 A view of Tokyo by night, viewed from my grandmother's place in Tsukishima. This is the River Sumida. The spot of orange near the center of the screen is Hongwanji Temple.

 To he left is Tsukishima's famed Monja-dori.

Kachidoki Bridge, and, of course, Tokyo Tower as the sun sets.

 A miraculously unblurry close-up.

December 23, 2011

Kingyozaka Cafe

When you're done looking at the fish at Kingyozaka, you can step inside the cafe for a bite.

The history of the cafe is less storied -- it's been open for less than 10 years. It is, however, an impeccable construction that has been decorated lovingly. (The Kingyozaka website even has information on the company that built the cafe.)

There are three floors: the restaurant floor, the bar (technically a half-floor), and the attic floor. You can't see it in this photo, but the half-circle window has a goldfish design etched into it.

The attic gives off the vibe of a cozy chalet. Since the bar sells cigars, the scent (not as unbearable as cigarette smoke, and strangely suited to the vibe) wafts upward.

Goldfish are naturally part of the decor...

... as are goldfish motifs.

They even wind up in your plate! This is a carrot in the form of a goldfish. Regular fish is also on the menu, although I would feel slightly uncomfortable ordering it after looking at all the goldfish outside.

Cigar boxes and goldfish, an incongruous combination.


One of my favorite Tokyo discoveries is Kingyozaka, literally "goldfish hill". It is a goldfish supplier/cafe in Hongo with a very long history. The business was established over 350 years ago, and the current okami (proprietress) is the seventh-generation manager.

The last time I was here, a group of kids were fishing for goldfish.

There are easily over a dozen types of goldfish, from your standard matsuri (festival) Japanese goldfish, to the fancy ones with puffy faces.

I'm sure it's cheaper to win fish at a festival, but it's said that such goldfish are more susceptible to diseases, and generally exhausted, having been dragged around from festival to festival. That said, I once got five goldfish (one red wakin, two salmon pink fish, and two bulgy-eyed demekin), and they lived over five years.

Visitors are always welcome at Kingyozaka. (I think the logic is that if you've gone out of your way to find the place, and you express a delight in the fish, they do not want to discourage you.) You're even allowed to walk on the planks to get a better view of the fish.

When it's warmer, it's nearly impossible to get a photo of the fish without it being horribly blurred, but the winter cold has calmed them down to the point of absolute stillness.

December 18, 2011

Christmasfitting Tokyo Opera City

Tokyo Opera City, a cultural arts complex in Hatsudai, one station over from Shinjuku.

Completed in 1999, the complex still has the appearance of a new construction, perhaps even more so because vast spaces appeared unused.

If you can take a photo like this on a Tokyo weekend, a warning sign should go up.

Didn't expect this to happen at night.

 If this man has to look up, it must be a mighty tall tree.

December 13, 2011

Does Anyone Want a Free Parakeet?

Outside a drugstore right across the street from the University of Tokyo's Hongo campus, two parakeets in their cages. The one in the back has a sign that reads, "It is well-behaved. For 10,000 yen."

For the other bird, the card reads, "We will give you a bird. Please bring your own box." Apparently, this parakeet has less value.

The view from across the street: the University of Tokyo's famed red gate.