Dreams for Sale – Miwa Nishikawa (2013) (NYAFF ’13)


There is a point early on in Dreams for Sale, just as the story is beginning to find its way into a familiar destructive-depression groove, when every bit of logic in your brain tells you that A will happen to these characters as they move into the next act; or at least B will happen, certainly. Film being what it is these days, that’s usually the width of story options we’ve come to expect. So when Z happens instead, it takes moment to settle back down and readjust your brain.

The Z in question comes after an accidental fire burns down the sushi restaurant that husband and wife duo Kanya (Sadado Abe) and Satoko (Takako Matsu) have gone into serious debt to build and make a success. Though the customers all make it out alive, the only thing left from the fire is Kanya’s chef’s knife and the huge burden of the debt.

Kanya, depressed and feeling like he’s dragging everyone around him down with him, begins to withdraw from life, especially from Satoko, who offers him her meager life savings to help pay off their debt. In a final bout of blind self-harm, he finds himself alone in a hotel room with Rei, a friend who has just come into a thick envelope of money, a bribe so her paramour’s wife doesn’t find out. Initially upset over how he came into the money, Satoko decides against divorce and comes up with a different idea: to use Kanya’s charm on other women (women she thinks deserve it), for other thick envelopes of cash to pay off their debt, or better yet: to start up a new restaurant.

That sidestep of the obvious story path is down to the film’s writer-director, Miwa Nishikawa, who spent parts of her early career working as an assistant Hirokazu Koreeda, who gave her a boost when he produced her first film, another twisty family drama called Wild Berries. Like Koreeda himself, Nishikawa has a knack for taking a straightforward and giving it a little flip, creating a new and unexpected experience.

In Dreams for Sale, part of the drama comes from a little flip of Cyrano, with Satoko taking the behind the scenes role, puppeteering Kanya through some of the more emotionally manipulative moments of their con spree. Though he seems to take naturally to defrauding these women, Kanya ultimately struggles with his conscience in certain situations. This mark one of the few truly accessible emotional avenues for the audience to enter in and see through his eyes for a little.

As you watch it, the film does occasionally feel meandering as it delves into Satoko’s lonely everyday life while Kanya is off his other women, but in retrospect these are some of the more interesting moments that the film offers. They drive home Satoko’s disconnection, as if she herself doesn’t quite believe this is the life she’s living now and can’t find a comfortable position in it. Dreams for Sale is a pure character study. It’s a difficult film, with a difficult culmination, but it’s one made with a keen eye and a steady hand.

Stoker – Park Chan-wook (2013)


There could have been something to this dark film about India (Wasikowska), a misfit girl whose secret family history is unbound following the death of her father, but director Park Chan-wook refused to get out of his own way, overloading the film with a hyperactive camera, an overbearing level of CGI that never quite manages to enmesh itself with the live action and a collection of somewhat pointless transition gimmicks. Through the cold, calculated muddle, Mia Wasikowska emerges as the only element of interest, but that can’t sustain a film for 100 minutes, especially when that film is ostensibly a thriller.

Getting out of his own way has increasingly become a problem with Park since the Vengeance Trilogy ended, as if he were working overtime to convince the world that he really was a visionary director. He’s not, he’s a good director, or once was; he can be again, but that’s up to him.

The Kirishima Thing – Daihachi Yoshida (2013) (NYAFF ’13)


Slow and strange, constantly doubling back on itself to broaden the scope of the story, The Kirishima Thing is something like a less socially-conscious Japanese version of My So-Called Life, where the ubiquitously absent Tino is cast as an all star volleyball player — the titular Kirishima — who is at the center of everyone’s lives.

Kirishima’s seemingly innocuous decision to quit the volleyball team sets off a chain of events that runs through the core of the painfully ordinary high school, causing a rift in the school’s social paradigm.

Though an odd choice to win the 2012 Japan Academy Prize, The Kirishima Thing is a well studied, subtle coming-of-age drama that reminisces about youth without idolizing or whitewashing it.

In Your Queue: All Your Filez Are Belong to Us (“We Steal Secrets: The WikiLeaks Story”)



We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks – Alex Gibney (2013)

There is a scene in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs when Dark Helmet and Col. Sanders decide to find Lonestar by watching a copy of Spaceballs: The Movie even though they’re in the middle of making it. It’s one of the best movie bits Brooks ever came up with, and it seems to have a modern parallel coming true. Were documentaries always this quick to be captured, processed and released? The story that director Alex Gibney has set his sights on here — the website WikiLeaks and the cult of personality that sprung up around its’ leader, Julian Assange — is still actively unfolding. Even though Gibney’s film takes the longview, tracing Assange back to his hacker youth in 1980s Melbourne, at the end of the film we’re looking at now now: Assange, frail and emotionally (and ethically) compromised, as a refugee in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he remains to this day, still fighting his extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations which he fears will lead to extradition to the United States.

WikiLeaks started from a noble idea, that a well informed society is better than nanny state, but because of the pressure applied by the governments who were targets in the leaks and the personal failings of its founder, it eventually strayed off course. WikiLeaks became synonymous with Assange himself, with, it’s alleged, much of the site’s funding going to Assange’s legal defence, leaving Assange with few allies, and Bradley Manning — the Private who actually leaked the trove of documents and videos — mostly abandoned to a cruel military justice system.

The only problem is that if you’ve been paying attention even a little bit, you know all of this stuff already. That’s a problem of time and distance, which Gibney has not allowed enough of. The story is still fresh in our minds and so covered by so many journalists around the world that We Steal Secrets breaks no real news in its two plus hour running time. This is, at this time, essentially advanced reblogging for profit. Gibney’s interest in the subject may be sincere, but it’s not discovery of a subject.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin (2013)


Because of its Special Jury Award for “Punk Spirit” at Sundance earlier this year, I held out high hopes for Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary focusing on the radical Russian feminist punk band before, during and after their arrest and trial in Moscow in 2012. The film turns out to be something of a let down though, less informative than most articles and blogs despite the insider access it enjoyed. It’s key moments boil down to the few minutes of footage of the band members in their courtroom cell talking about their predicament while an endless line of photographers are paraded by for a snapshot of the dangerous trio.

But the film lacks a rounded, well-researched throughline to unite the various thoughts the directors and its subjects put forward, ending up more a collection of images than a documentary of biting substance. The directors, Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, seemed to get sucked into the media and celebrity circus that surrounded the case and, like Occupy Wall Street, the ideals that were the driving forced behind the band (aka: the point of the band and the documentary) become lost in the din of shutter clicks and girls in balaclavas shouting into their webcams.

The film is anchored by the personalities of Nadia, Masha and Katya — the only three known members — but performs only a minor biography on them before settling in for an almost formal court procedural. Lerner and Pozdorovkin compare it to the Russian show trials of the 1930s, but they do it without any particular conviction, perhaps because the actual show trials ended in summary execution immediate after.

Are Nadia, Masha and Katya more important as individuals in a documentary than the ideas they’re fighting for? Should one take precedence over the other, or is one so firmly rooted in the other that they are inseparable from each other? That’s always the hardest thing to balance in a political documentary. Even though the argument could be made that the individuals don’t matter, we don’t tend to identify with an isolated idea as strongly as we do with people who have an idea. Like other issues in the film, the directors seem to run their toes along the middle ground, not making a firm choice one way or the other. My feeling is that in 5-10 years, someone is going to make a legitimately good documentary about this dreadful farce of a trial — one that should have ended in a fine and a stern lecture (to which the girls should have rolled their eyes at as proper punks) — but the wound is still too raw to make for a good picture right now.

A Small Problem with Fast & Furious 6


I don’t want to get too down on the film for not living up to Fast Five. Despite a wholly uninteresting villain, it fulfilled its main obligation, which was to be a fun action movie — something most action movies don’t achieve these days. Anything extra is nice, but on it’s most basic level it works fine.

It is sad when someone finds incredible success, doesn’t understand why, and fails in their attempt to duplicate it but, really, my main sticking point with the film is a point of continuity that changed the entire film series. It’s a moment of dialogue in the scene between Dom and Letty after they race through London. Dom explains some of the scars Letty has to prove to her that he knows her, that she knows him. Specifically, his report about the scar on her arm, which he explains as “the scar you got the first night we met when we were fifteen.” Now lets pause a moment for a reading from the original The Fast and the Furious screenplay:

Mia: Letty grew up just down the street. She was into cars since she was like ten years old. Dom always had her attention. Then she turned sixteen…
Brian: And she had Dom’s attention.
Mia: Yeah, it’s funny how that works out.

In this new version, Letty is a girl Dom was trying to con into bed by impressing her with his racing. It removes an important layer from Letty’s story, where she was the girl next door (albeit a tomboy gearhead version of the girl next door that could kick the shit out of you if she wanted to) and they were predestined to be the perfect couple. It removes a major layer of Dom’s story, though. The thing about Dom is that you expect him to be a douchebag. He has all of the earmarks of a major douchebag, but then he’s got this one amazing character trait. He’s the kind of guy who could cruise chicks every weekend in his fast car but doesn’t because he’s loyal to his true love. That’s actually kind of special. In its original form, Dom and Letty have an idealized movie romance1, but that is the part of the bedrock that the films are based on: Dom’s complicated, unwavering code of loyalty to those he considers his family, how far and long it extends, and how ruthless it can be against those he considers a threat to that family.

That’s really the most interesting element of each of the four films that feature Dom as the main character, and it’s always been executed to perfection before, whether its the balance of loyalty between Brian and Vince, Dom’s loyalty to Letty that sets him on a revenge mission to find her killer, or Dom’s renewed loyalty to Vince in Brazil. To strip even a flake of that loyalty away is to lessen the interest we can find in Dom. And for what? A moment when they compare scars that shaves at least a half decade off of Dom and Letty’s relationship? I’d rather they had the five years.

  1. but that’s the best part about movies, Goddammit