TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH – movie review

TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH (Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari)
Tokyo Theatres Co./ Loaded Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Tokio Emoto, Ryô Kase, Adiz Rajabov, Shôta Sometani
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/18/20
Opens: December 11, 2020 at New York’s Metrograph Theater. December18, 2020 streaming nationally.

Atsuko Maeda, a 29-year-old Japanese pop star, once appeared in a horror film, “The Complex” ( Kuroyuri danchi). She goes home to find an empty apartment, becomes hysterical, and finds out later that her family had died in a bus accident. Ms. Maeda is also hysterical at times in her current piece, “To the Ends of the Earth,” but this is far from being a horror film. It’s the latest from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose “Cure” in 1997 is about a series of gruesome murders by people who have no idea what they had done, and the more recent “Tokyo Sonata” about a family that disintegrates after its patriarch loses his job.

As Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), the principal character is coming of age, not so much because she has just graduated from college or found a new boyfriend, but because she, like most of us, works at a job that she’s “too good for” (she’s an actress being filmed in a travelogue for Japanese TV). She wants to be singer. She gets an audition in front of us, her movie audience, by twice singing “If You Loved Me (Really Loved Me)” but with invented Japanese lyrics. In the Japanese version which, like the American, notes that all you need is love, she gently and to an invisible orchestra pledges that for her man, she would give up her job, dump all her friends and family, sell out her country. In fact she would go “to the ends of the earth” to be with this lucky guy.

The film is part travelogue and part an exploration of a vulnerable woman traveling with a small film crew including one chap who is fluent in both Uzbek and Japanese. The crew are regularly worried that the views of Tashkent and the outside of Uzbekistan are not what interests their viewers, so there are lots of cuts. Easily the most unfortunate of these cuts shows Yoko riding a two-bit machine that almost as tacky as what you’d find in Coney Island, one that spins her around, knocks her upside down, and results in her throwing up into a plastic bag. And she does this three times! She probably would not mind going back to the beginning of the story and pretend that she likes a dish of uncooked rice offered by a woman and has to lie about how delicious it is.

She goes off on her own at one point to check out Tashkent’s nooks and crannies, and all eyes are on her. The men stare as though they had never seen anyone but an Uzbeki. Everyone on the bus stares. The police stare and even arrest her because she is using a camera to photograph an off-limits area.

She inhabits the feeling of many a person who is not a tourist but a traveler, going off without a group or a guide or an interpreter, speaking not a word of the local language, though with halting English. She rides a bus and has no idea where to get off. The two tourist places she inhabits after looking into the grime and back alleys in the fringe areas of the capital are the humongous Hotel Uzbekistan ($75 a room in May and you get over 10,000 soms for your US. Dollar), and the nearby Navoi Opera House. In that last destination she fantasies herself as a singer, with a full orchestra, letting us know once again that she would sell out her country, family and friends if she found the right guy. It’s a beautiful song, not belted out as would Brenda Lee, Maura O Connell or Jeff Buckley but with the grace and charm of a singer who takes the words genuinely to heart. These are the most effective moments, designed to bring a joyful tear or two to the eyes of a sensitive audience member like me.

Kurosawa punctuates the mixed feelings of global tourism. On the one hand there’s the experience of being in a country in which you don’t know the language and can tear your hair out in frustration with the loneliness of an innocent abroad. On the other hand there is the exhilaration of a new experience, a breaking away from the nine to five job, the TV channel-surfing, the dependence on the i-phone, the same ‘ol same ‘ol. Ultimately this is a lovely movie highlighting the adorability and acting chops of a petite, slim, Japanese woman who has apparently captured the affection of an endeared Japanese public.

In Japanese and Uzbeki with English subtitles.

120 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+


NOMADLAND – movie review

Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writer: Chloé Zhao, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s book by the same name
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/23/20
Opens: December 4, 2020

Nomadland Movie

The people shown here may just be among those Americans who believe that the regular politicians never understood their way of life. After all, most people in Congress are well-to-do, almost all college graduates, many with degrees in law, finance, economics and even medicine. By contrast the itinerants in Chloé Zhao’s film are not likely to have seen the halls of academe. They do not live in big cities, they do not teach their kids how to ride a bicycle in the ‘burbs. These are the rural folks who, statisticians tell us. are the biggest fans of Donald Trump, who they believe is the first candidate for President who can relate to their way of life, however impossible this seems (if you see “Nomadland” and then take a look at Trump Tower in Manhattan, you may agree).

The film is adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2018 book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” by writer-director-editor Zhao, whose film “The Rider” is about a young cowboy whose head injury sends him on a quest for new identity in America’s heartland. Taking place not simply in our heartland but in what might be considered a rural enclave of any heartland, the story features Frances McDormand as Fern, in her mid-sixties, whose husband had died and whose town of Empire, Nevada suffers a similar fate when the gypsum mine for which everyone depends on employment goes belly-up. Even the zip code passes away in an area that could not be considered even a one-horse town.

Like Brady Blackburn, the injured cowboy in “The Rider,” Fern goes through a crisis. She takes off in her small rec vehicle, carving a new identity, wondering whether she can handle her unwelcome new independence. She runs into a virtual commune of elderly people who appear not to complain about their lives in the American West, taking warmth from the companionship of people like them. (Most are played by non-professional actors.) They take odd jobs to make ends meet, including temp work with Amazon during the Christmas season, and even there, as Fern tapes the boxes that are en route to tens of millions of homes, she looks so relaxed that you wonder about people who complain that Amazon exploits its workers—limited bathroom breaks, stop-watch timing and the like.

I think Zhao wants us in the audience to put ourselves in place of these people, and no doubt many of us imagine ourselves away from the hamster wheel, the rat-race, the belief that the American dream may consist not of the home with the white picket fence, two kids and a golden retriever, but at the same time not like that of the unfortunate homeless people who live in cardboard boxes in heartless big cities. Covering towns in what we new Yorkers may consider flyover country—Quartzite, Arizona, and bitter-cold South Dakota warmed by the campfire and the camaraderie of what some refer to wistfully as the real Americans… while enjoying sushi in a cozy restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side.

There’s even a chance of sixties-plus romance, as Dave (David Strathairn) shows how flirtation is easy when everyone is naturally friendly and non-exploitative. They part. They meet again. But what about money? Is working odd jobs in Amazon and baking doughnuts in fast-food joints able to satisfy the basics? You probably can guess the biggest expense. Remember that nomads, unless they are thumbing rides, are traveling in their own vans. What happens when they need not only gas money but a complete restructuring of their vehicles? Fern, for example, is quoted $5000 to get her broken-down wheels running again, and here’s where complete independence ends as she must hit up her sister for the money.

As you’d expect, this film does not follow the usual plot lines of commercial productions with beginnings, middles and ends, maybe some flashbacks and a slew of twists. The action is circular, and there really is not a heck of a lot of variety in Fern’s life. But isn’t there something enviable about enjoying the friendship of people who ask nothing in return, who are not out to pick your pockets?

The best thing about the enterprise is Frances McDormand’s awards-worthy performance. She is no longer the assertive but pregnant presence of Marge Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” or the justice-seeking Mildred of Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.” Here she is just another American seeking the American Dream in her own way, looking relaxed throughout but perhaps wondering whether she can spend the rest of her life as a wanderer.

108 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+