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The Stop Smiling March New Release Roundup

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Thursday, March 19, 2009


Tokyo Sonata
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Sin Nombre
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga

Goodbye Solo

Directed by Ramin Bahrani

Reviewed by Mark Asch

*****

Tokyo Sonata
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Open now in New York
(Regent Releasing)

Classical piano figures more prominently in it, but think of Tokyo Sonata as a cover of “Stranger in the House,” Elvis Costello’s lament of domestic alienation. (“There’s a stranger in the house… Everybody says he looks like me.”) “I’m home” / “Welcome home” is the call-and-response refrain for the comings and goings of salaryman father Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), housewife mother Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) and pre- and post-adolescent sons Kenji and Takashi (Kai Inowaki and Yu Koyanagi), but Kiyoshi Kurosawa shoots the interior of their house from so many different angles — and around and through so many pieces of furniture, doorways, staircases and houseplants — that it never feels like home. The family is just one of the nuclear units on the brink of systemic collapse in Kurosawa’s mordant contemporary opus, which, like “Stranger in the House,” builds up an edifice of wit around tragedy.

Tokyo Sonata debuted at Cannes last May, and bowed here during last fall’s New York Film Festival; like a delayed-release capsule, its official American release comes at the height of its resonance, amid anxiety and ballooning unemployment. Ryuhei is no more secure as an office worker than as a husband and father: his job is outsourced in the film’s opening minutes; cue breadline-distended lines for the employment office and food handouts. The loss of face seems to cut more deeply than the loss of livelihood: rather than tell his family, he continues to don a suit and pack a briefcase every morning. He admires a fellow downsizee, who rigs his cellphone to ring off the hook and invites Ryuhei to pose as a coworker at his charade of a family dinner.

Kurosawa can’t be bothered to feel nostalgic for the white-collar comfort that’s been lost: he undercuts Ryuhei’s plight by showing him pathetically unqualified for the job market. Similarly, there’s little regret in his view of familial disintegration. Ryuhei arbitrarily denies Kenji permission to take piano lessons, so as to consolidate his patriarchal authority; Megumi seems to live on cruise control until she sees a car she covets but knows she won’t buy; bored Takashi joins the US Army, which, like the Japanese workplace, is now outsourcing. (America’s Middle East adventurism was enabled by a void of leadership in the rest of the world, Kurosawa seems to suggest.) He’s the only one to successfully run away from home, though mom and pop and little brother all try — as Kurosawa orchestrates Tokyo Sonata’s coincidence-driven three-part climax — before stumbling home the next morning.

Kurosawa’s style is a dispassionate, almost affectless distance. He holds his camera back; his pacing, while controlled, is cool; he’s hesitant to embellish moments with kineticism or music, rarely spells out motivation, and is largely indifferent to issues of plausibility. This makes his excursions into genre, especially horror, feel uncanny; here, even the worst the world has to offer seems matter-of-fact. It’s an existential deadpan: hello, cruel world.

At one point Kenji hears the teacher with whom he’ll eventually take secret piano lessons advise another student to distinguish better between crescendo and decrescendo. Kurosawa’s implacability poses a similar problem: Tokyo Sonata’s parallel-edited climax could have stood a little tightening, for momentum’s sake. But his mise-en-scene does leave space for fascinatingly ambiguous echoes in Tokyo Sonata’s last sequence, as Kenji prodigally plays Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” in a room of sunlight and shadows, while tears — of pride? jealousy? regret? redemption? — well in his father’s eyes.

*****

Sin Nombre
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Opens March 20
(Focus Features)

Like the 2007 Sundance prizewinner Padre Nuestro (aka Sangre de Mi Sangre), Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, which was this year’s recipient of the Directing and Cinematography awards, is an illegal-immigration thriller. In the illegal immigration thriller, a parallel-action chase movie races through a cross-section of a whole underground ecosystem of black markets and human traffic: pulse-pounding and educational. Padre concerned identity theft under the table in New York City; in Sin Nombre, a Mexican teen splits with his devilishly tattooed to join a Honduran girl and her family on the last leg of their journey. Though infinitely preferable to Padre’s string-jerking plotting and morality, Sin Nombre still leaves an acrid aftertaste. It turns out all those freighters to hop, waters to ferry, trails to follow and borders to cross are just stations on an obstacle course. Questing immigrants, helpful or scamming guides, and stalking border guards can easily be reduced to an action movie’s cast of heroes, victims and villains.

If there’s a breakout story here, let’s hope it’s not Fukunaga but his cinematographer, the Brazilian hired hand Adriano Goldman, whose sun-soaked palette is so saturated and light-suffused that land, sky and sweaty skin take on pulsing primary-colored undertones. The movie looks like a leaf held up to the sun.

*****

Goodbye Solo
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Opens March 27
(Roadside Attractions)

Goodbye Solo’s premise seems, at first, at least as exploitative as Sin Nombre’s: It is, after all, about a voluble Senegalese immigrant who takes a lonely, dying old white man under his wing and teaches him to connect. But to laugh off writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s third feature as an indie version of the magical negro story is at least as incomplete as dismissing his Man Push Cart as a manipulative can’t-catch-a-break striver’s drama, or Chop Shop as a scrappy orphan story. Bahrani’s far from an original dramatist, but he inhabits his creaky social-issue structures with a fresh understanding of immigrant social networks and economic realities, and a process-oriented, ultimately meditative feel for the dirty jobs that somebody’s gotta do.

If in the dying minutes of A Taste of Cherry you wondered whether it’d be that easy to find a cabbie to drop you off on the side of a mountain, no questions asked, then Goodbye Solo’s the movie for you. With admirable economy, Bahrani sets his scene in medias res: a single two-shot introduces cabbie Solo (Soulémane Sy Savané) laughing — and then taking deathly seriously — his passenger William’s (Red West) offer of $1,000 for a one-way trip from Winston-Salem to a remote mountaintop a few days hence. Hooked, Solo is insistent on their friendship, driving William around on his terminal errands, prodding him for his backstory and, following some domestic hiccoughs, moving into William’s motel room. Their odd coupling — bonding over ethnic music, big-bootied women, and shared wonderment at Solo’s precocious stepdaughter’s facility with a cell phone — seems as familiar as Solo’s third-act overstep. Perhaps feeding his characters lines like “Are you awake?” “No,” and then “Stay out of my life!” is Bahrani’s way of making their trajectory feel inevitable.

But there’s tectonic social changes underneath the hoary setup: as a solitary Harley-riding chain-smoker shuffles off from a dying tobacco town, his multilingual cabbie forms a new community with his fares, his fellow cabbies, and his pregnant Mexican wife. Rather than push the implications, though, Bahrani settles into his leads’ faces (the movie takes place in close quarters, mostly in a taxicab; there’s lots of close-ups): smiling, scarred Savané as too-carefree Solo, and Elvis bud stuntman Red West, who looks like Richard Farnsworth’s mug shot.

The point is that Goodbye Solo feels lived-in rather than forced upon us. Bahrani, who is his own editor, and regular DP Michael Simmonds have a sad, solitary, streetlamp-lit feel for night-shift rhythms. They carve a contemplative space out of menial labor; Bahrani’s eloquence is in deeds rather than words.

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