Death, infidelity and an old red Saab

Thespian Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) reluctantly lets Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) take the wheel of his beloved Saab in Drive My Car.

By Richard Ades

Loss, anger and guilt are at the centers of two movies I caught recently: The Lost Daughter and Drive My Car. The former mainly gives Olivia Colman a chance to show off her acting chops, while the latter is pretty close to perfect.

Not to dismiss Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directing debut completely, but I just don’t share the high opinion most critics seem to have of The Lost Daughter. As strong a talent as Colman is, she can’t rise above a film that seems artificially suspenseful and gets bogged down in flashbacks that aren’t particularly interesting. Also, at two hours, it seems unnecessarily long.

On the other hand, Japan’s Drive My Car runs for three hours, and not one moment seems superfluous. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi takes his time, to be sure, but every scene contributes to and builds toward the cathartic finale. And though its central character, like Daughter’s, is haunted by the past, the film isn’t burdened by excessive flashbacks.

That’s largely because Hamaguchi feeds us the necessary background information via an extended prologue that runs for some 40 minutes. (We know it’s a prologue because the “opening credits” don’t even appear until it’s over.) In it, we’re introduced to Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theatrical actor and director, and his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), who writes for television. We learn that the couple share a supportive and oddly creative relationship: After sex, Oto relates imaginative stories that Yusuke parrots back to her the following day, inspiring her future scripts.

However, the two also share pain over the daughter they lost when she was only 4, leaving them childless. Another complication is the secret grief Yusuke feels after coming home unexpectedly one day and finding Oto making love with a young actor named Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Though Yusuke doesn’t confront his wife about his discovery, it seems to create tension between them that may be on the verge of coming to a head when Oto suddenly succumbs to an unexpected health crisis.

Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) drops off his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), during the film’s extended prologue.

After setting the stage with this crucial background information, director/co-writer Hamaguchi finally plunges into the development that gives the story its name: Two years later, Yusuke climbs into his beloved red Saab and drives to a Hiroshima theater festival where he’s been hired to direct and possibly star in an ambitious, multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Once there, Yusuke learns that festival rules require him to be driven to and from the rehearsal venue, a disappointment because he cherishes the solitude that driving provides, plus he uses the time to study his lines with the help of a cassette tape his wife recorded before her death. It’s only at the insistence of festival officials that he agrees to accept the services of Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a stoic young woman who treats her driving responsibilities as a sacred duty.

Another shock arrives when a familiar but unwelcome face shows up at the auditions for Uncle Vanya: Koji, who has sought out the opportunity to work with the widower of the woman he loved and admired. The younger man’s connection to his late wife threatens to unleash the complicated feelings of anger, grief and guilt that Yusuke has struggled to contain since her demise.

Meanwhile, an even more profound relationship begins to develop between him and the dutiful driver Misaki, who has her own painful past and is, he learns, the same age his daughter would have been if she’d survived childhood. No wonder Yusuke finds it increasingly hard to deal with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and its pessimistic philosophizing about the disappointments of existence.

With its gentle, patient exploration of life’s challenges, buoyed by exquisitely restrained performances by stars Nishijima and Miura, Drive My Car can’t help reminding me of the film that first turned me on to Japanese cinema: Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. That 1953 classic is considered a masterpiece, and Drive My Car may well be the same. At the very least, it should be a top contender in this year’s Academy Awards.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Drive My Car, available only in theaters, opens Jan. 14 at Central Ohio’s Drexel Theatre and Gateway Film Center.

My mom, the cinematic legend

The Truth
Movie star Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve, center) is visited by daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) in The Truth.

By Richard Ades

The Truth is a startling change of pace for Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda (2018’s Shoplifters), being a French film with two very French leading ladies. In a different sense, though, it’s not startling at all.

Though the plot hinges on the prickly relationship between aging movie star Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) and her screenwriter/daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), the implicit subject is the world of movies. And moviemakers love to make movies about moviemaking, as Quentin Tarantino did just last year with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

The Truth takes its title from Fabienne’s new memoir, whose upcoming debut has prompted a visit from New York-based Lumir and her actor/husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), and young daughter, Charlotte (Clementine Grenier). But the book hardly lives up to its name, Lumir finds, as it describes a warm mother-daughter relationship that never actually existed. Asked about this, Fabienne huffily replies that, being an actor, she feels no obligation to be shackled by reality.

We soon learn that Fabienne actually feels little obligation to anything but her craft. She routinely ignores or insults those around her, including her past and current lovers (played by Christian Crahay, Alain Libolt and Roger Van Hool). Frankly, she’s a monster, as she proved long ago during an incident that still haunts Lumir and may even haunt Fabienne herself.

Even so, most people let Fabienne get away with such behavior because she’s a living legend. And so do we, the viewers, if only because she’s played by a beloved living legend.

The-Truth-2-1
Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and Lumir (Juliette Binoche) share a rare moment of mother-daughter ease.

As Fabienne, Deneuve is as cool and self-possessed as ever, though not quite as enigmatic as she was in some of her classic roles. The script isn’t subtle about the fact that she behaves the way she does because nothing matters to her except acting.

That makes it hard to get involved in the mother-daughter relationship that’s at the center of the film. It’s clear that Lumir wishes Fabienne had been as warm a mother to her as she is to her own daughter. But it’s also clear that, for Fabienne, duty to her daughter and others will always be outranked by her duty to cinema.

One gets the feeling that, for writer/director Koreeda, that’s as it should be. Maybe that’s why, despite being a handsome work with a great cast, The Truth is likely to appeal more to hardcore cinephiles than to the general public.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Truth (PG) is available from VOD outlets beginning July 3.

‘Godzilla’ over-plotted and under-lit

Godzilla and Ghidorah
Godzilla (right) faces off against the alien “titan” Ghidorah in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. (Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment and Legendary Pictures Productions)

By Richard Ades

It was back in 1954 that Japan gave us Godzilla, the story of an ancient monster reawakened by tests of the hydrogen bomb. The original movie (though toned down for its U.S. release) was a grimly compelling morality tale. Like Frankenstein, it warned of the horrors that can be unleashed by scientists bent on advancement at all costs.

Over the years, the classic has spawned numerous sequels and reboots. Many of the earliest were campy affairs in which an actor in a Godzilla costume trampled miniature facsimiles of Tokyo while fighting new monsters such as Mothra and Rodan. More impressive was the 2014 U.S. remake, which used the latest cinematic technology to recapture the awe and wonder—if not the moral authority—of the original.

Now we have Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which could be the Godzilla movie to end all Godzilla movies. Not because it’s so great, unfortunately, but because it’s so boring.

Thanks to the haphazard direction of Michael Dougherty and the light-challenged cinematography of Lawrence Sher, the movie’s frequent battle scenes are dark, frenetic spectacles in which we struggle to discern who is being attacked by whom. And thanks to the drab, needlessly convoluted script by Dougherty and his co-writers, we struggle to care one way or the other.

Building on the mythology of 2014’s Godzilla, the flick centers on Monarch, an international organization devoted to controlling Godzilla and other monstrous “titans” by keeping them in a state of hibernation. That puts the group at odds with members of the U.S. government and military who believe the only good titan is a dead titan.

Sharing this belief is scientist Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), who lost a son to a previous Godzilla attack and went into an alcohol-fueled tailspin that alienated him from his wife, Emma (Vera Farmiga), and daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Further dividing the family is Emma’s devotion to studying, rather than destroying, the monsters. In fact, we first meet her in a Monarch “outpost” where none other than Mothra is about to emerge from a gigantic cocoon.

GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERS
Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) face one of many tense situations in Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Now here’s where the plot gets really strange. After Emma brings the monster under control with a nifty device called the Orca, the outpost is attacked by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah and his troops proceed to kill everyone present except for Emma and Madison, who are taken hostage.

Or are they? It turns out that Emma is actually in cahoots with Jonah—sort of. While he’s out to collect titan DNA for presumably commercial gain, Emma is determined to release Godzilla and the other monsters in order to save the world from its greatest adversary: mankind. She theorizes that we’ll eventually learn to live in harmony with these ancient beasts, who will help us return Earth to its preindustrial purity.

Let’s pause at this point to consider how far this morality tale has strayed from its 1954 roots. Rather than being our punishment for introducing deadly new weapons to the planet, Godzilla and friends are now seen as allies in the fight against global warming. Of course, millions of innocent people would be trampled and otherwise destroyed once these “allies” are unleashed, but we have no time to consider that ethical complication because the script introduces yet another twist.

Unlike Godzilla and the other titans, it turns out that the mightiest of the monsters, the three-headed Ghidorah, is actually a space alien and will only push Earth further from its original ecological balance. Curses! Not only that, but Godzilla has been weakened or killed in battle and is unable to save us from this invasive species. Double curses!

Given all the busy plotting about monsters and ways to deal with them, it’s hard to care about Mark, Emma and Madison, let alone the many peripheral characters around them. In fact, I found myself worrying more about the actors themselves, including established talents such as Sally Hawkins and Bradley Whitford, who are stuck in unrewarding, one-note roles. Fairing not much better is the Japanese-born Ken Watanabe, whose character, the Godzilla-loving Dr. Serizawa, spouts so much Eastern-style philosophy that he jokes about getting it from a fortune cookie.

The dialogue hits its lowest mark whenever the monsters show up and the humans respond with profound statements such as “Jesus,” “God,” or “Oh, shit!” As for us viewers, we’re likely to be aiming a few choice words of our own at the technicians who lit the monsters so dimly that we can barely make them out.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (PG-13) opens May 31 at theaters nationwide.