Friday, March 20, 2009
REVIEW: The Magic Hour
ザ・マジックアワー (Za majikku awâ)
Running time: 136 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Bingo's not the brightest kid in the world. By day he runs his own hotel, but by night he's pitchin' the woo with Mari, a dame with all her curves in the right places and legs that go on for miles. Only problem is she's spoken for, see, and not by just any Tom, Dick 'r Harry neither. She's Boss Tessio's #1 squeeze and when he finds out he sends his goons to work him over and then get both him and Mari fitted with pairs of cement shoes. But Bingo's got an ace up his sleeve. He tells Tessio that he's tight with Della Togashi, the biggest and baddest button man in the business who goes by the handle "The Phantom Assassin" because no one's seen his face and lived to tell about it. Tessio gives Bingo five days to bring Della Togashi to him or Mari and him'll be sleeping with the fishes. Bingo and Mari get out in one piece, but have one big problem. Bingo doesn't know Della Togashi from Adam and if he can't find him then his goose is cooked.
Okay, you'll have to excuse me for using all that pulpy gangster movie lingo in my plot set-up of the 2008 comedy "The Magic Hour", but this time around writer/ director Koki Mitani has taken the critics comparisons of his previous films "Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald" and "The Wow-Choten Hotel" to the screwball comedies of the 1930s absolutely to heart. The women in "The Magic Hour" sport finger waves in their hair, the men wear double-breasted suits, everyone's smoking stogies and sipping gimlets and they really do fit people with cement shoes. It's all Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in "It Happened One Night" crossed with Edward G. Robinson in "Little Caesar" at least in the small seaside town from which Mitani launches his story. The town itself is like something out of an old black and white film with cobblestone streets, European architecture and quaint little courtyards and fountains, in fact one of Bingo's bell hops, played by Haruka Ayase, remarks that living in the town feels like being in a movie. I guess that's why film crews from all around Japan come there to shoot, and that's what gives Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabaki) the solution to his problem. If he can't actually find Della Togashi then he'll find someone to play him... just like in the movies! Before you can say "Lights! Camera! Action!" Bingo is heading out of town and into present day (and far less cinematic-looking) Japan to track down his hitman, and he finds him in Murata (Koichi Sato) a second rate actor who mostly does walk on and body double roles. Murata heads back with Bingo thinking that he's working on a career-defining gangster movie never suspecting that he's walking into the middle of a real mob war.
It's a dead simple set up, but if anyone knows how to tease gut-busting laughs out of simple scenarios it's Mitani. While film comedy has morphed into everything from Monthy Python surrealism, Woody Allen intellectual satire, and Borat guerrilla tactics since the days of Frank Capra and Howard Hawks there's still something hilarious and satisfying about something as simple as a dumb misunderstanding coupled with the danger of getting caught in a lie. Those are the two things at play when Murata, in character as Della Togashi and believing that cameras are rolling, steps into the office of Boss Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), a moment that I know will have you laughing out loud. Those moments keep coming as Murata continues to give the performance of his life, convincing Boss Tessio and his gang that they've got a real tough as nails killer on their hands.
Of course Mitani couldn't pull off his brand of neo-screwball comedy without some very talented people working in front of the camera. Tsumabaki and Sato are perfect in their respective roles as the architect and unsuspecting perpetrator of the central con, but it's some of the supporting straight men like Susumu Terajima as Boss Tessio's right hand and Teruyuki Kagawa as the head of the rival gang who make the antics of "The Magic Hour's" leads all the more effective.
It may be in large part due to his very conscious return to the golden age of Hollywood comedies that Mitani, whose films are a huge critical and commecial successes in Japan, has been eclipsed by some of his more eccentric and extreme contemporaries like Miike, Kitano and Kurosawa here in North America. It's sad situtaion, but one that's easy to remedy. Make it a point to search out not only "The Magic Hour", but some of Mitani's other films on DVD and I guarantee that you'll become a convert.