Kazuhiro Soda’s new observational documentary, Inland Sea, focuses and celebrates the sleepy life of a remote Japanese fishing village, Ushimado — a place who’s lifestyle is steadily creeping its way towards extinction. In that village Soda focuses on three individuals, fisherman Wan-chai, Mrs. Kosa, the owner of the shop where Wan-chai sells his fish and lastly Kumiko, the local gossip and the source of the most extreme stories heard in the film. As per usual, Soda is his own producer, cinematographer and editor here. The latter, though, is assuredly where we find Inland Sea at its weakest, as it struggles to truly justify its two-hour-and-two-minute runtime. But through that though, there’s also a solid amount of charm, empathy and a textured monochromatic palette on display to reward the most patient of viewers.
Through and through, Inland Sea takes you along the beats of a life from a bygone era, showing the subtleties of an eroding way of life through the works of unapologetic humanism. Soda never strays beyond the confines of Ushimado, only interviewing a tiny fraction of the population along the way. Much like Lucille Carra’s 1991 documentary of a similar title, The Inland Sea, Soda’s film displays how this working port is well on the way to becoming a tourist trap, bustling in the summer but inactive otherwise. While having a few other comparisons Soda’s film takes its own route when compared to the aforementioned Carra film, but they both carry the same unmistakably elegiac undercurrents, it’s just that Inland Sea outright rejects any sense of pure gloom. A word we consistently hear throughout — in both conversations and greetings — is the Japanese word/term “genki,” which means lively, energetic spirit. Genki is seemingly what keeps the lives of not just Wan-Chai and Kumiko steadily going into their nineties, but the entire community of Ushimado. It’s a term that’s at the pulse of Soda’s film, sustaining this intimate study one fish at a time.
A Million Little Pieces
For those unaware, James Frey has a pretty fascinating story. Unfortunately for him, the most tantalizing (and factual) part of that story didn’t start until after he published his best-selling, Oprah-backed 2003 memoir about his addictions and subsequent rehab, A Million Little Pieces. But it was in 2006, when an investigative report alleged that Frey had fabricated many of the details in his book, that his true legacy begin to take shape. But while some were quick to call it a scandal and jump to conclusions, film people were perhaps a bit more forgiving; it’s a medium that’s often reliant upon illusion, and naturally encourages storytellers to pursue truth even at the expense of pure facts. Some might argue that, if A Million Little Pieces was helpful or inspiring for the addicts who needed it most, then a few embellishments are a small price to pay. In other word, it’s somewhat understandable — even after all the controversy — why Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson were still interested in adapting the book. But it also didn’t stop them for taking the material in the most dull and generic way possible.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Frey, playing him as an angry young man in the early ’90s who’s tried all the negative methods to control the rage boiling inside him. The opening scene finds him thrashing around a house party naked and high out his mind with everyone else keeping their distance from him, as he slips over a bannister and falls onto the hood of a car below. He wakes up on a plane, forgetting how he got there and not knowing where he’s going. His faced is smashed to bits. When the flight lands in Minneapolis, Frey is pick up by his put-together brother (Charlie Hunnam) and driven straight to rehab, beginning a morbidly funny but very familiar tale of addiction and recovery that would still ring a bit false even if it weren’t based on lies. Originality is tricky when it comes to stories about addiction, because addiction essentially whittles everyone who suffers from it down to the same thing. As a result, many addiction movies have to find their own avenue to tell that story, and to stand out. The genre also places a special emphasis on specificity, so it’s not surprising that A Million Little Pieces works best when it leans into the little things.
As James makes his way through the process of rehab he’s met with an assortment of characters, some stand out while others are stereotypes. Juliette Lewis is completely thrown to the side as the resident psychologist, Hunnam isn’t able to make anything of his three scenes and Odessa Young does alright work as James’ love interest while in the facility. Always a welcome presence, Dash Mihok brings some real soul to his performance as Frey’s group supervisor, and Billy Bob Thornton is quite good as Leonard, an amiable father figure to James whose happy-go-lucky attitude hides a history of violence. Aaron Taylor-Johnson works hard to hint at all the deep-seated pain the film doesn’t make much time to explore, but the scenes between Frey and Leonard only expose how blank and underwritten that deep-seated pain is. But as A Million Little Pieces chugs along the focus of it all only gets more out of whack, so determined to push towards a nice little story of a man hitting bottom and strangers lifting him up, that even the part where Frey discover his “gift” for writing is rushed and inconclusive. It may not have been wrong to make a straightforward adaptation of A Million Little Pieces, but this movie makes the approach seem even worse than that: It makes it seem practically pointless. No matter how tantalizing A Million Little Pieces could have been, it’s ultimately a rather dull, generic and just not very noteworthy variation on a story we’ve seen plenty of times before, but with more insight and panache.