A too cheery TV reporter from Japan finds her deeper self while experiencing cross-cultural confusion and connection in Uzbekistan in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s quietly moving “To the Ends of the Earth,” streaming Friday in select virtual theaters. (Visit https://www.kimstim.com/intheaters/)
Best known for his paranormal dramas, Kurosawa (“Pulse,” “Cure”) has made a thoughtful, gentle movie about cultural divides, tourist disorientation, and a young woman’s realization of her potential.
Atsuko Maeda, in her third collaboration with Kurosawa, plays Yoko, a young Japanese TV travel-show host who is insanely bubbly on camera but withdrawn and melancholy in private. At the beginning of the film. Yoko arrives in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan to shoot an episode of her program.
Gamely, Yoko engages in the activities that her director (Shota Sometani) and his all-male crew hope (often in vain) will produce “good TV” footage.
She rides on a boat with a fisherman in search of an unusual fish (which may not actually exist). When the outing yields nada, the fisherman blames it on the presence of a woman in the boat.
At a restaurant, with the cameras rolling, Yoko eats a local dish that, before the filming began, she described as indigestible. On TV, she feigns delight over the food.
At a “fun park” that epitomizes dreariness, Yoko rides an unsafe-looking attraction — repeatedly, to please the director and crew. After the filming stops, she vomits.
When not filming the show, Yoko is likely to be texting her Tokyo-based firefighter boyfriend or conversing with translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov), who has some vivid personal stories to tell, not to mention a crush on Yoko.
To cameraman Iwao (Ryo Kase), Yoko reveals that she has long wanted to be a singer but doesn’t feel ready to express the emotion that singing requires.
Increasingly, Yoko makes her own choices when exploring the country, often with rocky results. Her naivete and her ignorance of the nation’s customs and language lead to scrapes with locals and police — when she decides to free a tethered goat, with which she seems to relate, for example, or when, visiting a bazaar, she wanders into off-limits territory.
With its thin plot and gentle tone, the film may seem lightweight and not substantial enough to justify its two-hour running time.
But Kurosawa’s elegant weaving of Yoko’s personal journey with numerous aspects of cross-cultural travel and touristhood, along with added topics, like the dishonesty and false rosiness of some TV journalism, proves entertaining, affecting, and astute.
Stellar passages feature a visit by Yoko to the Navoi theater in the capital city of Tashkent, where she envisions herself singing onstage, diva-like.
Later, an inspired Yoko has a combination Maria von Trapp and Edith Piaf moment, in which she sings from her soul, displaying newfound emotion.
Among the cast, Maeda deserves particular mention for the subtly compelling heroine she has created.
Widescreen vistas featuring Uzbekistan’s buzzing bazaars, distinctive architecture, and splendid mountains, further enhance the picture.
To the Ends of the Earth
Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Adiz Rajabov, Ryo Kase, Shota Sometani
Written and directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Running time: 2 hours
Enjoyable but unfocused, and about as penetrating as a rental of “The Notebook,” the documentary “The Last Blockbuster” (available to rent on Google Play) looks back at the world of the video store by entwining the stories of the once enormous Blockbuster Video chain and its sole surviving outlet.
Combining journalistic reportage with a sentimental journey featuring interviews with entertainers and former Blockbuster Video customers and employees, director Taylor Morden chronicles the rise of Blockbuster to the behemoth status it possessed during the 1980s and 1990s and then reveals how the corporation, stung by bad management, declined from the “most dominant fish in the sea to a novelty act in an aquarium,” in the words of “Clerks” filmmaker Kevin Smith.
The sole surviving Blockbuster, located in Bend, Ore., serves as the movie’s anchor, along with its friendly, devoted general manager, Sandi Harding. Interviewees praise Harding’s store as well as the video-store experience of decades past, citing the aisle- browsing pleasures, date-night opportunities, and sense of community it has offered.
The film contains entertaining commentary and memory-lane appeal. The human contact inherent in the brick-and-mortar shopping that its talking heads extol is appealing in these isolated times.
Harding has a likeable down-to-earth quality. But Morden’s storytelling is disorganized and sometimes clunky, and the film barely addresses Blockbuster’s negative aspects — how the corporation predatorily swallowed up smaller competitors and conquered the video-rental market, for example. Among Morden’s colorful interviewees, only Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman criticizes Blockbuster.
If the phrase “Be kind, rewind” rings a nostalgic bell in your heart, this doc will likely qualify as an enjoyable diversion. But expect nothing more.
The Last Blockbuster
With: Sandi Harding, Kevin Smith, Brian Posehn, Ione Skye
Directed by: Taylor Morden
Written by: Zeke Kamm
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes