Monday, March 26, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Sure, you could go see Hunger Games, but why see a movie about hungry people when you could see a movie that makes you hungry? We were going to go see Hunger Games, in fact, but, well, it's like two-and-a-half hours long and it was opening weekend. (The Boy likes a sparse audience.)

Instead, we saw this David Gelb documentary about a Japanese sushi maker, Jiro Ono, who has been making sushi for (he says) 75 years. He has a little sushi bar in Tokyo that serves only sushi. (As Jiro explains at one point, when they served other things, people would order drinks and appetizers and be too full to eat more than a few pieces of sushi.)

Although it's not a religious movie, a Buddhist sensibility pervades: Jiro lives his life like it's a meditative chant. Every day he does the exact same thing, even down to passing through the same turnstile at the subway. But it's not a rote thing. It's immersion in the moment.

And it's not unthinking. While he has a routine, Jiro is always looking to improve every aspect of the sushi-making process. In this movie's short (80 minute) run, we see how the best fish at the market goes to Jiro's place, how there's a special rice that the seller doesn't even let others have (because they won't cook it right), and how apprentices serve out their ten year apprenticeship.

The pursuit of perfection and love of work so permeates this documentary that when we see an exchange with Jiro's older son, Yoshikazu, and a grocer who wants to retire, it's sort of shocking. Jiro knows well that retirement will lead to a quick death, and he's passed that sentiment on to his two sons.

Yoshikazu is in a sticky situation. He, at 50, is expected to take over for his father—well, about 20 years ago! And about 15 years ago, Jiro had a heart attack. So, he stopped going to the fish market, leaving that to his older son. But in the past 15 years, and he's still waiting.

But it'll be a mixed bag when that day finally comes, because Jiro has become an institution. His little ten-seat sushi-only bar is one of the few Michelin 3-star-rated places in Tokyo. Even though Jiro makes it clear that 95% of the sushi prep is done before he touches it, and even though it was Yoshikazu who prepared the sushi for the Michelin critics, it's assumed that Jiro's departure will result in the perception of reduced quality.

The younger brother has a paradoxically better situation, by virtue of being kicked out by Jiro to start his own place. He has to charge less, but it's less stressful for his patrons, since they're not in the presence of the Great Jiro.

We get all kinds of interesting glimpses of the man's life, too. His father's business failed and he was forced to find his own way at the age of nine. He had some role in WWII, though I'm not really sure what it was. We see something like a grade school reunion—Japanese people live a long time!—and find out he was a bit of a rebellious bully.

Overall, it's an incredibly charming film about and joy, and even if you don't like sushi, you'll want some after watching this. The Boy and I both heartily approved.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Little Simico's Big Fantasy

The thing that separates these Israeli films from your average American film is charm. The budgets are small by our standards. There are no special effects. It's almost as if these films know that they need to keep your attention by having likable, engaging characters. Never perfect characters, mind you. Often they're annoying, petty, selfish or mean—but always very endearingly human.

It's sort of fitting that we saw Little Simico's Big Fantasy on the last day of the Israeli Film Festival. This is the story of a young Israeli man who works in his uncle's (?) hummus shop and becomes struck with inspiration to make a movie.

Simico goes to a bachelor party at a strip club and would rather talk to the girls about why they strip than have them rub up against them. After he gets them all thrown out, he comes up with an idea about a down-on-his-luck guy who falls in love with a stripper/hooker whose pimp then tries to kill him. (Rather cutely saying, "it's never been done!" But maybe '90s B-movies haven't made it there yet.)

The movie then becomes the story of Simico's struggle to get his movie made. He auditions for actors and everyone in the village, it seems, comes for a part, no matter how appropriate. His buddies angle for scenes where they get to rub up against the girls, and he's all to happy to lead them on to get them on the crew, to get money from them, or to use their shops as locations—but like any great auteur, he's not to keen on taking instructions from them.

And everyone, of course, has ideas.

This is a pretty standard genre, of course: The creative, artistic guy in a world of stodgy workaday folk, and this is a fun movie that doesn't pander (as is common) to the creative side. Simico is admirable in a lot of ways, but his obsession is all-consuming and causes him to treat his friends badly sometimes. Meanwhile his friends abandon him when things get rough, or when they figure there's nothing in it for them personally.

The acting is wonderful, to where you forget that these are actors, playing parts. The movie has an organic feel, like you're actually watching the events unfold as they happen. Not like with a shaky-cam/reality-show aspect, but with non-intrusive film-making.

The Boy and I both approved. You probably won't have a chance to see this, any more than any of the other Israeli films, but if you do, it's worth checking out.

The Man Without A Cell Phone

The Israeli Film Festival is back in town! And that means...well, interesting stuff. Israel is a weird place, at least according to its movies. Much like the USA, it is infected with self-loathing—but there's a distinct lack of abstraction to the threats to Israel's existence.

For example, this film, The Man Without A Cell Phone is about a happy-go-lucky Palestinian (which, I guess, is what they call the non-Jews in Israel, even though prior to the formation of the state, it was the Israelis who were called Palestianians, go figger) named Jawdat.

Jawdat—like all young men today the world over, apparently—is kind of a slacker. He's a cheerful, optimistic fellow, though, with a lot of romantic interests. He's nominally Muslim though we never see him worship and his uncle has a liquor store (vandalized, presumably by Muslim fanatics). Also, the first girlfriend of his we meet is a Christian, and he breezily explains to her parents that religion won't be a problem, since the first child can be Muslim and the second be Christian. (Or the other way around, he's reasonable!)

He works with his buddy pouring cement, and his father wants to bequeath the family olive trees to him, but Jawdat has bigger ideas. He wants to go to the university but it requires a Hebrew test he doesn't take very seriously (and so fails repeatedly). But all his plans are thwarted, even one to escape to the West Bank.

Adding to the stress is his father's constant harping over a cell phone radio tower, said tower Jawdat makes it his mission to get taken down.

Israel is an oppressive force in this (basically light-hearted) comedy. It's hard, if you've never seen an Israeli film, to get how severe the security is in Israel and yet how in stride they're able to take it. Even when machine guns are being wielded and scary intelligence officers harass Jawdat, the film maintains its light tone.

I have to assume there's a fairly dramatic difference in how people experience this film. Like, I felt for Jawdat that he was being harassed despite his innocent intentions. At the same time, it's not like Israelis can trust Palestinians to not,  you know, blow people and stuff up. And there's a weird mentality that I've seen in a number of these films, where the Jews are these powerful oppressors whose actions are completely out-of-the-blue.

The other funny thing is that everyone in this Palestinian village has a cell phone. They're used as the primary means of communication. When the tower is burned at one point, the village is basically crippled. But the Palestinians become obsessed with taking it down. And their understanding is about at the level of a caveman: Every glitch, every mystery, every emotional outburst ends up being focused on this tower—not as a symbol but as a literal cause of bad things (due to "radiation").

If this were an American movie, of course, the protagonists would come up with the clever scheme to blow the tower up, thus striking a blow against an evil corporation. In this case, the government owns the tower and blowing stuff isn't a fun abstraction—it makes a completely different statement there from what it would in American movie.

We liked it. It was fun, interesting (and short).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Being Flynn

Based on the award winning memoir Good Lord, My Life Is A Crap-Fest, Being Flynn tells the tale of a rudderless 20-something who's plagued by guilt over his mother and stressed by his megalomaniacal father, who has suddenly reappeared in his life after a two decade absence.

The actual title of the source material is Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir. I was trying to tone it down 'cause I run a family blog.

Anyway, the story features Paul Dano as Nick Flynn, who starts out...uh...you know, honestly, I don't remember. This is kind of logical consequence of the story. He's drifting. He's got a place, but he moves into a different one--oh, wait, that's right. The movie starts out with him cheating on his girlfriend and getting thrown out.

It's particularly unappealing. He's not a charming rogue, he's just an asshole. Sort of a half-hearted one, too. As if ennui were propelling him toward the only actions he is capable of, which aren't much.

But in the new place, he meets a new girl. A new, confusing girl. And then to add to the confusion, his father suddenly calls him after eighteen years because he needs help moving. He gets his new roommates (one black, one gay) to help him move his father. His racist, homophobic father, played well by Robert De Niro.

Actually, the racism and homophobia seemed kind of gratuitous to me. I mean, in the area of paternal suckitude, De Niro is such a major league sociopath, his prejudices seemed almost quaint by comparison.

This is a really dark movie, but it's not nihilistic. I think this is largely because family history is offered as exposition rather than explanation. One never gets the idea that Flynn expects to be forgiven for his transgressions merely because he had a (phenomenally) horrid childhood. And Nick is constantly being confronted—nay, dared—by his father to give a rat's ass about him.

This is a dark movie, as I said, but it's also comic. The movie actually opens with Nick's father Jonathan narrating that America has only produced three great writers: "Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and me." Jonathan's self-assurance never wanes, and so the light chuckle at the beginning of the movie quickly turns to a guffaw and then a dark chortle and finally an almost sentimental sigh.

I sort of thought this would be a more whimsical movie, with Paul Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy) at the helm. But it's dark. Though I think the story is inherently affirming, I also think Weitz's touch keeps it from being even darker than it might've been.

Supporting cast includes Julianne Moore as Nick's mother and the adorable Olivia Thirby (Juno) as Nick's girlfriend. Lily Taylor was the other famous face I recognized and, while she's supposed to be on the way down in the movie (or shortly after), I actually thought she looked really good. Better than Julianne Moore. Go figger.

Obviously this sort of thing isn't for everyone. It's a decidedly adult film, though not containing a lot of sex (some), drug use (a little more) or violence (hardly any). Despite the words "family" and "fun" appearing in the phrase "family dysfunction", it's just not something to take the kids to.

'cause it's dark.

Did I mention that? If that doesn't bother you, it's worth the journey. The Boy and I both approved.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Woman In Black

Eight movies over a decade acting like a wan, clueless orphan in over his head has prepared young Daniel Ratcliffe well. Now that he's matured as an actor his latest adventure, Woman In Black, features him as a wan, clueless widower in over his head.

Watch out for that typecasting, Master Radcliffe.

Woman in Black is a classic "old dark house" movie, complete with angry villagers, belligerent poltergeists, creepy kids and supernaturally aware dogs. Before the campy 1931 film Old Dark House, these tropes of the haunted house story had been used sincerely and effectively since the beginning of the novel, with Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto and Mrs. Radcliffe (no relation), even when the latter was parodied so effectively by Jane Austen in her first novel Northanger Abbey.

Whoops. Sorry. Slipped into PBS mode there for a second.

So, the story is that our young widower must execute the papers of some estate, apparently on the premises, where his presence disturbs an extremely nasty filicidal spirit. I don't want to spoil it, but the cool thing about a movie like this is that you really can't spoil it much. It's all hoary old tropes and plot devices, but executed both very competently and very sincerely.

It's non-ironic.

Director James Watkins has a sure hand on all the proceedings, building from a slow start (which will be too slow for some) and then cutting loose about half-way in but without a lot of splashy CGI. It reminded me favorably of the old George C. Scott horror The Changeling.

I understand Radcliffe took some flak for being "too young" for the part but, of course, he's not. The movie takes place one hundred years ago and he's the exact right age for the time. As already noted, he's a pro at looking haggard.

The supporting cast is quite good, as you'd expect, with Ciaran Hinds (of The Debt) and Janet McTeer (whom I didn't recognize from Albert Nobbs), and lotsa spooky looking kids.

The music was spot on as well, and well done. Not over-loud but tending to sneak up on you and making tense moments.

Anyway, you know if you want to see this one: It's a non-gory, reasonably scary haunted house flick in the gothic tradition. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Pina

"Is it bad that I understand this?" The Boy leaned in and asked halfway through Wim Wender's Pina.

"Probably," I said.


Pina was nominated for a documentary Oscar—what else could they do, really—but it's not really a documentary; it's a showcase/tribute to the late Pina Bausch, a choreographer who ran an avant-garde dance company in...well, I guess, Germany?

I mean, it sounded German. Wuppertal Danz Theater or somehin'.

You can kinda tell from the vagueness on the big strokes that this isn't really a documentary failing, as it does, to document even the most general info about Pina.

Fine with me, really. A person is about their work and the impact they make on others, right? So what better way to pay tribute (if not actually document) than by showing a bunch of stuff they've done and letting others describe how they felt about the subject—in interpretive dance!


Heh.

From what I could gather, this film is basically numbers choreographed by Pina interspersed with numbers by her dancers, inspired by or in tribute to Pina. And Wenders himself is a presence, cleverly transitioning between the numbers, and interspersing them with live landscape, moving trains, whatever.

Now, frankly, this probably tells you almost all you need to know about whether or not you want to see it. As interpretive dance movies go, this is one.

The Boy and I are basically clueless on the subject. I liked Bob Fosse. Debbie Allen gives me hives. And that's way more than The Boy knows.

Still, he leaned in and—there was no reason to whisper as we were alone in the theater—"I get about 90% of this. This shit is grim."

It is, too. There are a few moments of joy, mostly short-lived in this film about dance. Mostly the numbers seem to emphasize longing, rejection, terror, isolation—even cynicism, I would say. It opens with an interpretation of Rite of Spring (one of my favorite pieces) and presents a theme of sexual desperation/frantic-ness, which doesn't quite jibe with how I hear and see that work.

Also, a lot of the guys looked a little unconvincing lusting after the girls. Heh.

Yes, for all the scantily clad women, there's very little here that's actually erotic. The women are gaunt as ballet-types tend to be, but to the point where, if the camera adds ten pounds, I'm pretty sure a couple of them were clinically dead.

We're down with this stuff, though. It was different. It suffers a little bit in that it's somewhat shapeless, which means it's hard to know if it's going to go on for 5 minutes or 2 hours. Wenders cleverly uses a dance number repetitively Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter throughout to give us a sense of the passage of time to minimize it.

Technically, I'm pretty sure a lot of what the dancers did was impossible, and they made it look effortless. So, really, this is a dancer's movie. Even if you hated it, it'd hold your attention.

For us, it was an interesting experience.

Ranchero

"So, there's a Mexploitation flick playing at the Encino Laemmle."
"A what?"
"Mexploitation. It's like Blaxploitation, only with Mexicans."

Then, somewhat embarrassingly, I had to explain Blaxploitation to The Boy. Long ago, in the '70s, when movies sucked....

"So, it's Mexploitation, but it's at the Laemmle. So it's probably Mexploitation without the exploitation."
"Ookayyy."

And, indeed, that's exactly what Ranchero is: A simple story of a heroic ranchero who comes to Los Angeles to make his fortune, and encounters drugs, poverty and, scariest of all, Danny Trejo. But there's no nudity or sex, and little drug use and violence actually shown.

The Boy really liked this film. He thought it was a good presentation of a simple story.

I liked it as well, but I found it exceedingly naive. This is kind of amusing to me, because blaxploitation and mexploitation have always tended to be naive, and I sort of thought the indie/art credential that came from being at our local art house would imply greater sophistication. (Greater sophistication offering plausible deniability that the sleaze had artistic merit.)

The hero, Jesse, played by Roger Gutierrez, is supposed to be unsophisticated but he's so straightforward and unassuming, it's like he's never seen television. I mean, it's one thing to have worked on a farm your whole life, and another to be 38 and unaware that there are drugs, crime, gangs and other immoral things in downtown Los Angeles.

I mean, he sees his best bud dealing drugs in a vacant lot, and doesn't seem to get past a mild suspicion that something might be afoot. I wonder if this guy I haven't seen in ten years has changed at all? And why is he sweating and shaking all the time? His pupils are larger than I recall, too!

Or...Van Nuys.

OK, I'm not gonna harp (much) on the geography, but the scene transitions were shots of traffic near the 101 Silver Lake exit (by the famous Western Exterminator building) and Normandie, which are addresses in the hundreds, while the apartment address was 6363, which would either be West L.A. (near the tar pits) or North Hollywood/Van Nuys in the Valley. It really looked like the Valley.

Yeah. The mean streets of my youth, baby!

Still, there's plenty of crime there, I guess. Enough for a movie. And, really, the only criminal we see is Danny Trejo, so maybe he's our gangsta out here. (Side note: Danny and I fought over shrimp cocktail at my best bud's wedding and he didn't knife me.)

The movie is well shot, and actually doesn't look all that low-budget, though there are some classic tell-tale signs. Like, there's an ambulance at one point, but we only see the flashing red light. Danny Trejo is only in two scenes, one of which he's not even visible, so you know they shot those in one afternoon.

Classic low-budget, let's-get-a-star-for-the-DVD-case tactic.

All that stuff is fine. There is some padding, too. There are a whole bunch of slow scene transitions. I suspect that's because, tightly edited, the film would be just over an hour. Or, really tightly edited, it would be the trailer. Heh.

I liked the actors, but there's a soap opera quality to the dialog—once again a matter of editing—that gives it a clunky, stagy feeling at points.

And...did I mention naive? Like, Jesse doing an "I love you, let's run away" speech to a girl he's known for...I dunno, a few hours? OK, it was probably a couple of weeks, movie time, but it still seems so sudden.

Anyway, props to director Richard Kaponas and screenwriter Brian Eric Johnson, who also snagged himself the best role as Tom, Jesse's strung out best friend from childhood, the charismatic Roger Gutierrez and Cristina Woods for sincere and even moving performances, and the whole crew for managing to raise the million bucks it took to make this. Shout out to the cinematographer, Michael Bratkowski, and no special blame to the editor Don Burton. (Since the editing is technically fine, and you never know who made the artistic choices.)

This flick was made in 2008 and barely released, so you probably won't have a chance to see it, which is a shame, considering the amount of high budget crap you will see that doesn't have half the heart.

Friday, March 2, 2012

In Darkness

The last, I swear, of the Academy Award movies that The Boy and I are going to see for 2011 is the Polish film In Darkness, the story of a Polish sewer inspector who hides Jews in the nooks and crannies of the sewers he knows so well.

I mean, during WWII. From the Nazis. It's not like Jew-caching is some kind of weird hobby for him.

That'd be a hell of a movie right there. I picture Will Ferrell shoving Ben Stiller into tiny alcoves while Stiller protests ineffectively and, I dunno, finds a civilization of sewer gnomes who torment him at first but eventually he becomes their hero as he saves them from The Great Flush.

But I digress.

This is a serious movie, and it's a damn good one that's been rather harshly reviewed.

The lead character is a Pole, who is anti-semitic and greedy, and in fact a thief. The movie opens with him robbing from the houses of Jews who have been sent away by the Nazis. He negotiates with a wealthy family of Jews to hide them—for a price. When the kał hits the fan, and he ends up with a bunch more Jews than he bargained for, and he shows no particular generosity.

He's also constantly being challenged as far as the money goes. Given what he risks, he has to constantly re-evaluate whether it's worth the money, whether he can possibly get more out of them, whether he should just rip them off and turn them in and, as I said, you don't really know which way he's going to go.

Also, as secluded as the sewers are, they're not all that well insulated. Noise travels upward and outward. And the Jews themselves are not a happy group.

This particular aspect felt really true to life (and this is based on actual events, and a biography written by one of the survivors). There is snobbery and class-ism, cowardice, pride, licentiousness, and so on. They don't know how bad the camps are, and so they don't realize that this is the end of the world for them.

How bad are the camps? At one point, a guy who's been living in a sewer for nine months sneaks out with the intent of infiltrating the nearby camp and finding a missing family member, only to be spotted by a Nazi who says he's too healthy to have come from the camps.

That's bad.

Another great thing is that the lead character's wife is a fascinating creature by herself. A plump woman who blows everyone's mind by telling them Jesus was Jewish (this made me laugh a lot, because they would all say "Really?") and who chides her husband for his greed and bad behavior on the other hand hardly embraces his scheme.

She's a wildcard.

This is a long movie, but even The Boy didn't object. "It was immersive," he said. And it's true; it's an expert piece of film-making that manages to convey a tremendous claustrophobia and fear. I guess the New York Times criticized it for being a perfect story that's already been told before, but I think the fact that it works—and despite my snark at the start of this post—without exciting yawns or ridicule is indicative of how effective a film this is.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like the WWII films getting more attention these days are films where the Nazis are more sympathetic (like The Reader). While there's enough veniality to go around, there's no doubt who the villains are in this film. And this is done without making the villainy cartoonish.

No, it all feels very real, and we both liked it greatly. I actually prefer it to the Academy Award winner, A Separation, because it was more gripping, but I'd note that these were two of the best films of 2011, and way better than the nine English-language films nominated for Best Picture.

It's also, despite my swearing, probably not the last of the 2011 Oscar noms, since the other foreign films probably won't make it to theaters for another couple months.

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