Follow by Email

My thoughts about movies and TV shows I've been watching

See also my blog on books: Elliot's Reading

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tampopo now feels dated, and the comedy falls flat

The 1986 Japanese comedy Tampopo, about a group of truck drivers, devotees of ramen and noodle shops, help the woman who runs a highway truck stop noodle shop turn her business into a first-class operation - or at least that's what I surmise it's about from having watched only the first half or so. In its day this was considered a daring, rule-breaking comedy - as the truck drivers are a contemporary take on the Samurai and an Asian take on Western cowboys - riding into town and shaking things up and righting the wrongs (protecting the shop-owner's bullied son, e.g.). Today, the scenes of their putting the shop owner into training - running sprints, etc. - and spying on rival shops to learn their culinary secrets, seem forced and not very funny. There are also some other plot elements only loosely woven into the narrative, such as a group of Japanese businessmen visiting an expensive French restaurant and not knowing what to order (their young assistant, however, does know French cuisine); we also see an etiquette class teaching wealthy Japanese women how to eat noodles w/out slurping. Ha ha. After 45 minutes or so we had enough; any point the movie was trying to make about Japanese culture now seems extremely dated - as fusion cuisine rules the world of course - and the humor, often physical, has lost its edge as well.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Season One of Fortitude was totally watchable; can Season 2 find its way?

Simon Donald's Fortitude (Season 1) definitely held our attention throughout the 12 episodes despite some extremely gruesome and cringe-inducing incidents - it never felt forced or gratuitous, and created a great portrait of a small and isolated community, the eponymous Fortitude, an island supposedly of the north coast of Norway (actually filmed, in English, in Iceland). One unusual aspect of this series is thatwe know much more than any of the characters. W/out giving anything away, season opens w/ 2 boys finding what appears to be a carcass of a woolly mammoth, and bring a piece of jawbone home. Word gets out about this discovery, which could be of huge value - both to scientists and to ivory poachers - sending off a surreptitious treasure hunt. What we know but none of the characters learn for some time is that everyone in contact w/ the carcass - emerging from the glacier, no doubt bcz of global warming, though they don't discuss this - gets seriously ill (as it's explained, larvae or viruses in the animals cojuld be frozen for centuries only to emerge on "defrosting." So this is a crime drama, a political drama - the ambitious governor of this small island is focused on economic development and hopes to build a hotel in the glacier, a controversial if not hare-brained idea. It's a scientific narrative w/out exactly being sci-fi as there's not overtly supernatural in the concept. The pace is good - hindered sometimes, though by so many characters and plot lines - the sense of place is great: we really experience the isolation and ruggedness of the island, with one hotel-bar, one small police station w/ 4 officers, one small market, a tiny air strip, and so forth - probably not unlike life in northern Iceland, minus the tourists. The lead characters all are strong. In short, it's not a groundbreaker but Fortitude season 1 is  a totally watchable, intelligent crime drama.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Can an English-language remake of Toni Erdmann be far behind ?

The 2016 German film  Toni Erdmann is really long - 2 hours 40 minutes - but it doesn't feel long for a second as you watch it - totally entertaining, engaging, and in the end moving w/out being sentimental or soporific. In brief the story is about a 50ish-year-old man who's a practical joker and free spirit, seems to make a modest living via piano lessons and music classes, who is trying to connect with his adult daughter who's deeply devoted to her high-pressure job in a consulting firm proving international corporations with advice on such matters at out-sourcing and down-sizing (i.e., firing union workers and going outside the corp to hire cheap labor). The protog surprises his daughter by showing up unannounced at her base of operations in Bucharest, and he proceeds to cajole her and to act foolish and funny and basically derail her straight-ahead life in the corporate and business world. The movie begins with a great scene involving delivery of a package, believe it or not, and just builds from there: some scenes are hilarious, such as the father, using the name Toni Erdman, poses as the German ambassador to Romania and "punks" a number of the up-tight corporate types and others, the "naked" party, and most unsexy sex scene every filmed. Some scenes are moving and provocative: the dad trying to be comfortable in various staid settings and feeling completely lost and out of place, the sexist belittling of the daughter by assigning her to give shopping advice to the wife of a big client, the visit to a oil refinery where workers will be laid off or fired based on advice from the daughter and her cronies. It would be so easy to make this movie dogmatic or schematic - the daughter completely changing her ways, for ex., and leaving corporate life behind or providing a new "option" for the client under which nobody gets laid off, etc. But the director (Maren Ade) will have none of that, and the movie ends on a poignant, but still somewhat unsettling, note. Smart from start to finish - and I would imagine that an English-language remake (I can picture Jack Black in the lead) isn't far behind, and will no doubt miss the whole point of this drama.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Another fine far-north miniseries about crime in a remote, hostile environment: Fortitude

It takes a while to start making sense of the British-shot-in-Iceland-set-in-Norway miniseries Fortitude, but a few episodes into season one is starts to come together as a really good crime series. It's set in the farthest remote north of Norway (all the dialog is in English), and we focus on conflicts between the local police chief, the Governor of the region who is set on building an "ice hotel" in one of the glaciers to boost tourism, a couple of miners who discover a preserved woolly mammoth emerging from the melting permafrost and hope to sell the specimen, a police deputy unfaithful to his wife and troubled by trauma from service in Afghanistan, a group of scientists who opposed commercialization of the glacier (and who object to profiteering and poaching), a murder of the lead scientist, and the stranger (Stanley Tucci) who arrives from Britain to help with the murder investigation and who of course faces antagonism from the local police. You can see there's a lot going on here, including several other strands I haven't mentioned, including the hint that the "preserved" species may still harbor various prehistoric germs or bacteria that could infect the local population with diseases for which there's no known treatment. So it's a very rich story, told with good pacing, with credible characters, and in a really beautiful, remote, at times spooky Icelandic setting that captures well the challenges of living as a community in a remote, isolated, and threatening (the first scene of the series is a man under attack from a polar bear), even hostile, environment.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The series that defies expectations: American Crime

American Crime wrapped Season 3 - probably the last season, as the New Yorker reported -and I have to state once more that I'm blown away by the quality of this series, far better than we have any reason to expect from a network broadcast. Time and again, we expect, from a lifetime of conditioning, that these seasons (each season is a completely separate drama, with no overlapping characters, but with many actors appearing in two or all 3 seasons, notably Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton, both extraordinary in very different, and demanding, roles) will go for reconciliation, for some form of a happy resolution at least in some of the plot lines, but John Ridley's vision is always more dark and, frankly, more honest. One example among many, in the final episode Huffman engages in a heart-to-heart with her drug-addicted, imprisoned sister, explaining how she and her husband are seeking custody of her sister's two young girls; we expect something like thanks, gratitude, a pledge to overcome the addiction and step back into the family on release from prison - but, no, the sister is angry and accusative and bitter. This scene - and many others - have the trademark Ridley attributes - extreme close-ups, really focusing in on what the characters are saying, focusing on expression - a true stage actor's talent - and, as Emily Nussbaum noted inthe NYer, very little use of music, and these scenes could be used in an acting class: limited by highly charged text, what can different actors make of these scenes, now far can they push them, in what directions? What should their faces say? As in each season, Season 3 was not about a single "American Crime" but about several crimes; the plot strands - death and murder in migrant labor camp, runaway teen addicted to Rx, mistreatment of Haitian nanny being the 3 main ones - coincide in time and place but have only slight overlaps - until the final episode when, as M. noted, the series comes together by bringing all the main characters into a courtroom, where some will confess, others begin a trial: It's as if one were to look at everyone in a courtroom on the same day and think, what are your stories? What brought such different people to the same place?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

An unusual and moving documentary in which a filmmaker creates a portrait of the artist

Kirsten Johnson calls her documentary, Cameraperson (2016), a "memoir," and I think that's about right; it's entirely composed of documentary footage she has shot over the course of a long career - there are no scripted scenes nor is there any interpolated narration - and she has arranged these many segments into what amounts to a recollection of her professional work and, to a lesser degree, of her personal life. Her footage includes some scenes shot in the most dangerous places on earth, including Yemen, Monrovia, Afghanistan, Darfur - with a strong focus on Serbia after the Bosnian war. A pervasive interest is the torture and abuse of prisoners, especially women, and the "ethnic cleansing" of the Moslem community in Serbia. But this film is not a documentary "about" these topics; it's about the life of a cameraperson, ever working, facing danger, building relationships, or not, with the subjects, taking risks, and blending in. These segments are all "raw" footage, so we hear Johnson in the background and other ambient matters that surely were cut from the finished documentary; a great and whimsical example at the outset: a beautiful shot of lightning striking on the Missouri prairie, followed by a few camera-shaking sneezes from Johnson! There are also touching moments that she films of her parents and kids, particularly moving is the scene of her mother, suffering from the last states of Alzheimers. By the end, a final visit to a family in Serbia, makes clear the message of the film: though Johnson films some of the deepest horrors of war and racism, she also builds bonds with her subjects and presents an uplifting view of life: sometimes justice prevails, people endure, life comes into the world (great and troubling birthing sequence in a small clinic in Liberia, for ex.).

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The difficultly of William Carlos Williams's Paterson and the failure of Jim Jarmusch's film thereof

William Carlos Williams famously wrote (paraphrasing): "I wanted to write a poem/that you would understand." Paterson, the book-length poem he wrote over the course of about 10 years, roughly 1942-52, is famously not that poem. The concept is simple and elegant: a man named Paterson represents the soul and spirit of the eponymous N.J. city. The poem or collection itself is not simple. Although the poem includes the repeated dicta "no ideas but in things" - which could serve as the guiding principle of almost all of WCW's writing - e.g., Red Wheel Barrow, the bowl of plums in the refrigerators, asphodel the greeny flower, and on and on - most of the lyric verse in Paterson is elusive and abstract. WCW, however, makes Paterson more accessible by constructing its as something like an anthology of found poetry, including many news items about the history of the city and also letters and messages WCW has received, notably several significant letters from an acolyte, the then very young Alan Ginsberg. The work is a success almost in spite of itself - a success as an idea or concept, but less so as a collection of verse - probably not read today by many other than true Williams' devotees. Which brings us to Paterson the movie, from 2016, by NY indie writer-director Jim Jarmusch. JJ had the smart idea of a film in contemporary Paterson on the same theme and model, a man named Paterson lives as the heart and soul of his city. The man, played well by Adam Driver, is a bus driver and aspiring poet, who jots down his poems in a small journal while on lunch break at the Paterson falls (a key setting in WCW's poem) and otherwise learns about the city from overheard conversations while driving and at his nightly visits to a neighborhood bar. Good idea, but, sad to say, lousy film. First, JJ is in no way interested in conventional narrative or plot; good for him, but it makes for an extremely flat and unengaging film. In fact JJ toys with the conventions of narrative, disappointing all of our expectations; e.g., a car pulls up to P as he's walking his bulldog and the toughs in the car say the dog is in danger of being "dog-napped." But that never happens (confession: I didn't watch the last 40 minutes of this 2-hour film). Strangest of all is P's marriage to an artistic stay-at-home, Laura. They live in a small, undistinguished house w/ a pink door and a slanted mail box; inside, Laura has gone wild w/ b/w decor, showing it seems a real talent for fashion and design (how she does all this work in one week and how they can afford the materials is unanswered). She has grandiose visions, e.g., she sweet-talks P into letter her buy a $400 guitar (they live on a shoe string) so that she can learn to play and become a c/w star. She does sing for him - a pathetic rendition of "I've been working on the rr." Seriously? Worse, in a way: She encourages him to publish his writing, the world needs to see these poems, etc. Well, in fact, the poems are vapid and inane: one for example is about a brand of matches, and written with neither wit nor verbal insight - not even close to WCW or to the Beats or to any published poetry. JJ seems to know that these poems are amateurish (he has P meet a young girl in a scenes that on a realistic level is truly disturbing - why would she talk to a stranger in an alleyway? - who reads him a poem that's good, at least for her age), so what's his point? Maybe the film itself is the poem, but JJ seems to have a hipster disdain for the shortcomings of his own characters. [Note: This post also appears on Elliots's Reading]