Ramen Heads


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The deliciousness that is ramen.

(2017) Documentary (FilmBuff/Gunpowder & Sky) Osamu Tomita, Shôta Iida, Kumiko Ishida, Katsuya Kobayashi, Yûki Ohnishi, Tom Takahashi, Touka, Hayama, Inoue. Directed by Koki Shigeno

Most of us in the United States know ramen as something that comes pre-packaged and can be made at home in just a few minutes. In Japan, ramen has been around for a long while as a kind of working man’s lunch that was easy and inexpensive that took off in a post-World War II Japan. In recent years there has been a dedicated sub-culture as ramen has been gentrified to a certain extent. Fanatics of the dish have their favorite chefs, each of whom have their own recipe for the broth.

The film concentrates mainly o Osamu Tomita who has been voted the best ramen chef in Japan for four years running. We get to see how obsessed he is with the quality of his ingredients, with boiling the broth for just the right amount of time to get the full range of flavors just right. Shigeno goes into loving detail – maybe a bit too lunch for non-aficionados. Certainly true ramen heads will eat this all up, literally but there may be those who find it a bit too much of a love letter.

The film covers other chefs as well although not in as great detail and things end up with a celebration of the tenth anniversary of Tomita’s restaurant, which has only ten tables, is located in a fairly less-traveled part of Japan and yet lines have already formed by 7am when the restaurant takes reservations for the day. It is necessary because the reservations generally sell out early; it is one of the hardest tables to get in all of Japan.

We then are shown the dizzying array of ramen types, many of which are virtually unknown outside of Japan. I never knew that there were so many; I was aware of tonkatsu but the others? It was to be honest, mind-blowing. I think anyone with an interest in food, especially Japanese cuisine and particularly ramen will find a lot to learn in this doc.

This is very much a man’s world; I didn’t see a single female ramen chef and even the servers were male. I also got the sense that most diehard ramen fans are also men, but this is something not really explored in the film. It should have at least have been mentioned. The fact that this is a Japanese film intended for a Japanese audience leads to them not mentioning that ramen has begun exploding over here in the States, with small ramen shops like the ones depicted here opening up all over the country.

However, there is almost a fawning feel and the voice over narration is a bit florid. Clearly the director is completely enamored of ramen which is all right  but he ascribes to it an almost mystic quality to it, equating it to the first blush of young love. It’s only noodle soup, dude.

REASONS TO GO: These chefs are truly badass! The film lets us into a world of obsession that westerners rarely get to see and are unfamiliar with.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit long and may be too detailed for those who aren’t into ramen.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Metastasized breast cancer is incurable and usually fatal; it also only gets about 8% of research funding despite causing the lion’s share of fatalities among breast cancer patients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coming to My Senses

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A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)


A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

Two out of three...

(2009) Comedy (Sony Classics) Honglei Sun, Xiao Shen-Yang, Ni Yan, Dahong Ni, Ye Cheng, Mao Mao, Benshan Zhao, Ran Cheng, Julien Gaudfroy, Shuo Huang, Wenting Li, Sisi Wang, Xiaojuan Wang, Na Wei. Directed by Zhang Yimou

People are fallible. We are prone to making mistakes and letting our hearts guide our actions when our heads should prevail. We often fail to recognize or foresee the consequences of those actions when we take them.

Wang (Dahong Ni) is the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of nowhere. Location being everything (even in ancient China), his clientele mainly consists of wanderers and nomads on their way to somewhere else – anywhere else but there. He has a comely wife (Ni Yan) who has been unable to give him children. Frustrated at both his wife and his lot in life, the miserly Wang takes out his frustrations on his wife and his staff, but mostly on the former whom he humiliates sexually whenever he can.

She responds by buying a gun from a Persian trader (Gaudfroy). Now, she exclaims, she has the most powerful weapon in the world at her disposal. She also has a lover, the cowardly and timid Li (Shen-Yang) who mostly wears pink and rarely does anything that his lover doesn’t approve of.

Wang doesn’t like this much, as you might imagine. So much so that he talks to the corrupt and jaded local magistrate Zhang (Honglei Sun) and persuades him to kill his wife and her lover, then make the bodies disappear – for a large fee. Zhang figures he can do better and so he kills Wang instead, hoping to get all of his loot – except he killed Wang before he could get the key to his safe…and Wang just won’t stay dead…

Yimou, the award-winning director of such movies as Raise the Red Lantern and Curse of the Golden Flower (not to mention the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), remade this from the Coen Brothers 1984 cult classic Blood Simple and overlaid it with his stylish and colorful visual sense.

He also chose to take the dark, noir-ish thriller that the Coens made and turn it into a broad comedic thriller. Purists are going to be horrified about that, and a lot of critics who loved the original had a hard time with the remake.

It certainly is a different film, although it strikes all the right plot points as the original, only approaching them differently and adding a subplot about a rival gang of thieves. The darker tones of the original are gone though; this is far more light-hearted.

However, Yimou has that distinctive sense of color and scope that make his films so breathtaking and awe-inspiring and he uses it to his advantage here. Although the noodle shop is grim and colorless, those that live in it wear brightly colored robes and carry on in an epic vista that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Ford western.

Sun gets the most of my attention; Zhang is laconic and somewhat low-key but he has a vicious side that reminds me of a cobra. Sun gives him that sense that something dark and nasty hides just below the surface. Playing a man who is dangerous is a difficult proposition; doing it without giving much away emotionally is even harder but Sun pulls it off.

The comedy is very broad and exaggerated, which while common with Asian audiences might be out of step with more subtle American tastes. Think of it as a Hanna Barbera cartoon without the intellectual undertones. It’s not for children though – but some of the set pieces would definitely appeal to less sophisticated senses of humor.

There is some bloodshed though – this isn’t strictly comedy – but considering how sexual the situation is there is almost no sexuality, which again illustrates the cultural differences between the Americans and the Chinese. This gives the movie a curiously sexless feel, and the sex did add a certain amount of kick to the original like adding jalapenos to a salsa.

I’m a big fan of Yimou but this one misfired for me. I’m recommending it mainly because the man always knows how to make a great-looking movie and this isn’t an exception but be advised that American audiences might have a tough time with the humor and the tone. If you can overlook that, you will find yourself enjoying the movie on purely a visceral level, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Yimou is one of the most striking visual directors of our time. Some broad laughs.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The noir tone of the original is sorely missed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the original was sent in modern (at the time) rural Texas, the remake is set in the remote desert Gansu province of ancient China.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The making-of feature is longer than the actual movie, but there are parts of it which are fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38M on a $12M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Illusionist

Kung Fu Panda 2


Kung Fu Panda 2

There's nothing like a little musical accompaniment when dueling to the death.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, James Hong, David Cross, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, Jean Claude van Damme. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Most of us are pretty well aware of our pasts. We know where we came from and it’s true, it helps us understand where we’re going. What we fail to realize, however, is that who we were isn’t as important as who we are…and who we intend to become.

Po (Black) has settled into his role as Dragon Warrior, protector of the Valley and a member of the Furious Five…who now have a plus one. Things are going swell for the time being, although Master Shifu (Hoffman) warns Po that if he is to continue in his growth, he must find inner peace. For the moment, the only inner peace Po wants is the one that comes after a big meal.

During a fight with some bandits in a village of musicians, Po sees an emblem on the armor of the leader of the wolf pack (McBride) and has a flashback to when he was a very small child. He thinks he might be seeing his mother. Later, he questions his father Ping (Hong) about it, and Ping is only able to tell him that he found Po in a box of radishes without any idea of how he got there. Po becomes determined to find out where he came from.

He might have picked a better time to take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Shen (Oldman), an albino peacock, has developed a weapon of terrible power and threatens to conquer all of China with it. He has already taken on the combined masters of Kung Fu (Garber, Haysbert, van Damme) and beaten them. If the world knows that there is a weapon that can defeat even these masters, will Kung Fu be at last broken?

Nelson worked as a story editor on the first film and makes her directing debut here. It’s actually a pretty self-assured one; she tells much of Po’s back story, and utilizes flashbacks by telling them in anime-style hand-drawn animation. The computer generated stuff is quite amazing and beautiful – some of the best-rendered animation outside of Pixar. It’s really too bad that all of the care taken on that score is ruined by watching it in 3D through dark glasses, ruining the color palate of the animators. All for the sake of a few cutsie pie effects that are just as effective in 2D.

The story here is ambitious. While there’s still an element of fat buffoon to Po, that’s been considerably toned down here. He is after all, the Dragon Warrior. The dynamic has changed between him and the Furious Five as well; where Tigress (Jolie) was once his adversary, now she’s his best friend. Hong also has much more of an expanded role in Ping – a very welcome development, in my opinion.

There are some pretty dark elements here, particularly when it comes to Po’s early life. That’s all well and good but when your target audience is kids, I find that kind of disappointing. Not that everything has to be sunshine and lollipops in kid movies, but there are some things in the story that I thought was a bit inappropriate for the younger set in the sense that it might cause them to feel a bit insecure. You may, of course, disagree with me in this.

I also found the charm of the first movie to be largely missing. By making Po competent and even a superior fighter, much of what I found charming about the first movie is taken away. Also, the primary relationship in the movie is between Po and Tigress; Shifu has little more than an extended cameo here and his relationship to Po was at the center of the first movie, and it is sorely missed here.

Adding Michelle Yeoh to the mix as an ancient seer is a master stroke of casting; she also does some of the narration and she’s a welcome addition, adding a bit of gravitas and authenticity. She is far too absent from the movies; it’s a bit of a shame because she’s one of the best actresses in the world but she’s sadly hit that age where actresses tend to be cast aside as being not young enough to be a romantic lead but not old enough to get the Meryl Streep types of roles. Hollywood has tunnelvision in many ways; I would hope that someday they’ll understand that women like Yeoh are far sexier and alluring than some of the 20-something hardbodies that pass for leading ladies these days. End rant.

I do admire the movie for its willingness to take a risk and not be just another money-grubbing animated feature. That may have translated to the disappointing box office take its first weekend with almost no competition for the family movie dollar, something which will change in a couple of weeks when Cars 2 enters the fray. I don’t think it was successful in everything it attempted to do, but I’m glad that they at least gave an effort to do something other than the safe and boring that is often passed off as family entertainment these days.

REASONS TO GO: The gang’s all back and the story gives us a good deal of insight into Po’s background.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as charming as the first movie and quite a bit darker.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence which might upset the really little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DreamWorks executives visited Chengdu in China, considered to be the “Panda hometown” to learn more about Pandas and Chinese culture; elements of their visit were later incorporated into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, the kids are going to want to see it in the theater so you may as well.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Black Snake Moan