Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel


They keep their heads covered to show their devotion to God.

(2018) Sports Documentary (Menemsha) Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, Scott Buchan, Ty Kelly, Cody Baker, Jason Marquis, Jerry Weinstein, Cody Decker, Peter Kurz, Jon Moscot, Jeremy Bleich, Danny Valencia, Jonathan Mayo, Margo Sugarman. Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger

 

As underdogs go, there are few more under than the Israeli national baseball team. Even back in the 80s, the spoof Airplane! Joked about handing out a tiny pamphlet sized book called Great Jewish Athletes to passengers looking for a little light reading. Baseball has had a few great Jewish players including Hank Greenberg and most notably, legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. Sadly, while Koufax is fawned over in the film, Greenberg who was one of the great sluggers of the game back in the day gets nary a mention.

Most of the players for the Israeli team that was fielded for the 2017 World Baseball Classic – a kind of World Cup for baseball – were American Jews who have at least one Jewish parent or grandparent which qualifies them under the Heritage Rule which allows players of a different national descent to play for that team rather than the country they are actually citizens of.

For the most part Team Israel was made up of players who were career minor leaguers or had just a cup of coffee in the majors. One big exception was Ike Davis, a slugger for the New York Mets and later the Pirates, A’s and Yankees. Injuries had shortened his career, but he was hoping to make a comeback when he agreed to play with Team Israel.

The team was ranked 41st in the world and were derided by the press as “has-beens and never-will-bes” but that only served as motivation for the team who beat the heavily favored Great Britain team in Brooklyn to qualify for the 16-team tournament. Placed in Pool A, they would be playing in Seoul, South Korea.

Many of the players weren’t really practicing Jews and almost none of them had been to Israel. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson arranged to fly the team there in his own private jet, beginning a spiritual and personal journey for the team who began to appreciate their Jewishness more. A terrorist attack that occurred while they were touring the country further cemented their connection to their heritage.

Once the tournament starts, the team captures the imagination of the world, becoming the Cinderella story of the tournament. The film doesn’t really cover the individual games in more than a cursory fashion but then again, the movie isn’t about the games themselves.

One of the quirks the team was known for was their mascot, Mensch on the Bench. Sharp Shark Tank viewers may recognize it from an episode of that show, a light-hearted parody of Elf on a Shelf. Well, Team Israel had a life-sized version who accompanied the team to most media events and games. That was indicative of the light-hearted spirit that the team possessed as a whole.

The bonding of the team isn’t particularly unusual; most teams bond in some fashion and Team Israel was no exception. The 2017 team hoped to win the WBC but not for the reasons you might think. They wanted the future of Team Israel to be populated less by American players but with Israeli-born players. A disgruntled Cuban at a press conference excoriated the self-described “Jew Crew” because of this, but that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water – the Cuban team could certainly have recruited players of Cuban descent from other countries had they chosen to.

At the end of the day underdog movies are pretty much a lifeblood for sports documentaries and this one, while occasionally inspiring, really doesn’t add much to the picture except for one item – the awakening of the players to their Jewish heritage. Those scenes in which the players react to Jewish traditions and ceremonies are among the most compelling in the film. Clearly the players grow a connection to Israel and those are the moments that make the movie satisfying. Unfortunately, the standard sports clichés that litter the baseball sequences keep the movie achieving all-star status.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heartwarming and occasionally inspiring documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses some steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three directors are childhood friends and met Mayo through a Jewish summer camp.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Cecil

Oh Lucy!


Luuuuuuuucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!

(2017) Dramedy (Film Movement) Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Köji Yakusho, Shioli Kutsuna, Megan Mullally, Reiko Ayelsworth, Nick Gracer, Liz Bolton, Miyoko Yamaguchi, Hajime Inoue, Hiroaki Miyagawa, Stephanie A, Leni Ito, Calvin Winbush, Eddie Hassell, Todd Giebenhain, Tre Hale, Noelani Dacascos, Kimie Tanaka. Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi

 

We don’t always end up where we expect to in our lives – in fact we rarely do. The bright promise of youth often gives way to the dreary reality of middle age. Sometimes it just takes the smallest of changes for us to recapture some of that bright promise and make a go of changing that dreary reality.

Setsuko (Terajima) is in that place where she goes through life almost as an automaton. Shuffling through the streets of Tokyo with a white surgical mask obscuring her features, she trudges day after day to a job in a nondescript office as a fabled Office Lady, working for a boss (Inoue) who has no respect for her in an office of shallow lab rats who sneer at their colleagues (always behind their backs) and don’t quite see that they are no different than they. One day, Setsuko witnesses something horrible on the way to work but it doesn’t seem to faze her at all.

Setsuko dotes on her niece Mika (Kutsuna) who dressed up as a sexy maid for her waitressing job in one of those Tokyo themed restaurants and whose enthusiasm for life is like a tonic to Setsuko who lives in what could charitably be called a hole in the wall apartment that from its slovenly appearance seems to be the residence of someone who has given up. Perpetually dealing with money problems, Mika asks her aunt to take over payment on an English language lesson. Setsuko doesn’t really want to but Mika charms her into it by telling her about a free sample lesson.

The lesson is taught by John (Hartnett), an ex-pat American whose methods are to say the least unorthodox. He is a hugger, which is something that the stoic Japanese are not. He assigns Setsuko an identity of an American; he bestows on her a blonde wig and the name of Lucy. Surprisingly Setsuko enjoys the lesson and she decides to come back. Perhaps Tom (Yakusho), a widower who is also taking English lessons and turns out to be a kind and sweet fellow, is one big reason why but it might be more that John’s hug has awakened something in Setsuko.

But it all comes to a screeching halt when John resigns and goes back home to America. To make matters worse for Setsuko, he takes Mika with him – the two had been having a romance. Setsuko eventually gets a postcard from Mika inviting her to visit her niece in sunny Southern California. Following the awkward and dispiriting retirement party of a colleague who was a particular target of behind the back abuse, Setsuko determines to take her niece up on the offer.

Joining her is her bitchy sister Ayako (Minami) with whom Setsuko bickers incessantly. The two women despite their sibling ties don’t seem to like each other very much and we eventually find out why. Ayako seems to be bitter, demanding and rude. The two Japanese ladies greet a bewildered John who greets them with equally bewildering news that Mika broke up with him and took the car to drive down to San Diego. There’s only one thing to do – the two Japanese women and John set out on a road trip in which Setsuko will try on the Lucy persona for a test spin.

Hirayanagi developed this from a short film she created that made the festival rounds a couple of years ago, including SXSW and Toronto. However, this is substantially different from the short which was much more of a comedy than this is. That said, this is a very, very, VERY good film.

The humor is low-key and a bit quirky, giving the film an off-beat charm that keeps the more dramatic sequences from being overwhelming. Don’t be fooled by the charm however; this is a very human film with all that implies with highs and lows (and sometimes very low lows) that when pen is put to paper describing the plot, it makes this movie sound like it should be a downer but curiously, it isn’t.

Part of the reason for that is a terrific performance by Terajima. She imbues Setsuko with a near-impenetrable mask but the sadness that Setsuko carries in her is very close to the surface and becomes apparent from her body language and especially her eyes. Setsuko has spent her life just accepting the lot given her like the sweets given to her by her colleagues to help her over her smoker’s cough that go straight into a drawer in her desk and stay there. Now, she is ready to change her lot and change is never an easy process. It’s terrifying and dangerous.

One of the highlights of the movie is the way American and Japanese cultures are juxtaposed and how mystifying they are to one another. I suspect neither Setsuko nor Ayako are truly representative of Japanese culture any more than John is representative of American culture; John is not at all as he represents himself to be and the more time we spend with him, the more we realize his facade is a front. By the end of the movie, our appraisal of John changes a good deal.

Suicide is a major theme in the movie which for some viewers might be difficult. Caution should be taken if you’re the sort who gets extremely bothered by onscreen suicide attempts. There are three in the movie and they aren’t done for laughs. At least two are pretty shocking so be aware of that. Nonetheless this is the first indie movie of 2018 to carry on last year’s parade of high quality indie films that made 2017 one of the best years for indie films in recent memory. If this is indication, 2018 may be as good or perhaps even better.

REASONS TO GO: This is an off-beat film but in a very good way. The humor is low-key and subtle for the most part. Terajima is an absolute gem. The movie makes great use of cultural differences.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who have issues with suicide may find this a hard film to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and nudity, disturbing images, drug use and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hirayanagi originally developed this as a short film; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay took it to the branch of their Gary Sanchez Productions headed by Ferrell’s former assistant Jessica Elbaum (called Gloria Sanchez Productions) which specializes on movies made by and/or about women.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in Translation
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Vanishing of Sidney White

Sneakerheadz


Shoe shrine.

Shoe shrine.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Jeff Staple, Elliott Curtis, Rob Dyrdek, Russ Bengtson, Mike Epps, Frank the Butcher, Hommyo Hidefumi, Ben Baller, Jeremy Guthrie, Andre “Dre” Lustina, DJ Clark Kent, Wale, Jon Buscemi, Futura, Matt Fontana, Jon Wexler, David Ortiz, DJ Skree, Samantha Ronson, Dazie Williams, Oliver Mak, Mike Jensen, Dean Point, Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez. Directed by David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge

Most of us use sneakers as footwear. We put them on to go work out, or do some walking, or to go to our local theme parks. We don’t really think of them much beyond their utilitarian function.

That’s not true for all of us. For some, sneakers are a personal statement of who they are. They are a symbol of status, of hipness, and of belonging. To an even smaller group of people, they become an obsession – not just items of status but things to own. While once upon a time people bought their Nikes, Adidas and New Balance sneakers  to wear, there are Sneakerheadz – the collector segment of society – who buy them to store and/or display without any intention of ever lacing them up.

This documentary explores the phenomenon which exploded onto the scene in the 1980s as sports, the hip-hop scene, movies and street culture in general began to collide and merge. Everyone wanted to wear the same shoes as Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony and Run-DMC. The latter even had a hit song about their footwear – “My Adidas” which of course is prominently featured on the soundtrack here. Soon, the manufacturers realized that the demand was high for limited editions and that they could charge a premium price. They also began using a variety of materials, including leather and suede in addition to the traditional canvas and rubber. They began hooking up with designers, athletes, musicians, artists and actors to design these shoes, which would sell out in minutes.

Collectors would buy shoes they could barely afford, and those that could built elaborate storage and displays for their shoes. Enterprising young people discovered that the shoes they bought for $300 on the day they came out would sell on e-Bay for $1500 (and more) to collectors who had missed out when the shoe sold out in hours.

At first, it was an obsession that involved going down to the stores, finding new stores and going out of town to hunt down special editions only released in other cities. Veteran Sneakerheadz speak of that era fondly, as it was a testament to their commitment that they would fly to Japan and buy shoes there, or to New York City for those non-jet set types. These days, ordering shoes can be done with the click of a link on your laptop and some bemoan that it takes the fun out of it and fills the ranks of Sneakerheadz with those who really haven’t earned it.

Still, plenty of shoes are on display here and some of them are really amazing, truly works of art. I was kind of surprised about this; in all fairness I’m one of those Luddites that wear shoes to cover my feet. I’m more apt to wear Crocs than sneakers and sneakers more than patent leather. But I understand the collector’s mentality. I collect ball caps myself, although I have probably around 40 or 50 rather than thousands, which is what some of the Sneakerheadz here have in their collection. As a psychologist specializing in hoarding muses, where is the line between collecting and obsessive psychosis?

And really, that’s what this movie is about. Yeah, the sneakers are cool and all, and some of the designs are really amazing. but this is about the collectors. We do get a more than cursory history of the sneaker phenomenon, as well as some insight into the cultural impact of them but the emphasis is on those who buy the sneakers and keep them without ever wearing them (well, most of them anyway – the reason collectors buy two pairs of each item is explained succinctly as “one to stock, one to rock”).

One thing that isn’t really explored is the way this is perceived. For the most part, the film’s tone is upbeat and affectionate but given the way that the sneaker culture essentially evolved from the young African-American male community and how that community is viewed by authority figures and the white community, sneakers are looked upon as more or less as the domain of street thugs, hip hop artists and NBA worshippers by a certain segment of our society, which is a reflection of how society views young African-American males in general. There’s a political aspect here that isn’t explored and it should have been. The truth is that this is no longer limited to urban culture in general; the obsession has spread globally with some of the more rabid collectors located in Japan and Europe.

This is a much better film than you might expect it to be. Granted this is a very niche subject, but it can be said that is true about most documentaries. The filmmakers infuse this with a great deal of energy and attitude which I found refreshing. The graphics that identify the interview subject look like the end of a shoebox, complete with the shoe size of the subject (I’m assuming). That tells me that the filmmakers don’t take themselves too seriously, as documentarians are sometimes wont to do.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious moments. One of the best and most heartbreaking sequences of the movie is an interview with Dazie Williams, whose son was murdered for the brand new Air Jordans he had just bought for himself and his son; given the resale value of unworn shoes to collectors, the motivation is pretty clear.

Nobody should have to die over a pair of shoes, but people do, over a thousand per year according to the movie. If so, that’s a sobering statistic and it is barely touched upon in the movie. That’s a subject that should have gotten a lot more time in the movie, as the willingness of collectors to pay exorbitant prices to complete their collection is at least a factor in the crime surrounding the new release of sneakers, which sometimes are accompanied by riots.

But enough about what the film isn’t. What the film is, is a fairly light but fascinating look at a subculture in our society that gets little or no notice but generates billions of dollars in revenue every year. Sneakerheadz certainly has their hearts in the right place, and the affection of the filmmakers for the subjects is obvious. One of the most important keys to making a good documentary is for the filmmakers to have an emotional connection to the subject; without it, the audience isn’t going to get one. I was pleasantly surprised that I developed affection and respect for those so devoted to their obsession. I wasn’t expecting to, and that’s always a icing on the cake when tackling a new movie. This one certainly is worth consuming, although you may be tempted to head on out and buy some of these shoes for yourselves afterwards. Maybe this should come with a warning label.

UPDATE 8/24/15: Sneakerheadz is now available on Vimeo on-demand. You can stream it here.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating subject. Graphics are fun. Hip hop energy.
REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunities. Sneaker overload.
FAMILY VALUES: Some salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Air Jordan was released for public purchase in 1985.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fresh Dressed
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Godzilla (2014)


Oh no, there goes San Francisco, go go Godzilla!

Oh no, there goes San Francisco, go go Godzilla!

(2014) Action (Warner Brothers) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Carson Bolde, Richard T. Jones, Victor Rasuk, CJ Adams, Patrick Sabongui, Jared Keeso, Luc Roderique, Eric Keenleyside, Garry Chalk, Ken Yamamura, Hiro Kanagawa, Jill Teed. Directed by Gareth Edwards

Sixty years ago, Toho Studios in Japan debuted a monster movie unlike any other. As the only country ever to have a nuclear bomb used in war against them, Japan had a unique relationship to the Atomic age. That movie, Gojira which was retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters with some scenes featuring Raymond Burr added in to appeal to American audiences, was not just a monster movie but also a parable about the nuclear age. The wild popularity of the film would spawn 27 sequels (in which Godzilla became a protector of children and a symbol for Japanese cultural weirdness), a godawful American remake and now this.

Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Watanabe) and his assistant Vivienne Graham (Hawkins) enter a cavern accidentally entered into by a mining company in the Philippines back in the 90s. They discover a gigantic skeleton with two parasitical cocoons inside. One of the parasites has evidently hatched.

Meanwhile in Japan, American nuclear scientist Joe Brody (Cranston) is concerned about some unusual seismic readings. He sends his wife Sandra (Binoche) to check on the structure to make sure that the reactor they are both working at is intact. Then, all hell breaks loose and a portion of the suburbs of Tokyo are leveled and irradiated.

Cut to present day. Joe and Sandra’s son Ford (Taylor-Johnson) has just returned from Afghanistan/Iraq to his nurse wife Elle (Olsen) and son Sam (Bolde) to their San Francisco home and he looks to get past his bomb disposal career and back into mainstream civilian life when he gets news that will take him back to Japan where he and his father will discover that what happened that fateful day was not what the world has been told…that something has emerged from the bowels of time and threatens all of humanity. Something that is headed for the United States…and there’s more than one…

Since the trailer debuted online, fandom has been foaming at the mouth for this to come out and for the most part, the movie doesn’t disappoint. I doubt you’ll see a more high-energy spectacle all summer long than this. Monsters rampage, buildings fall, people scream and get trampled and crushed by falling masonry. Edwards was going for a certain degree of realism, at least as realistic as you can get when dealing with 350 foot tall reptiles and their insectoid foes.

For the most part that realism is achieved. We get the sense of what it would be like to be in a situation where gigantic creatures were wreaking havoc in an urban environment. The digital wizards at WETA come through again, creating a new vision of Godzilla that is far more terrifying than the stunt man in the rubber suit stomping on a model of Tokyo. This Godzilla moves majestically, even gracefully but with terrifying resolve. His foes are Giger-esque nightmares that will resonate with those who had Starship Troopers-inspired freak-outs in their youth.

What Godzilla lacks is a human touch. Taylor-Johnson, who has done high-profile roles in Kick-Ass and to better effect in Nowhere Boy plays Ford the military man with all the warmth and personality of a wood chipper. His action hero persona is generic, indistinguishable from other performances in similar roles but unlike classic action heroes, there’s no hint of humor or anything human. It’s as if neither the actor nor the director wanted to upstage the imaginary beast.

Other than Cranston, whose obsessive scientist is played with clenched teeth and wild eyes, few of the main characters seem to modulate much beyond infernal calm. Watanabe comes off as a cut-rate Mr. Miyagi, dispensing nuggets of Zen-like wisdom while contributing precious little to the film. I also have to say that Dr. Serizawa’s assertions that Godzilla exists “to restore the balance of nature” is a bit ludicrous at best and makes for awkward movie moments.

Still, this is directed magnificently. Godzilla doesn’t make an appearance until nearly halfway through the film and even then he is scarcely glimpsed until the final third of the movie. Once things get going however, the action is relentless and on an epic scale. It’s hard to use the word “breathtaking” in an era in which visual effects seem to re-set the bar with every blockbuster but it sure comes to mind here. Edwards, who has since been given one of the upcoming standalone Star Wars films to direct (as well as the inevitable Godzilla sequels) is undoubtedly going to be one of the big names in Hollywood for years to come.

So while this isn’t the perfect summer movie, it scores in all the right places to make this the movie to beat this summer. Da Queen, who is not a big monster movie fan in general, loved this movie and if that’s any sort of measuring stick, you will too.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent creature and action effects. Has everything you’d want in a summer action film.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks any notable characters other than the monsters. “Balance of nature” subplot goes off the rails a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of destruction and mayhem, creature violence and some scary sequences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dr. Serizawa was named after one of the lead characters in the original Godzilla in 1954.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloverfield

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Double

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)


Jiro dreams of airplanes.

Jiro dreams of airplanes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Hertzog, Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, Zach Callison, Madeleine Rose Yen, Eva Bella, Edie Mirman, Elijah Wood, Darren Criss. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The French poet Paul Valery wrote in 1922 “The wind is rising, we must try to live.” As with most symbolist poems, the concept can be taken in a lot of different ways.

Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt) is a young man who has dreamed of airplanes ever since he was a schoolboy (Callison). He had dreams in which his idol, Italian aeronautical engineer Count Giovanni Caproni (Tucci) shows him fantastic creations filled with family and friends, floating above endless sunlit grassy plains and meadows. In this dream kingdom shared by Caproni and Jiro, the wind blows ceaselessly. In fact, that wind blows through Jiro’s life events both tragic and wonderful.

As Jiro is travelling to university in Tokyo from a visit back home, the train he is riding in is stopped short when the Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastates Tokyo. He meets a young girl named Naoko (Blunt) who is travelling with her maid. Her maid breaks her leg in the incident and Jiro carries her back to Naoko’s home, along with Naoko. He leaves without giving the grateful family his name. When he goes back to inquire about the two girls, he discovers their home has burned to the ground in the fiery aftermath of the earthquake.

After graduating, Jiro gets a job at Mitsubishi along with his close friend Honjo (Krasinski). They work on a design for a plane commissioned by the Japanese Navy. The project is overseen by Kurokawa (Short), an unpleasant and energetic height-challenged person who turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Overseeing Kurokawa is the more kindly-natured Hattori (Patinkin).

The project ends up in failure but his superiors recognize that Jiro is a budding innovator and sends him to Germany to study their impressive efforts. Jiro, accompanied by Honjo, is disturbed by the increasing militarism of Germany and frustrated by their unwillingness to share anything but the most basic information. Jiro recognizes some of the same militarism emerging in his own country.

Once back Jiro is given another Navy plane project but on its test flight the plane crashes. Disheartened and exhausted, Jiro is sent by his concerned employers to recover at a mountain resort. In a bit of serendipity, it turns out  that the hotel is owned by Satomi (Macy), the father of Naoko who Jiro falls deeply in love with. However, she has contracted tuberculosis, a disease that also killed her mother. The outlook for Naoko looks bleak but in an effort to fight off the disease and get healthy, she agrees to go to an alpine clinic to get better.

In the meantime Jiro has resumed working on a radical new design that will make his planes lighter, more maneuverable and faster. However, his conversations with a German pacifist (Herzog) at the resort have attracted the attention of Japan’s secret police who want to take Jiro away – so Mitsubishi hides him at the home of Kurokawa and his wife (Grey). Naoko realizes she’s not getting any better so she decides to go to Jiro and marry him, spending whatever time she has left with the man she loves. While Jiro is realizing his dream to create beautiful aircraft, he is troubled by the eventual use of his planes, knowing that this militarism will eventually destroy his own country. However, he labors on, trying to get the most of his time with Naoko who encourages him even as she weakens.

First of all, this is a gorgeous movie with beautiful curved lines nearly everywhere. The aircraft portrayed in the movie are largely fantastic. Adding a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, nearly all of the mechanical sounds are made by humans, from the roar of the earthquake to the sputter of engines turning over. It’s a marvelous touch that is delightful to both young and old.

Unlike Ponyo which was aimed squarely at the very young, this is most certainly a movie for older audiences. It moves at a stately, majestic pace which the younger crowd will be far too restless to tolerate. In fact, some older audiences may have the same problem – the middle third of the movie is almost glacial as it moves from the terrifying earthquake/fire sequence to the love story.

There are those who are criticizing Miyazaki and the film because Jiro is designing a fighter plane that would be used to take lives (I thought mistakenly that it was the Zero that he was working on and while he did eventually design that plane, the one shown in the film is its predecessor the A5M. The movie does to an extent gloss over the carnage Jiro’s creations unleashed on the Allied forces in World War II. Left-leaners have tended to opine that Miyazaki should have at least criticized the militaristic nationalist leanings of Japan and questioned whether someone who designed weapons should be glorified with a feature film. Ironically, conservatives in Japan have labeled the movie “anti-Japanese.” What’s a venerable animator to do?

I find the criticism to be invalid. Miyazaki damns the militarism by showing its affects on Japanese society without making comment on it. He allows people to draw their own conclusion – the success of which can be inferred by the many differing opinions about the movie’s message. I have to admit that as an American I was very aware that the “beautiful machines” that Jiro was designing would be used to take American lives and that felt a little strange to me. I also found myself able to put that part of me aside and take the movie as a whole without allowing my prejudices to influence my ultimate opinion. War is a terrible thing, as some of the images near the end of the movie show – but Miyazaki recognizes that it is also the catalyst for technological advance.

The imagery is gorgeous, flowing and sweeping across the screen. The early scenes of early 20th century Japan are bucolic and lovely, the earthquake sequence terrifying and beautiful and the scenes at the resort pastoral and also lovely. The colors are bright and harmonize beautifully together and the score enhances the movie subtly. It is not Miyazaki’s best – I still think The Princess Mononoke is and Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service are both superior to this, but it is definitely up in their category. While I did like Frozen when I saw it late last year, this should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Period.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously rendered. Innovative and clever. Wonderful love story at the center of the film; Jiro is an amazing character.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long. Drags in the middle third a bit. Somewhat low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of fantasy and war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 72-year-old Miyazaki initially announced that this would be his final animated feature but on December 31, 2013 he withdrew his retirement during an interview on a Japanese radio program. It is said he is considering a sequel to Ponyo as his next project.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aviator

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 3 Days to Kill

Phantom (2013)


Heads that talk.

Heads that talk.

(2013) Drama (Ganko) Yuki Fujita, Masato Tsujioka. Directed by Jonathan Soler

We are used to movies being a certain way, telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. However, there are no laws when it comes to making a movie. A filmmaker of sufficient imagination and courage can choose to make a movie in any state they want. While we generally call these Art Films and they appeal to a very limited audience here in the United States, some of the world’s most beloved and acclaimed movies fall under this characterization.

Phantom is a movie shot by a French filmmaker in Tokyo over a six month period. The dialogue consists of a man and a woman talking. Both of them are young people, recently out of college. They are boyfriend and girlfriend and are very worried about their immediate future – the woman is essentially unemployed, picking up menial one day jobs (such as holding up a cardboard sign inviting patrons to come into a restaurant or arcade) and her rent is coming do. She has no idea how she’s going to pay it.

The man is comforting and has a job of his own but there isn’t much left over to help her pay her rent. They spend an evening talking about things that concern young people – what does the future hold? Who am I? What is my place in the world? Do I even have one?

And that’s essentially it. Oh, one more thing – rather than just filming the two people talking, Soler superimposes images of the couple doing things around Tokyo as well as images he captured randomly while walking around the Japanese capital. Some of the images are beautiful, others less so but there is often an oblique connection with what is being said in the dialogue.

This is a movie that isn’t going to appeal to audiences that think that the Twilight series is the height of filmmaking, or any movie that doesn’t have a superhero in it is not worth their time. It takes some work and patience. It requires some listening skills. While having a bit of focus and concentration is useful, one can also choose to watch it with their minds wide open and let the images take their imagination wherever it takes them.

In other words, there isn’t just one way to watch this film. There also isn’t just one way to take this film. For my own part, I found it a useful way to get at least a modicum of understanding of the mindset of young people; as a middle aged film critic that can be very useful indeed, reminding me that the things that face the generation currently making their way into adulthood are far more challenging than what faced my generation, or at least challenging in a different way.

The movie is in Japanese with English subtitles. One of the things that I really like about the movie is the way its set up; we see the woman come home to her shabby apartment after her day’s work. She makes herself a package of instant ramen noodles, has a shower and goes to sleep. Then the conversation with the boyfriend begins. The way the dialogue works, we aren’t 100% certain whether the boyfriend came to her apartment late and the conversation is taking place after his arrival or whether she is dreaming the conversation. Maybe her whole life is a dream. That’s really up to your own interpretation.

It should be noted that the movie hasn’t received a North American release as of yet. The filmmakers are reportedly hoping to secure a North American DVD release but at this time the film has only seen release in France and on French home video. Go to their website by clicking on the photo above if you would like more information about the movie and any news about future availability in North America – my understanding is that the current DVD release is in Japanese with English subtitles and can be purchased from Amazon’s French website so it may be a pricey proposition to get it sent to an American address. Perhaps as an alternative it may be available for online streaming at some point.

This is very much a movie in which what you get out of it depends on what you’re willing to put into it. Again, not everyone is going to appreciate that. However, if you are willing to put in some time, some thought and some imagination, you may well find this to be a rewarding experience. Even if you don’t like the movie, I suspect you may well respect what Soler is trying to accomplish. While I can’t recommend it to my general readership, more adventurous film buffs may want to give this one a whirl.

REASONS TO GO: Dream-like atmosphere. Some really nifty cinematography. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: You’re essentially listening in on an hour and 20 minute conversation. Requires a certain amount of patience and z

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was shot in the streets of Tokyo with a hand-held DSLR Canon EOS SD Mark II.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/14: The movie hasn’t received an American release as of yet and as such has not yet been reviewed on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Dinner with Andre

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Pompeii

Resident Evil: Retribution


Go ask Alice.

Go ask Alice.

(2012) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Sienna Guillory, Kevin Durand, Shawn Roberts, Colin Salmon, Johann Urb, Boris Kodjoe, Li Bingbing, Aryana Engineer, Robin Kasyanov, Ofilio Portillo, Oded Fehr, Megan Charpentier, Mika Nakashima, Ray Olubowale, Toshio Oki, Takato Yamashito, Ali Larter. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Some fights you can’t run away from. Sooner or later you have to take the fight to your enemy because otherwise you’ll be running until you’re caught and/or killed. Sometimes those fights will cost you more than you know.

After the events of Resident Evil: Afterlife Alice (Jovovich) has been taken prisoner by the evil Umbrella Corporation and is being interrogated by former ally turned enemy (thanks to a parasite buried in her chest) Jill Valentine (Guillory). She escapes with the help of Ada Wong (Bingbing) who is one of the chief operatives of Albert Wesker (Roberts), the evil head of the Umbrella Corporation. However, he is no longer in charge; the computer program Red Queen, activated after the fall of The Hive has taken over and is at war with humanity – and she is winning.

Alice and Ada are in an Umbrella cloning facility where several environments were created to work out different scenarios to T-Virus infection protocols. Wesker sends in a strike team to retrieve Alice and Ada and also Becky (Engineer), a cloned little girl who operated as a daughter to a cloned Alice in a Raccoon City scenario. Make sense? Don’t sweat it.

Anyway the strike team along with Alice and Ada are up against hordes of mutants, Jill Valentine as well as clones of Rain Ocampo (Rodriguez) and Carlos Olivera (Fehr). They will have to fight their way through simulations of Moscow, Tokyo and Raccoon City. The now-fully human Alice will have to rely on her wits and her indomitable will to survive in order to get out of the base alive and once they do, a final battle on the surface awaits in which friend becomes foe, foe becomes friend and the world prepares for a last stand in the most unlikely of places.

The thing that has made this series so spectacular is not just the videogame franchise it’s based on but on Milla Jovovich’s interpretation of Alice. Jovovich, because of her appearances in a lot of sci-fi, horror and action movies, is sometimes underrated as an actress (much like Kate Beckinsale is) but she really has a great deal of screen presence and the focus is entirely on her, which gives the filmmakers smart points. Then again, Anderson is married to her so he probably knows her abilities better than any other.

The movie is like a non-stop chase scene, beginning with the spectacular opening sequence in which Alice’s capture is done in reverse sequence going back to the final moments of Afterlife. It’s imaginative, far more so than one would have expected from a franchise that’s supposed to play to a less-discerning crowd. While the sequence following that opening which consists of cloned Alice, cloned Carlos and Becky playing house is a bit confusing, the rest of the movie takes off at warp speed. Non-stop battles between humans with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ammo and increasingly grotesque mutants will more than satisfy the entertainment quotient.

The Resident Evil film series has been the only successful franchise (or standalone film for that matter) to capture the nature of the videogame that inspired it. While it doesn’t compare to playing the game and having that interactive element that is missing in a film, it is as close as film is going to come to that element simply because of the frenetic pacing and touches that less attentive directors might miss. One gets a sense that Anderson plays a lot of videogames.

I’m not sure how much farther they can take this franchise. There are after all only so many ways you can go here until it starts to get repetitive and it is absolute death for a franchise such as this to repeat itself – even the Friday the 13th franchise fell into that trap. They do seem to be leading to a climactic battle and the next movie, scheduled for release on September 12, 2014 may be the climax of the series. If so, they’ll have a fairly high bar set for them in order to make the series go out with a bang, which I sure hope it does rather than the fizzle that it could easily go out with.

WHY RENT THIS: Mindless fun. Jovovich has made the role of Alice iconic in horror films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of been there, done that.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of violence. And I mean lots.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jovovich is the only actor to appear in every Resident Evil film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Along with outtakes, there’s a nifty interactive database that allows viewers to explore the world of the franchise through bios, video clips and more. There’s also a look at Nakashima, the lead Japanese zombie and a reunion of cast members from previous installments in the series.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $240.2M on a $65M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent Hill

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2013 concludes!

Pacific Rim


Why does this giant robot have a trash bucket on its head?

Why does this giant robot have a trash bucket on its head?

(2013) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinski, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Clifton Collins Jr., Diego Klattenhoff, Brad William Henke, Larry Joe Campbell, Mana Ashida, Santiago Segura, Joe Pingue, Milton Barnes, Ellen McLain (voice), Robert Maillet, Heather Doerksen. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

When I was a boy, I used to love Japanese monster movies – men in rubber lizard suits smashing Tokyo to smithereens. My Dad and I loved the kind of cheesy earnestness of the movies and while we both moved on to other genres, we did share that one thing.

For my own son, it was giant robots. Transformers, dude. Things that turned into other things that grew huge and took on other huge things. That was what kids a generation removed from myself cut their teeth on. Now what about combining the two together?

That’s just what Guillermo del Toro, visionary director of Pan’s Labyrinth did. In the near future, Earth has been invaded by gigantic beasts that came out of the ocean – or more accurately through a dimensional portal that manifested at the bottom of the Pacific. These creatures wreaked havoc on the coastal cities of Asia and Australia as well as the West Coast of the United States. Conventional warfare doesn’t work on these Kaiju which is Japanese for “strange creature” but over time has come to assume gigantic size as well. In order to fight these creatures, giant robotic creatures – called Jaegers which is German for “hunters” – have been created. These machines are piloted by humans and are so intricate and complex that it requires to human brains, which are psychically linked by a “drift” which allows both pilots to share memories while operating both sides of the robotic brain. At first, these robots are successful.

However as time goes on, more and more creatures pour out of the portal growing larger and more deadly as they do. Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) is a pilot along with his brother Yancy (Klattenhoff) but in a battle with a Kaiju Yancy is killed while connected to Raleigh who experiences his brother’s death. Raleigh leaves the program and becomes a construction worker on a gigantic wall protecting the coastline which the government feels will adequately protect the people and cities of the coast.

Of course, that doesn’t work and the general of the Jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Elba) finds himself in need of pilots as the Kaiju have begun a counter-offensive that has pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. Stacker knows the only way for humanity to survive is to find a way to close that portal; he has scientists Newton Geiszler (Day) and Helmut Gottleib (Gorman) trying to find ways to do just that. But they’ll need pilots too, even burned out ones and Raleigh is recruited. Japanese scientist Mako Mori (Kikuchi) is his handler; her family died in a Kaiju attack and she yearns to pilot a Jaeger and get some payback. Raleigh might be her best bet for it – but both will have to get over their issues from the past and face gigantic odds because the creatures coming at them from the portal are like nothing they’ve ever seen before.

This might well be the most visually amazing movie of the summer – the battle sequences are worth their weight in gold all by themselves. This is high-tech stuff, even more so than the anime you might remember that featured the giant robots. Del Toro does himself the favor of creating characters with some meat to them, giving the audience a rooting interest which is more than a lot of summer films have been able to accomplish this year.

Hunnam, known to most audiences from his work on Sons of Anarchy is turning out to be quite a promising leading man. Here he has some pretty good cast members to work with, particularly Elba who is one of the best in the business. So too is Perlman (playing a black market Kaiju organ seller) but he has no scenes with Hunnam. Kikuchi is riveting when she’s onscreen; at a very young age she’s become one of the best actresses in the world.

Following a trend that has puzzled me all summer long, the film is a good 20-40 minutes too long; quite frankly the entire subplot with Perlman could have been eliminated or at least saved for a Premium Home Video release. At least however even if the movie drags near the end the eye candy you’re given makes it worthwhile and for geeks of all ages this is manna from heaven, ready to be gorged.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing visuals. Elba and Perlman always interesting; Hunnam is getting to be quite a leading man.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Too much chest-busting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action, plenty of violence and  a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Cruise was originally considered for the role in which Idris Elba was eventually cast in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; the critics are pretty solidly behind this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space Battleship Yamato

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: I Melt With You

Jiro Dreams of Sushi


Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The face of the world's greatest sushi chef.

(2011) Documentary (Magnolia) Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto, Hachiro Mizutani, Joel Robuchon. Directed by David Gelb

 

I’ll be the first to tell you that I adore sushi. I love the subtle taste of the fish blending in with the texture of the rice, the little surprising kick of wasabi and the salty tang of soy sauce. I’m not talking about the rolls that Americans tend to prefer (although I love those too) but of the more traditional Japanese form of fish and rice alone.

Jiro Ono owns Sukiyabashi Jiro. It is located in the bowels of a Tokyo subway station. It has ten seats and only ten. All he serves there is sushi. Jiro has been making sushi since he ran away from home at age 9. He’s 85 now and has been making sushi for 70 years. You’d think that in that amount of time he’d be pretty good at it.

Pretty good doesn’t even begin to describe what Jiro does, however and the good folks at the Michelin Guide agree. They’ve awarded Jiro and his restaurant three stars, the highest rating that the guide offers and Sukiyabashi Jiro is the only sushi restaurant to possess that rating. The citizens of Tokyo are fully aware of how good his sushi is; reservations are mandatory as you might guess and there’s a one-month wait to get in.

Jiro is one of those sorts who lives to work. He is passionate about sushi; he even has dreams about it, dreams he has written down and then turned into reality at his restaurant. He pursues perfection with single-minded determination that is at once both admirable and unsettling. He doesn’t seem to have any life outside of his restaurant; he works every day all day except for government holidays and even takes those off begrudgingly. His work ethic is admirable but you can’t help but wonder, is’t there something more to life than this?

Not for Jiro and he seems happy in his life. He has two sons; the eldest, Yoshikazu works with Jiro in the restaurant and is being seemingly groomed to take over the restaurant when Jiro retires but Yoshikazu is 60 himself. The youngest, Takashi, owns his own restaurant in one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighborhoods. It’s a mirror image of Jiro’s (literally; Jiro is left-handed and Takashi right-handed and so they have their set-ups reversed from one another). Both men labor under the shadow of their father and neither seems to mind.

We are shown the methods of making sushi, accompanying Yoshikazu to Tokyo’s main fish market, to the instruction of the apprentices to the selection of the rice (Jiro gets a special kind that the rice vendor sells only to him because Jiro’s the only person who knows how to cook it properly). This isn’t, despite the title, a movie about sushi at all, although once you see the flavorful tidbits displayed lovingly in their dishes you might get a hankering for some.

What this is about is the pursuit of excellence and its cost. Jiro is a driven man, determined to be a national treasure in Japan and one of the most influential sushi purveyors of all time. Restaurant critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, talking about Jiro’s eldest son, says wistfully that when a man’s father is as influential and as important as Jiro is, even if he’s just as good as his father was he’ll never be able to measure up. He has to be twice as good in order to escape comparisons.

In fact, Yamamoto suggests, it was actually Yoshikazu who made and served the sushi to the Michelin representative. One never gets a sense from either of Jiro’s progeny that they have the same kind of drive their father possesses. Jiro may dream of sushi but his sons might have different dreams, even though they did both choose to join their father in the sushi business.

You see, it’s really difficult to tell because there’s no context here. We don’t see Jiro at home, only at the restaurant. When he is interviewed, it is about his career and about the business of making sushi. If Jiro collects stamps, loves baseball or enjoys cross-stitching as a hobby, we would never know because we only get to see this one aspect of him. I don’t know if this is all there is to the man but I kind of doubt it.

This is mostly a mostly fascinating and occasionally frustrating movie that hits most of the right notes. I would have liked a little bit more about Jiro (he does go to a class reunion in his native village and visits the grave of his father, who abandoned him when he was a young boy) but at the end of the day, he will be remembered for his sushi and that is mostly what we see here – his driving force and his one true love.

REASONS TO GO: A study of the relentless pursuit of excellence. Interesting father-son dynamic and a lovely peek into Japanese culture – and cuisine.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s no context here.

FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes showing the fish being sold in the fish market that might be traumatic for some tots who might love their goldfish but otherwise this is absolutely fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Meals at Jiro’s sushi restaurant start at 30,000 Yen or about $370 U.S. dollars.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100. The reviews are exceptional.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

SEAFOOD LOVERS: The film shows a number of the different types of seafood that Jiro uses in his restaurant, from massive tuna to tiger prawns to haddock – both as fresh catches in the fish market and as finished product in his restaurant.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:God Bless America

Girl Model


Girl Model

Meat markets come in all sorts of varieties.

(2011) Documentary (Cinereach) Nadya Vall, Ashley Arbaugh, Madlen, Tigram. Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin

There is a certain glamour inherent with the modeling industry. Beautiful girls flown to exotic locations, dressing in designer couture, adored by millions. So when talent agents come calling, it’s not hard to understand why young girls answer with eyes full of stars.

One such agent is Ashley Arbaugh who herself was a teen model. Her territory is mostly the former Soviet Union where she plucks young girls to work in the lucrative Japanese market. The promise of easy cash and a foot in the door of an industry that’s notoriously hard to break into brings girls swarming to try-outs, particularly in economically depressed places like Siberia.

Nadya Vall lives in a small village in Siberia. Her parents are poor; they live in a tiny little house that her father has been adding on additional room so that his children may have rooms of their own. However work has stalled on that as he is barely making enough money to make ends meet as it is.

Her shy, sweet demeanor and lustrous child-like beauty get her a contract with Ashley and her Russian boss Tigram. Tigram sees himself as a kind of savior for these young girls, taking them out of bad situations and giving them fame and fortune. Of course, he gets a cut of both but that’s a small price to pay isn’t it?

Nadya sets out for Tokyo and things turn into a nightmare from there. Nobody from the agency meets Nadya at the airport; she is lost, not knowing where to go or what to do and doesn’t speak any other language than Russian; tearfully she begs the filmmakers to translate to English to the Japanese clerks to find out information as to where she can find the apartment she’s supposed to stay at.

Eventually things sort themselves out and she is set up in a tiny little apartment that looks to be the size of a walk-in closet. She has a roommate, Madlen, who is supposed to share the space with her – and it’s not a lot of space, let’s face it.

Japanese law requires her to have two paying jobs in order to remain in the country for the full length of the visa. She is sent to try-out after try-out, to shoot after shoot with no sales forthcoming. The two are made to realize that if their measurements increase even by a centimeter they will be sent packing and not paid; in fact, because of the cost of their apartment and their airfare, they will be deep in debt to the agency.

Homesickness, the psychological wear and tear of not being wanted and the general indifference of those who are supposed to be watching over them take their toll. Madlen, who at last has a credit card from her family that allows her to purchase food, eats her way back home on purpose leaving Nadya alone in a country that she doesn’t understand – and at 13 years old, is she really equipped to handle this situation?

This is absolutely riveting stuff. There are no real regulatory agencies that watch over these girls. 13 and 14 year old girls are encouraged to lie about their ages and are sent to Japan and other countries unsupervised and essentially thrown out into the waters to sink or swim – and they mostly sink. There is a good deal of hypocrisy – Arbaugh tells her next set of girls airily that everyone makes money in Japan after we’ve just clearly seen two girls who returned home deeply in debt, and we are given the impression that it isn’t all that uncommon. Everybody gets paid but the models.

This isn’t just exploitation, it’s white slavery. There needs to be an industry watchdog to ensure that these girls get proper supervision, understand what it is they’re getting into and have some regulatory power to watch that the girls aren’t exploited. Unfortunately, as Arbaugh herself says late in the film, it isn’t much of a step to go from modeling to prostitution. After all, both are instances of a woman selling her body.

I didn’t expect that there was a story here that I’d be hooked by. Fashion interests me not in the least and I’d always had the perception that models are mostly self-absorbed divas who had a very easy life that required very little work on their part. After all, how hard can looking beautiful be?

Obviously, being a guy makes me completely dumb and uneducated as to how hard work it is for women to look beautiful, models or no so perhaps I can be forgiven for my ignorance. However one screening of this documentary is enough to shock my system into understanding that there is exploitation of children going on in this industry – and it needs to be stopped.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling and heartbreaking. Eye-opening look on a shadowy world.

REASONS TO STAY: Pounds its point a little bit too relentlessly. May have benefitted from some follow-up.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some profanity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the making of the film, Arbaugh got a job with Elite Models in New York scouting American girls.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Picture Me

JAPAN LOVERS: Some aspects of the Japanese culture are explored here.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Monsieur Lazhar