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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Tampopo - A Film Review

The Film Forum is screening the 1985 classic Japanese film Tampopo, written and directed by Juzo Itami, beginning on October 21st. Tampopo is a classic "foodie" film, a film that celebrates how a country's culture influences people and their relationships with food and people. The film is a charming delight, and as it unfolds, it feels more like a story of Japan than just about a singular plot thread.

The film begins with a great fourth wall sequence, in which a stylish gangster in a white linen suit and brimmed hat (Koji Yakusho) is at the movies with his mistress, and speaking to the real-life movie theater audience. He professes his love for the movies, but can't stand interruptions during the film, and intimidates a potato chip-eating patron with a crinkling chip bag into silence. It is a wonderful opening, and the gangster returns sporadically throughout the film, in a side plot where he and his mistress stay in a luxury hotel room and engage in erotic food play.

Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) is the titular character, a middle-aged and kind widow of a ramen noodle shop owner who is struggling to keep their hole-in-the-wall place afloat, albeit with limited funds, a deteriorating gray interior, raising her son, and not having a natural talent for cooking. Enter two ramen connoisseurs, two truck drivers who compare the rituals and pleasures of eating different types of ramen, and have stopped for a quick bite on a rainy night while on a schedule. The elder is Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), and his younger sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe in his breakthrough performance). They are aghast at how decrepit and run-down the shop is, how poorly Tampopo prepares the ramen (lukewarm noodles, soggy vegetables), and that she is in dire need of help in her cooking and hospitality.

Goro ends up getting into a fight with a fellow customer, and wakes up the next day in Tampopo's home. As she gets to know the truckers, she asks for their honest opinion of her noodles. They reply, "They are sincere, but lack character." She asks them to help her turn her shop around and learn the art of noodle-making, so they take her under their wing, teaching her about the personal care and touch that comes to cooking beyond just following recipe directions. They take her to rival restaurants, and sneak around to learn their secrets, and their strengths and weaknesses, such as rifling through their garbage, posing as customers, or, with Tampopo's innocent charm and unassuming ways, drawing out secrets through slyly insulting the cook.  To paraphrase, "These noodles aren't as good as last week's. You must have boiled them wrong." "Nonsense! I boiled them at the right temperature. ' "Maybe the vegetables are old and wilted." "Not at all! I order the best from Kyoto!" "Maybe it's just me." "It probably is." "Thank you."

Tampopo's relationships with the truckers, as well as with other forthcoming noodle experts, is based on mutual appreciation, and their encouragement and guidance helps her to open up more and gain confidence in herself, and to not feel like she is dying along with the noodle shop. Her face opens up more in acceptance of the world, and it is wonderful to see her relax and look less weary. When she celebrates with Goro at a fine restaurant, her red and black ensemble of a dress and hat is reminiscent of Joan Collins in Dynasty, a working-class person's idea of what the pinnacle of 80's glamour would be, and while the outfit isn't really "her" (Goro says that her high fashion appearance makes it harder for him to speak to her, like as an equal), it is a nice way of her trying to grow more and celebrate her higher ambitions of being a master noodle expert.

What is special about this film is that it has a modesty to it that is endearing, that the story is about ordinary people who have a passion for food made with love and care, and they enjoy the small pleasures of life in a delicious meal. The film deters from the story of Tampopo into side stories and vignettes featuring other Japanese characters and their relationships with food. The gangster and his mistress are recurring characters, and there are also stories with an elderly rich man who flagrantly disobeys his adult daughter's rules to avoid rich or spicy foods; a grocery store clerk trying to catch an older woman customer who is fixated on squeezing food; a dying mother who, while just barely conscious, gathers just enough strength to cook a final meal for her family; a subordinate worker who shocks his class-conscious superiors by using his higher culinary knowledge to order his meal at their business dinner at a gourmet French restaurant (while the rest each order the same and unadventurous meal), and other stories.

The film is about human life and food and culture, and stands out as one of the best foreign films to become popular in America. "Foodie" movies are quite common, especially ones that can act as a gateway to audiences who may be turned off by subtitles, but enjoy watching cooking shows and seeing foreign cuisines being prepared, much like in Eat Drink Man Woman and Like Water for Chocolate. Tampopo has been an inspiration for many ramen restaurants around the world, being named after the film, and the Brittany Murphy film The Ramen Girl, about a American woman in Japan learning how to make ramen, greatly references the film, with a cameo by Yamazaki. The film is a lovely movie that encompasses a lot of what makes Japan special and unique in its food and community cultures, and is a true delight to watch.

Queen of Katwe - A Film Review

I liked Queen of Katwe. It is a new movie directed by Mira Nair and written by William Wheeler, and is based on a true story about a Ugandan girl named Phiona Mutesi who was a chess prodigy in 2007 at about 10 years old, and develops her craft with the help of her teacher, but is conflicted between wanting international success and a life out of the slums of Katwe in Kampala, while also respecting her family and not wanting to act better than her surroundings.

Lupita Nyong'o played her mother Nakku Harriet, who is struggling to keep her family together as a widow in poverty. Nyong'o beautifully portrays her as a woman who deeply loves her children, but is stressed by the fears of not having enough food, shelter, or money, or her late husband, and often comes into conflict when her daughter wants more independence or her teacher promises prize winnings for her talent abroad. Her oldest daughter left home for a fast life in the city, and Harriet is determined that her children will not be tempted by vice and will stay true to working honestly for a better life.

It was also personally impressive to see her in this role, having seen her on Broadway this year in Eclipsed, playing a teen sex trafficking victim, and her versatile talent in her thirties allows her to be both convincing as a scared and emotionally traumatized young girl, and a steely mother of four children who is hardened by life and doesn't have patience for foolishness or chasing fruitless dreams.

David Oyelowo played her teacher, Robert Katende, who is kind and sympathetic and wants to use chess as a way to better the lives of his students and their community. He is a quiet man with a loving family, and has this wonderful sense of calm about him amidst economic strife. Whether he has to  play football to raise money for his students' tournament expenses, or continually bother the local head of sports and recreation to consider his students for international opportunities, he stays positive while never giving up on his kids. While he pushes Phiona to succeed and use her chess talents as a higher economic opportunity, he also warns her against losing her focus through greed and neglecting her family responsibilities, reminding her that her chess strategy is a metaphor for navigating life and not being knocked down by hardship.

Madina Nalwanga was wonderful in this role, and I liked how nuanced she could be in her portrayal of Phiona, between being a smart young girl who started out being modest about her talent, as she is illiterate and rarely been to school, yet had a remarkable ability to strategize and predict others' plays in the game through intuition. But when her success takes her abroad and she wins more awards, she starts getting cocky and overconfident, and ignores her teacher's warnings about her greed, repeating to him, "I'm going to win." 

When Phiona is having dinner with her family after winning a tournament in Sudan and soaking up the privileges of a luxury hotel, eating a modest dish after having enjoyed ice cream floats, her perspective looks at the tin roof shack, the clothes hanging from the clothesline, and it suddenly feels too small and limiting for a talent like hers. It is a quiet and poignant scene that speaks a lot about a young girl both experiencing the pleasures of travel as well as coming into adolescence and wanting to grow up faster.

The film also touched on the aftermath of life after the Ugandan civil war, with lost loved ones, poverty, rebuilding societies, and mixed emotions about how far to reach for success while still staying true to their culture and family. And the class differences were stark in a sequence where the kids from the slums play against kids at a private school, showing different aspects of Ugandan life and class and money. The children are dressed in bright hand-me-down clothing in contrast with the private school students' crisp navy blue and white uniforms; they tear into their chicken by hand instead of using utensils; and they ignore their cots for the comfort of sleeping amongst each other on the floor. Katende, to cheer up the kids when they are homesick and suffering anxiety attacks before the tournament, tells them a story about a dog and a cat which is an analogy for their class struggles vs. the rich, and it is a wonderful moment of the film when the children's faces are shining, knowing that they are stronger than the rich because they work harder for what they want, and it brings a greater satisfaction than having unearned privilege handed to them by birth.

The film was made by Disney, but rises above typical feel-good clich├ęs, and has more depth to it due to the excellent talent involved in front and behind the camera. Mira Nair joked that this is the first Disney film set in Africa without any animals in it. Nair has a stunning reputation as a director of art-house films (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, The Namesake) and Hollywood films (The Aviator, Vanity Fair), and her talent for highlighting complex stories about women is on point in this film. Queen of Katwe is a great film for children to see because it celebrates a young black African girl from a poor background becoming a world-class chess master at nearly 20 years old today. The world needs more positive on-screen depictions of black people and of Africa as a multicultural continent beyond news media of war and strife, and this is a lovely film that deserves to be recognized.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Thoughts on the 2016 Harlem International Film Festival

This weekend, I attended the Harlem International Film Festival because it is easy to get to from my home of Astoria, the tickets are just $13 (as opposed to other festivals that charge $16 for 90-minute feature films), and I like to support talented POC filmmakers.

I saw an indie film called Good Funk, about interconnected stories in Red Hook with ordinary people facing incoming gentrification and raising rents and displacement. It was good, but not great. I felt like the character development was lacking and I easily forgot people's backstories, names, or motivations, and I really only cared about two characters out of the ensemble cast. The filmmaker was trying to cover too much drama and characters in a 70-minute long movie, and should have cut down the ensemble cast or better fleshed out the characters. I did like the talented cast, though, and the film had beautiful cinematography that made Brooklyn look great.

The film was preceded by an emotionally wrought short film called MBFF, shown from the POV of a abused dog going from dogfighting to a kill shelter to being adopted to protecting his owner. The film was great at putting the audience in the dog's head and seeing life through its eyes, and I felt more sympathetic and affected by this dog's story arc than I did about some of the people in the feature film.

I also saw a selection of sci-fi short films, the program was titled Sunday Shorts - Surreal Sci-Fi. I really enjoyed seeing how the films worked within the science fiction genre and made it thought-provoking and creative. The films varied from being about an abusive relationship with fantasy sequences as a coping method (Shen); technology that allows people to hack each other's brains and take over their bodies from a remote area (Neurophreak); an animated Brazilian film about a werewolf terrorizing lost migrant workers in the jungle (Tussle in the Backwoods); a soldier suffering from PTSD and mental illness (In Vivo); and a woman mentally time travelling to prevent her mother's murder (Ghosts in Time).

The program ended abruptly after 80 minutes, and I saw there were about 3 more films on the bill, but for some reason they weren't shown, maybe due to unavailability or time constraints. Still, I was glad to go and check out the festival this weekend. The last film festival I attended was BAMcinemaFEST from last year when I was a BAM archive intern, and I like checking out indie films on Netflix, especially if they don't have huge names in them and have intriguing storylines.

I like to see movies that have not only more racially diverse casts, but also tell a variety of stories, and don't just portray POC as victims of racism, as the Oscars seem to prefer those movies more over character-driven, complex stories, which the independent film scene more often showcases. Netflix is a great source for those movies, as are VOD, film festivals, and PBS.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Thoughts on Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder died at age 83. He was hilarious, and so good at playing characters that were thisclose to a nervous breakdown, but still having just the tiniest amount of control to keep it together. This was greatly exemplified in The Producers and Young Frankenstein, both great films that still hold up well with its brilliant writing and comic timing.

He was absolutely brilliant as Willy Wonka, as Wonka had this unnerving mystery to him, often guiding the children to temptation and only half-assedly stopping them from hurting themselves, leading to the consequences of their greed. He often insulted the children and their parents to their faces in shady manners, commenting on their ill behavior and their indulgent and naive parents. Wilder as Wonka kept him hard to figure out, and there are interesting interpretations of his character as a serial killer, a mad genius, or a sane man who truly was looking for an heir to his factory.

Wilder and Richard Pryor made for a great duo, especially in Silver Streak, a superb action comedy, where it felt like a precursor to Die Hard at times, and was just so sharply written and funny as hell. They both had this nervous energy that played off of each other well, like two outsiders finding kinship with each other. They also excelled as a blind man and a deaf man working together to solve a mystery in See No Evil, Hear No Evil though the film wasn't very good.

I hope he and Gilda Radner are reunited as souls, they seemed like a very loving and sweet couple, and their little dog too (I know this from reading an excerpt of Radner's autobiography where she talked about her adored little dog). This is just a sad loss, and I hope Wilder went peacefully.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Thoughts on An Unmarried Woman

I watched An Unmarried Woman on Netflix, a classic movie from 1978 directed by Paul Mazursky, and starring Jill Clayburgh as a divorcee learning to navigate life as her own woman. I had seen the film before and liked it, but when I watched it again, I noticed a lot of sexism that was of its time, especially from a male director of a woman's story.

Clayburgh was great in playing a charming and likable upper-class Manhattan woman whose life has been upended by her husband's affair, and she plays the stages of grief over the end of her marriage in a magnificent way, like the emotions of shock, anger, disbelief, sadness, and frustration play out one after another. Though sometimes Clayburgh was acting like Diane Keaton, and I wanted her to be more individual and not adopting Keaton's voice or mannerisms of quirky and hip 70's feminist, especially from Annie Hall.

The sexism was outstanding. Clayburgh's character is sexually harassed at work, as this sleazy guy keeps asking about her sex life and telling her to see a variety of men, and she just laughs it off. There are gratuitous shots of her topless or in her underwear that wasn't necessary, and she gets a boyfriend at the end, undercutting the message that it is ok for her to be single and to be her own woman (even if she does refuse to go with him when he goes away for the summer to Vermont). A woman director would have focused on her more emotionally, more her thought process, and not featuring her in nude shots or sleeping with men consecutively.

I have seen good films about women directed by men (Waiting to Exhale, Mother and Child, Living Out Loud) that excelled at showing a woman's emotional journey, as a multifaceted person outside of love and sex. This film was definitely a product of its time, and while it was good in showing a changing landscape of love, sex, and relationships in the 1970s, and women becoming more feminist, more independent, and more sexually free, especially compared to romantic idealism in the 1960s, it still was stuck in showing a man's view of a divorcee, seen through the lens of her being sexually liberated as her method of feminism and independence. It is a good movie, just flawed by its outdated depictions of feminism, marriage, and sexuality.