Café Lumière (2003)
Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano. Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Ho. Japanese with English subtitles.
When the credits rolled at the conclusion of Café Lumière, I wasn’t sure what I’d been watching for an hour and forty-three minutes, but I knew I liked it. Most of the film is absent any music; its soundtrack is the ambient sounds of Tokyo’s trains, train stations, street traffic, and background conversation. Interior scenes are in small spaces where camera angles seem not to be chosen for the way they frame the characters, but for available space the camera operator can squeeze into, and if that means seeing the backs of everyone’s heads and no faces, that’s okay. Exterior shots follow Yoko through streets and across train platforms, but from a distance, allowing passing traffic to obscure our view for half a minute in some places. There are very few jump-cuts within scenes, there is very little camera movement, and there are no point-of-view shots. Film-making the way our prehistoric forebears did it while living in caves.
There’s kind of a plot, and there are themes, but director Hsiao-Hsien Ho does his best to lead you to them gently, without exposition or voiceover. It’s a film that encourages repeat viewings, and your takeaway could be different the first couple of times you watch it. I saw it on a DVD whose special features included interviews with Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, and Tadanobu Asano, a notable Japanese action movie star who plays that Asian-looking, butt-kicking warrior in the Thor films. They are asked to share their favorite scene from the film, and they both say their favorite scenes never made the final cut. One gets the feeling that if a scene was too memorable, it was left out for fear of taking over the film’s overall impression. What we’re left with are quiet scenes of characters in small spaces where it seems impossible for characters not to connect, and large spaces where there is always something physical separating them.
The main character is Yoko Inoue, a young writer researching a 1930s Taiwanese composer who worked most of his life in Japan and married a Japanese woman. She lives in a tiny apartment some distance from her parents, and spends a lot of her time on trains. Whether trains are merely a mode of transportation or something else isn’t clear, but trains are a dominant motif throughout the film. A young man who may be merely a friend or possibly a romantic interest works in a used bookstore, spending his free time recording ambient train station sounds on his mini-disc player.
The film is probably best left for each viewer to examine for him- or herself, so I’ll leave it there, with the advice to see it more than once, and to look at the supplemental material if you have access to it. And then message me so we can talk about it, because I’d love to know what others think.
While it has certain sensibilities in common with American mumblecore films, Café Lumière lacks the low-fi approach those movies embrace—there is nothing low-fi or DIY about the deliberate way it is put together. It’s a quiet film that takes its time and refuses to hammer its ideas into your skull, and it’s rather a terrific movie.
I’m an Apple guy, when I can afford to be. For decades, Apple hasn’t done everything right, but it has done things the right way. We’re talking about lifestyle hardware here, necessary tools for daily living, yes, but also stuff we have to interact with on personal levels. PC manufacturers’ approach, before they figured out they had to do at least a few things in Apple’s spirit, was to focus on utility: technology as a tool. Apple looked at it differently: technology as style, personality, and relationship. Early Macs actually smiled at you when you turned them on. As I used to tell my students, a PC is a tool. A Mac is a friend. And that’s been the dividing line, most of the time, between PC people and Mac people. As a guy who likes to roll my sleeves up and get my hands dirty with my technology, I totally get the PC appeal. I want to pop open the back and move things around. I like PCs. But most of the time, I want to interface with my tech.
So Macs. Then iPods. Then iPhones. Then iPads. Then iWatches. With a focus on design and interoperability (plug any Apple device into a Mac, and they know what to do), Apple keeps giving us solutions to problems before we’re even aware we have problems. It’s why the other manufacturers always seem to be playing catch-up. I will save my treatise on Apple’s M7 motion coprocessor (now on M9 and soon to be on M10) for another day, but that’s a huge example of what I’m talking about, something most Android devices are still not caught up with, something that solved a problem with a new trend — fitness tracking — before people knew it was a problem.
This is why it breaks my heart to say this, but Samsung’s new phone is the first gigantic leap in smartphone technology I can think of that Apple didn’t come up with, and it’s a huge disappointment. Besides the fear of losing a smartphone, what stresses people out about their phones most? Two things: dropping them in water, and dropping them on a hard surface.
Water is such a big deal that when an iPhone isn’t working and you bring it to a Genius Bar, the first thing they ask you after “What seems to be the problem?” is “Did you get it wet?” And because people know water is the enemy and a sure sign of negligence, they often lie about it. That’s why every iPhone has a water indicator on each end of the phone. The Genius looks into a hole at the top of the phone and another at the bottom to confirm or refute your claims about getting it wet.
The other fear, dropping it on a hard surface, remains a challenge, although I’ve read that the new Gorilla Glass is nearly indestructible. I admit I don’t know much about this detail yet.
Weirdly, I follow on Snapchat two women who were invited to the Note 7 previews, one in New York (Samsung flew her from her home in Alabama or Arkansas to New York without telling her what she was going to participate in, and of course she Snapchatted the whole thing, which is why she was invited in the first place) and one in Manila, and the previews were on the same day. And the big reveal, in case you haven’t heard, is that the Note 7 is waterproof as deep as five feet (or so; I don’t know the exact number, but I know it’s deeper than a bathtub or sink). These two women, half a world away from each other, got to demo the phone under water, using some cool apps designed specifically to show off this feature. Not only did the phone survive under water, it was usable under water. Snapchatting underwater. Swiping and finger-sketching on the phone’s glass surface, underwater. And then, of course, participants in the preview got to take their new Note 7s home for use right away, weeks before the big rollout later this month (perhaps later this week, even).
I honestly can’t think of a single more significant improvement on the original iPhone’s design than this, because it addresses a bigger problem with the technology than any other, except maybe the shattered glass. Every other improvement in these ten years — the better swiping, the better cameras, the bigger or smaller screens, the thinner designs, the improved voice commands, or anything else — simply made the experience better. It didn’t actually remove one of the two biggest (easiest) ways to break it. I suppose the case can be made for Find My Phone, but I’m not buying. A phone you can get wet.
I’m not in any position to make the switch any time soon, and I probably wouldn’t anyway, but come on, Apple. This should have been your thing. Now copy the idea and get on that shattered glass problem, and maybe all will be forgiven.
Craft Beer in Japan (2016)
Directed by Maarten Roos and John Lobreglio.
Craft Beer in Japan is a 28-minute, made-for-TV documentary exploring the niche market in Japan for craft beer. In the United States, craft beers have a twelve percent share of the beer market; in Japan, they claim only one percent, which our host sees as a possible opportunity for craft brewers. He interviews brewmasters, cultural historians, and beer lovers as they break down Japan’s turning beer into its own thing, no longer merely a borrowed beverage from other cultures. Craft brewers are exploring bonita flakes, yuzu, and shiso leaves; brew pubs are pairing beers with specific Japanese dishes; fans are learning to appreciate beer the way they’ve always appreciated sake.
It’s a pretty good skim, but I would have appreciated another 28 minutes to get a little deeper and to spend more time hearing about the beer itself. As it is, it’s an interesting, thirst-inspiring look.
Fantastic Four (2015)
Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson. Directed by Josh Trank.
The 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four was presumably supposed to rejuvenate the franchise. It seems instead to have used the 2005 film as the baseline for finding new ways to be bad. While some aspects are certainly better—Miles Teller as Reed Richards the most striking—this new attempt is good where the first film was bad, and bad where the first film was good. It’s not a winning approach.
Reed Richards, a high-school student who’s been working for years with his friend Ben Grimm on a teleporter, enters his project in the school science fair. Although the exhibition is a failure, he’s worked out one detail that’s been evading Franklin Storm and his teenaged science prodigies at the government-sponsored Baxter Foundation. Dr. Storm and his daughter Sue somehow happen to be at the science fair, and seeing that Richards’s machine brings things back from wherever they’re teleported, offer him a scholarship.
The Baxter Foundation is what Richards has always yearned for: not only access to expensive equipment and time to work with it, but a social admiration for the talents that have always alienated him. We’ve seen this same setup before, with Harry Potter and Ender Wiggin (for example), so there’s good dramatic gold to be mined here, but the film instead hurries through a rivalry with Victor Von Doom and a romantic interest in Sue Storm to get the bodies into the transporter and the mutations into the bodies. We get cursory character development (although Sue’s proclivity for recognizing patterns is an intriguing idea that could have worked) and absolutely no meaningful sense of place or wonder. Nor do we get any real emotional buildup for Richards.
What we get instead are ridiculous visual effects, a dumb story, and worst of all, no relationship development with the heroes. The one visual effect that’s cooler than in 2005 is the rendering of the Human Torch, which looks pretty much just like the comic book character.
The acting is somewhat better, but the actors aren’t given enough to work with. Miles Teller is a Reed Richards I could have believed in, if only the film had made an effort to let Teller do what he does, which is relate. There is nothing between Sue and Reed except a vaguely defined intellectual admiration that never turns into a spark, which is another waste, because although Kate Mara is no Jessica Alba, she could have been sexy in a completely different way for the likes of Richards. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm is fine. Jamie Bell and Toby Kebbell as Ben Grimm and Victor Von Doom are completely forgettable.
- What was the subject of one of your memorable YouTube holes?
I don’t really get into video on the web for some reason. I never have. Yet I do get sucked in once every so often, most recently for a bunch of John Oliver videos, which led to some stand-up from comics I like, which led to some concert videos of Epica and Anthrax. I like looking at multiple concert performances of the same song, through the years and even within the same tour.
- What was your most recent Wikipedia hole like?
So. I’m one of those weirdos who reads a lot of back-end Wikipedia stuff, like nominations for adminstator status, and debates about the Wikipedia Style Manual. A few nights ago, I wasted hours (hours!) following the conversation and backstory of this request for adminship. It was an enormous, ridiculous waste of time. And it led to other conversations about similar rejected requests by other users. It’s a different world, the world of Wikipedia editing, and I’m fascinated by sub-surface cultures like this.
- What’s a recipe you got from the internet and actually prepared? How did it turn out?
I have a bread machine, and almost every recipe I try is from the recipe sites. The most recent was for cocoa-walnut bread, which I made without the walnuts. It came out pretty good. I left the milk out (my pantry’s getting a little sparse), so it wasn’t chocolatey; it was cocoaey, and surprisingly went really well with some balsamic vinegar.
- What apparently little-known website do you enjoy?
I’m a deep admirer of the Four Word Film Review, especially its Top Reviews section, which has occasionally had me laughing to the verge of tears. I’ve submitted eight reviews myself, all of which have been declined. I use this as a gauge of my cleverness.
- What apparently popular website can you just not get into?
I have difficulty getting into Reddit, which is weird because so many people use it as their homepage, their go-to first-look website every day. I have an account there and have a few groups subscribed, but it’s more of a once-in-a-while visit for me. More often, I’ll go there when I’m looking for specific information. Just not a fan.
As a young voter, I leaned right mostly because smaller government made more sense to me. It still does. I can’t say with any certainty, but I suspect two pieces of my experience helped shape that.
The first is this lifelong tendency not to trust establishments. I do not know where this came from, whether it was identifying with my earliest sports heroes, Muhammad Ali and Ken Stabler (still my favorite football player of all time, and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame just a few days ago, eighteen months after his death), or my early experiences with being a misfit, but it did become clear to me at a young age that rules are used by people with power in unfair, inconsistent, arbitrary ways. This lens didn’t color my thoughts about politics until I was an adult, and not fully until the Gulf War made me question all kinds of things I’d always taken for granted about our nation’s role in this world.
The second is my early experience with charities. It started with Scouting, of course, and its emphasis on moral development and community service. We did a lot of community service, some of it difficult, and we did it with good intentions and willing hearts. You can say what you want about the BSA, and it will deserve most of it, but I have to say that unless you were in a troop like mine, you just don’t have the full picture. We had good leaders and good parents, and we learned a lot about service to others because of them.
As a teen, I was also involved in church stuff (another institution that deserves its dodgy reputation) and community service groups at school. You know how high school class rings often have a school side and a pick-a-theme side, where the whole class gets the same thing on one side of the ring and each students picks from a list of pre-designed themes for the other? I chose school service for my theme, a weird design you couldn’t have interpeted just by looking, which I also kind of liked. I mean, you look at a basketball side or an Aquarius side (really? horoscopes matter that much to some young people?) and you know what it is. You could never tell what mine was supposed to be.
In the most critical year of my developing the political views I still hold, I took a job in a youth shelter, a private agency that received a lot of its funding from the state. It was a short stint — six or eight months — but I learned so much good and bad stuff about what people do to each other, and how social service agencies help people who aren’t as blessed as I am, and how the state plays a part (also good and bad) in providing this help. I met a hundred young men and women, all of them teens, who were the victims (yes, victims) of bad decisions by people who were supposed to be responsible for them. Later, when I finally earned my Bachelor’s degree, I returned to the same organization in a different position, working instead with teens who had been arrested for status offenses (runaway status, truant status, curfew violation) and minor crimes (mostly shoplifting), not exactly victims of anyone’s bad decisions but their own, but still in need of meaningful guidance if they would accept it.
That year of the first go-around with the agency was the year of the Bush-Clinton election, the year of Hawaii’s most recent hurricane, the year we in this state finally started talking about gay marriage, the year I secretly took a semester off from school to figure out what the heck I wanted to do with myself, and the year I resolved to drop everything and focus only on my education in Hilo, a short flight but a million miles away.
I can’t remember what sparked it, but it seemed that I was suddenly involved in conversations about gay marriage.
I do remember when I was introduced to the concept. In my eighth grade year (and I might be fuzzy on the details, which I will explain in a second), the radio station my dad and I listened to on the way to dropping me off at school interviewed a different gubernatorial candidate every day. It was a memorable election because the incumbent was challenged by his own lieutenant governor, by the long-time former Honolulu mayor running as an independent, and by a prominent local businessman. To the station’s credit, it offered equal interview time to candidates further down the ballot, including a guy named Frank DeCambra.
He was in favor of legalizing marijuana. He was in favor of gay marriage. I was only thirteen, but I knew even then that this guy was talking about stuff the other candidates weren’t even mentioning, stuff I hadn’t even heard of. I hate to say this, but I laughed. I couldn’t believe this guy, and it’s why I remember his name. The thing is, I’m almost certain that he mentioned being a Libertarian, something I also had never heard of. The Wikipedia article I’ve linked says he ran as a Democrat. I asked my dad if Libertarian was a real thing. I had heard of the Communist Party, but that was the first I’d heard of other parties out there besides the usual two plus the Communists.
Wherever you are, Frank DeCambra, I owe you an apology. Your interview on the radio was in no way influential on my thinking, but I have always remembered it as my introduction to a few very important things. You got .32% *(yes, that’s POINT thirty-two percent) of the vote in the Democratic primary (hey, that was good enough for fourth!). If you’d run a few years later, you probably would have received my vote, too.
This story continues.
Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco. Directed by David O. Russell.
I’ve now seen four films directed by David O. Russell, and they are all better than they should be, but they’re probably a bit overrated at the same time. Of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, only American Hustle is consistently good, with strong performances by every actor and a story that looks on paper like something to make a movie out of.
This is why the synopsis of Joy doesn’t matter much: with a Russell film, it’s not really the story that sticks with you. It’s the acting, direction, dialogue, and feeling you leave the theater with. Since Joy has many of Russell’s crew (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro), there was reason to think it could be at least as good as those last three.
But it’s not. Perhaps Amy Adams is the missing ingredient.
Joy’s failure is not Lawrence’s fault. She’s her usual, dependable, thoughtful self, somehow making Russell’s terrible dialogue believable where the other actors can’t. I get what Russell’s trying to do—he sets the film up as a fairy tale (complete with step-sister, step-parents, and Cinderella motifs galore), and he includes a voice-over narration by Diane Ladd (who plays Joy’s grandmother) that sounds like a fairy tale, and he gives the actors lines that sound like lines from a bedtime story, which all sounds like it could work, but none of it does. Except the Jennifer Lawrence stuff.
Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, the real-life inventor of the Miracle Mop, a mop you can wring without putting your hands on the mop head. Her ex-husband still lives in her basement, her father moves back in whenever he’s between girlfriends, her mom stays in bed all day watching soap operas, and her step-sister takes every opportunity to make her feel like crap. But someone has a connection to this new TV shopping network thing, and Joy puts everything on the line to chase happily-ever-after.
The movie would suck if not for Lawrence’s meaningful grasp on her character, which she best displays when interacting with anyone whose name is not on the movie poster. It’s a small role, but Dascha Polanco (she’s Dayanara Diaz in Orange is the New Black) as Joy’s best friend since childhood is the only actor who seems to exist in the same plane as Lawrence, so when they’re sharing screen time, the movie feels real and normal. Just about every other scene feels like those weird infomercials hosted by actors you used to admire: strange, meaningless, and kind of sad.
Life After Beth (2014)
Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, Cheryl Hines, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Garry Marshall, Alia Shawkat. Written and directed by Jeff Baena.
Life After Beth is a silly, semi-stupid zombie movie, and even though I’m tired of zombies and their recent ubiquity in entertainment media, I felt it my duty to watch it because c’mon it has Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick in it, and Cheryl Hines too, and any one of those sweet actresses is reason enough to see anything, and—I’m not kidding—it really isn’t that bad, with kind of an engaging story and a really sweet emotional payoff despite its grim and sorta gruesome plot, so as long as you’re not expecting anything great, you might find this enjoyable, especially if you love Anna Kendrick the way I do, because she’s the highlight even though she’s only in two scenes for a total of about five minutes of screen time.
Fantastic Four (2005)
Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, Kerry Washington. Directed by Tim Story.
I was not a comic-book reader when I was a kid, but every so often a stack of comics fell into my hands, either through some friend who had them lying around, or some family known to my parents who was shipped away by the Navy, leaving behind a box of books. While I remember very little of what I read, I do remember that most often, the stack would contain more issues of Fantastic Four than anything else. This means that I came to 2005’s Fantastic Four film with no real memory of—but a definite fondness for—its characters.
The makers of this movie did their best to erase even that. Ridiculously bad dialog, stiff acting, and more cheese than a chalupa turn what could have been a pretty good experience into little more than something to get through so I could mail the DVD back in time to get something good before the weekend.
Reed Richards thinks human evolution was triggered by clouds of cosmic energy from space. A bunch of these clouds are scheduled to approach Earth soon, but he has no funding to study them. Accompanied by his friend Ben Grimm (an astronaut I think he knows from days at MIT), he begs much wealthier MIT acquaintance Victor Von Doom for funding and facilities. Von Doom is also Reed’s romantic rival for the affections of Sue Storm, who now works in Von Doom’s company. The project is green-lit, and Richards,Grimm, Von Doom, Storm, and Storm’s younger brother Johnny leap into space to begin their study.
There’s an accident, and all five are exposed to the cosmic energy, some worse than others, resulting in mutations leaving Richards with a stretchable body, Grimm with a body seemingly made completely of stone, Sue with powers of invisibility and energy manipulation, Johnny with the ability to set himself on fire (and fly), and Von Doom with (I think) a body made of some super metal.
It’s not a bad setup, but within ten minutes of the opening credits, I was already wondering if I would make it to the end. Not only are there ridiculous amounts of space between lines in the dialog as if the actors are being fed their script through an earpiece first and then directed to repeat them for the camera, but characters are made to say stupid things, sometimes to let you in on what they’re thinking in ways nobody ever speaks, and sometimes to tell you the meaning of what you just witnessed, in case you’re an idiot.
Of the actors, only Michael Chiklis looks like he didn’t just see the script moments before filming his scenes, and I can’t tell how much of his character is him and how much is CGI, so it’s possible I’m crediting the wrong person here. Everyone else—and I mean everyone—is just awful, but Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic is the worst of all, ridiculously stiff (ironic, considering his character’s super powers), lost, and out of place. Chris Evans as the Human Torch usually adds lightness and ease to overly dramatic scripting, so I guess he gets a little bit of a pass for his sometimes awkward timing, and Jessica Alba is very pretty, but not pretty enough to make up for what I hope is a low point in her oeuvre.
What keeps the movie from being a total disaster is the dynamic of the characters. With their completely different skills, they do some pretty neat things in averting a bridge disaster one of them actually causes, and then in defeating Dr. Doom in the film’s climax. Bringing the comic book characters to life for the big screen was a great idea, so someone deserves props for making it happen. The heroes are interesting enough to rise above the actors who portray them, but only high enough to put this just north of must-miss.
Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Jon Favreau. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson.
Daredevil is quite a bit better than I expected. I missed it in theaters because I didn’t know a thing about the comic book hero, and because I didn’t know Jennifer Garner was in it. It turns out to be nicely dark—darker even than the Dark Knight series—with interesting fight sequences and an intriguing romance-driven plot. I’m disappointed there isn’t a sequel with the same protagonist.
Ben Affleck plays Matt Murdock, a lawyer blind since childhood, who takes clients who can’t always pay in cash. The office he shares with his partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau) is crammed with sports equipment and other items received as payment for the firm’s services. The accident that took Murdock’s sight also left his other senses extremely heightened, in a super power kind of way. He can’t see, but his hearing is so acute that it serves as kind of a radar, so he can judge shapes and distances through (I suppose) echolocation. These super senses, combined with a restless, reckless need for justice, serve him at night, when he dons a costume and fights crime as a mysterious, mythical character named Daredevil. I have long thought that Ben Affleck doesn’t get enough credit for his acting chops, and he does better than an apt job with this role.
That’s pretty cool, but add a few details, and you really have something. Murdock lives in the stony, unlit basement of an old Catholic church, sleeping in a water-filled sarcophagus that acts as a sensory deprivation chamber. He has no family, and his father’s murder is unsolved many years later. He literally smells attractive women before they enter a building, and he has some nicely honed moves for getting to know them. I have often wondered why superheroes in these films are never horndogs—I mean, given their abilities and their abundance of testosterone, it seems like a natural thing. Now I’ve seen two in three weeks who seem to enjoy the company of women (the other is Deadpool, but we see this before he has any powers, so he’s not employing his advantages). There’s also a short Kevin Smith appearance I appreciated.
I love Jennifer Garner, so my opinion here is disproportionately influenced by my affection, but her smart, tough, feline portrayal of Elektra Natchios, who seems able to keep up with Murdock, makes the film work. She’s a great love interest for him, and an obvious choice for the spinoff series we never got. Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell as the villains are fine, but the characters are (and I realize I shouldn’t complain about this in a comic book movie) silly and cartoonish.
This could have been the beginning of a great series. As it is, it’s like watching a great TV show pilot and never getting to see any other episodes: promising but just a bit flat.