Saturday, May 25, 2013

Movie Review: The Ramen Girl

The premise of this film almost seems like something they could make a 2-minute parody trailer of for SNL: Take the Karate Kid, only the protege and mentor don't speak the same language and have the mentor regularly throw pots and other objects at said protege for seemingly no reason at all. Also, rather then make the film about karate, it's about Ramen noodles (yes, the stuff in those ready-made packets for when you're too lazy to cook pasta or practically anything else) and there's a ridiculously clunky metaphor about how the protege's broth is imperfect because she has to cook it with her heart and not her head. Hey, I didn't like it the first time when it was called "Like Water for Chocolate."

As per the language barrier, I can personally testify to how dramatically unexciting one is. My maternal grandmother lived in three countries before immigrating to the United States when she was almost 60. As as her memory has faded now that she's in her 90's, so has her ability to speak English.
I love my grandmother tremendously but there's absolutely nothing remotely interesting about my interactions with her these days. It's mostly just awkwardly standing in the room with her and failing to convey a full sentence. In other words, it would be impossible to make a compelling film about two people who don't speak the same language and in this film.

In this film, it nullifies much of the more meaningful dialogue when you realize that neither of the two main characters are understanding what the other is saying.I understand that the Japanese chef DID speak a few words and their body language went a long way, but Brittany Murphy's character, Abby, explicitly states on several occasions that she does not understand a word of her boss's instructions.

As per the point about Ramen noodles, I've been starting to understand recently that Ramen noodles is not a company that makes packets (that's Maruchan) but a style of noodles made in East Asia. In fact, a friend of mine from college has opened a Ramen noodle shop (called Toki Underground if you're in the DC area) at a relatively young age and has recently been getting publicity for it in the local newspapers which sparked my curiosity enough to see the film in the first place.

While I'm starting to come around to the idea that Ramen is an actual serious art, it was likely that the film never found in audience in America because people didn't know that about Ramen.
Brittany Murphy even admitted in an interview that "even the title is going to confuse some people who don’t live in the big cities." The film never found a wide release distributor in the USA and isn't even listed under Box Office Mojo.

The film also reminds me of Brittany Murphy's tragic death at the age of 32 in late 2009. Murphy was a favorite actress of both Roger Ebert and myself. Ebert would often defend her movies against Roper and likened her to a young Lucille Ball in one of his reviews. If it seems like we're giving her the James Dean treatment because she prematurely died at a young age, Ebert's favorable comparison is postmarked 2003. Murphy had a sweetness and fragility in her personality that carried over to whatever parts she played and with that, her presence could make even terrible films watchable.

As per the film, it's relatively satisfying film that even packs a few surprises once you get over its clinging to a very cliched plot formula. To be fair, some of this deviation from the norm is trademark Japanese weirdness.Take your pick here: The scene where Abby and another patron are giggling hysterically, the scene where Abby starts yelling "I want to cook ramen!" like a zombie and and making the kitchen ground shake despite not touching any actual pans, or the highly casual treatment of a call girl (with a very phony high society accent) being physically abused by her pimp. And this is all in the film's first twenty minutes of the film. While this film still works in its authenticity, it can also be viewed ironically in a Mystery Science Theater kind of way. You'll just have to see it for yourself.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Good bye to The Office but Not Yet

The Office is leaving the airwaves today and I'll try my best to be happy in a state of denial. I haven't watched the 30 Rock finale because, to me, if I haven't watched the end of a series, it technically hasn't happened. I will do the same  for The Office because I'm not ready to say goodbye to that show.

I first saw the British version in the Fall of 2004 when I had transferred to James Madison University as a junior and a suitemate showed me the DVDs. I instantly recognized it as a sharp piece of TV writing that could only exist in the world of British TV. Still at 12 episodes and a holiday special, it was a flash in the pan. Many might argue otherwise but I think that truly great TV coincides with longevity to some extent.

At this time, comedy on TV was in a little bit of a transitional wasteland as Frasier and Friends, the backbones of 90's comedy, had just concluded 10-year runs the past Spring and if you were female (or were unlucky enough to be romantically involved with a female who made you watch) you might also remember the Summer of 2004 as the year Sex and the City ended.

The two most popular shows left were Will and Grace and Everybody Loves Raymond. In other words, a nebbish sportswriter being bossed around by his adult parents and catty gay people (in comparison to Modern Family and Glee's more well-rounded portrayals of gays on TV)  were considered the two best options for entertainment. The next generation of shows like Entourage, Weeds and Curb Your Enthusiasm were starting to gain traction but were relegated to expensive pay-per-view channels. Arrested Development (aka the once and future savior of comedy television) was on but it was being aired at weird times (Friday nights) and it was actively being killed off by Fox. NBC clearly had so little optimism in the future of television that they're main push that Fall was the repackaged spin-off "Joey" and their only other show they had was a cheesy cartoon about lions called "Father of the Pride."

The biggest thing my friends watched was The Cartoon Network's Adult Swim which showed reruns of the newly cancelled shows Family Guy and Futurama. The biggest announcement of the year, in fact, was that that Family Guy was about to be resurrected because of it's Adult Swim popularity. Thus, the biggest TV news was a show being resurrected from the dead and not anything new.

One of the few shows I watched regularly during the 2004-2005 season was 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, not because it was novel but because it was one of the last remaining vestiges of the kind of family-oriented sitcoms I watched in my youth (plus who would have thought David Spade and James Garner would make a convincing comic duo)

When "The Office" premiered a few months later, my curiosity was piqued by Anchorman's scene-stealing Brick Tamland playing the Ricky Gervais role. The first season felt awkward, however, as Dwight was far more exaggerated than MacKenzie Crook's Garreth and Carrell's portrayal of Michael Scottcame off as obnoxious. Michael Scott was wonderfully awkward but he was just too sad of a figure and the disconnect between him and The Office, who would generally shrug him off and snicker behind his back, was too great.

A couple moments showed promise and because it literally was one of the only halfway decent things on TV, I tuned into the second season the next fall. That's when something magical happened.

The plot of the second season premiere had Michael Scott giving the Dundee Awards at the local Chili's. Go back and watch the scene and it's cringe-inducingly awkward. Michael is telling jokes that no one's laughing at, he pisses off Stanley by announcing that the meals aren't comped, poor Ryan's feeling sexually harassed after winning the "sexy temp" award, Kelly isn't laughing (she would later be flanderized to be able to laugh at anything) at the inherent racism at being awarded the spicy curry award. In the first time anyone seriously stands up to Michael, Angela flat-out refuses to accept her  "the tight-ass" award, but the moment seems overly dramatic in context.

To make matters worse, Michael is getting heckled by bar patrons and some of the warehouse guys (including Pam's fiancee Roy) decide the awards are lame and take off. In a moment of poignantly sad self-awareness, Michael realizes when to hang them up and decides to prematurely end the ceremony before things get worse. He gives his last award and just when he's about to sit down in resignation, Pam feels for her boss (who she chastised for being a jerk in the pilot episode) and comes to his rescue. Maybe it's because she's inebriated or because she feels newly liberated from standing up to Roy, but she starts cheering Kevin and egging on Michael to give more awards. The crowd follows suit and even grumpy Stanley cracks a little joke when being awarded. Pam and Jim end the night exclaiming to the documentary crew that this was the best Dundees ever.

The Office had succeeded in being awkward but that was the first time, it succeeded at having heart. It showed Michael Scott had some meaning in the lives of his underlings and that would be the core of the show.  That was when I was hooked and, even as a busy college student, treated the show as must-see viewing each week.

The Office changed the way I and all of us viewed TV. Instead of analyzing the show, we would analyze the characters as if they were real people.When I wrote up this ranking of emotional intelligence of the Office characters in my early blog days and posted it to an IMDB message board, it was a subject of endless debate. We weren't debating whether the characters were written well but the actual characters and how well off they were. Psychology students said to me on more than one occasion that they liked to discuss the show's characters because they were so real.

The Office was also visceral. It wasn't just cringeworthy but physiologically affected you: My heart raced, I tensed up, I yelled at the screen, I jumped up and down in anticipation.

As I graduated college after the second season of the show, Dunder-Mifflin shaped my expectations for what I would hope for in a real world office setting. I was hoping for a place where you might be able to loosely call your coworkers your family.

When I got my first office job, I went out to lunch with my new coworkers on the first day and asked "Is this like the Office?" They reacted as if they'd heard that question before and immediately started joking about who would be Jim, who would be Kevin, who would be Dwight, and who would be Kelly Kapur (not the first or last time I've played this parlor game). One of the most welcoming signs that my new job would be at least partially grounded in my experiences watching the Dunder-Mifflin gang was that the head of the payroll had a Dwight Bobble Head doll on her desk.

Like any series, The Office has had its low and high points but I've never seen a show recover from the doldrums so well as when it gave us the Michael Scott Paper Company arc in the 5th season. At the time, Michael's leaps and bounds out of social awkwardness were getting smaller and less interesting, and if ever Michael did do something stupid, it felt somewhat cyclical and contrived because he had likely already made that same mistake before. That's when the show decided to push Michael down and hard out of his comfort zone by having him hastily quit his job and take Ryan and Pam with him. In a world lacking job security, Michael suddenly became relatable.

Even in its blandest seasons (the Robert California one comes to mind), the show has always been capable of surprise which is why there was always good reason to keep watching after Michael Scott left. As film school rejects pointed out, the new developments this season as the Dunder-Mifflin staff learned about its fame made for good commentary about reality TV.
The internet and a number of major critics have been abuzz that The Office is not what it once was and its popularity has been greatly eclipsed by Parks and Recreations which has turned into somewhat of a critical darling. I'm thrilled that another Greg Daniels creation is finding an audience but I wouldn't call one ultimately better than the other.

Parks and Recreation and a number of great comedies have taken the airwaves at this point and many of them owe a debt to The Office. That doesn't make it easier to say goodbye to The Office. So enjoy the finale tonight, folks, I'm going to hold off a bit.  

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed: An ill-fitted romance for the ages

Hollywood  has come a long way in breaking from the molds of the storytelling conventions strictly imposed upon them in the Golden Age.

You would think that with all the diverse possibilities of  stories to tell, just a few less movies out there would be obliged to go the romantic route between its two main characters. As Todd van der Werff pointed out in this article making the case for more friendships and less romances on TV:

"The world isn’t full of potential romantic partners who constantly dance around each other; it’s full of men and women who navigate complicated friendships and find their way to happiness within those friendships."

If films are to be accurate portrayals of the different colors of life, filmdom collectively has to consider different endings to their stories. More to the point, film's lose a sense of being unpredictable if every time a man and woman make googly eyes at each other, we know where it's heading.

Case in point: Safety Not Guaranteed.

The film, about a trio of journalists who track down a store clerk who thinks he can time travel, had the makings of a good story and was without a doubt a unique tale.

It's an independent film so I would have thought that these guys had more leeway to be unconventional which is why I was baffled that they sealed off their story with a conventional romantic ending that I don't really think was organic of the relationship between the two main characters on screen.

Aubrey Plaza's Darius (why do all quirky indie movies have to give their female characters male names?) and Mark Duplass's Kenneth seemed to me to be people with holes too big to just dive into a relationship right away. Moreover, I think the film would have been just as emotionally satisfying if the two arrived at a point where Darius understood Kenneth as that would have been a long journey as is.

Despite that, the film was punctuated with an effectively pleasant aura, the movie was interesting and there's a lot to say about building a story around a "red herring" that undoubtedly works.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

2012 Animation Round-Up: Madagascar III, Wreck-It-Ralph and Internal Consistency

I know it sounds silly to say I want more realism from a film about four talking zoo animals, but Madagascar III was so far removed from any sense of internal logic or consistency that it was just plain stupid.

One might think that internal logic might not matter in a cartoon like the Madagascar series but the first Madagascar was charming because it treated hypothetical questions realistically. A thoughtfully built-out isn't trivial: It's what separates a Saturday Morning Cartoon from a smart animated film that appeals to an adult. Case in point: In the animated X-Men series, Rogue would fly and punch through walls. In The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible would have to deal with a potential lawsuit whenever he punched a wall and his superfast son has to deal with making for an even playing field when he participates in the school track team.

Very little about the first Madagascar falls out of line with reality. They even go so far as to explain why the animals can't talk: When the quartet is nearly apprehended at Grand Central Station and Alex (the lion) tries to reason with the crowd but his speaking comes out as roaring. Likewise, if we could hear the internal monologue of a lion, it would likely be a diva from all the attention it was getting. Similarly, a giraffe would naturally feel awkward and a little scared of the world with his head dangling high above the ground on top of a very thin neck. I'm not sure why a zebra would be so Chris Rockish but what matters is he's consistently Chris Rockish. This all serves the film's fish-out-of-water angle well because when they get stranded in Madagascar and they see their new environment as zoo animals would. 

The third Madagascar got so ridiculous, I eventually tuned its attempts at making sense  like white noise" We have the animals deciding to swim halfway across the planet, a tiger who can jump through a wedding ring, the circus now being run by chimpanzees and selling out to a human audience, and a lion suddenly learning the trapeze.

None of the new plot developments are particularly additive. In one, Sasha Baron Cohen's lemur monkey falls madly in love with a big bear (which by the way, is kind of gross) and the two go to the Vatican to kiss the pope's hand and get his blessing. What?! I'm not sure where the pope stands on monkey-bear unions but at least the first and second installments had a clearly spelled out humans-animals relationship.

The movie also feels rushed. It wasn't just the actual running time of 93 minutes, but the storyline weaved its way from one plot point to another at right angles with no transition. The gang decides to go to Monte Carlo and are suddenly there one scene later. One scene after that, they're being chased out of Monte Carlo and onto the next adventure. There's a weary Russian tiger played by Bryan Cranston who warns against cliches and nearly quits the circus but is talked out of it in 30 seconds by Alex. What do you call a sudden 180 reversal like that again? Oh yes, it's a cliche.

This was such a shame because while neither of the two previous Madagascar installments were groundbreaking, they were both consistently entertaining films.
On the other end of the spectrum is the other animated film I saw this past year in Wreck-It Ralph which borrows heavily from the early days of NES and arcade games from that era.

The film already has a lot going for it before we even get to the actual story: The premise of a video game villain wanting to be a hero is highly clever and the setting promises a  nostalgic trip for anyone who grew up on Nintendo.

Most importantly, the film takes a shaky premise that video game characters are sentient, and sketches out all the hypotheticals out thoroughly. The video game characters reside at an arcade and, due to the fact that all the games are plugged in through the same power strip, they're allowed to leave their games and visit other video game universes (one video game whose objective is serving of root beer serves as a popular gathering spot) after the arcade closes. The biggest fear among the characters are their games being put out of commission which would spell out an end to existence. Therefore, they have to play out their assigned roles during arcade hours, whether hero or villain, or else the arcade player will complain about the game malfunctioning and the game will be shut down.

As for the film, Wreck-It-Ralph delivers thoroughly and I highly recommend it. It's got heart, it's interesting, and the visuals are wonderful. My only two complaints are 1) The cybugs are way too scary for a kid's movie. The 9-year-old version of me would have had nightmares for weeks and the current version of me found them a bit creepy and unsettling even if I was nightmare-free. 2) Jack McBrayer is a bit miscast as the hero character and even more miscast as a suitor to the commando played by Jane Lynch. Can you imagine Kenneth the Page and Sue Sylvester hooking up  with each other in any universe?

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Proof of Life: The book vs. the movie Part II

Part I Here

I rewatched "Proof of Life" the film and the book drew connections between characters and turned a good yet flawed film into a spectacular narrative. It feels like the author of the book reverse engineered the script to make it appear as though this 3-star movie came from a 4-star source. 

Case in point: In one scene near the beginning of the film, protagonist Alice Bowman is at a party with her husband before he's eventually kidnapped by a Colombian paramilitary faction (the plot of the story) and one of the two ballroom dancers takes her hand and asks her to dance. 

In the book, it's explained that she takes his invitation because she's been feeling distant from her husband as he's gotten more involved with his work and when he starts getting enraptured in the conversation, she partially accepts the dance invitation from the stranger because she wants to make her husband notice her more. 

It's later revealed that the person who asked her to dance is actually the hostage negotiator leading a double life and Russell Crowe's character, Terry Thorne, suspects that he was planted at the party to get a better read on the couples. 

That's a twist that's not covered in the book. 

Additionally, the dynamics of the Alice-Terry relationship is changed once you read the book. The story presents a very interesting love triangle in that Terry is fully committed to saving Alice's husband and the plot is about Alice and her husband reuniting but there's a strong relationship that's also developing between Terry and Alice and neither one of these two relationships of Alice are treated as invalid or wrong in the face of the other. In the movie, a forbidden kiss at the end is what all the sexual tension leads up to. In the book, that sexual tension is expanded on and it's revealed that Terry had those rather instant feelings for her the moment he saw her and had to consciously fight them off the whole time even when he's giving the outward appearance that he cares about his job. 

One thing that makes the film weaker in comparison to the book is Meg Ryan.  Alice is too complex of a character- her conflicting feelings towards two men, her determination, her sense of quiet fear-for anyone but the best of actresses to portray. When Alice Bowman expresses cautious surprise at Terry's arrival or when she says her penultimate line "You have to know how much you mean to me, you know that", neither of those moments are sufficiently convincing. At the same time, my opinion of the adaptation would surely be changed with a better actress.

The film makes it seem like Russell Crowe locked lips with Meg Ryan pretty much because he's Russell Crowe and she's Meg Ryan and that's what they inevitably do. The drama behind that kiss (and a one night stand that's added to the book and better explains why the kiss isn't accompanied by conversation) isn't fully realized in the book because it doesn't explain that Crowe broke his own code for her and what was at stake for him. 

Of course that's inevitable since books can more easily fill in inner monologue, but that's better served here. 

Bottom line:
I'm not suggesting that all books are better than movies: I'm obviously a movie person. I AM suggesting that THIS book is better than the movie despite the bias against it since it came after the film.