Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Twilight Samurai

Directed by Yôji Yamada. Written by Shûhei Fujisawa (novels), Yôji Yamada (screenplay), and Yoshitaka Asama (screenplay). Starring Hiroyuki Sanada (Seibei Iguchi), Rie Miyazawa (Tomeo Iinuma), and Nenji Kobayashi (Choubei Kusaka).

Bottom line: If I were to pick two words to describe The Twilight Samurai, they would be “taste” and “moderation” which are two very good words in my book.

Sheesh, it’s been a while since my last review. For that, I apologize. I might be getting a new computer so I’ll be able to make a video review more easily (not to suggest my tardiness is a result of anything but me). Any-who, onto The Twilight Samurai!

The Twilight Samurai is a story, set at the turn of the century, about a petty samurai father, Seibei (Sanada), narrated by his then five-year-old daughter. Seibei’s wife died of consumption leaving him to care for his dementia stricken mother, and two daughters. Seibei is of the samurai class though he works as a bureaucrat in the castle stores for a meager salary. IMDB summarizes the film as, “A 19th-century samurai tries to protect a battered wife.” This is only a minor plot point in the film. We follow him as he experiences tests of character with regard to his desires, his aspirations, and his duties to the clan.

Now, this may be an embarrassing testament to my general ignorance of international movies but I mistook this for another film. There is a popular samurai series about Zatoichi (aka “The Blind Swordsman”) that follows the adventures of, as you can probably guess, a wandering Samurai who is blind. According to Wikipedia, a total of 26 films were made in the ‘60’s featuring this character. I thought that The Twilight Samurai was that. Clearly, any samurai movie is an action movie, right? Sigh, it sounds even more embarrassing when I write it. In my defense, the film The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi came out in 2003. The Twilight Samurai is, in fact, a serious and really good drama. It won just about every Japanese film award possible and it’s not too surprising.

The acting is fabulous, the cinematography is beautiful, and the music and sound are just as good. I’m generally not a fan of narration. “Show me, don’t tell,” I think when I hear a narrator but I’ve certainly heard worse narration than that of The Twilight Samurai’s. I’m also generally not a fan of children in movies (read: I generally loathe them in movies) but Seibei’s daughters are adorable. They play a large part in the motivations of Seibei but they don’t play a large part in the movie. They are there just enough to work their way into your heart and make you sympathize with Seibei; one can understand why he wants to stay at home, take care of them, and watch them grow.

Overall, The Twilight Samurai is a very good movie. To my chagrin, I went in expecting a hack and slash but was enthralled by the story presented in front of me. It’s happy and sad at the same time, and despite being a very Japanese movie, as an American, I found it accessible. By accessible, I mean that some movies use specific of cultural cues that either go over my head or don’t jive with my American state of mind. I’ll get more into detail about what I mean but it requires giving away some spoilers. This all said, I’d recommend The Twilight Samurai to someone interested in watching a more serious movie about the self and society and family. The only reason why I didn’t give it a four out of four is because of some details surrounding the ending (which I will discuss next). Now, mind yourself of spoilers from here on out.

I mentioned that The Twilight Samurai was a very Japanese movie. In my experiences with Japanese movies, there are some recurring themes, namely, responsibility to one’s duty particularly with respect to community versus the self. In The Twilight Samurai, we see this through Seibei and his interactions with his clan.

A friend of Seibei comes back from Edo (the capital city which was later renamed Tokyo) and offers to take him there for a promotion. Seibei respectfully declines saying that his dream is to eventually give up the title of Samurai and become a farmer with his daughters; he doesn’t want to rise up in class because he’s happy and content. Despite this desire to become a farmer, he is tasked with the job of killing a criminal samurai. The criminal was ordered to commit suicide but didn’t, saying, “If you want me dead, you’ll have to do it yourself.” The criminal samurai is the best one-sword fighter in the clan so it’s a high-risk task. Seibei attempts to defer the “honor” or responsibility to someone else but, eventually, accepts because it’s his duty to follow the orders of the clan. The film doesn’t stop at the “following orders” image. He accepts the task but reveals that he was going to let the criminal samurai escape to the mountains.

A while ago, I reviewed The Shonen Merikansak. It’s a movie about a washed-up punk band that reunites. The movie seemed say, “Yeah, I wanna rock, so let’s rock.” The last shot of the movie, however, undermines that whole message. It changes to “Yeah, I wanna rock, but let’s be serious and get back to work after this bit of fun.” The Twilight Samurai contains the theme of duty but still gives Seibei the strength to balance responsibility to one’s post with responsibility to one’s moral code. Seibei explains that he intended on letting the criminal escape to the mountains.

Unfortunately, the film takes an easy way out. After all, what would happen if he let the guy escape? What type of repercussions would he face? If he said that he let the guy go, Seibei would totally be executed. Well, we don’t have to worry about it because the criminal samurai says, “I will escape…after I kill you.” Conveniently, Seibei must defend himself and is thus rewarded with money, and his dream wife. Is it a deal breaker? No, it reminds me of my reaction to The Dead Poet Society.

Again, I’m sorry, for the hiatus from writing. I’ll try to get into more of a rhythm; I’ve seen a bunch of movies recently, I’ve just not made the time to write about them. But, in any case, what do you think? I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen or are going to see the new Star Wars movie. I haven’t had the chance to but I hope to soon. If I don’t write again in the next couple days, I hope you had a Merry Christmas and have a happy New Year! Thanks for reading – I really appreciate it!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Shaun the Sheep

Written and directed by Mark Burton, and Richard Starzak. Also written by Nick Park. Starring Justin Fletcher (Shaun/Timmy), John Sparkes (The Farmer/Bitzer), and Omid Djalili (Trumper).

Bottom line: Really cute, happy, and fun though it works better as episodic shows rather than a full length movie

Shaun the Sheep is a full-length movie from the makers of Wallace and Gromit. I didn’t realize, until later, that this was based off of a show of the same name. In retrospect, it makes sense why it is named Shaun the Sheep: The Movie.

The film opens with a montage of the daily routine of the sheep, the farmer, and his dog. It’s day after day of the same thing. After a while, the sheep get tired of the monotony. With their adorable and charismatic leader, Shaun, the sheep hatch an innocent plan to get a little vacation. They just want to trick the farmer into thinking it’s still night time so he stays asleep. Unfortunately, the plan goes awry and the farmer finds himself in the “Big City” with amnesia. Shaun, his fluffy friends, and the farmer’s dog have to find a way to rescue the farmer, all while avoiding the hazards of city life, most notably the Animal Control Guy.

The animation is the main component of Shaun the Sheep and it’s wonderful. It’s colorful and soft but expressive and cute. There are a number of fabulous little details like a bit of a tongue to emote concentration or making the eyes feel slightly more open to show surprise. Over the past couple years, I’ve been slowly warming up to Claymation as a medium but this seals the deal. I love it.

I always forget how important sound is to a movie until I see a movie with really good sound. Shaun the Sheep is one such movie. The buzz of clippers, the sound of water, and the rustle of fabric really add to the experience.

Shaun the Sheep has little to no dialog; it’s more of a pantomime but with the characters saying gibberish. Like the sound, the lack of dialog makes Shaun the Sheep more fun and forces you to focus on the animation. There are a couple of exceptions like the music. There are a couple of songs played at different points in the movie that have English lyrics. I wouldn’t have considered this but, because there is no dialog, I subconsciously latched onto the English lyrics and it felt forced. I think it would’ve been more successful if they sang in gibberish or simply had instrumentals.

I found the TV Show on Amazon TV Prime or whatever it’s called. It’s available for streaming there. In the case of the TV show, each episode is broken down into independent segments. I like this format. How much complexity do you really need after all? The show is about cute little sheepies doing cute little sheepie things.

To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to this movie. The trailer seemed to highlight burp jokes and crude humor but, fortunately, they weren’t a major part of the film. (Of course they were still there).

Overall, I’d recommend Shaun the Sheep. I’d definitely recommend the show. I’d give the show a 3.5/4 instead of the movies 3/4 because the characters and “plot” lend itself to a segmented show but, with this in mind, I still really enjoyed the movie. The animation is adorable, the sound is great, and the story is ok. Before ending this review, I’d like to mention something else that I liked but, mind yourself of spoilers for this next part.

From the introduction, where we watch Shaun and his friends grow weary of their routine, there was a little knot of dread in my stomach. How were they going to handle the ending? When the Shaun and company gets the farmer back, what were they going to do? Were they going to say, “We had our adventure but let’s get back to what we truly like, the routine?” That would be really depressing!

But it was such a relief when they tore up the schedule and went to the park. Sure, they would still probably have to do stuff, it is a farm after all, but the relationship between the farmer and his sheep had development to something greater than it was at the beginning of the movie. It’s that relationship is part of a larger point that I’d also like to discuss.

There is a really pleasant sense of humor in Shaun the Sheep (both the film and show). It isn’t malicious (the sheep don’t resent the farmer or do any mean tricks) but there isn’t a particular hesitancy when performing tricks or carrying out schemes. One episode, for example, Shaun kicks a soccer ball into the farmer’s kitchen and see’s a bunch of cakes and deserts. He gets the soccer ball, a couple bites of cake and then grabs a bunch of deserts for his friends. I suppose it’s stealing but it feels so innocent. It’s like there is this laid back attitude towards everything that I find really relaxing. Sure, they shouldn’t be eating the sweets but, it’s ok; the farmer had a ton and he can easily make more.

Have you seen Shaun the Sheep (the movie or the TV show)? Again, the TV show is on Amazon and, if you have Prime, it is free to stream. I’d highly recommend them both. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

12 O’Clock Boys

Written and directed by Lotfy Nathan. Starring Pug, Coco, Steven.
Bottom line: 12 O’Clock Boys illuminates a complex social atmosphere in North Baltimore but it does so in a way that feels incomplete, not to mention a little exploitative.

12 O’Clock Boys is the name of a motorcycle group (one might argue that they aren’t quite a gang) in North Baltimore. Their name arises from the fact that when they do wheelie’s (that is, riding on the back wheel of their motorcycles) their wheels are straight up and down like the hands of a clock.

12 O’Clock Boys is also the name of a documentary which follows Pug, a thirteen-year-old kid who wants to eventually join the illustrious (or notorious, depending on who you ask) aforementioned group.

Many documentaries I’ve seen about gangs focus strictly on the gang: its origin, current members, former members, and police. 12 O’Clock Boys incorporates those but, as it follows the development of Pug, we come to see the larger ecosystem of Baltimore; not only do we see the gang and its relationship with the police but also we get to see how the gang operates with Baltimore and the poorer districts of the city, and even its relationship with future members, i.e. children.

Pug’s home life is such that I can see how one might be drawn to the 12 O’clock Boys and the resulting sense of community. It’s kinda sad to watch over the course of the movie how Pug gravitates towards an angrier lifestyle. He wanted to become a veterinarian and he had a bunch of pets but by the end of the movie he says that he wants to become a dogcatcher (I suppose because it sounds tougher). It’s too bad too because, when he talks about animals, he sounds rather knowledgeable about them.

I read in an interview that Pug and his mother participated in the documentary because they wanted to shed light on the group. If people had a place to ride their bikes, like a park, they argue, then the problems would go away. But, is that really the case? Thinking about this is one of the more interesting questions to come out of the movie.

On one hand we have the founding members saying that they just wanted to ride, because when they ride they forget about their problems, yadda yadda yadda. Former and current members interviewed, insist that the gang doesn’t do anything like guns or drugs or whatnot; they just want to ride their bikes. And, yet, they break traffic laws and intentionally ride past the police department to exacerbate the already tenuous relationship with the police.

We see Pug practicing with a child-size ATV and, eventually, in the park on his dirt bike. The plan is always to practice and ride until he gets to the point where he can ride with the group in the streets. There’s the rub.

What would the dynamic be if the group had a venue for their riding? Would it be the same or is part of it the experience breaking the law?

At one point, the group is riding up and down a street and in a nearby park when the police come. The environment is electrified by the clash between the bikers and the police. So it’s not “just about riding,” but the movie doesn’t really explore what it really is about.

If you’ve read my previous reviews, you might recall that I generally dislike children in movies. More often than not, it’s a cheap way to force an emotional response from audiences. 12 O’Clock Boys is pushing it. With Pug, we see this kid come of age and watch his development. But because he’s a kid, it feels mildly exploitative.

With respect to following Pug, there are a couple standout sequences. First, when Pug finally gets a dirt bike. He is practicing in the park near a group of kids playing basketball and one comes over and asks if he could try out Pug’s bike. After some hesitation, Pug lets him. Sure enough the kid says, “I’m just going to take it around the block.” The kid speeds away. After a few minutes, Pug runs around the corner to see if he’ll return. You can see fear, desperation, embarrassment, and frustration wash over his face as he looks at the camera and then the cameraman. It feels like a really great moment to capture on screen.

At the end of the movie, Pug has spiraled further into the hood mentality. He had just gotten in trouble for fighting in school. The cameraman asks what Pugs intends to do about his bike. “Steal it back,” Pug answers matter-of-factly. As he explains the plan, footage of the robbery plays. The movie ends with a shot of Pug in the back of a van dressed in black, with his bike, looking silently at the camera. It’s depressing but well executed.

I’ve spent a lot longer thinking about this movie than countless other’s that I’ve seen and I can’t quite figure out why. I think it has something to do with why I found it unsatisfying. We watch Pug spiral downwards into the subculture of the 12 O’Clock Boys, which is depressing, right? We hear positive messages from the current and former members but we see contradictory images: a guy kicking the tail light of a police car, for example. The stories and images paint of picture of this group and it’s surrounding city but it’s not getting anywhere.

I don’t think a movie should necessarily a definitive position but I feel like it would be helpful to provide a starting point and, perhaps, a direction for conversation. It you watch fluffy tupolev’s Youtube video entitled "12 O'Clock Boys", you’ll have just as much of a conversation starter as 12 O'Clock Boys. If you are interested in watching it, currently, it can be found on Youtube.

Friday, August 28, 2015


Written and directed by Jason Wise. Starring Bo Barrett, Shayn Bjornholm, Dave Cauble, and Ian Cauble.
Bottom line: Somm is a stellar documentary about the fascinating world of sommeliers.

A sommelier is an expert of wine. Sommeliers assist restaurants in wine selections and wine pairings. There are several levels of official sommeliers with the highest rank being the Master. In the decades that the test has been around, only a couple hundred people have passed around the world. Somm is a documentary that follows a group of guys as they complete their year of preparation for the exam to become Master Sommeliers.

Somm does a wonderful job of balancing the magnitude of the test (by establishing its difficulty and significance) as well as the emotional impact of the test. We come to feel (not just understand) how hard people study for the test and the stress it creates. Each of the students are presented in such a way that you root for them all. Initially, I thought Ian came across as abrasive and obnoxious but by the end, I was rooting for him just as much as I was rooting for everyone else.

The test itself is broken into three sections: a theory test, a serving test, and a blind tasting. You can’t focus on all three sections, so which one do you choose? Before watching this movie, that’s a question that never would’ve occurred to me but I think Somm nails it. I read a comment somewhere that the film doesn’t really emphasize the importance of the serving portion. I agree but I have a potential idea as to why.

The Theory portion requires an extensive knowledge of wine. One must know the names of countless wineries and regions, historical details, and details about the creation of wine. It is however, a test. Everyone knows what tests are like and nobody likes ‘em. The rigorous study for this part is the main vehicle for coming to relate to the characters, but the theory element itself isn’t emphasized.

Unless you’ve worked in the service or food industry, the Service portion of the exam probably won’t mean much to you. We do get to see one practice test where a couple master sommeliers pose as difficult customers. “We want something between a red and a white that goes with our fish,” orders the customer, “but we want it cold. Ice cold.” The hopeful trainee gives a selection suggestion, must handle the realization that he doesn’t have that particular wine, then must quickly chill the wine. This one scene is sufficient to capture the name of the service portion of the test.

In the Tasting portion, the examinees are given three reds and three whites. They have to smell and taste each and name-say everything there is to be said about them: the alcohol level, the sweetness, the fruits and flavors incorporated into the wine, the region if not the winery, and a potential year.

The Tasting portion is a major point of interest in the film and it’s a brilliant decision. We all know wine. Many of us, I think it’s fair to say, enjoy wine. The image of a person who can taste a wine and provide incite into the elixir is one of character and class.

I can tell you a red from a white. As a slight aside, we got a bottle of five-dollar wine one night instead of the normal Three-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s. We decided that Three-Buck Chuck is just bad (but you know, you’ll have that for three dollars) and the five-dollar wine was still bad but at least it tasted like wine. It gave us the feeling that somewhere out there exists wine that actually tastes good. I’m practically a sommelier!

Anyway, with this basis, the film is able to build from a subject to which we can all (in varying levels) relate.

There was one point, however, where the film slipped a bit. During a practice tasting, the one person said a Chardonnay was some other type of white wine. The point of the scene was emphasis how he was cracking under pressure but the simplicity of his error almost undermined the difficulty of the test.

If he said a wine from Nepal was from California or a region with completely different style of wine, it would be accomplishing the same task. It would show that he was cracking while maintaining the difficulty of the test. How can this guy be an expert if can’t tell a Chardonnay from a categorically different wine?

That said it was a very brief scene that didn’t detract from the film all that much. Somm manages to navigate an esoteric subject in a compelling way. It is a beautifully crafted documentary that I highly recommend.

Please let me know what you think of my assessment and/or Somm in a comment below! Do you have a favorite wine? I think mine is Vodka…alright maybe I’m not a sommelier. Thanks for reading!