Movie Reviews - 2012 postsTuesday May 29, 2012
Movie Review: Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012)
Why does feminism bore me so?
The documentary “Wonder Women!” is subtitled “The Untold Story of American Superheroines,” but I would’ve settled for a better-told story. Example: Wonder Woman’s creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston, is generally treated positively here. We get passing mention of the bondage fetishism inherent in 1940s “Wonder Woman” comic books without mention of the bondage fetish of Marston, or the fact that he lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and his mistress, Olive, a former student. He had two children by each. One of Elizabeth’s children was named Olive. Empowering? Feminist? Creepy?
The drift of post-World War II “Wonder Woman” comics into romance is dealt with in isolation rather than as part of an industry-wide phenomenon that swept up Batman, Superman and Captain America. Frederic Wertham’s anti-comics diatribe, “The Seduction of the Innocent,” is portrayed pejoratively even as we’re shown the misogyny inherent in many 1950s horror comics. Can Wertham get no love? Can no one say, “He was an idiot, but...”?
Worse: We’re about an hour into this 72-minute doc before the narrator tsk-tsks over the hypersexualized versions of super heroines ... and Wonder Woman gets a pass. To me, this is the point when you go back to talking-head Gloria Steinem, for whom Wonder Woman was a role model, and who put the Amazonian on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine, to talk about this hypersexuality. You get the women who grew up on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and maybe even Carter herself, to talk about her hypersexuality. What are the negatives of this? Are there any? Do girls, when they hit puberty, feel they don’t measure up? Did I? I read comic books, with all of its various strong-jawed, superstrong, male role models, yet, at 15, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a skinny, sunken-chested, weak-jawed kid. What effect did this have on me? Have I recovered?
Hey: What are the long-term consequences of a society awash in wish fulfillment fantasies? “Wonder Women!” wrings its hands over the dearth of female superheroes but might this not be a positive? The Republican party, for example, tends to play on wish-fulfillment fantasies more than the Democratic party, offering up wannabe cowboys as candidates, and mouthing catchphrases such as “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and “Make my day” and “Read my lips,” and offering up fantasy economic policies (tax cuts + greater spending = balanced budget), and men more than women buy into it. They vote Republican. Women are more clear-eyed. They vote Democrat. Because they never saw themselves in Superman and Batman and can sense the bullshit in Reagan and Bush? The point beyond immediate politics: Aren’t the very role models the filmmakers would wish upon young girls in many ways deleterious?
Instead “Wonder Women!” gives us a fairly typical storyline. Strong female role models lead to strong girls and women. There is a dearth of these role models and anyway 97% of creators are men. So Reel Grrls, a Seattle filmmaking organization, among others, is empowering young women in cinematography, script-writing, blah blah blah.
I’m sorry but all of this bores me.
Is the doc about female superheroes or general female empowerment? The filmmakers make it about both. It starts with Women Woman, expands, in the ‘70s, to include Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman, and Charlie’s Angels (but no Mighty Isis), then gives us reductive visions of every subsequent decade. The ‘80s were testosterone-y and Reaganish. The ‘90s gave us riot grrls, co-opted into Spice Girls, but ... we’re talking rockers now? Should we double back and catch up with Aretha and Janis? And if the doc wants to cover all media images of women, why start with Wonder Woman? Why ignore the strong women of 1930s cinema? Why ignore Pam Grier then complain about the lack of strong black women in the media?
Here’s my favorite reductive moment: Apparently two of TV’s 1990s superheroines, Xena and Buffy, both died in 2001. I forget which talking head brings it up—Trina Robbins?—but she lays the blame squarely on ... wait for it ... George W. Bush. He’d just been elected president (kinda), that was the zeitgeist, and so strong women had to die. No one refutes this. The documentarians, director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and producer Kelcey Edwards, give her this forum. They have 72 minutes to make their case and they spend time on this.
One of the talking heads is Andy Mangels, a comic-book writer who has created the annual “Wonder Woman Day” in Portland, Oregon, to raise money for domestic violence programs. He’s also gay. So bring him into the hypersexualized conversation. Superman and Spiderman weren’t hypersexualized to me growing up. Were they to him? Then broaden the discussion. Women in our society are more often judged by their appearance than their actions; so can you ever have a female superhero who isn’t sexualized? Who’s ugly the way Hulk is ugly? Would an ugly Wonder Woman have influenced Gloria Steinem? What do you say, Gloria?
Perhaps the great irony of “Wonder Women!” is that it’s making its appeal for more super-heroines at a time when such an appeal has never been less necessary. Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen are both hugely popular heroines, brave and tough, who rescue good men and beat bad guys in completely convincing ways. To me, they’re game-changers. They’re super without being super. Compared to them, Wonder Woman and her magic lasso feel like relics out of a silly, fetishistic past.
Review: Lola Versus (2012)
It’s not quite there, is it?
Lola (Greta Gerwig), the title character of “Lola Versus,” is cute and quirky and not quite there herself. She’s a Ph.D. student working on her dissertation on the use of silence in 19th century French literature but she doesn’t seem like a Ph.D. student working on a dissertation. She’s living with her boyfriend, Luke (Joel Kinnaman), a painter, who doesn't seem like a painter, and who proposes, but I don’t get much chemistry from them, and I never get him, particularly when he backs out of the wedding at the 11th hour, then returns abjectly, then... whatever. The various ways they keep him in the picture. Lola has a neurotic, Jewish female friend, Alice (Zoe Lister Jones), and a mellow, Jewish, male friend, Henry (Hamish Linklater), who is destined to become the Love Interest, and she’s cute and relatable and ... who cares? That’s what I thought about an hour in. The movie wasn’t true enough to hold my interest. There weren’t enough honest moments. There was too much Fox and not enough Searchlight.
After the screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, writer-director Daryl Wein and his co-screenwriter (and domestic partner) Lister Jones, in town for the screening, talked about how they based their screenplay on the dating horror stories of their single, female friends in New York. There was a Q&A, which I didn’t participate in, but if I did I would’ve asked this: How many of those horror stories are embodied in the character of Nick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach)?
Nick is actually one of my favorite parts of the movie. He’s so creepy in such an off-kilter way. The way he stares a second too long and deeply. The way he pauses. His pretentiousness. His tighty-whities that aren’t even white and which seem more like girls’ panties than anything. He gives me the SHIVERS.
“I didn’t want to be a prison architect,” he says over dinner at his place. “That just kind of happened.” He’ll be remembered by most moviegoers as the incubator baby—it’s why he’s so big, he says—but to me his creepiness exudes throughout the performance, and I wondered how much of it came from the script and how much came from Moss-Bachrach, who seems like the real deal. I’m assuming at least 50-50. At the same time, for the movie’s sake, shouldn’t we have gotten a montage of bad dates? First date could be prison architect, second date tighty-whities, third date incubator baby. Instead they’re all merged into Nick. They make him too big not to fail.
The movie has a vague, indy spirit, and sometimes the comedy is witty and intellectual. A pretentious, avant-garde theater piece is overdone, sure, but I burst out laughing at its title: “Pogrom!” When Nick rollerblades away, saying, awfully, “Have a blessed day,” Henry, who’s been waiting at Lola’s stoop with scones, turns on her and they have this conversation:
Lola: If it’s any consolation, his dick was so big it hurt my back.
Henry: That’s a consolation? You should go into the greeting card business.
But the Hollywood formula is visible, like a coloring-book outline, and Wein and Lister Jones mostly stay within the lines. Lola has, Lola loses, Lola tries to recover, Lola comes to a realization about life and love. It’s actually a good realization for a change. Throughout, she’s relied too heavily on her friends, and takes them for granted, and objects too strongly when Alice winds up with Henry, but in the end she has her epiphany. She tells Alice she’s always been told that to love other people you have to learn to love yourself; but she’s found it’s the opposite. To love herself she has to learn to love other people. It’s a nice moment. It’s a push away from the sometimes solipsism of youth, and the inevitable solipsism of storytelling—the focus on one character—and into something larger. Then the movie shrinks it back again.
Should I talk about the end? Lola turns 30, bookending her 29th birthday party at the beginning, and throws a re-birthday party for herself at which Luke tries to win her back. But she’s fine without him now. She’s fine by herself. And we got a scene with her, later, wearing a nice outfit, and happily buying flowers from an outdoor flower shop. She’d already talked to her mom (Debra Winger) about how Cinderella messes girls up, and makes them obsessed with shoes, and she’s wearing an impressive pair here: white, with heels an inch or two tall, and as she walks away she stumbles on the sidewalk and crumples to the ground. Attempting to retain some dignity, she picks herself up and continues on her shaky, careful way.
That’s your ending.
But it doesn’t end there. They give us another scene where she returns to her apartment, puts the flowers in water, and looks around at her small, neat place with a small, neat smile. The End.
Too bad. It shouldn’t have been about the self-satisfied smile; it should have been about continuing after the stumble. Because that's what it's about.
Movie Review: Under African Skies (2012)
Early in Joe Berlinger’s “Under African Skies,” a documentary about the making of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and his return to South Africa 25 years later to perform a concert with the various South African musicians with whom he worked—including drummer Isaac Mtshali, guitarist Ray Phiri, and vocalist Joseph Shabalala of Lady Blacksmith Mambazo—music is compared to both religion and to the voice of God.
“It’s only 12 notes, man,” Quincy Jones says to Simon, both old men now, sitting on a couch in 2011. “That’s what music is—the voice of God. Don’t you think?” Simon pauses a moment before answering, sincerely, “Yes, I do.”
I don’t know about the voice of God but it makes me happy. Paul Simon’s music makes me happy. This documentary certainly made me happy. I left the theater with a stupid grin on my face, went home, and immediately downloaded a digital version of the album. I had it back when, as either LP or CD or cassette tape, but had neglected it during the crossover into MP3s.
Politics vs. girls in short skirts
Remember the controversy it caused? A different time. Nelson Mandela was in his 22nd year of 27 years of captivity, F.W. de Klerk was president, Apartheid was enforced by police truncheon and gun. In response, the African National Congress, or ANC, initiated an economic and cultural boycott of South Africa. Simon, by showing up for two weeks in 1985 to record his album, and by employing black South African musicians, broke that boycott. You don’t play Sun City and you don’t work with Lady Blacksmith Mambazo. Simon was condemned in South Africa, London, and at Howard University. During the “Graceland” world tour, there were protests outside concert halls and bomb-sniffing dogs inside concert halls. It was, says Dali Tambo, the son of then-ANC president Oliver Tambo, “an issue.”
To be honest, I never got it. An economic boycott of black musicians to protest the oppression of black people? Wouldn’t that be like boycotting Ray Charles in 1955 to protest Jim Crow laws? It feels like the wrong people were being punished. Or, as Ray Phiri says here, about his own reaction to the controversy, “How can you victimize a victim twice?”
The doc tries to sort through the controversy—then and now—while presenting, via archive footage and talking heads, the long process of how the album came together. Here’s how we got that accordion riff at the beginning of “The Boy in the Bubble.” Here’s how Ladysmith Black Mambazo came into the picture. At one point Simon wondered whether these songs shouldn’t be political, since he wasn’t blind to what was going on. He felt the tension in the country and in the room. Shouldn't the album reflect this tension? So he asked the South African artist, General M.D. Shirinda, about the song that became “I Know What I Know,” which was based on one of Shirinda’s songs. What were its original lyrics? Shirinda responded thus: “Remember in the sixties when girls wore short skirts? Wasn’t that great?” So much for politics.
The lyrics, interestingly, weren’t written until Simon returned to New York. He agonized over them. He came up with “There’s a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline,” but recognized its very New Yorkness. How did it fit with the African rhythms? He kept coming back to a riff, “I’m going to Graceland,” tried to shake it, couldn’t, then threw up his hands and decided he’d better go to Graceland. At one point he realized—as I never did in 1987—that Graceland didn’t have to mean Elvis; it could be a metaphor for a state of grace, a place where “we all will be received.”
In this way, the album came together. One gets a sense of the arbitrariness of it all. It could’ve easily have gone another way.
Greater good vs. greater music
Some of the more touching moments in the doc are about the opening of the world to these South African musicians, most of whom had been working odd jobs until Simon came along. They didn’t know who he was. For some, he was their first white friend, the first white man they hugged, a revelation. “Who’s this guy hiding himself in America?” Joseph Shabalala remembers thinking. “He’s my brother.” They were flown to New York to finish the recording and a limo with a white driver met them at the airport. They wanted to go to Central Park and asked “Where do we get a permit?” They wound up on “Saturday Night Live” singing “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and became a sensation. A world tour, plagued by the ANC controversy, followed.
Dali Tambo, now with an odd 19th-century-style moustache, happily provides the ANC’s perspective. He and Simon sit on another couch, this one in Tambo’s home in South Africa, for a discussion/argument on what happened. Basically: the ANC felt the greater good was served by subsuming the individual to the nation’s needs; Simon felt the nation’s needs were served by giving the world individual faces and voices. The oppression was no longer an abstraction; here were the people being oppressed.
Mostly, though, he just wanted to make good music.
“It’s the same event but everybody’s story is different,” Simon says at the outset, but of course the doc gives us his story rather than Tambo’s. Even the talking heads favor the artist since they’re artists themselves: Philip Glass and David Byrne and Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney. Oprah Winfrey talks about how she heard of the controversy and determined to avoid the album; then she heard the album. “It’s my favorite album of all time,” she says now. She became more deeply interested in South Africa because of “Graceland.” You could say Simon wins his argument with Tambo right there.
49 vs. 13
There are a few cloying moments—the close-up of Simon’s white hand in Tambo’s black hand—but mostly the movie is joyous: a celebration of music and artistry and creativity and brotherhood. It’s also a celebration of a time when music seemed to matter more than it does now. What gets big now isn’t necessarily worthy of big. Feel free to dismiss that as the perspective of a 49-year-old curmudgeon.
Of course, once upon a time, I was a 13-year-old curmudgeon, arguing with friends that Paul Simon’s music was better than the Bee Gees’ music. I don’t have such arguments anymore; they seem ridiculous to me. I like what I like and I know what I know. And who am I to blow against the wind?
Movie Review: The Avengers (2012)
WARNING: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST SPOILERS!
This is the one.
Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” is the superhero movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s imbued with the same spirit that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought to comic books in the early 1960s, saving, or at least altering, and certainly growing, the industry. Comics under Stan and Jack grew like Bruce Banner under gamma radiation. They grew not only in sales but stature. They grew up. There was a new seriousness—superheroes had problems, superhero teams fought each other like family members—but there was also that pizzazz, that lack of seriousness, that insouciance. Jack’s drawings brought the gravitas and Stan’s personality the lighter-than-air pizzazz. Stan had his tongue in cheek when he called it “the Marvel Age of Comics,” but soon that’s what it was. Face front, true believers! Make Mine Marvel! All for only 12 cents an issue.
Whedon’s “The Avengers” has that same spirit. It’s fast and fun and contains laugh-out-loud moments. It’s epic and smart and never gets bogged down. I saw it at an IMAX theater, in 3-D, and beforehand we were told by theater employees that the movie was two and a half hours long. I practically groaned. Two and a half hours? Really? Then it started and picked up and kept going, and at one point I looked at my watch and nearly two hours had passed. Foosh.
The Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors
“The Dark Knight” doesn’t have this spirit. Comics became darker in the 1980s under Frank Miller and Alan Moore. They became almost Nietzschian: Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster. Our heroes were still heroes but they became heavy with monstrosity, and that’s the spirit of “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” and 2003’s “Daredevil,” and somewhere young men, in their teens and 20s and 30s, who should know better, still get off on this crap. They think it’s cool seeing a silent sentinel staring down at a corrupt city, cape flapping in the breeze. Me, I get bored. I wonder where the fun is. I wonder what Stan is up to.
Standing in line, I wondered if “The Avengers” had shot its wad in the trailers. Were all its best lines, its best scenes, used up? What could be better than Tony Stark saying to Loki “We have a Hulk”? But Whedon and company keep them coming.
- “I thought his first name was Agent.”
- “The last time I was in New York I kinda broke...Harlem.”
- “I am a God, you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by a—”
- “That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.”
- “And Hulk? Smash.”
This is the movie that finally saves the Hulk. It moves us away from the lonely wanderlust of the TV series and from Ang Lee’s humorless Freudian angst and brings the fun. What did Hulk have to smash before? Puny humans? Scene-chewing father figures? One abominable drag of an enemy? Here he gets to fight Thor, and a giant alien army, and Loki, bragging, above, to which Hulk’s reaction is just ... perfect. Lesson #1 from the Marvel Age of Comics: Don’t mess with Hulk.
How about the scene where all the aliens go after him? Twenty on one. How about that long, epic, tracking shot that shows us each Avenger in the midst of battle, like some two-page, single-panel extravaganza from Jack Kirby or John Romita or John Byrne? Christopher Nolan in his Batman movies uses quick cuts like he’s directing an MTV video for our distracted age. Whedon seems to be asking himself: How much epic battle can I contain in one tracking shot? He’s the Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors.
Loki vs. mere mortals
Are there false notes? The way that, you know, Obadiah Stane is suddenly everywhere at the end of “Iron Man,” and the way the Joker is suddenly everywhere at the end of “The Dark Knight”? And every second of both “Fantastic Four” movies? Because I’m not recalling any such problems in “The Avengers.” Sure, the Hulk as part of a team, that’s always problematic. How do you point the Hulk in the right direction? How do you make sure he doesn’t go off in your face? (See: Thor.) Hulk knows no team, really, which is why he eventually left the comic-book “Avengers.” But at least they bring him on board because of Banner’s brains rather than Hulk’s brawn. S.H.I.E.L.D. needed his expertise in gamma radiation. We needed to see him flop Loki around like a rag doll.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is actually a weak villain, isn’t he? There’s great malevolence in him as he stares, captured, in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cell, but his desires are puny. They’re large, in that he wants to take over the Earth, but they’re puny in that he wants subservience, and that’s the province of weak men. The two who inflict the most damage on Loki aren’t super; they’re mere mortals, and they do it with mere words. Loki escapes his cell, runs his blade through Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who, dying, tells him:
Coulson: You’re going to lose.
Coulson: It’s in your nature.
That gets to the heart of it. He keeps losing to Thor, his brother, and Odin, his father. He’s powerful but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, because losing is in his nature. He needs so much to make up for all that losing.
Earlier Loki gets some mucky-mucks at a black-tie affair in Stuttgart, Germany to bow down to him. An entire plaza full of people. He tells them, “You were made to be ruled,” which is a good line. He tells them that they don’t really want freedom, which is another good line. We don’t, sometimes. Having so many choices in life? It’s hard, sometimes. But then Loki goes too far, and one man, looking like a concentration-camp survivor (Kenneth Tigar), stands up, and refuses to take a knee. He talks about men like Loki and Loki laughs, knowing himself to be a god:
Loki: There are no men like me.
German man: There are always men like you.
That’s so fucking smart. Loki says his line because he’s not a man and the German says his line because there are always dictators borne of smallness: Pol Pot and Hitler and Napoleon and Ozymandias. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” they say, but the lone and level sand stretches far away. That’s what our German survivor knows. Loki knows it, too. The loser.
All the best battles take place in New York
Plot. What we used to call the cosmic cube, but is now apparently called “The Tesseract,” is being used by S.H.I.E.L.D. in a lab to create weapons of mass destruction. Then it starts operating independently. Loki arrives, takes out half a dozen agents, and makes several, including a bow-and-arrow assassin called the Hawk (Jeremy Renner), who used to be called Hawkeye, and the scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), do his bidding, literally glassy-eyed. Time for the Avengers initiative.
But what do they really have in the beginning? Iron Man and Captain America and Black Widow and the Hawk ... with the Hawk on the wrong side for much of the movie. The two strongest members of the Avengers are accidents. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) arrives because of Loki and Hulk arrives because of Bruce Banner’s big brain. Is this a false note? Or is the assembling of the Avengers team like what directors call the movies themselves? A series of happy accidents.
The Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) gets the best intro. Tied to a chair somewhere in Russia, being interrogated by three leering men, being watched by millions more. Except, of course, she’s doing the interrogating. She’s not giving, she’s extracting. This becomes apparent when she gets a call from Agent Coulson. She almost rolls her eyes, then takes down these guys 1, 2, 3. The twiddling-the-thumbs look Coulson has on the phone as he waits for her to take care of business evoked laughter. Clark Gregg will be missed.
S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t very smart with Captain America (Chris Evans), is it? The man’s frozen for 65 years and they have him working out with heavy bags rather than, you know, learning the last 65 years of history and technology. Puny Steve Rogers wasn’t a dim bulb, after all. He had smarts. But it sets up the most interesting of the potential sequels: Captain America, coming up to speed; trapped in a world he never made.
The intro of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is peppy and witty, and contains a cameo from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s also relevant. Tony Stark, former weapons manufacturer, working now with clean energy, lights up the new Stark Industries building in midtown Manhattan with an arc reactor. “Like Christmas but with me,” he says of the STARK building. And that’s where Loki and Selvig, needing a strong energy source, will set up their Tesseract-created portal to allow an invading Chitauri army to enter our realm. Which is why the battle takes place in midtown Manhattan, which is where we want it. In the Marvel Age of Comics, all the best battles took place in New York.
Mark Ruffalo is the third man in a decade to play Bruce Banner, and I like what he brings. There’s a halting intelligence that meshes well with Robert Downey’s frenetic intelligence. He also knows he’s the biggest implied threat in the world. Mess with him and you mess with “the other guy,” as he calls the Hulk. He can’t be threatened.
Initially I assumed the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier was simply a cool transportation device but it’s really the setting where much of the action in the movie takes place. There, members of the Avengers bicker, and we get a few actual fistfights (Thor vs. Iron Man), but there’s also bonding (Stark, Banner). Much of the bickering is the result of Loki’s staff, no, which is stored in the lab, and is somehow bringing out the worst in everybody. At the same time, this kind of bickering/making up is not only classically Marvel but the movie’s theme. In times of peace, we bicker. In times of crises, we bond into a functioning team. You could say it’s the vision America has of itself. It may even be true.
Our imaginations onscreen
Let me add this about the battle royale finale: If someone had shown me these scenes in 1974, when I was 11 and collecting comic books, and relying on Saturday-morning fare like “Shazam!” and Electric Company’s “Spidey’s Super Stories,” I probably would’ve wet my pants. I might’ve had a heart attack. At 11. This is stuff that’s never been seen before except in our imaginations. “The Avengers” is our imaginations onscreen.
So I went into “The Avengers” shrugging and left after two and a half hours feeling giddy and high. The question with Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” isn’t whether it’s good; it’s whether it’s the best superhero movie ever made. Many will argue “Dark Knight” but I say, as I’ve always said, Make Mine Marvel.
Stan 'the Man' Lee, who made mine Marvel, at the premiere of “The Avengers” (2012).
Movie Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is an inspirational movie but not in the way most movies are inspirational. Most movies, if they inspire us, inspire us to dance, to fight, to do whatever the protagonist is doing. “Jiro,” the documentary, and Jiro, the man, inspire us to keep plugging away at whatever it is we’re doing.
“Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work,” Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old master sushi chef tells us early on. “Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.”
At least that’s the secret to his success. Which , thanks to documentarian David Gelb, isn’t much of a secret anymore.
“Only one can be best; I buy that one.”
Jiro’s been working with sushi for 75 years. He’s called an artist, a symphony conductor, a maestro. He runs a nondescript countertop restaurant that seats eight in a Tokyo subway; but it’s a two-month wait to get a seat for a sushi meal that costs ¥30,000. (About US$369.) His is the only counter joint that has a three-star Michelin rating. Other sushi chefs tremble in his wake.
And he hasn’t perfected it. He’s still working at it. Hell, he works at it at night. He dreams of sushi. Thus the title.
We watch his methods in action. His sushi is bought fresh every day. He buys only the best tuna, only the best rice. Most octopus tastes rubbery so Jiro has his octopus massaged for 45 minutes. It used to be 30 minutes but he kept improving it. “If 10 tuna are for sale, only one can be best,” says his tuna guy. “I buy that one.” Then Jiro buys it from him.
He strives for simplicity and balance: just the right wasabi, the right sauce, the right pressure—like holding a baby chick—as the sushi is assembled. He used to serve appetizers but no more. He wants nothing to get in the way of the flavor of the sushi. The meal ends with tamagoyaki, a kind of small omelet, and we hear an apprentice talk about how he was finally allowed to make the tamagoyaki after 10 years of service. Even then he made it wrong. Only after 400 tries did Jiro nod and tell him he’d succeeded. That success, he said, made him want to cry.
Sacrifices are made, obviously, but one gets the feeling Jiro doesn’t see them as sacrifices. “Jiro dislikes holidays,” says Yamamoto, a food critic prominent in the documentary. “They are too long for him.” One of Jiro’s sons recounts how, when he was a small boy, he saw his father sleeping on the couch and called to his mother about the strange man sleeping in the living room. Does Jiro regret it? So little time spent with his kids? We’re not sure. His mask in this regard is old-school and inscrutable. “I wasn’t much of a father,” he admits, but adds, “I let them graduate high school.” How nice. Both sons are now in the family business. The eldest, Yoshikazu, 50, fetches the fish at the morning market on his bicycle and basically runs things. The youngest, Takashi, knowing the restaurant would be bequeathed to Yoshikazu, started his own sushi place at a nearby mall. Both are successful men but both live in Jiro’s long shadow.
That’s part of the drama of the doc: What’s it like to follow in that wake? A former apprentice sympathizes with or pities Yoshikazu. How awful to not have your own place at 50, he says. How awful to live in that shadow. He doesn’t think Yoshikazu will ever get out from under it. “Jiro’s ghost will always be there, watching,” he says. But Yoshikazu seems less haunted than this former apprentice. Indeed, at the end of the doc, we’re informed that when the Michelin food critics were served, it was Yoshkazu serving them. It was his sushi that earned the three-star rating.
The doc has holes. What did Jiro do during World War II? What did he think? Do we see his wife? Is she mentioned? Is she alive?
More, the secret to Jiro’s success—find the thing, keep doing the thing, keep perfecting the thing, until you die—are justified because, well, he’s a success. There is reward for his hard work. There’s recognition and honor and customers. There’s this doc. But how was he recognized? How did it become known that his was the best sushi in Tokyo, in Japan, in the world? We don’t get that. How long did Jiro toil without recognition? And during this time, did he have doubts? Did he ever feel like he was wasting his life focusing on this one thing?
In this way, Jiro’s story feels like the flip-side of Anvil’s, those middle-aged, Canadian, heavy-metal rockers profiled in another excellent documentary, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” from 2008. Those guys kept doing the one thing, perfecting the one thing, but, after a time, they were no longer able to make a living at the one thing. They had their fans, almost like a cult, but never broke the way you need to break. They kept on but they had to get other jobs, and struggled, and kept trying to break through at an unseemly age. You left the theater wondering whether they were inspirational or delusional. You left feeling slightly sick to your stomach.
You don’t wonder this with Jiro. The mood of the doc is of a life well-spent rather than a life wasted. The soundtrack is classical, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35, rather than hair metal. It feels timeless and proper. I’m sure Jiro is a better artist with sushi than Anvil is with music. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried harder, too, and gave up more. But the secret to his success isn’t necessarily a route to success for others. Doing the one thing, over and over, guarantees nothing.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is still worth seeing. It’s a tonic for a certain kind of American moviegoer like me, since it celebrates patience, and experience, and the pursuit of perfection. It celebrates things that are given merely lip service in my increasingly loutish and cruddy country.