Thursday, August 30, 2012

Culture Shock 08.30.12: '2016' more D'Souza's fantasy than Obama's America

"2016: Obama's America" is a bizarre movie, starting with the title.

It is only in the final minutes that co-director and tour guide, conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, bothers to lay out exactly what he thinks the country will look like in 2016 if President Barack Obama should win a second term. His forecast for Obama's America? Nearing broke and increasingly disarmed in a dangerous world.

It takes so long to get to what the title promises because D'Souza is busy outlining his Great Big Theory, which he takes whole cloth from his 2010 book "The Roots of Obama's Rage." In it D'Souza claims Obama is an anti-colonial zealot determined to bring down rich, capitalist, "colonial" powers like the United States while transferring their wealth to former colonies.

This theory, upon which D'Souza rests his entire case, has met with — to put it charitably — a mixed reaction. Andrew Ferguson's review in "The Weekly Standard," a conservative magazine, is one especially damning example.

D'Souza is engaging in armchair psychology. Drawing heavily from passages in Obama's 1995 memoir "Dreams from My Father," he argues Obama is trying to live up to an idealized vision of his radical Marxist father, whom he barely knew. D'Souza even enlists a psychologist, Paul Vitz of New York University, to help make the case.

D'Souza's long-distance diagnosis seems to be that Obama has a reverse Oedipus complex. Instead of wanting, subconsciously, to kill his distant and unloving father, he wants to keep alive the mythical father his mother told him about.

This is all fascinating stuff, and some of it might even be true, but D'Souza never brings any compelling evidence to the table.

There is, arguably, a good case to be made against both the president's economic policies — which some believe have prolonged the country's economic downturn by creating uncertainty and propping up failed businesses — and his foreign policy. But D'Souza is too enamored of his Great Big Theory to spend time with the relevant facts.

Early in the film, D'Souza shows footage of Occupy protesters disillusioned with Obama's performance in office, but D'Souza doesn't say why these protesters are disillusioned. Could it be Obama's health plan, which subsidizes the health insurance industry that helped write it? Could it be his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and launching of drone strikes throughout the Middle East? Could it be that military spending through 2021 is set to increase 18 percent even if the "draconian cuts" of sequestration take place?

Contrary to D'Souza, this doesn't look like the record of an anti-colonial extremist. It looks like the record of President George W. Bush.

But the oddities of "2016" don't end there. The first 15 minutes or so are more about D'Souza than Obama. And D'Souza begins by claiming he has some insight into Obama's mindset because of their shared colonial experience, never mind that Obama grew up mostly in the U.S. while D'Souza stayed in his native India until he came to the U.S. for college.

Even the stylistic choices D'Souza and co-director John Sullivan make are inexplicable: D'Souza conducts interviews by cellphone even though both parties are on camera. Some closeup shots are so extreme they're distracting. The shaky camerawork makes "The Blair Witch Project" look like a Stanley Kubrick film. And the subtitles used for interviewees with thick accents are so stylized they are nearly impossible to read.

I could go on. "2016: Obama's America" is a misguided film at almost every level.

It must be seen to be disbelieved.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Culture Shock 08.23.12: No redemption for 'The Raid'

If I wanted to review "The Raid: Redemption" in one sentence, I could do no better than quote George Orwell: "Imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever."

Even the most avid fans of martial arts films may find this one to be too much of a good thing.

An Indonesian film written and directed by a Welshman, Gareth Evans, "The Raid: Redemption" has a pedigree that seems tailor made for the exploitation-flick connoisseur. But beyond that, it delivers just what its intended audience expects, with all the authority and repetition of a jackhammer.

The English-language title — colon and all — sounds more like the name of a video game than of a movie, although that's a bit unfair because the average 21st century video game has a more robust plot. Storywise, "The Raid" is more like Donkey Kong in terms of complexity. The good guys, a police tactical unit, must raid an apartment building and fight their way to the top floor, past an army of goons, to apprehend a crime boss named Tama (Ray Sahetapy).

However, things quickly go south, and the police find themselves trapped inside the building with no support, no way to contact backup and surrounded by a building full of hostile tenants who are more loyal to Tama and his money than to the law.

As attrition takes its bloody toll, it falls to one officer, Rama — Iko Uwais, who also served as fight choreographer — to get out with as many of his fellow officers alive as he can, while also completing the mission.

That's the plot. The rest of the movie is a string of action sequences with occasional lulls for backstory. And what action sequences they are.

If brutal, bone-cracking, acrobatic martial arts fights are your thing, "The Raid" — new to DVD and Blu-ray — doesn't disappoint. It's amazing the actors didn't come out of principal photography maimed or worse. I felt a little roughed up just from watching them in action.

Apart from Uwais, we see stunning work from Joe Taslim as Jaka, one of Rama's fellow policemen, and from Doni Alamsyah and Yayan Ruhian as Tama's top two henchmen, Andi and Mad Dog.

While the backstory dribbled out does add some welcome complications — corrupt cops, family secrets, etc. — "The Raid" is mostly about the raid. It's as close to the Platonic ideal of an action movie as you can get, a pure action movie, with almost nothing to distract you from the fisticuffs at hand.

Now I've seen and loved lots of martial arts movies in my time. From the Shaw Brothers and "The Streetfighter" (Sonny Chiba, not Jean-Claude Van Damme) to Jackie Chan and Jet Li to Bruce Lee and "Ong-Bak," but I've never seen anything that looked quite as painful as the fight scenes in "The Raid." Not even Chan's blooper reels.

The fights, while brutal, do sometimes achieve a kind of fluid beauty. But as each scene piles on another, it gets to be too much, an extra slice of cheesecake that doesn't seem as good an idea after the fact as it did before. And the sometimes antiseptic cinematography, reminiscent of a "CSI" autopsy, doesn't help.

There are martial arts fans who like their martial arts stars to be real martial artists, like Bruce Lee or Uwais. But I've always preferred the Peking Opera-style of theatricality that people like Chan bring to the screen. It's more dancing than fighting, but it's more fun to watch.

Without that kind of stylistic flourish and with barely a story to speak of, "The Raid: Redemption" doesn't have anything going for it but its fights. If 100 minutes of that is what you want, go for it. You won't be let down.

Just don't expect anything more.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Culture Shock 08.09.12: 'Jiro' dreams of perfection

The first time I had sushi, it was from a vendor booth at a Birmingham, Alabama, street fair. So began our torrid affair.

Since then, I've become a bit of an amateur sushi snob, scowling at dinner companions who can't properly use chopsticks or — worse — stir wasabi into their soy sauce.

But that's all petty grumblings in the grand scheme of things. A world away, working from his restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office building — a 10-seat affair only slightly less unassuming than that Birmingham booth — Jiro Ono is in search of perfection.

In the world of sushi, his restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, with its coveted three-star Michelin rating and months-long waiting list, is as close to perfect as there is.

It has won the praise of critics, foodies and revered French chef Joël Robuchon, who told The Wall Street Journal, "This is the restaurant that showed me sushi could be a great dish. Before that time, to me, sushi was just a piece of raw fish on rice, but there it becomes art."

Jiro's art, his obsession, and his relationship with the two sons who live in his long shadow, is the subject of David Gelb's engaging documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," on Blu-ray, DVD, iTunes and Amazon Instant.

On one level, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" operates as a great example of the regrettably named genre known as "food porn." Even the most jaded foodie is likely to be in awe of Jiro's sushi creations and the few preparation secrets he lets slip. If you think octopus is too chewy, Jiro agrees, and the octopus he uses has been massaged into tender submission during the course of hours by apprentice chefs not yet allowed to touch a knife.

From the lean and fatty tuna to eel to shrimp, this is a film made for high definition, each dish captured in colorful, mouth-watering detail by Gelb, who acts as his own cinematographer.

At 85 years old and with no desire to retire, Jiro's life revolves around sushi. He hates having to close the restaurant for holidays and takes off only for funerals. He literally dreams about sushi, sometimes awaking with a new idea.

Like a character from an Ayn Rand novel, he is uncompromising. For him there is only the work and its result, and if perfection isn't possible that's no excuse for not trying harder.

In a culture where reverence for one's ancestors is a serious obligation, Jiro is an oddity. He barely knew his parents and was on his own almost from childhood. Visiting their grave, he wonders why he should honor them when they didn't even raise him. At that, Jiro's eldest son, Yoshikazu, warns he shouldn't risk offending his ancestors like that.

Yoshikazu is possibly just as capable a chef as his father, but as the oldest son he is obligated by tradition to wait until Jiro dies or retires to take over the family business.

His younger brother, meanwhile, not burdened with the family legacy, has the luxury of opening his own restaurant.

Unlike his sons, the parentless Jiro was able to become his own man and indulge his own needs, honing his craft to the edge of perfection.

Jiro dreams of sushi, but whatever dreams his sons may have had that didn't involve sushi are lost. We do know that Yoshikazu has one hobby outside the restaurant. He likes fast cars. Whatever else he may daydream of as he rides his bicycle to and from the fish market each morning he keeps to himself.

He's living the dream, but it's the dream of his father.

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" is a beautiful film about art and obsession and the sacrifices they demand.

Whether those sacrifices are worth it, who is to say?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Culture Shock 08.02.12: The British are here, and they brought their telly with them

Even as the rest of the world descends upon Great Britain for the 2012 Olympics, The U.K.'s most visible export is reaching new heights of popularity in the United States.

Nowhere is that more obvious than this week's cover of America's most prominent entertainment magazine, Entertainment Weekly, which for the first time ever is given over to a British television show. And not just any British television show, but the long-running sci-fi series "Doctor Who," which is rapidly approaching its 50th anniversary.

Long a staple of British Saturday-evening viewing, "Doctor Who" has, in the past few years, grown beyond its American cult following to become mainstream viewing. It's BBC America's No. 1 show.

"Doctor Who" previously aired in America on Syfy, which seemed embarrassed by the show and didn't know what to do with it. Syfy also ran episodes a year after they aired in the U.K., and by then all the most tech-savvy "Doctor Who" fans had downloaded the series online.

BBC America, however, made "Doctor Who" the centerpiece of its schedule and began airing episodes the same day they aired in Britain.

That's faster turnaround in some cases than NBC can manage for its tape-delayed coverage of the London Olympics.

Then there's the personal touch. The cast of "Doctor Who" has become a regular fixture in the U.S., speaking to packed convention halls at San Diego's annual Comic-Con International.

Add to that the fact BBC America exists in the first place — an American television channel devoted to British television — and it's Paul Revere's worst nightmare.

The British aren't just coming, they're already here, neither by land nor by sea but by the air.

PBS has for decades relied on British television for many of its most acclaimed shows, but now it has certified hits in the form of two British imports, the BBC's "Sherlock" and ITV's "Downton Abbey," which netted 19 Emmy nominations between them, including Best Drama for the latter.

We've come a long way from late-night reruns of "Benny Hill" and "Are You Being Served?" No doubt much of this is a matter of necessity.

Cable and satellite services have more channels than they can fill with programming, and apparently there is actually a limit to how many hours of "Law & Order" marathons you can expect viewers to tolerate.

The U.K., meanwhile, is a reliable source of programming — much of it very good — in a language vaguely similar to the one most Americans speak.

And nowhere is the demand for programming more acute than online, where video-streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are looking for their own must-see TV.

Hulu, for instance, just picked up the exclusive U.S. rights to seasons 1, 2 and 3 of the blistering political satire "The Thick of It," which stars the brilliant Peter Capaldi as the prime minister's vicious enforcer Malcolm Tucker, who, as the late Jean Shepherd would say, works in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.

Hulu will also stream the upcoming fourth season this fall, providing a welcome change from what passes for political TV in the U.S. — the sanctimonious, hackwork fantasies of Aaron Sorkin.

Netflix, for its part, has built an impressive library of British television for its on-demand offerings, from the geeky comedy "The IT Crowd," to the superb spy drama "MI-5" to classics like "Doctor Who" (new and original) and "Blackadder," and finally to sleeper gems like "The Last Detective" starring Peter Davison.

Still, as long as Matt Lauer doesn't know who Mr. Bean is, there is work for this British invasion yet to do.