jiro dreams of sushi

I re-activated my Netflix subscription at the first of the year, but in the past few days – after seeing a $15 per month jump in my DirecTV bill – I’ve been thinking of cancelling it again. But this morning I watched something absolutely sensational on Netflix: the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Here’s a trailer:

Jiro Ono, who was 85 when the documentary was made in 2011, operates perhaps the world’s finest sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, located in Tokyo. It’s small – only 10 seats – and doesn’t even have its own restrooms. The style of service means a meal only takes about 15 minutes, and it costs 30,000 yen (about $300). Even so, you have to make reservations far in advance. It has three stars from Michelin, meaning it’s so good that Michelin would recommend you travel to that country just to eat at that restaurant.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” beautifully shot, edited and scored, tells the story of Jiro Ono and his two sons. It’s about food, but it’s also about Japanese culture, family dynamics, the pursuit of excellence, and even about the environment and sustainability. Jiro never really knew his own father, who left when he was about 6 or 7. But he has tried to communicate his passion and sense of purpose to both of his sons, who follow in his footsteps – the younger already operates a cheaper branch of the family restaurant, while the older – in his 50s – will eventually take over the original location, knowing he’ll have to work twice as hard if he ever wants to step out of his father’s shadow. (Pay close attention, near the end of the movie, for a fact about the Michelin rating that sheds new light on the elder son’s status.)

There’s no narration, but all of the participants speak Japanese, so  you have to be OK with subtitles.

Dang it, now I’m hungry for sushi.

monuments men

Last summer, my brother and sister-in-law here in Tennessee gave me a Regal Cinemas gift card for my birthday so that I could go see “Star Trek Into Darkness.” May was a crazy month, between symphony stuff and Relay For Life stuff, and I never got around to it. Being unattached, I don’t get out to the movies that often. When I had the time there wasn’t anything in the theater I wanted to see, and when there was something I wanted to see I could never find the time.

This month, however, I’ve been wanting to see “The Monuments Men.” I love the premise, I love the cast, and I’m a big admirer of “Good Night, And Good Luck,” an earlier fact-based movie directed and co-written by George Clooney. So today, I got away from work a little early (I have some stuff to cover this weekend) and drove to Tullahoma for the 3:50 p.m. screening.

I haven’t read any actual reviews of the movie yet, but I saw something last night that indicated some critics don’t like it. If that’s the case, I have to disagree with those critics. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Monuments Men.” I would go see it again if I had the chance.

While it’s based on real situations, and some of its characters are (renamed) versions of real people, I don’t know how accurate it is as blow-by-blow history. But as entertainment, for me anyway, it was a grand slam home run.

I suspect most of you know the basic premise, and the cast in various permutations have been blanketing various talk shows for the past couple of weeks, but in case you don’t know, the movie is set during World War II, primarily after the Normandy invasion, when all sides could see the writing on the wall but there was still a perilous journey to get there. The Nazis had been accumulating billions of dollars worth of priceless artworks from the countries they’d invaded and from the Jews in their own country. This artwork was intended to eventually be displayed in a massive “Fuhrer Museum” in Hitler’s home town.

With the end of the war looming, there are several dangers – that the Nazis might destroy the artifacts out of spite, that the Allies might bomb them accidentally, or that the Soviets might re-steal them and keep them for themselves, with the supposed moral justification of their heavy casualties.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) convinces FDR of the necessity to preserve these priceless cultural artifacts, even if it involves risk. The authorities aren’t convinced enough to commit much in the way of resources, but they allow Clooney to put together a team of experts, played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist,” which I saw for the first time on Netflix just a few weeks ago), Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”). The men are a bit too old to be regular soldiers but gamely go through basic training and are dispatched to Europe. There, with the help of a young German-speaking soldier (played by Dimitri Leonidas, who’s gotten little mention but who’s terrific) and a cynical Frenchwoman (Cate Blanchett), they attempt to track down and preserve as much of the artwork as they can, returning it to its original owners if possible.

Some in the military to whom Clooney and his team turn for help see this as a ridiculous distraction and an insult to the brave young soldiers risking their lives around the world. But Clooney and his team passionately believe that the cultural identity of the conquered nations is one of the very things the Nazis had been trying to destroy – and therefore one of the very things that was most worth fighting for. They see themselves not simply as preserving dusty old works of art but as preserving part of what it means to be a human being.

I knew going in that this was part of the message of the movie and was afraid it would be driven home with a sledgehammer. Remember Clooney’s famously-arrogant Oscar speech, in which he seemed, on behalf of the entertainment industry, to take credit for every social advance of the past century? Even Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park,” who owed Clooney their careers, made fun of that speech as a dangerous “cloud of smug” which figured into the cataclysmic plot of one “South Park” episode.

But, no, while this movie has a message (and a good one), it works first and foremost as entertainment. The bravado of Clooney’s team and the relationships between various team members made me think of classic movie director Howard Hawks, who would probably have enjoyed this movie greatly. I particularly loved the Mutt-and-Jeff relationship between Bill Murray’s and Bob Balaban’s characters. I would watch a movie just about the two of them.

In fact, if the movie has a flaw, it’s that the cast is so big, with so many great actors, that you wish you could get to know some of the characters a little bit better, especially the two who leave the action before we get to the end.

I highly recommend this movie. I had a great time.

the folksmen

The current movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set during the folk music boom of the early 1960s; as I understand it, it’s a drama, although no doubt suffused with that special quirkiness that only the Coen brothers can supply.

But the publicity surrounding “Inside Llewyn Davis,” as well as the return of the Jane Lynch-hosted “Hollywood Game Night,” has me thinking about one of my favorite comedies, the great Christopher Guest mockumentary “A Mighty Wind.”

“A Mighty Wind” is set in the modern day but references the folk era. A manager of numerous folk-era acts passes away, and the family decides to stage a tribute concert for public television, bringing together three of the late manager’s most-famous acts. Two of those three groups haven’t performed together in many years.

“The Folksmen” (Guest himself, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) are in the mold of the Kingston Trio or the Chad Mitchell Trio. You may notice that The Folksmen are played by the same three actors from “This Is Spinal Tap,” which – while directed by Rob Reiner – was the template from which Guest fashioned his own mockumentaries. Guest, Shearer and McKean had created the characters before the movie, and in fact the Folksmen were the opening act for one of those real-life Spinal Tap concert tours. They were sometimes booed by audience members who didn’t realize that they were actually the members of Spinal Tap in different costumes.

“The New Main Street Singers,” a nine-member group including characters played by Lynch, Paul Dooley, John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey, are a parody of the New Christy Minstrels and other aggressively-upbeat ensembles. (One of the Folksmen derisively refers to them as “a toothpaste commercial.”) Unlike the other two acts, the New Main Street Singers have been performing through the decades, albeit with a constantly-changing lineup. (Dooley’s character is the only original member left, and he’s portrayed as being somewhat disengaged.) Lynch and Higgins are hysterical as the husband and wife now leading the group, who have their own somewhat unconventional metaphysical views.

“Mitch and Mickey” – played by SCTV alumni Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy – were a married couple during their folk-era heyday, but had an acrimonious divorce which landed Mitch in a mental hospital, from which he’s emerged as a bit of a burnout. Mickey is now happily married and out of show business. Their signature tune from back in the day included a kiss between the two of them at a critical moment, and no one is sure how they’re going to handle that moment in their reunion performance, or even if they’ll be able to make it that far given the bad blood between them. Levy was Guest’s collaborator in creating characters and situations for all of his mockumentaries, and he is nothing short of brilliant as a performer in this one.

The mockumentary moves back and forth among the three groups as they prepare for the big night, and various other characters. Fred Willard is hysterical as a smarmy TV star-turned-publicist who is trying to promote the concert.

Bob Balaban plays the concert’s producer, the nervous-nelly son of the deceased manager, and he’s very funny as well.

Everything builds to the climactic concert, during which one of the key players suddenly disappears. It’s very funny stuff, and the music (written by the cast!) is great, functioning as both parody of, and tribute to, the folk era. We used to listen to my parents’ Chad Mitchell Trio album every Saturday when I was growing up, and I have my own copy on CD.

A wonderful movie, definitely worth checking out.

A big finish

I doubt many of you watched “Strike Me Pink,” the 1936 Eddie Cantor comedy that just ended on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t really either – I was busy with other stuff after getting home from Relay meeting. But if you did watch, you saw a character named Parkyakarkus. I’ve blogged about him before, but it seems like a good opportunity to repeat myself, something to which I’m seldom averse.

Parkyakarkus, a sort of malaprop-spouting Greek stereotype, was the creation of a character actor named Harry Einstein. He created the character on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and it became so popular that Einstein (who sometimes used the stage name Harry Parke) was eventually billed as just Parkyakarkus, the same way that Paul Reubens is sometimes billed as just Pee-Wee Herman, with no mention of his real name anywhere.

Parkyakarkus is not well-remembered today, except for two trivia facts.

Trivia fact #1: Parkyakarkus, in character, was on the dais for a Friar’s Club roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958. He had just finished his routine, which was very well-received, prompting emcee Art Linkletter to wonder aloud why Parkyakarkus wasn’t currently employed on a TV or radio program. Parkyakarkus returned to his seat, sat down, and immediately slumped into the lap of Milton Berle, seated next to him. Berle asked if there was a doctor in the house, and the audience – assuming this was just some sort of bit, a crazy capper to Parkyakarkus’ routine – erupted in laughter yet again.

Berle wasn’t kidding. Harry Einstein had just suffered a fatal heart attack. While he was moved backstage, where doctors would work in vain to save his life, Linkletter called on Tony Martin to go ahead and sing a song he’d planned to perform later in the evening.

The song was “There’s No Tomorrow.” There was no tomorrow for Harry Einstein, who was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Trivia fact #2: Harry Einstein had two Two of Harry Einstein’s sons, Albert and Bob, both of whom followed him into show business. Albert Einstein wasn’t about to go into show business with the same name as the famous physicist, so he became actor and filmmaker Albert Brooks. Bob Einstein became a comedy writer, working on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and appearing on that show as Officer Judy.

It was in the 1970s, however, that Bob Einstein would discover his signature character – and, like his father, he’s usually billed by his character name, not by his professional name. Bob Einstein is familiar to people of my generation as hapless-but-arrogant stuntman “Super Dave” Osborne.

best worst movie

Since re-activating Netflix, I’ve enjoyed several episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and as a result of that Netflix recommended the documentary “Best Worst Movie,” which I’d read about before but never seen.

I highly recommend it.

It’s about a movie called “Troll 2,” regarded by some as the worst movie ever, which has – like, say, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” – become a cult hit, with people watching it because of its perfectly funny awfulness. Unlike “Plan 9,” however, “Troll 2” is recent enough that the actors and filmmakers are still around to be delighted and/or horrified by this turn of events.

The documentary tells their stories, particularly George Hardy – a dentist who tried out for the film as a lark while living in Utah and then later settled in Alabama, in a small town where no one had any idea of his cinematic past. The documentary begins by introducing Hardy and having his ex-wife, of all people, pronounce how universally-liked he is (including by her). He does enjoy attention, in a harmless way, and dresses as a roller-blading tooth fairy in each year’s Christmas parade. So he has the time of his life when “Troll 2” becomes a cult hit and he’s suddenly on the road appearing at screenings and signing autographs.

Less than enchanted — but still willing to cash in — is Claudio Fragrasso, director of “Troll 2.” He and his all-Italian crew shot in Utah with a script badly translated into English, and yet refused cast members’ suggestions for changes in the dialogue. Fragrasso continues to insist that this was a serious movie with serious themes and that he has a keen understanding of American culture, and he eventually becomes annoyed at his cast members appearing at screenings and playing along with the “worst movie” hype.

The documentary was directed by Michael Stephenson, now an adult but the child star of “Troll 2.”

While MST3K never got around to “Troll 2,” former MST3K host Mike Nelson has, through his current project “RiffTrax.” Instead of his usual partners Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, he riffs the movie in the company of Rich Kyanka from somethingawful.com. Here’s the teaser trailer.

Now it looks like I’ll have to see “Troll 2,” with and/or without Mike Nelson’s commentary.

The man who came to dinner

I usually try to scan the TCM schedule, but I missed somehow seeing that “The Man Who Came To Dinner” would be on tonight, and I missed the first half-hour. I’m watching the rest of it now, and TCM will be running it again on Christmas Eve morning, and I have just set the DVR.

Critic and radio host Alexander Woollcott, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, turned up unannounced one day at playwright Moss Hart’s house. He stayed a few days, was unspeakably rude to the household staff, and generally behaved badly, even writing a snarky farewell comment in Hart’s guest book. Hart, who was accustomed to Woollcott’s behavior, laughed about it later with his collaborator George S. Kaufman. Hart commented that it could have been worse – Woollcott could have broken his leg and been forced to stay longer. The two playwrights looked at each other for a second and realized that their next project had fallen right into their laps.

“The Man Who Came To Dinner” is the story of Sheridan Whiteside (played in the movie version by Monty Wooley), an arrogant radio commentator and columnist who is – reluctantly – arriving for a speaking engagement in a small town, in the company of his long-suffering secretary (Bette Davis, who wanted to do a comedy as a change of pace). He’s scheduled to have dinner with one of his hosts, and on the way in he slips and falls on the ice, breaking his leg. He is forced to spend the Christmas season in a wheelchair, taking over his hosts’ home and pretty much making their life a living hell. Christmas gifts for Whiteside pour in from various world celebrities, and the gifts include a flock of live penguins.

Meanwhile, the secretary falls in love with the local newspaper editor, who (like many journalists) fancies himself a writer and has written a play. Whiteside, who can’t bear the thought of losing his right hand, schemes to break the couple up by bringing a glamorous leading lady to town to fawn over the journalist and his play. Meanwhile, his wacky friend Banjo (based on another Algonquin Round Table member, Harpo Marx!) shows up to further liven up the proceedings. Banjo is played in the movie by the inimitable Jimmy Durante.

A revival of the play in 2000 starred Nathan Lane in the role of Sheridan Whiteside, and was broadcast by PBS a few days after the close of its official Broadway run. I remember seeing that, and it was pretty funny. I see on Wikipedia that there was also a 1972 “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV movie with Orson Welles (!) but I’ve never seen that one. From the description, they updated the play to modern times and had Whiteside as a TV personality. It was not well-reviewed, in any case.

If you get a chance, and you’ve never seen this very funny movie before, set your DVR to catch that Christmas Eve airing.

cockeyed caravan

Turner Classic Movies will show one of my all-time favorite movies, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) Thursday night at 9:15 p.m. Central (10:15 for you easterners).

It’s directed by one of my favorite comedy directors, Preston Surges, and stars Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake (along with a lot of Sturges regulars like William Demarest). It’s a movie that is, in some ways, more relevant now than when it was first made. I’ve blogged about it before, but (as with “Christmas In Connecticut” earlier in the week) I feel like doing so again.

John L. Sullivan (McCrea) is a movie director who spent the 1930s making silly musical comedies like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he yearns to make a Serious Movie about Serious Issues of poverty and disenfranchisement. He’s picked out a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel he wants to adapt for the screen. Sturges, when writing “Sullivan’s Travels,” just made up a title and author for the novel: “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” by Sinclair Beckstein. “Sinclair Beckstein,” of course, is a reference to Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck. “O Brother Where Art Thou” is a play on words which would have been funnier as a parody title in 1941, because the phrase “Oh, brother!” was more widely used as an exclamation of shocked annoyance. Joel and Ethan Coen, of course, are big fans of this movie and appropriated Sturges’ made-up title to turn it into an actual movie, released in 2000.

Sullivan pitches his idea for a Serious Movie to the heads of the studio where he’s under contract. They are extremely reluctant to mess with a good thing – Sullivan’s silly comedies have been making them a lot of money. But instead of just saying “no,” and alienating one of their top talents, they try to talk him out of it by pointing out that he came from a well-to-do family and has no first-hand knowledge of poverty.

He agrees with them that he lacks experience – but that only gives him an idea. He’ll go out into the world, dressed as a tramp, with the intention of observing poverty first-hand. Sturges recognizes, and shows us, how absurd that idea truly is, and teaches a very funny lesson about the folly of thinking you know someone else’s pain. But perhaps his primary message is that comedy – like “Sullivan’s Travels” itself – does a greater social good than we sometimes recognize.

But this isn’t a message movie – this is a funny movie, one which only coincidentally has a message or two. McCrea is absolutely perfect, and Veronica Lake is incredibly sexy. What a wonderful way to spend 90 minutes.

A screwball for christmas

Well, I’ve blogged about “Christmas In Connecticut” numerous times in the past, so I figured I would just post a Facebook update about it this year. But I kept adding to it, and so I figured, what the heck, it’s my blog, and if I want to repeat myself, what’s the harm?

Anyway, “Christmas In Connecticut” is well-known and loved by those who’ve seen it, but I often run into people who’ve never seen or even heard of it, and so I like to recommend it when I get the chance. It’s one of the best comedies with a Christmas setting. It will air numerous times this month on Hallmark Movie Channel and will air Dec. 22 on Turner Classic Movies.

I’m referring here to the original 1945 movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall. There’s also a 1980s TV movie version, directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson. The original, as usual, is the best.

Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) is a Martha Stewart-like columnist for a leading women’s magazine. Millions of adoring fans look forward to her first-person accounts of life with her husband and new baby on their Connecticut farm. Her recipes are just as eagerly-anticipated.

Elizabeth Lane is a fraud. She’s single, living in a little Manhattan apartment, and can hardly boil water. The recipes come from her restaurateur friend (Sakall, always wonderful), and everything else comes from her vivid imagination. Publisher Alexander Yardley (Greenstreet) has no idea, and is just as caught up in Lane’s mythology as anyone else.

When a war hero (Morgan), who survived for days at sea, has no place to spend the holidays, Yardley thinks it would be patriotic – not to mention good public relations – for Elizabeth Lane and her husband to host the man at their beautiful Connecticut farm. Perhaps Yardley himself could drop by to share in the delicious Christmas dinner:

Lane has just bought a very expensive fur coat on credit and can’t afford to lose her job – as she surely would if Yardley learned the truth about her. So she has to come up with a husband, a baby and a farm, at least for Christmas. If you know anything at all about classic Hollywood movies, you can easily figure out what comes next: once she’s convinced everyone she has a husband, she finds herself falling in love with the war hero. How does she extract herself from the lie without alienating everyone?

It’s a very funny movie, with four very funny stars. See it if you get the chance.

Omar’s missed meal

I blogged about this in 2005 but, after looking back at the post, I may not have explained it very well. And that was eight years ago, so I think the statute of limitations has expired for me to blog about it again.

I’m watching the wacky Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker comedy “Top Secret!”, starring Val Kilmer in his first starring role, right now on VH1 Classic. It’s delightfully silly and tasteless, and I don’t know that the movie itself has any messages or lessons. But the directors’ commentary on the DVD includes a great anecdote which I’ve actually used in mission trip training to talk about cultural differences and misunderstandings.

The great Omar Sharif appears in the first few minutes of “Top Secret!”, and he’s a wonderful sport, getting things sprayed on him and squirted at him and so on. With all due respect to Robert Stack, Sharif was easily the biggest star that Z/A/Z had worked with at that point in their young careers, and they wanted to thank him for what he’d done for the movie. So they invited him out to dinner at the end of his last day of shooting. They made a reservation at the most expensive restaurant in London, where the movie was shot, and the three of them waited for him to arrive.

And waited.

And waited.

He never showed up, and the directors enjoyed an expensive meal which they’d never have paid for just to treat themselves. They later discovered that Sharif had already checked out of his hotel and was on the plane home at the time of their dinner reservations.

Eventually, a mutual friend asked Sharif about the incident. He explained that in Egyptian culture, it is always considered rude to decline an invitation, even if you are unwilling or unable to attend. Even though he knew his plane reservations would prevent him from going to dinner, he accepted the invitation out of what, for him, was good manners.

And before you go clucking your tongue, there are certainly American customs or expectations that seem just as mysterious to people from other cultures. Every culture has its own assumptions and mores and etiquette and expectations, and when you travel to, or welcome visitors from, another culture, there are almost bound to be misunderstandings and confusion. The best you can do is try to be aware and step carefully.