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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 28, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


100-Foot Journey, American Ninja

It's taken a long time for it to get here, but I've finally seen a movie deserving to be regarded as the best of the year.

Deserving, that is, in my eyes. Because I have little patience with Oscar-bait movies, which range from oppressively arty to depressingly dark, with high-profile performers who overact shamelessly.

What I regard as best of the year is a story that entertains yet is also about something -- not in an essay-like, discursive way, but intrinsically tapping into the deep roots of human experience.

It can be a comedy -- indeed, it often is, though Oscar generally ignores comedy, despite the fact that it is much harder to do well than drama.

It must be clearly told; you should never wonder what's going on for more than a few moments. Anything else is bad writing -- either because of incompetence or vain pretension.

And the acting must be so excellent that never, not for a moment, do you catch anybody "acting." If, during the unfolding of the story, you notice the acting, then it is bad acting.

If you look back over best-actor Oscars, male and female, you'll notice that well over half the time, the performances are obvious and intrusive -- but apparently, to win an Oscar, you have to perform in such a way as to allow the dimwitted to notice you.

It's called "playing to the crowd," and apparently we give out prizes for it.

Whereas the truly brilliant actors, the ones with such integrity that you never notice what they're doing, but instead utterly believe in the characters they portray, can be long overlooked.

My standards are eccentric, I know -- but I believe they have more to do with real excellence in the art of film-making than I see in the judgment of most critics, who, having seen far too many movies, are so jaded that what they notice and reward is novelty rather than quality.

Especially because the critics, with the notable exception of William Goldman, have no idea what good story and good storytelling are. They are able to detect the bon mot, the clever phrase, so they are quick to praise witty or shocking dialogue -- though these are relatively easy to do.

What most remain oblivious to is real achievement in storytelling. Any writer can create cheap tension -- they teach formulas for that in film school. And gross comedy or maudlin tears are easy enough to bring off.

But stories that live and breathe, stories that linger with you, that matter in the memory of the audience -- those are hard to come by. Often bad screenwriters will start with books that have such stories, and then throw out everything that made them clear and coherent and powerful as they force them to fit film-school rules.

So I'm pleased to tell you about a movie that looks and feels like a romantic comedy in a semi-exotic setting, but which is so much more.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is a story about cooks. The transcendently brilliant Helen Mirren plays Madame Mallory, who owns a restaurant in a French town -- a restaurant that, thirty years before, won a star from the Michelin Guide.

Michelin is a far cry from Zagat. Where Zagat is based on the votes of patrons -- and is constantly a victim of "grade inflation," especially in less-sophisticated towns away from New York and Los Angeles -- the Michelin stars are awarded by judges who know what they're talking about.

To have a single star means that a restaurant is worth an hour's drive each way. When you dine in the French fashion, you start at nine in the evening (or later) and put yourselves in the hands of the chef for at least two hours, and usually three.

What you expect is a combination of perfection and innovation -- never novelty for its own sake, never weirdness masquerading as creativity, but food that is instantly recognizable as good while being significantly different from any other treatment of the same basic ingredients.

But France is not at all where the story begins. It starts in India, where actor Om Puri plays the Papa of a family that runs a restaurant that is successful, not because of low prices, but because of high quality.

Everyone in the family cooks, but it is Mama (Juhi Chawla) who understands the subtleties of flavor.

Mama discovers that their son Hassan (Manish Dayal) has the gift of discerning flavors -- though he shows it by his relish for sea urchin, which, if you're not a sea otter, is not actually food. Or at least that's my opinion -- which may be why I am not a born chef.

After a contentious Indian election, the family's restaurant is targeted by a mob. It is burnt down -- and Mama dies in the fire. The family flees to London, where, living in a house in the flight path of Heathrow, they struggle to cook in the wet, cold English climate.

Now, there are many fine Indian restaurants in England, but apparently it is not possible to cook up to this family's high standards using local ingredients there. So the family packs up and moves to France.

One gets the impression at first that they are nearly destitute -- why else the house by Heathrow? Why else do they limp along in an ancient van whose brakes fail while descending a hill-country road in rural France? But they actually have money; Papa is simply a tightwad.

Fortunately, when they are stranded with an undrivable vehicle, a charming young Frenchwoman named Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) picks them up, drives them into town, and serves them a casual "snack" that introduces them to French cooking.

There are those -- including the French -- that say the soul of French cooking is in the sauces. But the heart of southern French cooking is really in the perfection of the ingredients.

Again and again as the film unfolds, both the scenery and the food brought back memories to my wife and me. We have had that experience of spreading a table with simple, barely seasoned Provençal foods, and discovering that it is delicious, healthy, and memorable.

And the lush green of the countryside is deeply involved in this story as well, for many of the ingredients are not purchased but discovered and gathered in the woods outside of town. I remembered all over again why I love France -- and French food -- so much.

Instead of moving on after their van is repaired, the family remains in the town, for Papa has decided -- against the fervent advice of his children -- to buy an abandoned restaurant building. It would be perfect for the style of cooking and dining that the family knew from India.

But, as the children point out, it is directly across the street -- exactly 100 feet -- from Madame Mallory's Michelin-star restaurant. There is no possibility that they can successfully compete with such a fine restaurant. It is also rude to try.

Yet that restaurant building was already there, and Papa feels it is exactly the right place for them.

Madame Mallory does not agree. She regards this foreign family's purchase of the restaurant as the first salvo in a war -- a war that she is determined to win.

The maneuvers back and forth between Madame Mallory and Papa are vicious business practices at their most outrageous -- but they quickly escalate out of control.

At every step along the way, however, Hassan -- who the family knows is their most talented cook -- tries to soften the competition. Partly this is out of a sense of decency; partly because the lovely Marguerite, who saved the family when they first arrived, is a sous-chef at Madame's restaurant.

Marguerite, despite the war between the restaurants, helps Hassan learn French cooking. And at times the story seems to be heading toward a Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy of star-crossed lovers.

But this is no tragedy, and Hassan's talent and commitment and humility transcend the competitions and jealousies. The movie is constantly funny, and the romance is truly romantic.

What does it mean to be "romantic" in films these days? We're so used to characters who either hop into bed instantly or are at least trying to get into bed; or there are the dreamy historical films where romance is focused on the pursuit of unlikely marriages.

But this is a romance that consists of dedicated, ambitious people who help each other and admire each other, becoming partners despite the fact that one is more talented than the other.

It is romantic to see them develop a partnership built on mutual support and respect and tenderness. It is the kind of relationship that does not result in a marriage, but rather creates one, so the ceremony will only affirm what is already present between them. You can believe they will be happy.

So many things could have gone wrong in the making of this film -- so many missteps could have been made in the writing, the filming, the acting. But none of the mistakes were made. There are no cheap laughs, no tear-jerking manipulation.

Instead there are deep and important truths about human beings bending in order to make room for other people in their lives; about how, by allowing someone else to do well, we ourselves can do better.

There is also an important exploration of just how far talent can take you toward happiness.

Even though everybody in the movie is deeply involved in cooking for restaurants (and for love), this is not a movie about cooking. That is only the maguffin. This is a movie about the human spirit, about what it means to be good and kind, about nobility of soul trumping self-interest, about the limits of competitiveness.

So even though The Hundred-Foot Journey will doubtless be compared with various food movies -- Julie & Julia, Ratatouille, Big Night, Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Like Water for Chocolate (but probably not Eating Raoul) -- or about cross-cultural romances, it transcends both subject matters.

I have not read the original novel by Richard C. Morais, though I will, if only to see whether this film was, like Forrest Gump, a vast improvement on the original, or, like Sense and Sensibility, a faithful adaptation.

Either way, the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey is a work of beauty and truth, of light and love, of humor and pain. No other film I've seen this year comes close to matching its depth and perfection, and I am not optimistic about any of the films I'm seeing promoted as Oscar bait.

If this is not the finest, most wonderful movie of 2014, I can't wait for the brilliant surprise when an even better movie comes along. But I'm not holding my breath.

*

Many years ago, friends of mine were quite devoted to American Gladiators, a reality show consisting of contests of strength and combat between various larger-than-life characters. We watched as men and women fought with padded weapons, delighted at the sheer campiness of it. Yet there was no denying that these people were in amazing physical shape.

The other night, channel-flipping, I ran across a worthy successor, American Ninja Warrior on the Esquire Network. No, a worthier one, because it isn't campy; it doesn't partake of the over-the-top clowning of professional wrestling.

The contestants are not one-named characters like "Ice" and "Zap," "Laser" and "Lace." Instead, they're legitimate athletes from various backgrounds, and instead of battling each other (at least in the early phases that I've seen), they compete for time against an astonishing obstacle course.

I happened to watch the episode in which the first woman beat the "spider" challenge. In this one, contestants have to jump from a tiny trampoline and leap between two parallel walls -- catching themselves with extended hands and feet between the walls.

That's right. They take a flying leap into the gap between two walls, and have to catch themselves by pressing outward with one hand and foot on one wall, the other hand and foot on the other wall. Then they have to move forward between the walls to a landing place; if they fall before that, they land in the water that waits under all the challenges.

The other challenges also require amazing strength, agility, and timing, and because it's a fixed course, everyone competes on equal ground. I enjoyed the way that different athletes approached each challenge with different attitude and style -- but above all, I appreciated the fact that the course makes no exceptions for anyone.

Women compete on the same course as men, and because women's bodies tend to be smaller, some of the challenges are very different. For instance, there's a series of steppingstones that the men leap through, one foot stepping on each pad. But the women, with shorter strides, have to stop on each small pad with both feet before jumping to the next -- which costs them precious time.

The one woman who actually succeeded at the spider could not do it with legs splayed equally, in a pose like riding a horse. Instead, she kept her right leg doubled under her body and her left leg almost fully extended. This compensated for her narrower stride and kept her muscles in positions of maximum strength. I expect to see this posture adopted by the women who will now come after her and try to master this entire Stage 1 course.

I don't know that I'm going to become a regular fan, but I do plan to record the show and check in on it now and then, if only to see what diabolical challenges the designers come up with for the higher courses. If Stage 1 is this tricky, what will the final stage be like?

In good reality-show style, the show presents the contestants' backstories in micro-documentaries, and I found them all to be interesting people with very different lives. Skeptical spouses have usually become fans and supporters -- as well they should, since anyone who can complete these challenges is a superb athlete.

I can't think of a competitive sport that requires such a variety of skills, at such a high level. Yes, it's fun to watch athletes shoot down the luge in the winter Olympics, but at no point are they doing anything as hard as these American Ninja competitors.

Simplest thing: Tune in or record it, and you'll see for yourself.

*

Plagued with insomnia as I so often am, I find that channel-flipping is both my salvation and my nemesis.

Salvation, because having so many channels means that I can flip through various mediocre shows and movies and compose from them an evening's entertainment with, now and then, something very good coming to the surface.

Nemesis, because even if I get sleepy, which is presumably my goal, once I've got started on several interesting (or even adequate) shows, I find myself driven to finish.

Yes, I use the TiVo to record the ones that I start to care about, so that I can channel-flip and still come back and catch what I missed while I watched something else. And once I'm recording, I can decide, I'm finally sleepy, so I'll watch the rest of this tomorrow.

But it doesn't work that way. Once I'm hooked on a story, I have to see how it's going to come out. Even when it's a completely miserable brainless teen-party movie like Project X (2012), which I watched the other night in order to discover if, in fact, it was as pointless as it seemed.

It was.

But I found a couple of interesting actors whom I know I'll see later in better movies, rather the way Tom Berenger and Joe Pantoliano emerged from television rebroadcasts of Eddie and the Cruisers back in 1983.

The standout in Project X was Thomas Mann, who has already appeared in several TV series and seems well on his way. The movie was almost worth watching because of his performance alone.

But it's not worth watching. Unless it's late at night, you have insomnia, and nothing better is on.

And I can assure you, every late-night rerun of Law & Order, Criminal Minds, NCIS, House, Castle, and The Mentalist is better. Even if you've already seen it.

It was in this spirit of indiscriminate, brain-dead television watching that I ran across a couple of series on FX that had enough quality to be worth talking about.

The performances in Married are superb -- they have cast excellent actors in all the parts, especially Nat Faxon and Judy Greer. And the dialogue is inventive and interesting as this comic soap opera about married people soldiers on.

The problem is that apparently nobody involved in this show has ever been married, or met anyone who is married. Instead, this unfolds like a teenager's fantasy of what goes on in marriage when the kids aren't present; or a bachelor's nightmare of marriage, thus justifying him in avoiding commitment forever.

The gamesmanship is ludicrous -- if they devoted one-tenth as much energy to being patient and understanding as they devote to clever put-downs and competitive score-keeping with each other, they'd actually be happy.

Instead, the writers don't even try to justify why people do the things they do. It's enough that they have clever things to say.

And, to tell the truth, in the world of Hollywood writing that is enough. American Beauty got an Oscar as best picture, despite being the dumbest depiction of marriage in a major movie in its decade.

But maybe Hollywood's high divorce rate reflects a culture of sick, sad little marriages like those depicted in this series. The problem is that in shows like this they pretend that this is how Americans behave in the real world.

And we don't.

Oh, not that all our marriages are ideal. There are plenty of troubled, contentious, faithless, abusive marriages. But they aren't like these, because (a) the abusive, contentious people aren't usually smart enough to talk so cleverly about their feelings, and (b) most marriages are between decent people trying to get along and make a good life for each other and for their children.

And if that's what you're trying to do, by and large you succeed. With lapses, but never with the constant nastiness that this series depends on for its "entertainment value."

But why did I put that in ironic quotation marks? It really is entertaining, in a train-wreck kind of way. After all, people in daytime soaps don't talk and act like real people, either. So why should night-time soaps on out-of-the-mainstream networks be any more accurate?

Which brings me to an even more unbelievable-yet-entertaining FX series, You're the Worst. With a hostile title like that, you can hardly expect to like anybody in the show ... and you won't.

Or at least you're not supposed to. Everybody does despicable things -- but it's clear the writers expect you to think these things are deliciously despicable.

I suppose it all depends on your own preferences in despicability. I was about fifty-fifty.

The thing is, the show hates all its characters. They are all shown in the vilest possible light at every opportunity. But because they cast enormously attractive, charismatic actors, you keep watching.

Gretchen and Jimmy are not married, and they treat each other as enemies who sometimes have sex. In the episode I watched, they start a game of one-upmanship over their acts of sexual unfaithfulness, until, side by side in a pinball arcade (apparently that's cool again; good news for pinball fans like me), they sarcastically decide to be "exclusive."

Then each has to sort out whether the other was being sarcastic or sincere; they decide that they both meant it. And for a moment, they look happy. But in the final kicker at the end, they have ambiguous expressions, thus reverting to Hollywood's default posture that marriage and fidelity are silly and awful and everybody hates them and should hate them.

Instead of the truth, which is that monogamous pair-bonding has shaped human evolution for the past thirty thousand generations, so that most people are discontented unless they're bonded with a faithful partner for years on end.

We may not be perfect at monogamy, but that is what is expected, even when we have ersatz "sexual revolutions" and proclaim the end of faithfulness. It's always a fraud; we are always miserable when we can't trust our partner -- even if, hypocritically, we haven't been faithful ourselves.

But Hollywood has never let go of the adolescent rebellion represented by the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and so it has to keep pretending that anybody who's married or in a faithful relationship is suffering through something unnatural and undesirable.

Here's the thing: Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) are played by such wonderful, charismatic actors, and the dialogue is occasionally so clever, that the show is entertaining.

In fact, You're the Worst is much funnier than Married, if humor is your goal. The sense of humor in Married is the snide, superior, condescending humor of films like Sideways and The Descendants, where we are expected, not to empathize with the characters, but to view them from an emotional distance so we can laugh at their bizarre responses to pain.

So we can, in fact, be entertained by such films, but if we laugh at them it makes us feel a little mean and dirty. Because, in fact, we are a little mean to be amused at other people's misery. We emerge from the experience being a little less compassionate, a little less decent.

Or we hate the film and turn away from it.

I'm just not decent enough to have done that. I watched one episode of each show with fascination and, yes, enjoyment. Partly because when I'm tired enough, sleepless enough, my standards become very low. Partly because these shows are well cast and well directed, and the writing, though generally stupid or unkind about human nature, is still clever enough to hold me through each scene.

Am I recommending these shows, or panning them?

I'm not sure myself. But my guess is that, from what I've said about them, you've already decided whether you find them interesting enough to want to check them out, or you can't understand why anyone would watch them even for a moment.

I agree with you either way.

But unlike my response to American Ninja Warriors, I'm not getting a "season pass" so I can check in on the storylines. Instead, I'll wait to see the actors pop up in something I like better.


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