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Review: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

For as impressively accurate as this film is, it still comes off as a purely moneymaking venture.

2.5

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Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Much to hipsters’ horror everywhere, a big studio movie has come out about them (for the confused, Adbusters had a surprisingly accurate article on this “movement” as the end of Western Culture). And it’s not only about them, it’s an attempt to market directly to them. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is supposed to serve as a swooning missive to the Manhattan indie-kid culture. Or it’s at least an attempt to make a few bucks off it. And while inhabitants of this subculture might deny it, Hollywood has unwittingly nailed the essence of what it means to be one of them: the constantly shifting style of self-deprecation, the obsession with knowing about every obscure band months before they become popular, the never-ending search for something, anything, to make them feel unique.

The film stars that alpha of all beta-males, Michael Cera, as Nick, the predictably lovesick bassist and only straight member of queercore band the Jerk Offs. His bandmates Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Rafi Gavron), along with an unnamed beefcake boy toy (Jonathan B. Wright), attempt to push his romantic interest toward Norah, daughter of an unnamed rich man with apparent music connections. Nick’s gay bandmates and their friend serve as a sort of Greek chorus, offering advice and representing the scenester hoi polloi.

What this movie does so well is capture not only the incidental qualities of the subculture, it seems to peg the sexual mores as well. At one point, Thom tells Nick that nobody wants to get married for a hundred years nor have meaningless sex. The Beatles, he says, nailed it: people just want to hold your hand. Not coincidentally, this conversation happens while Norah is being insulted by longtime frenemy Tris for never having had an orgasm. It was hard to tell if this was purposefully acerbic, but the significance was clear: While nobody wants meaningless sex, having an orgasm is not too far removed from holding hands. These sort of sexual mores are nothing specific to hipsterdom though. It’s an attitude toward sex crystallized in everything from Scrubs to The OC. Partners shift as frequently as pop culture itself. What separates the world of Nick and Norah from these others are the subcultural signifiers, such as mix CDs of obscure musical taste. Norah can fall completely for Nick without having met him not because of love at first sight—hipsters are way too cynical for that—but because she’s heard the mix CDs he’s made. She claims that he is her “musical soulmate,” and that is essentially enough to let him get in her pants.

For as impressively accurate as this film is, it still comes off as a purely moneymaking venture. It dry-humps every hipster fantasy and never calls their bluff. In the end, there is no irony about the fact that Infinite Playlist is a film attempting to suck dry a culture that subsists on sucking culture dry. These scenesters are still middle-to-upper class white kids, angry at their “hippie-turned-yuppie” parents, but still apparently living off parental expense accounts on a scene that is an alternative culture’s version of Gossip Girl. I’m reminded of a story about a friend of mine, who was angry with one of her hipster friends. She made posters telling everyone about ultimate indie band Neutral Milk Hotel and plastered them all around their school. It was the ultimate revenge on him. His shelter of obscurity was destroyed. No longer the only kid to know of the band, he had lost the power inherent in privileged information. In a similar way, Infinite Playlist publicizes the favorite indie bands for the rest of popular culture. No doubt the hipsters are already in their parent’s basements scouring MySpace for the next big thing to not tell you about.

Cast: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Aaron Yoo, Rafi Gavron, Ari Graynor, Alexis Dziena, Jonathan Bradford Wright, Zachary Booth, Jay Baruchel Director: Peter Sollett Screenwriter: Lorene Scafaria Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 90 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2008 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.

2

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Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Sunset Builds a Mystery in Graceful but Desultory Fashion

László Nemes’s follow-up to Son of Saul simply feels like two films awkwardly affixed to one another.

2

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Sunset
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Mysteries, in film, don’t have to be solved and sometimes shouldn’t be. A mystery plot can be a jumping-off point for more abstract or character-driven concerns, which of course doesn’t excuse the rote and careless incorporation of genre elements into a film. Such is the fatal flaw of László Nemes’s Sunset. Striving to tell a heady, metaphorically rich tale of corruption and cultural cleansing, Nemes loses sight of the basic mechanics of plot and scene work that are necessary for his film to form a coherent, meaningful whole.

Nemes’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Son of Saul takes place in the courtly, stratified society of Hungry in 1913, a land abundant in top hats, lanterns, and horse-drawn carriages. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), young and strong-willed, arrives in Budapest to petition for a job at the famous Leiter hat store once owned by her parents, who perished in the fire that burned the store to the ground. It’s since been rebuilt and restored to its former glory by the gray-bearded, buttoned-up, and over-paternal Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov). Intrigued by Irisz’s pedigree, he offers her a position on the spot. So far so good, but that night, a hysterical man breaks into her room and rants cryptically about a lost brother, Sándor (Marcin Czarnik), who she soon discovers vanished years ago after killing a local nobleman.

And so a mystery plot is kicked into motion. Where is Sándor? Why did he do what he did? What will he do next? And to work through these questions, and to keep us engaged and hopeful of answers, Sunset is entirely dependent on Irisz. Nemes makes her the center of every scene; we only experience what she experiences, and we know the other characters only as she knows them. While cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera is fluid, and will occasionally turn in the direction of her gaze, or tarry a moment, or anticipate her, for the most part it’s content to simply follow Irisz, often in close-up, as she makes her way around Budapest.

There’s grace in the sinuous way that the camera maneuvers through crowds, around carriages, in an out of rooms, up and down stairs, through fields of darkness and shadow. But from a story perspective, our being yoked persistently to Irisz’s side becomes constraining. Nemes allows himself no cutaways, which can make conveying off-screen information a bit of a challenge, as in the few cases where he has to conspicuously resort to having Irisz overhear important information from conversations between bystanders.

This self-imposed limitation to Irisz’s point of view could have been an opportunity for some bravura plotting, but as Sunset develops, there’s little emphasis on fashioning a fiendish mystery. Clues are scattered around, such us our finding out that Sándor once worked for Oszkár, that the nobleman he murdered was an abusive husband, and that Sándor has made threats against the Budapest elite. But there’s a difficult and exacting art to making these scraps of information build on each other, and the film doesn’t care to practice it. Instead of coalescing, the plot is constantly striking off onto tangents: a hidden room that must be uncovered, a murky secret society. Throughout, there’s less a sense of a picture slowly coming into focus than of a penlight jabbing haphazardly on a dark canvas.

Worse, there’s a lack of conviction to Sunset’s middle section, when the film is lengthily but almost grudgingly occupied with developing its genre elements. Irisz is seen running from place to place, encountering various stock situations: She goes to an orphanage to find out more about her brother, only to be stonewalled, and later she pays a visit to a key character at just the precise time that another one happens to show up so that she can witness the pair interact. These are scenes that in another film might have been used to build suspense, or to establish and vivify characters, or even to simply offer up stylish versions of classic situations. Here, the only real function of these scenes is practical: to move Irisz around the map so that she can collect various bits of information relevant to the plot. Surprisingly little would be lost from the film if her findings were simply provided in an intertitle.

In its final third, Sunset opens up, bending toward the surreal. The pace quickens as Irisz tracks down her brother, and a coterie of ominous aristocrats arrive on the scene to menace her. Paradoxically, however, as the film is becoming more interesting on a moment-to-moment basis, it signals with all of this commotion that it has no plans to tidily resolve any of the central mysteries on which it’s been spending so much desultory effort.

Here, Nemes is aiming to transfigure his plot into a commentary on, well, several issues: classicism, sexism, decadence, and the looming world war. There’s no reason this can’t work on a conceptual level, but all those themes are overwhelmed by the quotidian workings of the mystery plot. They’ve been too muted up to this point to suddenly carry the whole weight of the film’s conclusion. In short, Nemes caps a historical mystery with a 30-some-odd-minute blitz of hypnagogic symbolism, and as neither stretch succeeds on its own merits, Susnet simply feels like two films awkwardly affixed to one another.

Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik Director: László Nemes Screenwriter: László Nemes, Matthieu Topiner, Clara Royer Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 144 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Captive State Is a Crafty Genre Piece that Underserves Its Best Ideas

The film might have better performed if it consisted of more than a smattering of good but relatively isolated ideas.

2.5

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Captive State
Photo: Focus Features

If you told most Chicagoans that their current mayor was actually an agent of monstrous, anthropomorphic porcupine-like aliens, they would probably accept that as true. Under Rahm Emanuel, dozens of public schools have been closed in communities of color, his administration was caught covering up the police shooting of Laquan Macdonald, and the police department was found to have been operating a secret torture site. Rupert Wyatt’s Captive State takes the ills that plague Chicago—from police corruption to racial segregation—and remixes them into a sci-fi allegory in which, in established alien-invasion dystopic fashion, the meaning of any given metaphor is never that far from the surface.

The film opens on the day of the humans’ capitulation to the aliens, with a black CPD detective and his family attempting to flee the city as authorities lock it down, a flight that fails in a tragic manner evoking recent police shootings. After an excessively expository credits sequence in which Matrix-style computer text essentially pitches the film to us, the story picks up nine years later with the detective’s son, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), still planning his escape from the city. The aliens have co-opted human governments, constructing a totalitarian surveillance state operated jointly with their collaborators. Gabriel lives in the Pilsen neighborhood and works in one of the aliens’ data-retrieval-and-destruction factories, extracting data stored on confiscated phones and destroying the memory cards.

The aliens, who resemble human-shaped Brillo pads and are amusingly referred to in the film’s refracted version of our world as “legislators,” have an enmity toward digital communication that forces humans to fall back on landlines, payphones, carrier pigeons, and even newspaper classifieds as means of communication, clandestine and otherwise. It’s one of the film’s better ideas, as both Gabriel’s brother Rafe’s (Jonathan Majors) resistance movement and the police officer tracking them down, William Mulligan (John Goodman), have to rely on networks cobbled together from non-parallel technologies. In the hands of Rafe’s Phoenix organization, the organic technologies the aliens use to dominate life on Earth become a powerful tool of rebellion: In a truly suspenseful sequence, one resistance cell uses an invisible organic gel-bomb to attack a pro-alien rally at Soldier Field.

Captive State, whose exteriors were clearly shot in Chicago, features a number of lines about the city that will land like punchlines to anyone from the midwestern metropolis but that will undoubtedly pass most anyone else by. When Gabriel wants to escape via raft across Lake Michigan, his girlfriend, Rula (Madeline Brewer), protests, “But there’s nothing there! There’s no law there!” One presumes that, in the universe of the film, Rula is referring to some propagandistic claim of the aliens, but she’s also articulating many Chicagoans’ feelings about Indiana. Mulligan and Police Commissioner Ioge (Kevin Dunn) could be discussing immigrant neighborhoods transforming into overpriced hipster havens when Mulligan insists, “Pilsen isn’t Wicker Park, commissioner,” and Igoe cynically responds, “Yeah, not yet.”

All this regional specificity also lends Captive State some credibility. But close scrutiny exposes tears in the fabric of its world. For one, the aliens are stealing our “natural resources,” but nobody seems able to articulate which ones. The film also has that familiar sci-fi problem were sometimes the aliens are super-intelligent, authoritarian space-farers, and sometimes they’re just stupid monsters. There are structural issues, too, such as the 20-minute stretch of Captive State in which we see nothing of our ostensible main character—and there’s also the matter of the filmmakers seeming unable to decide whether that main character is Gabriel or Mulligan. And then there are the continuity flaws, like the video surveillance footage showing us the date as 7/9/27, when the scattered snow on the ground and the fog in the air clearly pegs this film as taking place during a typically dreary Chicago March.

Captive State recalls District 9 and Attack the Block in its evident desire to discuss race and class through the lens of an alien invasion. As in those films, the estranging setting of a society under siege serves two, sometimes contradictory functions. On the one hand, the advent of aliens on Earth is an event that exacerbates today’s social problems, and on the other, the post-invasion political context is a direct metaphor for current issues. Balancing these two aspects of science fiction—one a projective thought experiment, the other purely allegorical—is a difficult task, and it’s one that Captive State might have better performed if it consisted of more than a smattering of good but relatively isolated ideas.

Cast: John Goodman, Ashton Sanders, Jonathan Majors, Vera Farmiga, Kevin Dunn, James Ransone, Alan Ruck, Madeline Brewer, Machine Gun Kelly, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ben Daniels, Caitlin Ewal Director: Rupert Wyatt Screenwriter: Erica Beeney, Rupert Wyatt Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 109 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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