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Review: Wreck-It Ralph

After the minor satisfaction of picking up all the video game Easter eggs scattered throughout the film wanes, that eager licensing grates more than anything.

1.5

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Wreck-It Ralph
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Wreck-It Ralph is built on licensing. Like Toy Story and Who Framed Roger Rabbit before it, Disney’s latest non-Pixar computer animation aims for a kind of self-contained cartoony realism by acquiring the rights to use real-world properties (in this case, recognizable video-game whatzits). Just as Mr. Potato Head plausibly filled out Andy’s toy box, and Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny believably peopled the Toon Town of Robert Zemeckis’s comic noir, Wreck-It Ralph packs its behind-the-scenes of an Anytown arcade setting with Street Fighter brawlers, the beer-slinging bartender from Tapper, Pac-Man, Q*bert, Super Mario Bros.‘s Bowser, Sonic the Hedgehog, and so on.

Never mind that—and allow me to nudge my tape-wrapped Coke-bottle glasses back up the bridge of my nose—many of these characters aren’t even commonly associated with arcade gaming, nor that arcade gaming is itself little more than a nostalgic relic of ‘80s/‘90s pizza-and-pop birthday parties. Wreck-It Ralph‘s authorized crossover cameos aren’t about arcade authenticity. They’re nothing but broad, pandering indexes tailored to appeal to the arcade wistfulness the film never even bothers to convincingly evoke, popping up like eager whack-a-moles in a stupefying game of Smash the Reference.

The thing is, Wreck-It Ralph‘s flourishes of referential video-game arcana (a Metal Gear exclamation mark scrounged out of a lost-and-found box, a wall-safe opened with the old Konami Code), its lobbed-over-the-plate opportunities for those warm, fuzzy, “Hey, I get that!” moments designed to foster feelings of insider savvy, are its most welcome touches, the only things saving from it being just another rote, “Be yourself” kiddie message movie that might as well carry the DreamWorks banner. Indeed, like the noxious Shrek series, Wreck-It Ralph invites the viewer to imagine a highly ironized landscape of pop familiarity, where the thin humor derives from the dubious pleasure of seeing more or less household names interact in a silly, self-conscious manner. One of the hatchet-hurling House of the Dead zombies offering pithy, sub-literate, self-help wisdom? Ha! Street Fighter‘s Ken and Ryu clocking out after a day’s work of uppercuts and combo “Hadouken!” fireballs? Ha-ha! There’s even a requisite acknowledgment of joke du jour Skrillex, further pitching Wreck-It Ralph outside its PG demographic, playing to the accompanying adults who are probably the only ones in the crowd old enough to remember Q*bert anyway. The gags are warmed-over wink, nudge fare fit for Robot Chicken or Family Guy. But they hang together better than the film.

John C. Reilly equips the title character, a Donkey Kong-ish arcade baddie who spends his days smashing a brownstone apartment complex in a game called Fix-It Felix Jr., with a believable degree of vulnerable gruffness, absolutely instrumental in developing Ralph as a villain yearning to reinvent himself as a hero. To nip the sultry Jessica Rabbit’s tagline in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Ralph’s not bad, he’s just programmed that way. In an effort to recuperate his image, Ralph “jumps” (via a tram connecting arcade consoles via their power cables) to Hero’s Duty, a hyper-violent space-marine shooter in the Halo mold. (The film finds its best joke in its casual suggestion that the characters inside Hero’s Duty have developed their own form of shellshock, the product of the game’s manic pacing.) After acquiring a medal that certifies his in-game heroism, Ralph ends up in another console, the kiddie go-kart racer Sugar Rush, where he helps another of the arcade’s misfit avatars (Sarah Silverman) win a qualifying derby. Things are further overcrowded by the rescue mission headed Fix-it Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) and the Hero’s Duty squad leader (Jane Lynch), and a subplot involving Sugar Rush‘s digital despot, King Candy (Alan Tudyk, doing his best Charles Nelson Reilly).

Beyond its inter-arcade indexing, first-time feature director Rich Moore (a longtime veteran of The Simpsons‘s animation stable) and the film’s designers retrofit Wreck-It Ralph with some convincingly nifty touches, like the way the 8-bit inhabitants of Fix-It Felix Jr. move jerkily around their 3D environs, or the hyperbolic dialogue Lynch’s sci-fi commando comes pre-programmed with. But Moore can’t keep Ralph on anything like an even keel, ricocheting him between consoles before landing him in Sugar Rush, forcing the film to milk its brand-named wonk-factory sight gags (Nesquiksand, a Diet Coke volcano, you get it). Equally over-milked are Ralph’s heavy-handed sorrows, with Moore relentlessly returning to his schlubby, hangdog mug in repetitive bids for a sympathy that’s easily established before the title card flashed across the screen. Moore also bungles much of the action, with the film’s climactic race scene sputtering and losing itself in a sub-Speed Racer blur or candy-colored kinetics, and (in true video-game style, granted) deferring its conclusion to a string of endless mini-boss battles.

But after the minor satisfaction of picking up all the video-game Easter eggs scattered throughout Wreck-It Ralph wanes, that eager licensing grates more than anything, especially when branded Subway fountain cups are framed alongside Pac-Man and Sonic the Hedgehog. (Given Moore’s Simpsons pedigree, a reference to that show’s parody of Saturday-morning cartoon branding, The Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Chock-o-Bot Hour feels appropriate.) Fittingly, and most insidiously, Wreck-It Ralph‘s conclusion mirrors the film’s own premise, with Ralph and Felix offering the arcade’s unplugged, dispossessed former heroes a home inside their own console, effectively creating an all-encompassing super video game mega-branded under the Disney banner. Save your quarters.

Cast: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk Director: Rich Moore Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee, Phil Johnston Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2012 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

2.5

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Buddy
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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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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