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Column Fri Apr 06 2012

American Reunion, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Four Lovers & A Trip to the Moon/The Extraordinary Voyage

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

American Reunion

This fourth (and hopefully final) installment of the American Pie series feels different than the previous, not especially inspired sequels, and that may have something to do with it having been written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholossberg (the writers of all of the Harold & Kumar movies), who have had nothing to do with this franchise until this film. American Reunion feels like it was made by fans of the series and its characters, and like most fan-driven writing, the movie relies a lot on knowledge of the previous films (especially the first one) and adds very little in terms of funny or inventive new material.

The no-brainer premise is a high school reunion. The four male leads -- Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) -- are all still in touch and decide to arrive to East Great Falls a couple days early to hang out before the rest of their class arrives. Jim of course is married to his high school sweetheart Michelle (Alyson Hannigan); Kevin is married too; Oz is a well-known sportscaster with a young hot girlfriend (Katrina Bowden), while Finch has been leading the adventurous life traveling around the world, collecting great stories as he goes. They try to keep Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott) from finding out that they're back in town early, but he finds them anyway, eager to keep the party going from high school.

If you had told me 13 years ago when American Pie was released that Scott would have the most impressive film career of the bunch, I'm not sure I would have been able to contain my laughter. But the truth is that the only big laughs in Reunion happen when Stifler is involved. Not only that, but Stifler is the only character who actually grows and develops somewhat believably during the course of the film. He actually contemplates his glory day in high school, grows sentimental over it, and realizes that his life since has been less than satisfying. It's actually a weirdly moving story arc that results in some degree of maturity from the eternal man-child. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the movie.

In an ironic twist, Jim is still looking to get laid as much as he was in the first film. Apparently since he and Michelle had their child, sex has been a little absent from the relationship, and naturally they look for a little alone time when they are surrounded by dozens of their friends. Makes perfect sense. Things aren't helped when Jim runs into the 18-year-old version of the little neighbor girl he used to babysit. She's all grown up now, and wants Jim to be her "first." The slapstick, misunderstandings, and comedy mishaps are about as sophisticated as an episode of "Three's Company," and if you can't see every joke and beat coming from about 10 blocks away, that's probably because you fell asleep waiting for it.

For all of the antics, occasional nudity, and general bad behavior on display in American Reunion, the film seems to be playing things incredibly safe. About every third joke is a play off a joke from the first film. For example, Jim's webcasted premature-ejaculation highlight reel with Nadia has since become a YouTube sensation that everybody has seen. There are also lots of Stifler's Mom (Jennifer Coolidge) jokes, familiar conversations about relationships, sex and marriage between Jim and his dad (Eugene Levy), although it seems the filmmakers went and killed Jim's mom just so we can get the inevitable, often adorable pairing of Jim's Dad and Stifler's Mom.

But so much of American Reunion is trumped-up conflict and drama, followed within minutes by resolution and making up, all timed perfectly to come together at the actual reunion, where a few more familiar faces pop up, rounding out practically the entire cast of the first film. Oz and Heather (Mena Suvari) find out they're still attracted to each other, even though they both brought obnoxious dates to the event; Kevin and Vicky (Tara Reid, she of the raspy voice) try not to rekindle things, since he's happily married and all; while Finch finds potential romance with a new character, Selena (Dania Ramirez, who I recognized as Turtle's girlfriend Alex on "Entourage" and as Callisto in X-Men: The Last Stand), who supposedly went to school with all of these people but we just conveniently never met until now.

The problem with this movie is that there's nothing to hold onto when Stifler isn't making us laugh or think. Seann William Scott has done the impossible: taken the most shallow, one-dimensional character the series has ever had and given him something resembling depth and purpose, while still maintaining his status as King of the Douchebags. In a way, it's nice to visit old friends that you haven't seen in a while. But sometimes when that happens, you realize that you've outgrown them or that they aren't people you'd necessarily hang out with today. The gang makes a pledge at the end of the film to get together more often, and not just as reunions, but I'm hoping this is the end of the road for this group of friends who I feel I have outgrown. The film is bittersweet as it portrays a group of people who essentially peaked in high school and are finding adult life to be a real disappointment. There's a reason I've never been to one of my high school reunions.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I'm not a sushi person. Fine, add it to the list of my shortcomings. There are a few rolls I'll dabble in but for the most part, I don't eat it. I wish I were someone who craved sushi, but I'm not. A first-world dilemma if ever there was one. However, I saw a documentary not long ago that changed my entire outlook on the idea of eating this acquired-taste foodstuff, and I'm here to make this bold statement: the first person to fly me to Tokyo to eat at the modest (it seats 10) Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant and be served by master chef Jiro Ono, who has been practicing his art for nearly all of his nearly 90 years on earth, I will eat sushi with them like there is no tomorrow.

This utterly fascinating documentary from director David Gelb is not just about a lifelong restauranteur; it's about a man who has truly dedicated his entire life to being the best in a specific practice. As a result, Sukiyabashi Jiro won the three-star Michelin honor, making Jiro Ono the oldest Michelin chef living today. The film follows two distinct paths: the personal and the professional, although the two are so closely aligned it's sometimes difficult to tell them apart. Jiro Ono has two sons -- one who owns a mirror-imaged version of the same restaurant (because Jiro is left-handed, and his son is right-handed) in another part of Tokyo, and the second who works in the restaurant with his father and has been selected as the heir apparent when Jiro steps down at the flagship venue.

We watch as he constantly suggests subtle changes in preparation technique to the son he works with, and it's indescribable how magnificent it is to watch a master watch every step in the process of preparing the food, from the selection and cooking of the rice in a very specific manner to the purchasing of the fish from a market to painting the final brush of sauce that goes on the sushi portion before it is plated and served. Jiro has very specific rules about serving; obviously takeout/delivery is not an option. Food must be eaten as soon as it's made, one piece at a time.

Jiro comes across as a sweet old man at first, but as we hear from those who have known him for decades, including his family, we realize the guy is a bit of tyrant that is probably acting a little less dictatorial in front of the cameras. But even that is adorable in its own way. In the end, the film is about the kind of passion that comes from doing a job you love, the kind of job that you now could not be done better in anyone else's hands. The work makes Jiro the first at the restaurant every morning and the last to leave at night. It's a lifestyle that has impacted his health and will likely kill him, but I'm guessing he'll be OK going out like that.

The style of Jiro Dreams of Sushi matches that of its subject -- there's not a lot of flash, it's clean, simple, quiet, and while Jiro is happy to walk us through his day-to-day process, this is mostly a film about watching a master make perfection look easy. It's a quick movie (about 80 minutes), but I promise you, you will never forget this film or this man. This is one of those instances where I simply ask you to trust me; you will be moved and forever changed by seeing this magnificent film. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Four Lovers

I recently watched the lovely new film The Boy with a Bike with a family member who declared it "very French," and I guess I know what she meant -- somewhat emotionally detached, shot simply, wonderfully acted, and featuring one of those abrupt endings that both frustrates and opens up the room for conversation and analysis. But being someone who perhaps over indulges in French cinema, I also know that its current landscape spans a vast array of styles, subjects and emotional depths. All of that being said, even I have to admit there is something uniquely French (in that sexually progressive kind of way) about the writer-director Antony Cordier's second film, Four Lovers.

The scenario basically explains it all. Two couples meet, become friends, and decide that they will occasionally switch partners when the scheduling works out for all four. I'm told this practice is called "échangisme," and it's not a particularly scandalous phenomenon in France, where it is apparently practiced by many. These aren't considered affairs because all parties are involved and aware; it exists as a purely sexual experience that is meant to keep the marriages fresh and exciting. Certainly the way the participants in Four Lovers experience it, this is a mature, advanced thing that becomes riddled with complications as the four become closer.

What's especially interesting about this film is the caliber of acting and the explicit nature of the work. The entire experiment kicks off when jewelry designer Rachel (Marina Foïs) meets her business' web designer, Vincent (Nicolas Duvauchelle of White Material). This encounter leads to a dinner with her husband Franck (one of my favorite actors from any country, Roschdy Zem of Days of Glory and Point Blank) and Vincent's wife Teri (Elodie Bouchez of The Dreamlife of Angels), and the agreement just falls into place. I was fascinated by the way everyone stays friends, which I suppose is easier when everything is out in the open.

But also without realizing it, a subtle shift occurs when Teri and Franck begin hanging out, and the irony of the arrangement becomes clear -- it's not the sexual encounters that threaten the marriages; it's the more casual, intimate moments. But I remained fascinated by the friendship and the strength it brought to the respective couples. There's a sequence where the four go to the country on vacation, and it's one of the most romantic and beautiful things you're likely to see all year. But like all things of beauty, the échangisme begins to evaporate when real feelings kick in, and in its final act, Four Lovers becomes an emotionally wrenching experience.

Explicit sex scenes aside, the movie works because there is chemistry between all of the participants. No, the men do not sleep together (the women do, once), but they form a close friendship that was weirdly supportive. The group doesn't set up any rules at the beginning, and I don't think it's a coincidence that once guidelines are established (don't wear each other's clothes, no sleepovers, etc.), that marks the beginning of the end because suddenly certain actions start to hurt or make someone jealous a little more than they used to). Four Lovers is a film of minor moments that grow into deeply bonding connections, between the characters and with the audience, and that's the mark of any truly great movie. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

A Trip to the Moon/The Extraordinary Voyage

At my annual December trip to Butt-Numb-a-Thon in Austin, Texas, this past year, we were treated to a unique double feature. The first was Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a film that had, at the time, been out a few weeks, but the gentleman programming the event was so in love with the celebration of a bygone, magical era in silent film, that he wanted to make sure all of us had seen it (and many hadn't). But honestly, I think the programmed really showed the film as an way of prefacing the next movie he screened, the 15-minute 1902 masterpiece from French director Georges Méliès (the subject of Hugo, in which he is played by Ben Kingsley), A Trip to the Moon, the most successful film of its time. If for no other reason, I'm thrilled Hugo exists so it can reintroduce the world to Méliès' work, much of which has been lost.

Now for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a beautifully restored, rare color version of A Trip to the Moon will play, along with a wonderful hour-long documentary that covers both Méliès' career and life, as well as the painstaking process that brought this color version of the film back to life. Make no mistake, this is not a colorized version of the film. As directors Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange explain, many of Méliès' films were turned into color prints thanks to hand-painting done at a workshop in France. I've seen a few docs about restoring one more or another (most recently one about the latest "complete" version of Metropolis), but none has captured me the way The Extraordinary Voyage does, as it walks us step by step through the grueling process.

The documentary features testimonials about the influence of Méliès from French filmmakers such as Costa-Gavras, Michel Gondry, Michel Hazanavicius, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, as well as recent archival footage of Tom Hanks talking about Méliès, whom he paid tribute to in one of the "From the Earth to the Moon" episodes on HBO many years back. The film is rich with information, a passion for silent films, and a love letter to those who devote their lives, one frame at a time, to film restoration. Both this new version of A Trip to the Moon and the documentary will be available on Blu-ray on April 10, but if you get an opportunity to see either on the big screen, you really should take advantage. The shared experience is both rare and a reason for much celebration.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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