Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
This elegant little documentary follows the greatest living sushi practitioner in all of the world, Jiro Ono, who owns a tiny, whole-in-the-wall restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. The film shows Jiro's dedication, or more like obsession, with his craft and how he is constantly trying to refine his skills even at the age of 85. The film also tracks the lives of some of his employees, including his son Yoshikazu, who must toil underneath his father, expecting one day to take over the business. It is heartbreaking to hear of Yoshikazu's failed dreams of being a fighter pilot or a racecar driver. He knows that he will never surpass the work of his father and yet he must remain with the business because in his culture it is expected and by now, in middle age, he has no other skills. The documentary itself is a little repetitive, perhaps formally echoing Jiro's painstaking work ethic, but it is an engaging film throughout. For the most part director David Gelb stays out of the way, letting Jiro espound on his philosophy while lovingly photographing the deceptively simple dishes the master serves up. One wonders what a filmmaker obsessed with obsessives like Werner Herzog would have done with the material.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero's low-budget black-and-white feature is the ur-zombie movie of our time. A disparate group of people end up in an abandoned farm house when the undead rise to stalk the earth. The film uses its meager budget to good effect, having characters intimately describe traumatic events that were certainly too expensive to film. Romero, who co-wrote the script with John A. Russo, also teases out the narrative in clever ways, having half of the cast waiting in the wings for a large portion of the picture by locking them in the cellar. Once they make it upstairs the dynamics in the household change. The rather brief scenes of zombies encircling the house are sufficiently creepy and even back in 1968 Romero did not skimp on the gore. Most of the actors are playing one-note archetypes, rather poorly I might add, except for lead Duane Jones who brings a solid, well-rounded performance to the screen. The biggest problem with the feature is that the women characters are all completely useless. If they're not literally catatonic, they are whiny or used as devices to slow the men down. The best a woman is allowed to do in the film is tear up rags for Molotov cocktails. She isn't allowed to throw them or in any other way fight for herself.
A Separation (2011)
Winner of the Best Foreign Language Feature at last year's Oscars, writer/director Asghar Farhadi's tense depiction of a family moving apart in the midst of a criminal trial is a riveting piece of filmmaking. The excellent Payman Maadi plays the patriarch, a white collar banker whose wife leaves him with his daughter and Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Before she moves out she suggests housekeeping help from a struggling woman, pregnant and married to a hotheaded schlub. The film shows the damning effects of lies in the eyes of gods and daughters. No one here is untainted by faults, although some are more flawed than others. The film can be exhausting as most of its running time is devoted to people yelling at one another, justifiably so, but it can be taxing. The constant use of handheld cameras is occasionally distracting with its bobbing and weaving but the film is wisely framed in medium shots and set in claustrophobic hallways and offices, which subtly and incessantly increase the tension. The film serves a secondary fucntion as a decent portrait of contemporary Iran because many of the film's events hinge on the societal mores of the nation. This plot would play out vastly different in say, France or the United States.
Director Paul Fejös' recently restored film is a fairly breezy romance involving two working class people who find--and lose--one another during a whirlwind day at Coney Island. Fejös fills the frame with technical wizardry, using most every effect at his disposal including some choice color tinting, a host of superimposed shots, and some great scenes of montage, the best coming in the beginning which shows the bustling workaday world going through its paces. The film was released into a post-Jazz Singer world which demanded that the feature add three clunky scenes of dialogue which do nothing but kill the narrative's momentum, thanks in part to star Glenn Tryon's stilted delivery. In the silent scenes, Tryon and co-star Barbara Kent have a decent onscreen chemistry but once the microphones are on she seems far too good for him. And he seems just a tad bit creepy. At one point he tells her that he wants to buy her a house with blue shingles that match her eyes. This is after knowing the woman for approximately twenty minutes. The film's climax which sees the pair separated amidst the flood of holiday revelers is sufficiently emotional and effectively disorienting.