Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lucy a Stroke of Good Luc

Lucy: Besson-crazy

"Lucy" is the kind of movie that should be just terrible. It starts with an erroneous premise--that humans only use 10 percent of their brains--and runs with it like a hyperactive child with the biggest, sharpest pair of scissors in the drawer. Usually a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, for us, that hyperactive child is Luc Besson.

Besson ("The Fifth Element", "La Femme Nikita", "Léon") is an exciting director whose reach often exceeds his grasp but who seems more afraid of not trying hard enough than of failing. He has style. Even his missteps inspire admiration of his audacity. If Michael Bay is the Kenny G. of crazy excess in directing, Besson is Miles Davis.

In "Lucy" Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, a foreign student in Taiwan. She is an inveterate party girl and gets mixed up with the wrong people. This leads to her being forced to act as a drug mule for a murderous Korean gangster, Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). The drug is a synthetic version of a substance pregnant woman produce in small quantities and which is essential to the development of their babies. What possible value it could have as a street drug, don't ask. Just accept that that's what is happening and go from there. An accident with the drug doses Lucy with a huge amount, giving her the capacity to use more and more of her brain.

The myth that humans only use about 10 percent of their brains is patently false. Besson even acknowledged that this is not true but thought it made a good "what if". If we start with the idea that it is true, then what happens if someone breaks through that barrier and progresses toward using 100 percent of her brain? To sell us on this false premise and the idea that gaining mastery of more of the brain would grant Lucy incredible powers, Besson wisely chose to employ Morgan Freeman. As Professor Samuel Norman, a leading expert in brain function, Freeman explains all of the science of the Lucy-verse, where all of this is true. As always, he does it with great authority and geniality.

As Lucy, Johansson is engaging, performing a credible transition from flighty good-time girl to something beyond our understanding. As she grows beyond our capability and understanding, she loses what we would consider her obvious signs of humanity, seeming cold and emotionless. In the hands of a less talented writer/director than Besson, that would be all we get, but that is merely the surface. Lucy seeks out Professor Norman and, with Jang and his henchmen in blood-soaked pursuit of her, struggles to meet with him and complete her transformation. 

While there is a substantial amount of action and gunplay, Lucy, at its heart is about more than that. It is a rumination on the meaning of life and our place in the Universe. What is reality? What is our purpose? With limited perception and comprehension, are we even capable of asking the questions? The Matrix films tried to deal with these questions with a mix of methamphetamine-fueled action and stoner philosophy, but "Lucy" has evolved beyond that bloated trilogy. It doesn't matter if "Lucy" is real. What matters is that it is True.

The film is visually exciting and great fun to watch, as one would expect from Besson. Also, as one would expect, not everything seems to come together. Some of what are obviously supposed to be emotional moments don't quite work, lacking the depth Besson achieved with"Léon." There are lulls in places where we might expect action and action where we might expect more quiet. As such, I can't bring myself to give this film a four-star rating (and I don't do half-stars), so I reluctantly give it a three. However, I will definitely be watching it again as it is highly-entertaining and unexpectedly thoughtful. 

Rating: 3/5

Monday, September 30, 2013

Pleasant Surprise

Not Oyshi Sushi. I didn't think to take a picture there. Credit: Nesnad

The great thing about eating at a chain restaurant is that you know exactly what you'll be getting. It should be the same in Toronto or Vancouver, identical in San Francisco and Singapore. That's a big part of the appeal. Consistency. Therein is the worst thing about them as well. There is no room for the highs or the lows.

Independent restaurants, then, are for thrillseekers. Highs unattainable at a chain and lows that would get a franchisee called on the carpet by the regional manager and everything in between. For those of us with a limited budget for dining out, every new independent is like a trip to a culinary casino.

Oyshi Sushi (10-12 Queens Quay W, Unit  107) turned out to be a winner. Located across the street from the Westin Harbour Castle, it is on a stretch of Queens Quay removed from other dining establishments. My wife and I had just returned from a trip to the Islands and had some time before our ride was due. I was reluctant to try this place. I'm not much impressed by sushi places. I lived in Japan for three years and sushi places in Toronto, at least the ones within my budget, rarely impress. The only other dining option nearby, however, was a sports bar, so we gave it a shot. Lucky us.

The place is tucked away in a walkway between two  condo towers and easy to miss. We received a friendly greeting when we entered the place to check it out. It's rather cute. There's a small sushi bar a few tables out in the open, then a number of booths. The booths are actually fully enclosed, reminiscent of the private rooms in upscale restaurants in Japan. There is a table and four chairs inside. It's a bit cramped, but it does lend it a very nice Japanese vibe. They provided us with a complimentary bowl of edamame when we sat down.

I approached the menu with some trepidation, though, deciding to order the tempura udon (thick noodles in broth with shrimp and vegetable tempura on the side). My wife got the unagi donburi (grilled eel on rice). We added a spicy California roll and a salmon skin roll. These rolls aren't really sushi, they're pretty hard to mess up, and they were cheap. Each of our entrees came with salad and my wife's also came with miso soup. The salad was fresh and crisp. The miso, however, was a big surprise. Unlike a lot of places, Oyshi is using real miso, not a powdered mix. This was the first sign that this place might be something out of the ordinary.

The surprises kept coming when the main courses arrived. The prices here are reasonable and it's a high-rent district, yet the portions are quite generous. I was not expecting such a large bowl of noodles or as much tempura. My wife received a good-sized portion of unagi and plenty of rice. When the rolls came, cut into pieces and served on a platter, I realized that we had ordered too much food. Fortunately, when we started eating, we found that the dishes were very good. The flavours seemed authentic and the dishes had been prepared with skill. My udon was firm and chewy, not soft and overcooked as I've sometimes had elsewhere. The tempura batter was just ever so slightly on the thick side but I'd certainly had worse in Japan and rarely had better in Toronto. The unagi was nicely seasoned and cooked just right. The rolls also impressed, being flavourful and showing care in preparation.

Service throughout the meal was attentive but not intrusive. The tea cups and water glasses were kept filled. In the end, we managed to finish everything. Barely. We left feeling quite full and having spent under forty dollars, including tax and tip. I was so impressed with the food that I want to go back and try the sushi, which is perhaps the greatest surprise of all.

Oyshi Sushi, 10-12 Queens Quay W, Unit 107, Toronto, Ontario, M5J 2R9 Tel: (416) 216-0709
The restaurant is accessible with washrooms on the same level. Nice, clean washrooms.
Monday-Saturday 11:30-23:00. Closed Sunday.

And Just Where Was I?

To answer the question that must have been burning in the mind of my reader, my prolonged absence was as the result of an illness in the family. My father took ill. I spent a lot of time with him and dealing with his affairs. Then he died. It's something very strange. I am of two minds about it. Having to watch someone you love sicken and deteriorate is very painful. I went through it with my mother and, more recently, my father. The comfort in it, however, is that you do get a chance to say things to each other. To make peace with things. As much as one can, anyway. I do take comfort in that. I think it's better than having someone taken suddenly. Still, play it safe and be good to those you love. Tell them nice things whenever you can.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Exchanging Notes: A Literary Cabaret 2013

The Toronto Writers' Co-operative, which is a grand organization, has, for the last five years, hosted an event called Exchanging Notes: A Literary Cabaret. In the event, members of the co-op are paired with musicians to perform a piece with music. This year, the event took place on January 15th. I have just received my copy of the video of the event and present it for your enjoyment. 

I didn't have anything written for the event when I first heard about it, but thought it sounded like too much fun to pass up. I'm a bit disappointed in my performance. I think it's too strident. I should have been more nuanced in my presentation. Oh well, there's always next year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Giant Hobbit a Bad Idea

Goofy looking dwarves. And a hobbit.
Dwarves and a hobitt.© 2012 Warner Brothers Entertainment
Peter Jackson's latest film, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" takes us back to Middle Earth for an epic tale of adventure. At least that's what it's supposed to do. Unfortunately, this is too big a movie for too small a story. Like a hobbit in a size 48-long suit, there is just too much extraneous material and the interesting stuff is trapped inside all that excess.

The tale starts off as flashback to The Lord of the Rings, with the old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) deciding to write his memoir of his adventures. Unfortunately, like The Lord of the Rings, there will be three films before we're finished The Hobbit. Given that there is only one not-very-long book as source material, everything plods. Jackson has even taken to making up entire sub-plots to fill the space.

The story starts with Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a wizard, recruiting Bilbo to help a band of dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), in their quest to reclaim their home, the vast underground city in the Lonely Mountain. This was lost when a dragon, Smaug, attracted by the riches of the mountain. invaded it, driving the dwarves out, turning them into a tribe of refugees.

It's a pretty straightforward story. Hobbit and band of companions must traipse across New Zealand (standing in for Middle Earth again) to reach a mountain to battle a powerful foe and reclaim the throne for the rightful heir. In this version, there is also a lot of foreshadowing of the events of The Lord of the Rings, a revenge sub-plot involving an albino orc wanting to kill Thorin (who had previously bested him in battle), a battle with a horde of goblins, and Bilbo's meeting with the nasty Gollum, from whom he steals the ring that everyone is wanting to be lord of in that other trilogy.

They don't get very close to The Lonely Mountain. Given that there are about another six hours of celluloid to go, they probably won't in the next instalment either.

Martin Freeman (the UK "The Office" and BBC's recent "Sherlock" series) gives a good performance as Bilbo. He really does come across as nicely reserved, unassuming, but up to a challenge when-push-comes-to-shove. Ian McKellen is a nicely puckish Gandalf, as he was in The Lord of the Rings. There are cameos from other LOTR cast, such as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, and Elijiah Wood. Armitage plays dwarf prince Thorin as something of a poor-man's Aragorn. He's brooding and tortured but he's no Viggo Mortensen.

The visual effects of the film are good, for the most part. The notable exception is the dwarf makeup. It generally looks silly. Armitage and a couple of pretty-boy dwarves aren't burdened by any facial prosthetics but the rest of the band aren't so lucky. There are big battles and chases, reminiscent of what we saw in The Lord of the Rings, all striving to be epic in what is essentially a small story. Therein lies the central problem.

There are two ways to make a story epic: You can make a huge saga, with the fate of the nation/world/ civilization in the balance, a story where the characters take part in epic events. Or, you can have a small story where the characters have their own epic moments. Where they rise above what they thought themselves capable of, achieving in the face of adversity. Jackson has chosen the former and therefore everything is bigger, longer, and louder than it should be. Having spent so much time around hobbits, you'd think he'd know that good things can come in small packages.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, September 21, 2012

"No One Lives" Will Make You Wish for Death

Luke Evans is coming to ruin your night at the movies. Run!  © Pathé International 2012
"No One Lives" is a horror film that goes too far. One syllable too far, crossing from "horror" to "horrible."

The premise of Ryuhei Kitamura's ("Versus", "The Midnight Meat Train") latest is promising. A handsome young couple (Luke Evans and Laura Ramsey) are moving, relocating, trailer in tow behind their BMW.  They catch the attention of a gang of local criminals. We know these are bad criminals because we saw one gang member murder a whole family that stumbled upon them burgling the family's home. The rest of the gang is upset because this cost them money when they had to cut their burglary short. The kicker here is that, when they hijack the couple, hoping for some easy money, the everyday monsters unleash the wrath of a true monster.

It turns out the couple are holding Emma, a missing heiress (Adelaide Clemens), captive and have been for months, since she went missing from the scene of a brutal mass murder. Unfortunately, the film can never make this idea of evil versus EVIL deliver. Kitamura's direction is, for the most part, pedestrian. Anyone hoping for style that elevates this film above standard gore-filled horror will be disappointed. There are a few moments, a few scenes, that, however ridiculous they might be, do stand out, making one wish for more. It would have at least made it visually engaging. The acting the pacing, and the dialogue all come up short. They're never so bad that it's good. Just bad.

The one thing that is intriguing, is Emma. Held captive and brutalized by the unnamed psychopath, she finds herself again a captive. The gang hope to strike it rich by returning her for a reward, but seem unclear on how to go about it, given their involvement in a car-jacking, kidnapping, and the steadily mounting pile of dead bodies and body parts. Now she's stuck in the middle, observing that her best chance of escape is while her former captor is killing the gang. While fearful of him, it's clear she has no doubt he can best the crew. One can't help wonder if she can really escape him or if she has developed Stockholm Syndrome and will find it impossible to break free. That idea never really coalesces into anything, thanks to bad writing and Clemens' limitations as an actress.

When "No One Lives" finally ends, in a most unsatisfying way, one is glad to have survived. That you just wasted 86 minutes of your life on a film with no scares, no brains, and no style is the only horror on offer.

Rating: 1/5

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In the Court of the Moonrise King

Suzy and Sam in a field in Moonrise Kingdom
Suzy and Sam get their bearings in Moonrise Kingdom   ©2012 Focus Features
Sometimes things just work out right. "Moonrise Kingdom," the latest from director Wes Anderson is a good case in point. Those who are already acolytes of Mr. Anderson will need no convincing that this is a brilliant work; those who are not may actually find themselves understanding what all the fuss is about. "Moonrise Kingdom" is the perfect blend of components.

The story, on its simplest level is about a pair of 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy (played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward respectively), who, smitten, run away together. Sam uses his scout troop's trip to New Penzance Island, Suzy's home, to enact the plan they have been brewing since first meeting during his trip to the island a year earlier. Their ensuing adventure, including being pursued by the  authorities (Suzy's parents, Sam's scoutmaster, and the island cop) drives what is, at heart, a chase movie. Of course, nothing about "Moonrise Kingdom" is quite that straight-forward.

Set in 1965, "Moonrise Kingdom"  exists in a time and place that feels just familiar enough that it makes us fall fully for the illusion. The world Anderson shows us doesn't exist and never did. Instead, it is an utterly fictional place, with every element stylized to evoke a memory, feeling, or longing. Should such things not reside in your subconscious, Anderson will implant them. The film's score is outstanding in this respect, setting the perfect tone.

Great credit must go to Gilman and Hayward. Their young lovers are entirely believable in an emotional sense. Awkward, childish, and whole-hearted, their feelings struggle to break through to a mature, adult love. Meanwhile, the adults struggle to find a way to soothe their own aching hearts. Suzy's parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are lawyers, their pillowtalk consisting of details of cases they're working. They are more partners than lovers. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) of Island Police, a bachelor, is paralyzed by lost love, and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), puts all of his energy into leading his scouts. All our characters are looking for fulfillment. They are all variations on a theme, a universal constant. Only Sam and Suzy are brave enough, naive enough, or wise enough to actually pursue it.

Suzy is a devotee of children's fiction, the kind of books children used to read, which told tales of children going on amazing adventures, triumphing over adversity, and growing toward adulthood on the way. This is a rather obvious sign that we are not to let our perceptions of reality constrain "Moonrise Kingdom." It is a fantasy, a tale of a journey, by turns touching, terrifying, and tempestuous, through a landscape of our own making, the wilderness of New Penzance representing the uncharted paths before us, rife with obstacles to be overcome and battles to be fought. That Anderson can make the tumult of burgeoning adolescence and the perpetual uncertainty of adulthood funny and sweet is remarkable. As is often the case with the best fiction, it is marvellously true precisely because it is unconcerned with the facts.

There are bound to be those who criticise "Moonrise Kingdom" for being too twee, or too stylized or simply unrealistic. They are the same kind of people who ask how all the strangers on the street in a musical know the dance steps and where the music is coming from. They will never understand. This is a film for those who can hear the music and haven't forgotten how to dance.

Rating: 5/5