Tag: ken watanabe


Tampopo (1986)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Food lovers of all palates are certain to relish the numerous delectable images in “Tampopo,” an original, daring, and amusing love letter to our relationship with food, not only as a source of nourishment but how it makes us feel good—its visual presentation, scents, textures, flavors, the memories they evoke. Although a comedy, its strategy is never one-note as it consistently introduces one playful scenario after another. Yet, still, the picture does not come across as desultory, never relying on a parade of half-cocked ideas as painfully generic comedies so often do.

On the contrary, it is cohesive, its boundless enthusiasm serving as glue between episodes that may or may not relate to the main plot directly. Better yet—the film is not about plot; its focus is to provide a warm, sensory experience. Its overall goal, I think, is to tickle us from the side of our stomach and, over time, the very funny scenarios pave the way for the sensation to spread vertically in both directions.

With his sidekick named Gun (Ken Watanabe), a truck driver accepts a widow’s desperate plea to help improve her ramen restaurant. In a series of montages reminiscent of samurai pictures, Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki) shows Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) the way, beginning with carefully observing how neighboring, more successful restaurants work—even though a few of them serve subpar ramen. Naturally, they come across characters along the way who will contribute to the realization of the perfect Japanese ramen.

The beauty about its approach is that it works as a satire on one level. However, looking more closely, it touches upon a number of oft forgotten artistry. For example, Gorô points out the importance of welcoming customers with vigor as they enter one’s place of business; looking at them in the eyes while taking their orders; smiling; delivering a warm and happy body language; remembering who ordered which item, any specifications, and in which sequence. Once the meal is served: observing the patrons’ reactions to it, particularly taking note of how they leave their bowls. Is there soup or noodle left? Why?

In a way, the film provides an educational experience. Each step is informative because it is a chance for the owner/server to evaluate how business is going—not necessarily when it comes to money but it terms of service: providing satisfaction and happiness. Note that not once is money shown on screen because that is not the point, you see. We hear the coins jingle while they are being handed from consumer to staff, but it is almost like an afterthought. During the action of providing payment, the camera remains distant from a couple of feet away as it continues to underscore the essence of a beautiful personal—and communal—experience.

Lodged in between the breezy strides of the main plot is further levity. They are bold but handled with class. An old woman who visits a supermarket not to buy food but to grope and squeeze them. Notice her facial expressions as she molests each item. An etiquette class composed of only women on how to eat spaghetti… and the man sitting from a few feet away who doesn’t care about such formalities. It makes us question which extreme is more ridiculous. A gangster (Kôji Yakusho) and his lover (Fukumi Kuroda) incorporate food into their sex life. We return to these two several times. At first what they share is amusing, taboo, but it grows to be quite erotic. The couple is so beautifully photographed, I wished they had their own movie.

“Tampopo” is written with great imagination and directed with a keen eye by Jûzô Itami. Even though it is a comedy, certainly a parody in some ways and a satire of spaghetti westerns at times which means that no one is immune from becoming the target of our amusement, it is ensured in every frame that we feel the love he has for his characters, and that it is important for him that we learn to love them, too. It is a work that has the power to change one’s mood completely, a bowl of lovingly prepared hot ramen soup on a cold, rainy day.


Godzilla (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When I heard of news that Gareth Edwards was going to direct “Godzilla,” I was elated because I knew he would be up to the task of creating an effective monster feature with highly defined suspense-thriller elements. After all, he helmed the impressive “Monsters,” a story about a photographer and his boss’ daughter making their way from Mexico to the United States while avoiding giant octopus-like aliens. In my original review of that picture, I cited Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” Edwards may not have had the big budget at the time but his work exhibits big imagination.

So what happens when a filmmaker with a sizable imagination is given a generous budget? Right from the opening credits, we are given a taste that the film is shaped by someone who loves images and playing with them. The black-and-white videos that have been spliced together denote curious and bizarre military activities.

Giant, fin-like structures arise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Naval fleets and planes investigate it. There are black markers drawn on highly classified documents. Stern-looking military officials observe through binoculars from afar. There is detonation of a nuclear weapon. As Alexandre Desplat’s urgent soundtrack reaches a crescendo, we realize that the images are already telling a story even before the first line of the script is uttered. It sets up the stage for people like me—someone who has never seen a Godzilla movie.

The director gives us more than just repetitive shots of the monster roaring or screeching and destroying landmarks. Edwards’ work is an antithesis of movies like Colin and Greg Strause’s nonsensical and brain cell-destroying “Skyline” and all of Michael Bay’s painfully generic, boring, unambitious, waste of time, and maddening “Transformers” sequels. Here, while we are able to see chaos and destruction, the key is that we are given time to appreciate them. It is done through humor, camera work that does not shake relentlessly when our eyes are supposed to be transfixed on a particular point, and a sense of perspective.

One of my favorite scenes in the film takes place in Oahu, Hawaii. A monster sends a plane soaring and when it crashes onto another plane at the airport, we watch a domino effect with increasing sense of dread—one plane crashing right next to the other on the left side of the screen—slowly catching up to the middle—and then a giant, leathery monster foot appearing suddenly on the right side.

Together, the images make the eyes dance and so the sequence feels like it is in slow motion even though it isn’t. Our sense of perspective is played with using a combination of horror and glee. There is horror due to the total obliteration of the planes mixed with the sounds of screaming observers from behind the glass. And yet there is glee because of the freshness and energy in the manner by which the sequence is executed. We look forward to being dazzled in the next scene. And it does not disappoint.

If one requires a plot summary it is this: A massive skeleton is discovered in the Philippines. But that is not all. Two scientists (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins) visit the site of interest and notice that right above the pit are two pods—clearly of unknown origin. Meanwhile, in Japan, an engineer (Bryan Cranston) of a nuclear plant grows increasingly wary of the signals that his equipments have been detecting. To his frustration, his superiors remain casual to his concerns. His wife (Juliette Binoche) and child (CJ Adams, later played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) look forward to the end of the day for a birthday celebration.

“Godzilla,” based on the screenplay by Max Borenstein, knows how to entertain the eyes, the mind, and our sense of anticipation—qualities that lesser films of its type so often lack that we have grown accustomed to experiencing mediocrity. The director gives us more than what we expect because he knows that we deserve more—that we should demand for more. That is a quality I look for in a great filmmaker and only time will tell if Edwards has a vision big enough to warrant the respect and longevity of his inspirations.


Inception (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The film started off like a spy film: the glamorous and exotic locale, fashionable suits, femme fatales. But unlike typical espionage pictures, the first half of the characters’ goal was not to steal a valuable object but an idea located deep inside a target’s dreams. The second (and more difficult) half was to get away with it by allowing the target to wake and continue living his life as if nothing had been taken away from him. This simplified two-step process was known as “extraction,” in which Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a leading expert. Cobb was not allowed to return to the United States to see his children so Kaito (Ken Watanabe) made an offer that Cobb simply could not refuse: to plant an idea in a future corporate leader’s mind (Cillian Murphy), known as “inception,” which had rarely been done before. If this last massion was successful, it would lead to Cobb’s freedom. In order to accomplish the mission, Cobb had to assemble a team (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao) with very special talents and they had to dive in the target’s subconscious while navigating their way through defenses set up by the mind and the secrets Cobb kept from his unsuspecting team.

When the movie started, I barely had any idea what was happening. I knew something exciting was happening on screen because of the intricate action sequences and splendid visuals but as far as the story went, it was still nondescript. However, that was not at all a problem because the film eventually established the elementary elements required so that we could have an understanding of what was about to happen. Despite its two-and-a-half-hour running time, I was impressed with its pacing. There was an assigned time for getting to know the lead character in terms of his career, his past, and his inner demons. Once I had a somewhat clear idea of his motivations, I immediately felt that there was something wrong with the way he saw the world and the specifics were eventually revealed in an elegant, sometimes emotional, and often mind-bending manner. Their missions were often sabotaged by Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s projection of his wife who had passed away, due to an unsolved guilt that he constantly pushed away. Throughout the course of the film, that guilt, like Mal, became more powerful and became a hindrance that the main character and his team could no longer set aside. Anyone with a background in Psychology will truly appreciate the film’s level of intelligence in terms of Sigmund Freud’s revolutionary idea involving the subconscious manifesting in our every day lives and maintaining our mental homeostasis. But what impressed me even more was the minute details in the script such as the characters mentioning topics such as positive and negative emotions interacting and which side had more power over the other, one’s sense of reality while being in a dream… within a dream, and even questions like “If we die in our dreams, do we die in real life?” were acknowledged. That’s one of the things I loved about the film: it was able to present ideas we are aware of but it just had enough dark twist to create something original.

As with most movies with grand ambitions, I had some questions left unanswered. What about those instances when we are aware that we are dreaming and we can control what will happen in our dreams? I have experienced such a phenomenon time and again (and I’m sure others have as well) and I was curious if and how the movie could explain such a strange occurrence. And what about those moments when we sleep but we are not yet dreaming? What if our dreams are interrupted? Sure, the team injected chemicals in their bodies to stabilize the feeling of reality in dreams but, as the movie perfectly illustrated, nothing completely goes according to plan. Perhaps I’m just being more analytical than I should be thanks to the fascinating sleep studies I encountered in Neurobiology and Psychology courses. But I believe a mark of a great film is open to question, interpretation and debate. I say we question because we have embraced the material and we are hungry for more. That’s how I know I’m emotionally and intellectually invested in a film. That absolute killer final shot and the audiences’ collective sigh of anticipation for the clear-cut answer as the screen cut to black was simply icing on the cake.

“Inception,” written and directed by Christopher Nolan, was certainly worth over a year’s wait since it was still in pre-production. I remember trying look for more information about it during my midterm study breaks (and getting so caught up in it) so I am completely elated that it was finally released and it turned out to be one of the finest and most rewarding movies of 2010. It may not have been its goal but “Inception” certainly adds a much needed positive reputation to mainstream movies, especially in a season full of sequels and spoon-fed entertainment. I was optimistic early 2010 in terms of the quality of movies about to be released in theaters, especially when Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” came out, but now I am more than convinced that the film industry is experiencing a drought of refreshing and daring ideas. Some critics may compare “Inception” to “The Matrix” (both great movies) but I think “Inception” functions on a higher level overall and it has an identity of its own. Perhaps an injection of new blood that is “Inception” will inspire movie studios to take more risks in terms of which movies they green light. There is no doubt that mindless, swashbuckling popcorn adventures or even extremely diluted romantic comedies have their place in the market. But with the critical and mass success of “Inception,” it shows that audiences are always ready to be inspired by new ideas and to dream a little bigger.