“Midnight Diner” and “Sparks;” Two Compelling Netflix Shows from Japan

February 3, 2017 § Leave a comment

Kaoru Kobayashi in "Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories"

Kaoru Kobayashi in “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”

Kazuki Namioka and Kento Hayashi in "Sparks"

Kazuki Namioka and Kento Hayashi in “Sparks”

One of the bright spots of the past couple of months has been my discovery of two new Japanese series on Netflix, both excellent. Both shows are based on books: “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” (“Shinya Shukudou“) on a manga (graphic novel) series, and “Sparks” (“Hibana“) on a novel. Season One for both series is available on Netflix, and both will continue.

“Midnight Diner,” takes place in one of the countless small, owner-operated restaurants located on side streets throughout Tokyo. What distinguishes this one is its hours–midnight to 7am–and its owner, a handsome, stoic man known as Master (Kaoru Kobayashi). Master’s facial scar and bearing suggest a mysterious past as a sword fighter, though it is never discussed. In his current life, Master is a talented cook who runs a tight ship: only one item on the menu but endless possibilities, based on ingredients he is given or has at hand. And though diverse viewpoints are welcome in the diner, there’s no fighting allowed.

Each episode is named for a different dish, most of which evoke strong feelings of nostalgia for those who order them. In “Corn Dog,” an old, washed- up comedian continues to treat his former protégé, now a successful TV actor, as his lackey. In “Tan-Men” (a kind of ramen), an actress-turned-chauffeur meets a late night D.J., who later recognizes her as the superhero idol of his youth. “Ham Cutlet” follows a soon-to-be-retired lawyer and his long-lost stepbrother who is fighting eviction from a city-owned apartment building.

Though each episode features different people, a core group of regulars provide both color and continuity. They include bar hostesses, two men who dress as women and a group of ladies who are either insomniacs or office workers on the night shift. Though separated by gender, sexual orientation and income, all are loyal to Master, who observes the action and offers sage counsel.

There’s a beautiful melancholy to the series that is at once universal and very Japanese. Watching it, I felt as if Yasujiro Ozu, Edward Hopper and the writers of “Cheers” had gotten together to make “Midnight Diner;” it’s that good.

Less accessible but no less fascinating is “Sparks,” which follows a two sets of Manzai stand-up comedians as their careers rise and fall. Manzai, which originated during the Heian Period (8th-12th centuries) but is strongly identified with Osaka during the Meji Era, involves rapid-fire bantering between a straight man (tsukkomi) and a fool (boke).

When the series opens, the young boke protagonist, Tokunaga (Kento Hayashi), and his partner arrive in Atami, a seaside resort city, to perform at its summer festival. Though they bomb, Tokunaga strikes up a fateful friendship with Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka), the boke of an older, more skillful duo, and quickly becomes his protégé. As the series progresses, Tokunaga’s star rises while Kamiya’s falls, changing but not destroying their friendship, which (like those in “Midnight Diner”) is cemented over restaurant meals.

For Japanese speakers, “Sparks” offers a bonus: it’s a crash course in slang-laden, Kansai dialect, male Japanese. For everyone else, it’s a bromance that sheds light on an ancient but still vital Japanese comedy tradition. Although it took me a few episodes to get hooked on it, I’m looking forward to Season Two.

Remembering Carrie Fisher

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Carrie Fisher in 2013

Carrie Fisher in 2013


Carrie Fisher’s death on December 27th was an unexpected tragedy: she had suffered a massive heart attack on her flight from London on December 23rd, the nightmare scenario of every frequent flier. Why December 23rd? Why London? I soon learned she was flying back from filming the Amazon series “Catastrophe,” in which she plays Rob Delaney’s mother. As for the timing, it was obvious: she had made sure to get home in time for Christmas.

The death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, of a stroke on December 28th was shocking in its timing, though not as unexpected: Reynolds was 84 and had been in poor health. Although a mordant joke circulated that Debbie had managed to upstage her daughter one last time, her death underscored their devoted relationship: the two were next-door neighbors on a compound in Beverly Hills and in daily contact.

Both women became famous for films they made at 19: Reynolds for “Singing in the Rain” and Fisher for “Star Wars,” yet their careers couldn’t have been more different. Reynolds was a studio creation, an MGM musical star whose cabaret act lasted more than fifty years. She wanted a similar career for her daughter, bringing her onstage to sing from the age of 13, but despite an excellent voice–strong, bluesy and jazzy–Fisher blazed her own trail. After a stellar film debut in “Shampoo,” in which the 17-year-old fed, interrogated and seduced Warren Beatty in two riveting scenes, she beat out every young actress in Hollywood for the role of Princess Leia. “Star Wars” would have been enough for most people, but Fisher went on to write books: five novels (including Postcards from the Edge, which became a feature film) and three memoirs, one of which, Wishful Drinking, became a one-woman show.

Beyond her published writing, Carrie Fisher was for decades a sought-after screenwriter, not only on original work but on other people’s screenplays. Punching up scripts was her bread and butter and she did it well, adding jokes and fleshing out characters in the “Star Wars” series and in comedies like “Hook,” “Sister Act,” and “Made in America.” She also wrote for the Academy Awards, among many other TV shows. Despite her excellent acting in films like “When Harry Met Sally,” to me she was a writer first and an actress second.

It was through writing that I had my only encounter with Carrie Fisher, at a literary event in the mid-2000’s. It was a small, private gathering so I expected to meet her, but when she arrived–late, badly groomed and out of sorts–I knew it was not to be. As the anxious hosts huddled around Fisher, I sensed she would have rather been anywhere else, yet she had dragged herself to their house after sprinkling glitter in her unwashed hair. I can’t pretend that her brief reading was good, but after joking about the glitter she pushed through it, and probably with more difficulty than any of us knew. Her mother, a tireless trouper, taught her well.

Afterwards her struggles with bi-polar disorder led to hospitalization and shock therapy, which in turn led to a career resurgence–more books, the “Wishful Drinking” show, two more “Star Wars” movies and “Catastrophe.” Fisher’s late work included a documentary, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which aired posthumously on HBO last weekend. Intended as a tribute to her mother, the film now seems a testament to the kind of family values that aren’t supposed to exist in Hollywood. Of course they do, but the Fisher-Reynolds bond was exceptionally strong, and in the end unbreakable.

The Hollyweed Sign and Its Predecessor

January 3, 2017 § 1 Comment

The Hollywood Sign on January 1, 2017/Courtesy LA Times

The Hollywood Sign on January 1, 2017/Courtesy LA Times

Because I was out of town on New Year’s Day, I missed seeing the Hollywood Sign transformed to read “Hollyweed.” Nevertheless, I heard about it from neighbors as soon as I woke up, and shortly afterwards from every imaginable news outlet . While I was surprised that the prankster got away with it, the prank itself wasn’t new, as I knew from making my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign.”* On New Year’s Day, 1976, less than two years before the completion of the current Sign, a prankster named Daniel Finegood did exactly the same thing to the orignal Hollywood Sign. Here’s a photo:

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

At the time of the first prank, the Sign was a crumbling, unguarded relic that anyone willing to climb to could access. Today, the rebuilt Sign is fenced, alarmed and off-limits to visitors without official permits. (Disclosure: I have filmed there twice, both times with permission.) Because the Sign stands below a militarized emergency communications center, trespassers are subject to arrest–or so the City claims. That whoever who transformed the Sign was able to escape notice, let alone arrest, is proof that the Sign’s alarm system failed or went unheeded. One wonders whether terrorists have taken note.

The Hollyweed incident capped off a particularly frenetic holiday week, when thousands of tourists walking in the street (itself a crime) on the sidewalk-less part of Beachwood Drive endangered themselves and trapped residents in and out of their homes. Beyond the gridlock, there’s everything that comes with uncontrolled crowds: trash, public urination, defecation and sex, trespassing, illegal parking, drinking and drug use. The Hollyweed prank was the last straw–and also the event that exposed the lies and double-dealing of Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilman David Ryu, who have long promised to enforce the law in Hollywoodland. They haven’t and they don’t, and now it’s indisputable.

*”Under the Hollywood Sign” is available on DVD and as a digital download from http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com

Holiday Gift Ideas From Under the Hollywood Sign

December 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Back of the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Back of the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

In 2009 I started this blog to promote my work as a documentary filmmaker and writer, the fruits of which are available as downloads and/or DVDs. If you’ve enjoyed my blog, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the work that inspired it.

DVDs will be shipped overseas as well as domestically. Please order soon to have them arrive in time for the holidays.

Documentaries on DVD:

JIM THOMPSON, SILK KING–Remastered 2015 Version with DVD extras http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/

THE JIM THOMPSON HOUSE AND ART COLLECTION http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/

UNDER THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/

PEG ENTWISTLE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF AN ACTRESS http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/

Documentaries on Vimeo:

JIM THOMPSON, SILK KING–2015 Version with DVD extras https://vimeo.com/ondemand/silkking?utm_source=email&utm_medium=vod-vod_publish_confirmation-201408&utm_campaign=10308&email_id=dm9kX3B1Ymxpc2hfY29uZmlybWF0aW9ufGYyYjY0OTMzYjc0MTVjM2Y4ODdiY2E5ZWJjNGJmM2I0NjUwfDI1Nzc3MzE3fDE0NDI5NDU5MDV8MTAz

UNDER THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

PEG ENTWISTLE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF AN ACTRESS http://vimeo.com/ondemand/17445/100467934

e-Books:

ON “BLADE RUNNER”: FOUR ESSAYS https://www.amazon.com/Blade-Runner-Four-Essays-ebook/dp/B00E8M1GW2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1400119149&sr=1-1&keywords=on+%22blade+runner%22+by+hope+anderson

PEG ENTWISTLE AND THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN https://www.amazon.com/Entwistle-Hollywood-Sign-Hope-Anderson-ebook/dp/B00FSOGCV4/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1400119275&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=peg+entwistle+and+the+hollywoodsign+by+hope+anderson

Life In All Its Colors: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea”

November 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea"

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea”

Most American films about families–in fact, most American films–are about progress: in the course of two hours, happiness–or at least resolution–is achieved, and the characters move forward with their lives. But it didn’t used to be that way: before “Rocky,” films often ended unhappily, or at least ambiguously. These less-than-happy endings made movies a lot like life, and the lack of them is precisely what makes today’s films so unsatisfying and unreal. No wonder there are so many movies about superheroes today–an obvious fantasy is better than a contrivance disguised as the truth.

Happily, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a bracing refutation of that style. When we first see its protagonist, Lee Chandler, he’s grinding through a series of long days as the super for four Boston area apartment buildings, doing everything from shoveling snow to fixing toilets and electrical problems. He lives alone in a basement apartment, talks as little as possible, and alienates everyone he meets with his unfriendliness. His social life consists of drinking alone in a bar until he lashes out for no reason, pummeling strangers with his fists. The grimness of his life seems self-imposed but we don’t know why, and won’t for some time.

Lee gets word of his older brother Joe’s sudden death, and this sets the plot in motion. He takes a week off to return to his Cape Ann hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, to make funeral arrangements and settle Joe’s affairs, intending to come back to Quincy afterwards. But Joe has a 16-year-old son, Patrick, whose alcoholic mother is out of the picture, and Lee discovers that the will names him as his nephew’s guardian. Unwilling to assume the role of father and son, Lee and Patrick embark on an uneasy new relationship marked by grief, anger and–because Patrick can’t drive–a lot of carpooling.

Lonergan, a playwright as well as screenwriter and director, is a master of realistic dialogue. His characters don’t make speeches and are sometimes at a loss for words; when they do talk, they talk economically. He is also a master of silences: several key scenes are filmed through windows without sound, but everything you need to know is conveyed by the actors, all superb. Casey Affleck, always excellent, gives the performance of his career as Lee.

Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, we learn the source of Lee’s violent anger, depression and self-exile. It’s a trauma so huge that there’s no way to rationalize, let alone recover from, it. Lee is in purgatory and always will be, as he knows. While he does his best for Patrick, it’s far from the resolution Joe (or anyone) would have hoped for. Yet the ending rings true, like everything in the “Manchester by the Sea,” including the accents. I can’t remember when I last saw a more satisfying film.

Remembering Leonard Cohen

November 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Leonard Cohen, in concert. France, 1970 (Photo by P. Ullman/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Leonard Cohen, in concert. France, 1970 (Photo by P. Ullman/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

News of Leonard Cohen’s death on the heels of the Presidential election was a bruise upon a blow. He had been much on my mind lately, as I’d just listened to an audio interview he did at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles on the release of his new album “You Want It Darker,” and read David Remnick’s recent profile of him in the New Yorker. Although he was 82 and frail, Cohen was on a late career roll. It didn’t seem as if the new album would be his last.

Like a lot of people, I discovered Leonard Cohen though Judy Collins’ covers of his songs “Suzanne,” “The Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy.” Later I came to prefer his own versions of those songs and others, finding nuance that the singers who covered them lacked. I don’t know why I never saw him in concert, but I did encounter him on one of his recent tours, walking toward me through a Bay Area hotel lobby in a dapper suit and fedora. His handsome guitarist caught my eye first, and by the time I registered Cohen’s surprising appearance he had almost passed by. Though we were all staying at the hotel I saw only the guitarist again, to my regret.

Earlier this year I wrote about a screening of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” that commemorated the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who died on New Year’s Day. One of the things I liked most about the film was its score: three perfect songs by Leonard Cohen, sung by him. Despite all the articles and obituaries that have been printed this week, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” remains my favorite tribute to Cohen’s work. Here’s a link to the post, which includes a clip from the film: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/revisiting-mccabe-and-mrs-miller-robert-altman-and-vilmos-zsigmonds-western-masterpiece/

Radical Solutions For Loneliness in Two German Films: “Wild” and “Aloys”

October 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Lilith Stangenberg in "Wild"

Lilith Stangenberg in “Wild”

Georg Friedrich in "Aloys"

Georg Friedrich in “Aloys”

Though there may be some bad German films I’ve never seen one, which is remarkable given the number I’ve watched over the last thirty years. This past week’s German Currents brought to Los Angeles eight recent features and a documentary on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose huge oeuvre (forty-four films in the eighteen frenetic years before his death, in 1982, at thirty-seven) was my gateway into modern German cinema.

Unfortunately I could attend only the last night’s films. Both were excellent and shared a theme: social isolation in contemporary life.

In “Wild,” by writer/director Nicolette Krebitz, a solitary young IT worker named Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is galvanized by the discovery of a large wolf in the park near her sterile apartment building. Soon she’s reading up on wolf hunting and constructing a perimeter of flags to trap the animal, which she tranquilizes, drags back to her apartment and, improbably, tames. As the wolf becomes domesticated, Ania becomes more feral, with dramatic consequences for everyone and everything around her. Stangenberg’s performance is astonishing, as is the wolf’s (apparently two animals played the role), and the ending is unforgettable.

Aloys (Georg Friedrich), the lonely protagonist of writer/director Tobias Nölle’s eponymous film, is a private detective whose misanthropy and profession have cut him off from normal human interaction. Filming and taping are Aloys’s means of expression as well as tools of his trade, and he pursues them constantly. At the start of the film, Aloys’s father and business partner has just died, leaving him completely companionless. After drinking himself into a stupor on a bus, the bereaved detective awakes to find his camera and latest videotapes gone. Soon he gets a call for ransom, which involves “telephone walking” with a mysterious woman. Through a conversational game, Aloys is gradually drawn out of his isolation and into a relationship with the thief, who turns out to be his suicidal neighbor.

Though neither “Aloys” nor “Wild” has U.S. theatrical distribution at this point, it’s likely that they will be available online in the near future. I recommend both films highly.