My movie weekend: ‘Hunger’ was just the start of it

Last weekend I took a deep breath and dived into the deep end of the movie pool, four movies in two days, and because I saw the Friday matinee of “The Hunger Games,” not a lot of waiting. OK, that’s not as low as director James Cameron plunged, 35,756 feet deep down into the Mariana Trench, but it cost a lot less.

I did see some strange fish, though, because one of my movies was “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” And the pressure build-up in “A Separation” was easily several Earth atmospheres worth. If you’re nervous at  all on the way in, you’re going to be a wreck by the end. Salmon don’t count as strange fish, at least not in these parts, but they do keep the metaphor swimming upstream, so yeah, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” But “The Hunger Games,” which started the weekend, sinks this little game we’ve got going.

Oh, I like Milk Duds with my popcorn!

 

Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games”/Courtesy Lionsgate

“The Hunger Games”: I wanted to go to “The Hunger Games” for a couple of reasons. The first was that it’s really the first blockbuster of the year, doing more than $200 million worth of business this weekend, its first. Hey, what ARE the kids going to see these days, anyway?

And then I wanted to see Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the hero, Katniss Everdeen. I’d seen her in “Winter’s Bone” (2010), the gritty Ozarks-set drama,  in which she’d played the 17-year-old Ree Dolly, tough and loyal and unshakeable, and I thought she was totally believable, in the same way that Michelle Williams was believable in “Wendy and Lucy,” say.

The problem is that Lawrence is 21 now and “plays” adult, while Katniss is supposed to be 16 and a near-feral teen, in the original Young Adult book series by Suzanne Collins. The success of that series is mostly why the kids showed up in such great numbers over the weekend. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times complained that the film was too “soft,” and I heard a 20-something express disappointment that the post-apocalyptic spectacle wasn’t political enough, compared to the books.

Both sound right (I haven’t read the books): The most obvious social critique in the movie is that reality television is a very bad, manipulative device, no matter what political pundits may offer, and though the movie gets violent during its climax, the battle to the death by two teens from each district of Panem (the new North American totalitarian state), it never achieves either the chaos of battle or the fear involved in stalking to the death.

That’s OK, though, especially for the intended audience. Those Harry Potter movies could have been a good bit darker, too, but they understood the sensibilities of their audience and delivered. And though I missed the sense of hopeless poverty of “Winter’s Bone” in Katniss’s District 12 (which is obviously Appalachian), that wasn’t the point, I suppose, of “The Hunger Games,” which plays as an adventure yarn about a plucky teen-age girl with a gift for archery.

Peyman Moadi (background) and Leila Hatami in “A Separation”/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

“A Separation”: So no, “The Hunger Games” wasn’t the place to find realism (hey, it’s science fiction!), but “A Separation” is, a deeply felt account of a couple in Tehran with a daughter who are in the process of breaking up. I’m not the first one to fall under its spell — it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year after all.  Its investigations of love and loss, love and conflict, love and competing loyalties, love and truth, never settle on easy answers or follow well-worn paths. And every character who enters the frame comes fully laden with the problem of being human.

Just to be blunt about it, it’s terrific — no false drama, no “big” acting, no time-out for silly digressions or implausible plot twists. Not that I ever got the sense where it was headed, really. It felt as unpredictable as the lives we lead. And not that it wasn’t brilliantly acted and directed, because it is.

Quickly, Nader and Simin have been married for 14 years. They live with Nader’s father, who is growing senile, and their 11 year old daughter. Simin wants to leave the country (we’re never sure exactly why), but Nader feels that he can’t leave his father. And maybe Simin would relent, if something wasn’t driving them apart, that unknowable something that sometimes drives couples apart, his inability to express his love and support for her or her inability to embrace the gravity of his situation. Whatever.

As she separates from him to live with her parents, he hires a pregnant caretaker for his father, a younger woman with a little daughter of her own and the giant stress of an unemployed husband, who has become a little unhinged — “I have nothing left to lose,” he says several times, which is disconcerting coming from your spouse, no?  There are incidents, and they lead to the Iranian courts, and as recognizable as the characters are, those courts are utterly unfamiliar.

But that’s the beauty of “A Separation”: It’s a situation we find completely intelligible (even though it’s hard to fathom exactly in the same way the human heart is) in a place that is entirely new (though it has resemblances that make it increasingly familiar).

Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor are cute in “Salmon Fishing in the
Yemen”/Courtesy CBS Films

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”: Maybe because I’d just seen “A Separation,” the implausible romantics of “Salmon Fishing the Yemen” seemed obvious and the acting of a far simpler and less satisfying sort. Not that I don’t like Ewan McGregor or anything. He makes a cardboard cutout of a repressed bureaucrat, possibly with Asperger’s, into a vehicle for real comic enjoyment at times.

But everything about it is contrived, coincidental and shallow. That’s unfortunate because an excellent political satire lurks inside the material, as Kristin Scott Thomas as the British Prime Minister’s Press Secretary full understands, as she bustles about trying to create a reality show out of, well, reality! (Hey, isn’t this where we came in?) She’s funny with an edge, and so apparently is Paul Torday’s base novel.

But director Lasse Hallstrom just has eyes for the fetching Emily Blunt (her character must spend a bundle on clothes!) and her gentle wooing by McGregor. Oh, and there’s also a wise and good-hearted sheik with the improbable idea of “planting” a run of Atlantic salmon in the high desert of Yemen. There’s terrorism involved, of course, though really no idea of the complex politics of Yemen itself, and if you think we’re headed for an unhappy ending, you haven’t been paying attention!

The hands of a master/Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”: I closed my movie weekend with this documentary about a little 10-stool sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station that won three Michelin stars (worth traveling to the country for just to eat at the restaurant) and its chef, the 85-year-old Jiro.

Unsurprisingly, Jiro is a sushi obsessive! He works tirelessly, rarely taking a day off. He is demanding of himself and his staff. His customers worry that they aren’t quite up to the sushi he creates, which is very simple in some ways, but strives for perfection. His older son works with him, subordinate, even though he’s entering late middle-age (and though his younger brother has a successful sushi restaurant of his own). He has mournful eyes, and we assume he must be a bit resentful.

Yes, we know this story, don’t we? But David Gelb’s film starts to slip out of this storyline about midway through the documentary. Jiro is more complicated than we thought, more forgiving, generous with the credit for his success, humble at heart. We meet his suppliers — the tuna guy, the rice guy (if you’re in the sushi biz, you have a tuna guy and a rice guy) — and discover they are equally obsessed with their products. The son becomes rounder as a character, less disappointed, a master in his own right, and we start to think that maybe he’s found a certain sort of fulfillment working alongside his father for all these years.

There’s also a little history of sushi embedded within the film (the importance of the California Roll in spreading sushi to America, the explosion in the number of restaurants, the subsequent depletion of fishing stocks), and scenes at the seafood markets and of the preparation of the various sushi elements. And there are some lessons to live by. My favorite? A great chef has to have a great nose and palate, as Jiro says. Otherwise how can she hope to keep improving the taste of her food?

Above all, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is about the rewards (and limits) of attentiveness. My lasting image of Jiro from the film is of Jiro, having served a single piece of sushi on a gleaming black plate, standing at attention with his hands behind his back, watching his customer, reading the reaction, anticipating the next step, nothing escaping his gaze.

Notes

This post originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s website on the Arts&Life page

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