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Month: January 2017

Shinya Shokudo (Tokyo Stories: Midnight Diner / 2016)

Today’s Special: Nothing Special

Adapted from a stage play turned into a movie, the Shinya Shokudo (hereafter: Midnight Diner) series is a very much welcome addition to Netflix original productions. It’s as remote to the Marvel TV heros than street food is to a traditional kaiseki, the common point being one of the many Japanese cultural obsessions: eating. But forget about sophistication, pottery and lacquer ware craftmanship: apart from rare escapades, all the action takes places in a tiny diner tucked in a narrow street of Shinjuku, a hole in the wall accomodating 10 clients at most. The chef prepares anything his customers ask, providing he’s got the ingredients; they do not ask for anything complicated anyway, and the only time he shows any annoyance is when someone asks for sushi, which of course requires a specific chef. The chef, who evyerone calls “Master”, multitasks as a confessor, a shrink, a guide, and ultimately a friend.

Accompanied by the type of hideous musak one hears all the time in Japan, the diner becomes a crossroad, a confessional or a stage, with some funny breaking of the fourth wall at the end of each episode. Simple stories as heart-warwing as the simple soups and dishes the chef prepares are like them depending on the quality of their ingredients: acting, comic timing, lightning of the cooking scenes, and this unmistakable feeling of work true to life.

Each episode is titled after a dish like pork steak (tonteki, also vernacular for “ugly girl”=, hot pot or rice omelet, and the ensemble offers a variety of quotidian, if dramatically concentrated in the short format, situations: unrequited love, hookers with heart of gold, lost children and dangerous flirts with addictions. This is Japan, where mah-jong could as well be the most dangerous game, where a ghost motivation can be a porn collection instead of just plum wine, and where everyone is always forgetting one’s umbrella. A land of bad encounters and delightful coincidences worthy of an Anthony Powell novel, triggering some very different emotions indeed: some episode are comedy when others border on the ghoulish.

Anchored in the Japanese soul by the Master’s stoic presence and some impossible noble behaviours, Midnight Diner is well worth your time and appetite. Just sneak in, find a seat and either listen and watch or dive in. Viewing advised.

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A Kaiseki At Gion Karyo, Kyoto

Hannibal Season Three

To put things plainly, kaiseki is a traditional Japanese diner composed of fourteen servings with an assortment of dishes prepared using different cooking methods and presented in a specific order in various, usually pricey pots and dishes, . Fine ingredients like fugu can be included and the price of such a meal can reach stratospheric level, especially in popular destinations like Kyoto. Fortunately, there are some affordable alternatives on offer, like at Gion Karyo, situated in the main street of the “geisha quarter”. Their set diner menu is only ten dishes and does not end by the traditionnal bowl of rice, brought to the guests as a humble courtesy in case they would still be hungry after such a feast. This enough qualifies as heresy for the purist; it has the advantage of reducing the length of the experience by a good hour. Now that your appetite is whipped, shall we go Hannibal?

1/ Sakizuke
The night one dined there, the appetizer was a nicely balanced crab salad dressed with persimon vinegar, including Shimeji mushroom, Indian spinach, taro, beans and ginger. There was a piece of herring involved too, maybe to the detriment of the crab, but said fish was so good it was hard to consider it a flaw.

2/ Wanmono
The soup was a tile fish bullion flavoured with yuzu, with steamed wax gourd and turnip. Steaming vegetables is not the best way to enhance their flavour, but when in the land of Umami, do like the Umamites do.

3/ Mukozuke
The fresh sashimi of the day was composed of superior tuna, delicious shrimp and squid, which was well, Umami.

4/ Oshinogi
The sushi was mackerel filet and roe dressed with vinegared ginger; the discovery came from the addition of gingko beans, which one never suspected having such a refined taste.

5/ Yakimono
Everything yaki is grilled and has to be done so to perfection: this dish was marrying barracuda, sea urchin and sweet potato, the three of them scrumptious.

 

6/ Hassun
A tour de force of a dish, this one was aligning seven bite-size hors d’oeuvres including Matsukaze (steamed chicken paste), smoked saury, salmon roe dressed with radish, grape and oyster mushroom dressed with tofu sauce, fried pike conger bone and sweet potato, fried octopus and taro with pumpkin sauce. One’s two favourites were a boiled chestnut and a steamed conger with rice, proving that simple is best. Duly noted by a skeptic: tofu makes a great sauce!

7/ Konabe
This must have been the best hot pot ever, smoky flavoured with the blessed pairing of Wagyu beef and Mizuna (herb mustard). An there were leeks, too. Heaven.

8/ Shiizakana
It was rather difficult to follow up on the Konabe so this side dish was a bit of a letdown, based on abalone, eggplant, mackerel and ginger, even though a citrus jelly was welcomingly crashing the party.

9/ Gohan
Gohan is a hearth-cooked rice accompanied with pickles and a miso soup. There were five options and one’s afraid one’s guest didn’t pick up the best one, as it has to shared.

10/ Dessert
Kind of an uncharted territory when not based on azuki or sesame, the Karyo dessert got one right with a sweet potato cake and another very wrong with apple sherbet.

The place is small and neatly laid out, with an open kitchen offering the fascinating spectacle of Japanese cooks plying their trade with impeccable precision in a welcoming atmosphere. Waitresses are a bit shy towards gaijins at first but basic Japanese politeness help them relax (start by taking off your shoes!). All in all, a successful modern take on kaiseki, worth every cent of the 100€ per head price (without drinks). That’s the price of love.

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Morgan (2016)

We Have To Talk About Morgan

Morgan has the lofty ambition to mix the Frankenstein myth, corporate evil and love against all odds and therefore fails at all three. It takes some specific talent, one guesses, to fail at the third, but to be fair, the context of genetically engineered pedo-lesbian maternity contest has its hurdles. Poor Morgan (Anna Taylor-Jones, from The Witch, here given nothing much to do but looking hostile) looks like 15 but is a 5 year old artificial creation referred as “IT” by souless government drones, and everything goes wrong from there. Nothing like a bad use or pronouns to trigger disaster, see.

A compendium of annoying actors (Rose Leslie, anyone?) bickering on elegiac music, Morgan doesn’t bring anything to the experiment-going-haywire subgenre, even though it ticks most available boxes, from car chase to communion with nature, from return to the womb to a Terminator on hot pursuit (here played with rigid inflexibility by the unsufferable Kate Mara). Absurd editing pays its dues to absurd screenwriting, except in the Paul Giamatti death scene, but Mr Giamatti is better off dead in any role anyway.

“Just be yourself”, he tells IT at some point. As a psychiatrist, he might want to sort out his grammar first, but in a dialogue itself checking all possible boxes (“Open the door!”, what else?), it’s hardly salient. Also, it was one’s shock to realise that Michelle Yeoh had a hard time affecting a Mandarin accent, but it’s Michelle Yeoh so all is forgiven.

No, the only good thing about Morgan is IT feeling sad about Dr Kathy Grieff (sigh…). Not because she enucleated said doctor in the opening scene, mind you, but because she’s played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’s a fearless actor. She was the only American actress to accept the titular role in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle when production was due in the United States and in a sense, she’s the American Huppert, only her career has been constricted by the puritanism and cowardice of the Hollywood system instead or blooming at the international level.

She’s by far the best element of the movie and she’s missing an eye, a trait shared with the director, the editor, the set designer and everyone else involved in that production, especially the one who came up with the idea of a finale mixing Ophelia and Friday the 13th. Long lives Jennifer Jason Leigh!

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Genius (2016)

You Can Leave Your Hat On

As fake as a true story can be rendered through awkward writing and ill-advised directing choices, Genius is a movie about language and writing. It deals like difficult subjects like the nature of art, the mysteries of inspiration and what it is like to live a literary life; quite unsuprisingly, it’s rather stiff and academic. It’s based on the relationship between Thomas Wolfe, the titular genius writer (Jude Law, somewhere between excessively Method and high camp) and his lifetime publisher Max Perkins at Scribner’s & Sons (Colin Firth, typecast in yet another majestic biopic). The publisher, who discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway, helps the writer to spruce up his diluvial prose (one of his manuscript, apparently half writen on the top of a fridge, is 5000 pages long) and the writer helps the publisher loosening his tie and therefore live a little.

Both men have a pivotal woman in their life, Perkins a wife (Laura Kinney, good as usual) with whom he had many daughters, and Wolfe a mistress who left her stiffling marriage for him (Nicole Kidman, great in a scene which should never had been writen in the movie at all). The women lose patience while the men exchange the literary equivalent of sextos across a long period of time, so the men lose the women. They both know their Shakespeare, see, but neither of them has the singlest clue about relationships. It’s a passion of the mind, which leaves everyone involved embittered.

And so it goes as these things go, with lengths of cryptic voiceover quoting Wolfe’s novels, tongue-in-cheek cultural exchanges and meaningful silences. Colin Firth, flegmatic to the point of flatlining, never takes off his thinking hat to make sure the message he’s an intellectual comes across; Jude Law rampages through dialogues as long as his books and diverse states of agressive or ecstatic inebriation. Some namedropping cameos pop up to enliven what would have been better, should it have been a play. Guy Pearce makes a good Fitzgerald; the Hemingway scene is straight out of Midnight in Paris except it’s noon in California.

There is an inexplicably long scene in a jazz club, the mandatory setting for a breakup artist to nourish his inspiration and for a businessman to start tapping his foot, which is neither revealing about the characters or even interesting. There is a very good one during which one can understand what the job of a publisher is, editing a love scene to its bare minimum without ruining the author’s purpose (“He falls in love and his mind go to submarine life?” being the best dialogue by far, together with Wolfe recriminating that if Perkins had edited Tolstoi, his masterpiece would have been titled “War and Nothing”).

Good looking in its period details, Genius has failed at providing Oscar nominations for its two male leads. If only the writer had a publisher as good as Perkins, it might have ended otherwise. Eminently avoidable.

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Life’s Too Short: Sherlock S4E1

Elementary My Poor Watson

How low the mighty have fallen: when did Sherlock become 24? Let’s face it, the series is not half as clever as it thinks it is, quite ugly to look at and incoherently geared in a morass of family plots which have no resonance in the Holmes canon. What was at first a ingenious take on classic characters steadily declined from Season 2, thanks to an atrocious Moriarty turn and the global rise of its star’s fame. Benedict Cumberbatch is becoming cumbersome as he’s entering Roger Moore territory: when the hell is he proposed the James Bond role?

A slamming door farce in awe of both its protagonist’s charisma and its main actor’s wattage, Sherlock has switched from dominatrixes and naked visits to Buckingham Palace to adorable moppets, and well written vilains to endless, useless banter. The series is highly functionning nothing, a mere self-absorbed trifle when it is supposed to be a feast of cleverness. Not genius but lazily ingenious, it is the TV equivalent of casting Sophie Turner as the most powerful mind in the whole galaxy. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t apply anymore because you know, life’s too short.

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Capsule Review: Max Steel (2016)

D*ck Bigt**l

All sound effects and nearly no image, Max Steel is trash, betraying its nature by many cuts on idle hands. If you are really bored or not willing to be challenged in any way, this is one for you. Extremely blue and therefore extremely dated, it features poor Maria Bello and that’s quite about it, because catching Andy Garcia in his seemingly endless downward spiral is just embarassing. Really, it’s like a p*rn flick including its title, all promises and no delivery: Max discovers the power of his right hand and, being American, feels confused about it. The thing takes place near a nuclear facility, like The Simpsons, but don’t expect any laughs or, more reassuringly, any sequel. Max Steel is right about one thing, which is that one’s joystick is one’s best friend, but this artefact sheds a cruel light on what corporate Hollywood thinks we wanna see: parallel editing like two trucks hitting headfront, and onanism.

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The Crown #5: Smoke And Mirrors

The Royal Rejects

As Miranda Priestly says in The Devil Wears Prada, “by all means, move at a glacial pace!”. This episode finally zeroes on the Queen’s coronation after hours of beating around the bush through flashbacks to Papa’s reign and family crisis. What becomes stricking by now is the absolute inexistence of Charles and Anne, the royal rejects. The writer, fully absorbed the completion of his thesaurus of tongue in cheek British understatement (“Shall we f*ck?”. No, please.), has simply forgotten to write the Queen’s children in.

HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edimburgh, rightfully feels like a sissy relegated as he is to help his wife do the queening; he obtains full control of the Coronation Committee as a restauration of his manhood. His project is to let the good people of the Commonwealth participate to the event, much to the horror of Sir Winston and his posse of old Eton choir boys.

By the titular smoke and mirrors, the arc of Episode 4 acknowledges the Duke’s sudden switch from casual racist snob to parangon of democracy; the least that can be said is that it comes off a bit odd. Anyway, without ever formulating the idea he’s the one to get the ceremony recorded and broadcast (an historic footnote that seems mostly innacurate), even thought the common people might, gasp, watch it while EATING. Shocking, really.

Can you imagine that at some point during the 50s Elizabeth Regina was the symbol of a new era and the very face of modernity? The postulate of the whole series seems hardly believable nowadays. Truer to life is the Duke of Windsor as a freudian repressed memory, once more returning to his family of hyenas, this time to bid farewell to his ailing mother. The impossible posh Windsor makes a fool of himself in the People pages with She-The-Name-Of-Which-Can’t-Be-Said, their Paris residence adding insult to injury.

Protocol swiftly humiliates him in retribution. Queen Mary dies on cue. Suddenly everyone wears fancy hats. An hilarious, involontary cliffhanger showing Windsor blowing his bagpipes in the wind attempts at some Skyfall follow-up revenge against the family “pusillanimity and vindictiveness”. Britain, Britain, Britain!

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