“Terrace House”: The Kinder, Gentler Japanese Alternative to Reality TV


Inside the craze that’s taking over Netflix

The first group of members. From left to right: Shion, Tsubasa, Taka, Ami, Miyuki and Yuudai.

I’ve only watched Terrace House: Opening New Doors but there are several different options based on several different Japanese cities. There’s Tokyo, Aloha State and more. I haven’t watched all of the different ones so I can’t comment on those directly, but they all follow the same premise as Terrace House: Opening New Doors.

The premise is simple and conventional. Six young people live in a house and we follow their interactions and budding romantic relationships. It’s like “The Real World” Japanese edition. And “The Real World” is arguably the first popular reality TV show format. But while Terrace House keeps in tradition by using the same general format; the feeling is a lot different.

New members Shohei (far left) and returning star Seina (middle with furry boots) replaced Yuudai and Miyuki.

For starters, Terrace House: Opening New Doors takes place in Karuizawa. It’s in the Nagano prefecture —  a bullet train ride away from Tokyo and a short car ride from the ski slopes. More of a small town feel, we see lots of natural scenery, snowboarding and playing in the front lawn. The pace is slow and the turn of the seasons allows us to see the house year round.

An igloo they made in the front lawn during the wintertime.

What exactly makes it gentler? Here are the main differences.

The Naturally Occurring Drama 

Whether it’s The Bachelor or Real Housewives or pretty much anything that can be considered Reality TV, a lot of it is either fake or very well orchestrated. Reality TV is ironically not very “real”, but more artificial. That doesn’t make it any less entertaining, much like wrestling is for their fans. It’s about the stories, the betrayals, the power struggles. That is why people tune in. Whereas the Bachelor was in hot water for a copious amount of producer intervention (they would tell contestants that they won so that they’d be upset when they didn’t, amongst many other things); Terrace House is unscripted and doesn’t seem to be orchestrated. 

There are no quick cuts, no slow mo reaction shots, no “throwing water in the face” moments or instances where someone slaps another. 

Instead, the drama organically swells from the discomfort of getting used to living with strangers and with group dynamics. Friendships form, love interests take shape but in a slow and patient pace. Love triangles are very respectful of people’s feelings. And love stories are kindly followed from a distance.

Tsubasa and Shion

The best romance story was between Shion and Tsubasa. It took a few months between their first date and their first kiss. We were able to see a more natural development of their feelings, constantly evolving with each thoughtful gesture or stolen moment rather than a more sensationalized storyline. They did not scream at each other, nor did they passionately make out. This was… oddly refreshing.


The Freedom of the Contestants

Adding to the absence of constructed drama or producer interference, the contestants are pretty much free to do whatever they want during the day. They still work at their jobs, still meet up with their friends; maintaining their careers and social lives. This is more relaxing because often, the show is the reality stars’ livelihoods, so they fight for the spotlight and blow little things out of proportion.https://filmreviewsblogfood.wordpress.com/media/3f22040ec98a5bbaf9ee52fd8dac873bRemember this iconic KUWTK moment?

Terrace House members can also choose when they want to leave. They are never pushed out of their comfort zone and can leave the house at any time, for reasons as simple as: they’re not finding love, they want to focus on their career, or they’ve gotten enough from the experience. This freedom is quite different than “Survivor” or “90 Day Fiancé” where the rules and time parameters are already set in place. Because it’s a leave-when-you-wish mentality, Terrace House has a lot of turnover. The cast changes completely by the end and we see a lot of new faces!

Two separate rooms. On the left is the boys room and on the right is the girls room.

Litany of commenting hosts

The third way it’s different than a lot of the reality TV we normally digest was the presence of many hosts, called “panelists”. There’s usually one standard host on most of the Western-world reality TV, typically as someone who explains the rules of the situation to the contestants or as their moderator. The hosts interacts often with the contestants. In Terrace House, the hosts never interact with the people living at the home. They are instead, watching the show with us and then commenting on what they saw. 

They interact more with the viewer and share opinions on contestants’ personalities and concoct predictions about romantic entanglements. There is also as many hosts as there are house members. Six hosts (also divided into 3 men and 3 women) who talk for a a while after every act break. The hosts are an integral part of the show and become just as important as the house members. You wait to see what they have to say, and try to make sense of what we all just witnessed together. Having this “critique chorus” helps the viewer understand what’s going on and feels like a gentler way to show Reality TV. By bringing the audience into the conversation and not telling us how to feel, it provides a more organic experience. We are all watching the same thing in real time.


All these things make Terrace House a nice Japanese alternative to reality television. Refreshing, patient and free: a kind approach.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Driveways” Review

The real thing Driveways has got going for it is its quiet power and simplicity.

I was able to watch this movie because of a program my local movie theaters are doing. They banded together in order to let out new releases for which you can buy virtual movie tickets. I got an online “movie ticket”, and supported my local theater all without leaving the home. Even though it wasn’t the thrill of “going to the movies” it was the next best thing. If your city does something similar, it might be worth checking out!

Driveways is about an Asian American family who moves into a dead relative’s home in order to clean it out. The family is made up of a mom Kathy (the estranged sister of April, the late relative) and Kathy son, Cody. Though it goes back and forth between both characters’ points of view, this seems to be mainly Cody’s story. We understand the predicament they find themselves in mostly through his eyes. It’s also a story of acceptance, being an outsider, and friendship.

They befriend their Korean-war-vet neighbor Del, who is significantly older than them. He is played by the late Brian Dennehy. This was his last movie, and it was fortunately a compelling and moving one.


So, what was so enjoyable about Driveways?

The Powerful Subtlety

Themes of loss, decay, and regret are treated with respect and aplomb. Directed Andrew Ahn gently guides the audience towards understanding the implications of losing a family member. A family member that not only left behind a fraught sibling relationship, but also a hoarder-level amount of belongings to sort through. In some ways, the cleaning of the house for Kathy was the reparation of the broken relationship between the two. By taking on the task, sifting through all of April’s possessions and staying in her home, she learns more about her sister than ever before. They didn’t know each other much as adults, but by bonding through her sister’s earthly possessions Kathy became friends with April, from beyond the grave. And the subtle message of understanding an eccentric family member and accepting them for who they are comes through.

The Simplicity of the Story

Not much happens in Driveways, taking more from everyday life than from a typical movie structure. Aside from minor difficulties, there was no major conflict in the movie. Instead, there were major internal conflicts. Those took the shape of feelings of regret, and that simply being alive was a conflict in its own right. The real estate agent was super helpful, Cody became friends with the neighbor instantly, etc… but the mom was also struggling emotionally with the weight of the house and its financial implications and Cody struggled with fitting it and finding a play partner. He eventually found one in their neighbor Del and they struck up a May-December friendship. The neighbor’s internal conflict is his fear of aging, and the regret he feels about his reaction for not supporting his daughter as much as he could have when she came out as a lesbian (many years beforehand). These issues are not fantastical. They are common problems which tap into a broader picture of simple, yet very human, experiences. The simplicity of the story, and the time dedicated to each character allows us to follow their struggle.

Driveways doesn’t speed up the process just so that it can fit into the framework of a bookended movie.


Lush setting and evocative score

Shot in Poughkeepsie, NY, the backdrop in Driveways is gorgeous: green, lush and full of bucolic shots of a pleasant summer. The richness in the nature surrounding them only enhances the powerful relationships. The movie almost seemed like it was lit through a green filter, creating a relaxing tone. The green tone could also symbolize the internal growth each character makes. Kathy decides she might want to stay in the house, Cody is no longer scared of playing with friends his own age, and Del accepts a change in his life. The setting therefore functions as a vehicle for the characters.

The score was a pleasant surprise. Much like the exterior, it created an ambiance of serenity, simplicity and emotion. [composer] manages to evoke the same feelings of growth, struggle, and regret that the characters go through.

A moving movie - ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Enduring Beauty of “Persepolis”

We find ourselves in the month of Ramadan, so I found this moment opportune to celebrate the work of a Muslim filmmaker: Marjane Satrapi. I decided to rewatch her magnum opus, Persepolis, and was struck yet again by its beauty. First a graphic novel by Satrapi, the story recounts her life growing up in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution. The powerful storytelling shines with poetic animation, an exploration of deeper truths and it highlights the protagonists complex search for identity. All of these give Persepolis an enduring beauty, and make it a film worth coming back to time and again.

THE POETIC ANIMATION

Different aspects of the animation hold meaning and thought behind it. The use of the fantastical puppet-like imagery to depict historical facts borrows from the ancient artistic tradition of Shadow Theater. When we see young Marji’s (pet name for Marjane) uncle recounting the political rise of the Shah (whom we now know was backed by the American and British governments for economic interests) the puppets dance and we see the retelling of history through the eyes of a child’s perception. In other words, Persepolis not only uses the ancient tradition of Shadow Theater to recount historical tales in a sort of “homage to the past” kind-of-way, but also brings us into the childlike interpretation of a younger Marji’s imagination in a masterful way.

There is also a lot of imagery or symbolism superimposed with grave depictions of war and violence. An example of this is when rioting silhouettes turn to complete darkness so as to suggest death rather than blatantly show us. In a similarly nuanced scene, one of Marji’s friends narrowly misses the neighboring roof he tries to jump to and falls to his death after being chased by armed soldiers. Instead of showing the fall, the moon behind the building becomes the central focus, with the subtle downwards look of the soldiers as the only scenic indication of his death.

One aspect I haven’t yet addressed is the poetic use of black and white animation. Its power stems from the double meaning it represents. On the one hand the usage of black and white is a clever tool to dissociate from the present day storyline (which is in color). On the other hand, it echoes the ever present moralistic duality and the strict dichotomy between right and wrong that plagues a post-Revolution era Iran. This is clear when a zealot man chastises Marji’s mom for having hair poking out of her veil. Though in his eyes he sees her blasphemy as a sign that he has the moral high ground, he then disrespects her, calling her insulting expletives. This Manichean approach is fundamentally flawed, as few things in life fit into either right or wrong, which makes room for unjustified hypocritical moralism. On a similar note, Marjane later speaks out against men’s absence of vestimentary restrictions in the context of sexual liberation in women. “Don’t you think men wearing tight pants won’t turn us on?” she asks a board of teachers and administrators who are enforcing an even more strict sartorial policy on the women. Hypocrisy is an injustice Marji deals with continually.


THE DEEPER TRUTHS

When Marji moves to Europe for her safety at the behest of her parents, she is greeted with a whole new set of circumstances. The friends she makes at first seem like liberated free thinkers who share a similar communist and anarchist ideology to her. They show Marji the philosophy of “Nonchalance” and the alternative punk subcultures of Vienna, and express great interest in Marji’s story and how she survived a bloody revolution. They seem woke, progressive, and yet, in an ironic twist of fate, when discussing Christmas plans, they complain about having to travel to Brazil or other such fancy destinations. They relate their struggles to her as if they were of equal magnitude. Though they talk a big game, the hypocrisy of youth stands out and their oxymoronic and convenient proletarianism belies their true, privileged and sheltered nature.

Upon her first major love, Marji unconsciously puts on rose-colored glasses. Harp music plays in the background, we see lovely scenes of nature, walks in the park, innocent flirtation and idealizing, until that is, she finds him in bed with someone else. Post break-up, her memories start to comically change, recalling instead the not-so-pretty reality of her first boyfriend. He takes on a more cowardly personality, suddenly has acne and an endless supply of mucus and hides behind Marji during difficult situations. The deeper truth shown here is that first love is often romanticized. But the realization of her relationship’s beatification is done in a humorous fashion.

Another subtle theme Persepolis puts forth is the coupling of humor in the face of adversity. Marji buys a misspelled jacket that says “Punk is not Ded” at a time when items from the West are banned and cheekily covering her tracks when she gets called out for it. Her psychologist makes doodles instead of listening to her problems. “Eye of the Tiger” plays as Marji battles depression. In lieu of the usual montage that shows the progression of physical strength, it shows her getting her life back together (showering, waxing her legs, singing the song off key, going back to school etc…) and that ties into another big aspect of the film, the search for her identity.


THE SEARCH FOR IDENTITY

At a young age, Marji believed she was destined to be a prophet. She even had conversations with God, which changed into conversations with God and Karl Marx later in her life. That perhaps bled into her relatable struggle of not fitting in and her conflicted and complex relationship with religion. For Marji not fitting in is expressed through how she feels closely tied to the West while in Iran, but misses it when she finds herself in Europe. She doesn’t quite feel at home in either; an outsider in Austria, and coming back to an Iran that’s unrecognizable to her. In terms of religious expression, she is at odds with the switch to a fundamentalist regime that believes piety is the only way. This is echoed in her atttitude, while in Europe, at being housed by nuns who also have strict ideas that Marji opposes, which has to do with her contempt of authority. This contempt melts away with the authority of family figures. Marji bases a lot of her decision-making on the values of integrity and honor instilled by her grandmother who is a sweet, caring and wise figure in her life. Marji carries with her, all throughout, this grace and resilient mentality that she inherited. It is fitting that the movie ends with the jasmine petals falling down, the same ones that were used daily by her grandmother. A touching end to a beautiful movie. Satrapi, no need to worry, you made your grandmother proud.


A Note On Diversity

Positive Persian representation is often overlooked in cinema, usually veering to the harmful . The director is a woman and this is a female driven story. It highlights women’s issues around the world and the dangers that can come with feminism and sexual liberation. It shows activism within political instability and much more. Persepolis treats issues of identity, religion, double standards regarding gender, and culture shock with great subtlety, impact and beauty.

Article (written by me) also published on Incluvie’s Medium Page.

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER REVIEW

STAR WARS: EPISODE IX

One of my friends put it best, “The Rise Of Skywalker” satisfies the left brain’s logical and reasoning side but leaves the right brain’s creative and emotional center a little disappointed. This plot driven movie has a lot of action and ties a lot of things together but it lacks character development and emotional stakes. Let’s see why.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!


NO TIME TO BREATHE

A sense of panic permeated throughout the movie almost to the point where whenever a slower scene started to emerge it would be cut short by the arrival of imminent danger. I found myself at the edge of my seat for most of the film. Not because I was riveted, but because the story boomeranged back into action pretty frequently.

The new generation of core characters (Rey, Finn and Poe) did not have much dialogue between them, rather they mostly resorted to barking orders at one another and screaming in the face of potential peril. I began to question when there was going to be a quiet moment for some interpersonal scenes, or characterization. But most of the film felt like an anxiety fueled dream where you are constantly being chased and you have to keep running away.

There was also a near soap opera level number of twists and non-deaths. Constant back and forths where we are uncertain whether a character dies or not and who survives. The biggest example of this was the death (or not) of Chewie. This moment felt like it was especially tugging at our heart strings but almost in an artificial and hurried way because shortly after we found out he was actually alive, which doesn’t give us as an audience any time to mourn. In fact, it was mostly the scenes where the dead characters from original trilogy appeared that had an emotional lean.


RELYING ON OLD CHARACTERS

The only real emotional scenes were when Leia, Han and Luke showed up. I would rather they have constructed a story where we cared as much about Rey, Finn and Poe but such was not the case. Any difficult decision (eg Rey giving up or Kylo Ren doubting his evilness) felt like it was furthered along with the help of an old character (Luke and Han respectively) and that didn’t allow the new characters to develop their own emotional stakes as much nor for us to care.

Relying on the power of the old crop as iconic characters made it impossible for the new characters to blossom and therefore felt like it was impeding on the story. As nice as it was to see the older characters it somehow felt inappropriate, almost like they were shoehorned into a story that wasn’t about them which made their appearances seem cheap.

JJ Abrams is particularly adept at relying on nostalgia and playing it up in his movies (as seen in Star Trek, Star Wars Ep. VII, and more) but bringing back Emperor Palpatine felt a bit too far fetched. “The dead speak!” was met with an eye-rolling degree of incredulity. Even in the Rey/Kylo Ren communication sequences, it was through the mask of an old character: Darth Vader.


KYLO REN/ BEN SOLO

My left brain was pleased with the Kylo Ren storyline inasmuch as it mirrored Darth Vader’s arc. Starts off bad, gets redeemed at the end, in other words: familiar.

But my emotional side had a hard time mapping over the Darth Vader storyline to this one because we have seen Kylo Ren be a lot more sinister than Darth Vader. We’ve seen him kill his father and we’ve seen more of his origin story. We see him do inexcusable things and grow in his hatred.

Darth Vader meanwhile, as evil as he was, came into the story as a prototypical villain from whom we’d expect these kind of evil inclinations and only acted in a way that made sense within the realm of his character. Villains will kill. Kylo Ren, however, was introduced in a much more ambivalent fashion, going back and forth between each side of the force, struggling between good and bad and consciously choosing time and again the dark side.

And lastly, I didn’t see the use of the kiss at the end between him and Rey for the 10 seconds while they were both still alive. It felt like a haphazard attempt to round out the Kylo Ren/ Ben Solo arc by cementing him as a “good” and redeemed character.

There was a romance that felt more called for, among the omitted storylines which bothered me, namely..


THINGS THAT WERE MISSING

A Finn and Poe romance! If The Rise of Skywalker was all about pleasing the fanbase why didn’t they work this in? According to Oscar Isaac, he was onboard but the Disney execs were not. Throughout the trilogy it seemed as though there were hints and moments where there was tension and chemistry between the two and thus them getting together felt like a logical conclusion. And there was a big online push for them to end up together. But The Rise of Skywalker decided to keep their relationship platonic and give them each a sort-of girlfriend. If there has to be a romance, they should have made it this one or not at all — the kiss between Rey and Ben was confusing and rushed.

Another thing: where in the hell is Rose Tico?

Rose was such a big part of the “Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi” I was convinced she would be a big part of this one, too. She was a scrappy, fresh and interesting character and I wanted to see more of her. Alas, her screen time was less than two minutes (1m16s to be exact: according to this website) out of 2 hours and 20 minutes full time.

Another thing that bothered me/ was omitted was that Finn never gets around to revealing to Rey what he was going to tell her when he thought they were all going to die. Not a big issue, but a little frustrating.


FINAL THOUGHTS

At some key moments, most notably the final celebration sequence after the victory, the music was used more as a crutch than to enhance an already good scene. It was indicating the audience on how to feel rather than it organically swelling up.

Another issue I had was Rey going back to Tatooine, burying the lightsabers and proclaiming herself as a Skywalker. As a message, I didn’t mind, because the thematic logic behind it is that one can choose their own identity and forge their individual destiny. But in regards to the story, if felt more like a winky reference to the old movies without considering the implications. Tatooine was a place where a lot of tragedies befell the Skywalkers: Anakin was ripped away from his mom, Luke’s family was murdered… and so burying their lightsabers on that planet doesn’t beget the sort of respect Rey may have intended by doing that and instead seems like a plot device to reference the old movies one more time before the end credits.

For something positive, the visuals were stunning. Each world had its own very specific design and the color palette was clearly defined and felt specific to each planet or setting.

So concludes this new trilogy. Not a terrible movie but much too reliant on speed and action. The inattention to emotional development and characterization made for a movie which unfolded more like a puzzle of logic where all the storylines come together rather than a down to earth and powerful story. – ⭐⭐

OLD JERUSALEM REVIEW

Image result for old jerusalem chicago menu

Walking into Old Jerusalem feels like entering a cozy home. Grandma’s in the corner folding cutlery into napkins or reading receipts while quietly conversing to the rest of the staff in Arabic. It seems family run – in the best way possible – and offers some of the best Middle Eastern food I’ve had in Chicago.

RECOMMENDATION:

APPETIZER: Jerusalem Salad (pictured below on the right).

It’s just cut up tomatoes, cucumbers with a tahini base and a some herbs/spices, but it just tastes so good! To be eaten inside a pita roll or as a side dish for….

ENTREE: Hommos with Meat (pictured below to the left).

This beef special hits all the right spots – especially when paired with Jerusalem Salad. The beef (and hummus) is salty and packed with protein while the salad is lean and refreshing— a winning combination.

VEGETARIAN ENTREE: Falafil plate

A generous assortment of vegetarian options.

DRINK: Mango Juice

The mango juice is exquisite. A thick and sweet nectar with genuine mango taste and a pleasantly thick, almost creamy texture.

DESERT: Baklava

The fillo dough mixed with walnut and covered in honey is a great way to end the meal, maybe even an Arabic coffee too.

This Middle Eastern restaurant is a fun, laid-back spot in Old Town that’s not too expensive and has great taste – ⭐⭐⭐⭐

PARASITE REVIEW

Bong Joon Ho delivers this chilling masterpiece with precision and power.

Parasite follows the Kims, a Korean working class family of four who barely get by even when collectively pitching in from their low-wage jobs. When a family friend brings them a rock that’s supposed to help bring luck, prosperity and greatly enhance the family’s riches; the story starts to form.

They manage to trick their way into getting hired one by one as staff for a rich family, the Parks. First the son, Ki-woo, gets hired as an English tutor and sees the opportunity to con his wealthy bosses into hiring the rest of his family. His sister, Ki-Jeong, becomes an art therapist for the rich couple’s son. His father, Ki-Taek, becomes their chauffeur and his mother, Chung-sook, becomes the cook and house staff.

There are several things worth noting about this film: its power, tragedy and subtlety. And in this review we’ll look at those through an analysis of meaning and a breakdown of tone.


METAPHOR FOR CLASS DYNAMICS

This sketch, although humorous, is an insightful look at the issues with the social class system. Though this about the UK, it captures the societal mentality when regarding social classes, income gaps and cultures within a country. It is therefore transposable to South Korea, which has a similarly strict delineations of class.

“Money irons everything out” – Chung-sook

SPOILERS!!!!!!!!

In Parasite, the rich family for the most part is not nefariously looking down at the lower class like in the sketch above, rather they are oblivious to the lower class’ struggles, which, in part, contributes to inequality. The exception perhaps is the father, Mr. Park, who notices when Ki-Taek uses vulgar language when another car cuts him off, and gives him a disapproving look. But, the Parks ignorance towards their privilege doesn’t mean they aren’t profiting off of other people.

The mom, Yeon-kyo, is so unaware of her surroundings that she doesn’t even notice the man living in hiding in the basement. The man underground, meanwhile, has no access to the outdoors, lives off of discarded food from the Parks and turns on the lights every night upon Mr. Park’s return from work, so that he feels comfortable. This exemplifies the Parks’ ignorance towards little expected comforts, which are the result of someone’s else work.

Parasite offers up some pretty grim messages too:

  • if you’re poor, then you’ll inevitably have a hard life
  • and, money doesn’t equal happiness

This first message intimates a sort of predestined life dictated by class. For no matter how hard the Kims try, troubles always seem to come knocking at their door. The epitome of this is captured in the oddly fascinating scene where Ki-Jeong smokes a cigarette while the toilet erupts a grimy black substance and slowly floods the entire bathroom. Hauntingly beautiful.

Since the theme of destiny governed by class is present throughout the whole movie, it makes sense that the family’s attempts to get out of their class would have tragic repercussions. It’s almost like a Greek tragedy in that way. Fighting, like Atlas, against an immovable reality. Ki-Jeong, got killed then not because of a random act of violence but because the Kims allegorically played with fate by conning their way into being rich.

By doing this, Bong Joon Ho shows the difficulty, the near impossibility of change or progress in a society that still separates people based off of their wealth, vernacular or by the color of their skin. This is an urgent and powerful message for Korea but equally for countries that operate like this, too (read: many, if not all countries’ systems).

The second message is that material wealth is not necessarily the most valuable kind of wealth. By the end of the movie, the Kims accumulated money in their bank accounts, but they lost someone who was a lot more valuable to them. They lost Ki-Jeong. And, Ki-Taek now has to live in hiding and he has lost his freedom. Ultimately, family and freedom were the most important aspects to the Kim family unit. Even though they got a taste of riches, it wasn’t worth the trade in for a dead daughter/sister and a father/husband who is in hiding.


TONE

Essentially, Parasite worked as a dark comedy for the first half, even producing laughs along the way. I even thought to myself: “is this the dark film everybody been’s talking to me about?”. What I didn’t realize was that is that the story was gaining momentum before becoming dark.

The tonal center was gradually building out of a dark comedy and shifting slowly into a frenzied, harrowing thriller. This wasn’t so much of a sudden change but a gradual progression which speaks to Bong Joon Ho’s mastery of tone and subtle storytelling.

With an unforgettable mindfuck of a crescendo at the party scene.

Parasite is a wild, politically engaged, and beautifully executed movie – ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK REVIEW

A watered down regurgitation of Woody Allen tropes from his “Manhattan” era. With this movie, he folds in on himself and becomes a caricature of what he once was.

CONTEXT

Let’s start with the most talked about. Amazon Studios did not release the film in the US because of the the allegations held against Woody Allen. Though the allegations of assault on his adoptive daughter Dylan date back to 1992; the Me Too movement, and the fact that his son (Dylan Farrow) uncovered the Harvey Weinstein scandal, brought the allegations back to the surface. Even though it was common knowledge for many years, the resurfacing made Amazon cut ties with the director and most of the cast donated their earnings from the movie (surely out of the goodness of their hearts and not simply out of fear of bad PR).

All allegations aside, Woody Allen has a problematic history with writing in predatory behavior towards women. This bothersome pattern dates back to Manhattan, where Woody Allen’s character (in his 40’s) dates a 17 year old girl and complains that she’s not deep enough. Even if the attitude towards dating younger women might have been different back then, it doesn’t change the fact that Woody Allen wrote in the script that his love interest was 17. It was in his power to make her 18, and not a minor. It’s just a year, but it makes a big difference. A Rainy Day in New York adds to that list of problematic storylines. In this film, a 21 year-old girl (legal! Phew..) is chased around by THREE separate middle aged men (Oof…). Now, if Woody Allen is trying to distance himself from the sexually predatory image he says is being unfairly pushed onto him, his movies aren’t helping his cause, though granted, they are not confessions or proof of any wrongdoing either.


WOODY ALLEN(S)

This whole movie can be boiled down to: “out of touch”. Out of touch director, for an out of touch increasingly niche audience, played out by out of touch characters. (Who else is sick of upper class New Yorkers in film?). The evolution of Woody Allen’s directorial style seems to be rather stagnant if he is doing the same things he did 40 years ago, like showing the Empire State Building in Black and White and making the protagonist an ersatz embodiment of himself. This seems more like the work of a legacy act rather than an artist seeking to create engaging content.

Equally, the characters are far from realistic and compose a dialogue never before heard in real life, unless all characters are a foil for Woody Allen himself (eg. “I shouldn’t imbibe so copiously” – uttered by a 21 year old college student from Arizona). This seems to be the issue with Woody Allen(s). Each main character becomes a Woody Allen impersonation and over the years, the quality has declined.

The worst part is that the old fashioned dialogue is spoken by actors as fresh faced as pre-pubescent teens.

These are the faces of 12 year olds.

These characters, Gatsby and Ashleigh, are a college couple whose lives have been uninterrupted boulevards of green lights and unending streams of wealth. Gatsby is supposed to be a fusion of Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby while remaining bumbly and neurotic, naturally. Ashleigh is a sweet ingenue enamored by Hollywood. These are not very original characters.

SPOILERS!!!!!

NB. There was a moment of hope where’s Gatsby’s mother reveals she was once a prostitute in Indiana. Even though that tugged at an element of real struggle and brought the story from the dizzying heights of wealth the characters display, (eg. Let’s get the suite at the Carlyle because betting money is “fake money”) this remains a passing moment. A movie with her as the central character might have been more compelling. Seeing her climb the echelons of class – only to be misunderstood by her own wealthy kids, would have been rich as a subject.

Instead we get the ramblings of a boy who’s known nothing but operas and Ivy League schools.


STUCK IN TIME

Largely, there were many gaps in understanding. A couple in their 20s that doesn’t text each other with updates? Come on. Either I missed it or it was unclear, but they seem rather involved to the point of taking a trip together, discussing marriage and wanting to meet the family. So that was hard to believe, especially considering that the whole film could have been changed with a minimum of texting or the incalculable social media platforms people contact each other with nowadays.

Another moment that seemed dated was whenever Gatsby talk about Jazz as if it were an alternative lifestyle- this is hardly the 1920s. Jazz has been accepted as an iconic movement and grown to become a century defining musical genre. In his musical upbringing, I’m sure he was even taught (by the mother he so despises) to play jazz.

The music in the film was mostly good, the highlight being a rendition by Gatsby of “Everything happens to Me” though – try as he might – T. Chalamet can’t grasp the intense sorrow put forth by Chet Baker, the clear inspiration for this interpratation of the standard.

A pleasant and welcoming surprise was Selena Gomez’s acting chops.

The stylistic choices that once shot Woody Allen to fame have now become out of touch, tired and dated – ⭐

JOKER REVIEW

Character driven movie which follows the descent of a troubled man into becoming an urban, albeit violent, robin hood-esque persona and a counter culture emblem set to shake the hierarchic social structure status quo.


A CHARACTER STUDY

In the traditional origin story, one event serves as a trigger that changes the hero’s life forever. Whether it’s for a super hero, such as Peter Parker who gets bit by spider, gains powers, discovers how to use them (responsibly) or whether it’s with a villain. The villain arc usually goes like this: “brilliant scientist gets overwhelmed by own creation, falls into vat of toxic waste, gains superpowers”. This keeps the genre very much in the make believe world because we understand the actual consequences of those actions. We understand that a spider bite just leaves a nasty bump in real life or if it’s venomous it might hurt us, but ultimately not give us powers. Just like we understand that a toxic waste vat will kill or seriously injure us and not give us the power to harness electricity for example. This cements these stories in the world of make believe, fiction, fantasy. What’s interesting about Joker is how real it is. This movie is grounded in a believable setting and the hero (or rather villain’s) descent evolves through a collection of moments rather than a single spark igniting a character switch. There is no one traumatic incident Arthur Fleck (Joker) can harken back to when he decided to be bad, but rather a series of little moments that build up, amalgamating and eventually crescendoing into a chaotic and overwhelming drive towards violence that pushes our protagonist into crime and murder. This take offers a more subtle, perhaps more nuanced, (dare I say poetic?) and intimate portrait of how a man turns into a monster.


INFLUENCES

Set in the 1970s, Joker shows a grim, gritty picture of Gotham City, a city that serves as a substitute New York. It’s New York because we know of the lore and also because Batman (or Batman canon) films are usually filmed in NY (sometimes Chicago too). We also know it’s supposed to represent New York because in the movie because Arthur Fleck refers to finance bros as “Wall Street guys”. Now that we’ve established that Gotham is a fictionalized New York, it’s easy to draw comparisons to earlier cinematic works that take place in the actual New York, namely Scorsese films.

Two Scorsese films come to mind while watching Joker and they are Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Taxi Driver is set in a similar timeframe as Joker and has a familiar backdrop in the gritty New York or New York like cityscapes. Whether it’s the porno movie theaters or the dirty metro lines these two movies bear a visual resemblance in their settings. Not only that, but the themes are also pretty analogous. Chasing after a politician (or politician to-be in Joker), these movies follow an unhinged protagonist as they turn to violence for liberation and more. There is even a scene where Joaquin Phoenix dances shirtless around the room with his pistol in his hand à la Robert de Niro playing Travis Bickle in the supremely famous “you talking to me?” scene. Perhaps the most compelling similarity is both movies toying with our perception of what actually is happening.

There are some moments in Joker where we as an audience are not sure what is actually happening in the story or if what we are seeing is a story concocted by Arthur Fleck’s imagination. We are sometimes led to believe it’s happening one way, but then later shown that it was all a fantasy stemming from twisted mind of our eponymous protagonist. The play between what’s real and what’s imagined leaves a lot of scenes open for interpretation. We are not sure what to follow and the confabulation of Arthur Fleck as an unreliable narrator makes him twist reality or manipulate the images we see on the screen. This storytelling tactic serves to heighten the feeling of chaos that permeates throughout this movie. This situation is similar to the ending of Taxi Driver and the debate as to whether Travis Bickle actually acted like we saw in the movie and lived to look back on it or whether it was the hopeful fantasy happening inside of his deranged mind.

Now that we’ve explored the similarity between themes, let’s look at the similarity between story and content, which is where The King of Comedy comes in. The first obvious connection is the presence of Robert de Niro the actor, who plays a character in the late night TV world. The second connection is the tale of the persistence and delusion of a would-be comedian who’s sure he’s destined for great things. Both Rupert Pupkin (the main character of The King of Comedy, played by Robert de Niro) and Arthur Fleck are mentally unstable and will go to great lengths to become famous. They both share a fascination for a late night TV host and resort to violent actions when dealing with rejection. While Rupert remains obstinate about achieving success in the comedy world, Arthur is more disillusioned with the way things are and decides that the confines of TV are too small for his character, proclaiming instead that his “life is a comedy”.

On top of Scorsese there are other allusions, the most notable being to Charlie Chaplin. When Arthur Fleck covertly enters a movie screening, it’s “Modern Times”, a movie is about a man having trouble keeping up with modernization. Arthur Fleck equally describes the world he’s living in as getting “crazier out there”, a sign he feels he can’t keep up with the change he feels is happening. Subsequently, not coincidentally the Charlie Chaplin penned “Smile” plays in the Joker soundtrack. This serves two purposes. The first is the allusion to Charlie Chaplin, arguably the iconic figure of comedy of the 20th century, which Arthur Fleck certainly studied when trying to become a comedian (there’s a scene where he transcribes acts, jokes and moments of performances at a comedy club, so we know he takes notes and does his research). This ties into the whole comedian/clown/joker aspect. The second purpose is to use this song contrapuntally. This ties into the brilliantly contrapuntal soundtrack, packed with optimistic songs set to sombre moments of the movie. When a song is used as a counterpoint the general feeling or emotion derived from the song is in direct contrast with what’s happening on the screen (ie happy song, sad scene). The opening lyrics to the song go as follows: “Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it’s breaking”. The intention of the song is wait and “You’ll see the sun come shining through for you” one day. The Arthur Fleck-ian interpretation of the song (if we assume he heard it) would be to smile, no matter what. But it is not a genuine smile, which adds to an eerie feeling of confusion about the character and how we are supposed to feel about him.

“I used to think that my life was a tragedy. But now I realize, it’s a comedy.” – Arthur Fleck (Joker)


HERO VS. VILLAIN

We live in an era where the line between hero and villain is marred. The distinction has become more and more blurry and hard to define. One of the latest DC movies shows Batman and Superman fighting against each other. Instead of good versus bad, it seems the public is more interested in psychologically rich characters. Though that’s been the case with TV for the last few years (Walter White in Breaking Bad, Don Draper in Mad Men and Dexter in Dexter…) the movie superhero genre is gently swaying in that direction. Venom last year, Joker this year and the aforementioned Batman vs. Superman to name a few.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!

As a film, Joker plays with our sensibilities and our allegiances to the protagonist. We know he’s a villain but we also feel for the guy. The only life he’s ever known has been a lie, he was adopted unbeknownst to him, he was terribly abused as a child, he laughs when it’s inappropriate and has a card to explain (but sometimes fails to take it out in time), people see him as a freak, he gets beaten regularly, he loses his job and so on…

This man was in a mental institution and once he left, the funding for his social work gets cut, meaning he is no longer able to receive medical treatment. These are serious issues which are approached with great sadness and empathy. We see Arthur Fleck trying to fit in and failing and being left behind by a society that doesn’t take care for its poor or its sick and is scared of mental illness. I started to feel bad for Arthur and I was inadvertently rooting for him.

Only after Arthur Fleck shot the three Wall Street men on the subway did I realize I was rooting for him. It almost felt good to see the finance bros/bullies get taken down, but why? Of course they were assholes, but even assholes and bullies deserve the right to live (and hopefully have time to learn to become better people). It seems as though this moment was a release for Arthur and we were seeing him unfolding in front us. We were exploring the darkness of the character with empathetic eyes. As if he were the answer to disrupt the power dynamics of a big city like Gotham. Even the city’s people responded to the killing and having the lens of a dissatisfied populace ripe for an uprising gives sense as to how a leader like the Joker could rise up in the vacuum and be, in some sort, the leader or face (or mask?) of the movement.

Batman is not a big part of the movie. Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) is a central figure and he is seen in opposition to Arthur Fleck. We inevitably see the parents death scene (shot by a random killer from the mob) but never see a tête-à-tête with Batman the superhero. Since Batman is such a beloved hero, I wonder (if a sequel were ever to be made) how they would juggle the conflict between Joker and Batman and who becomes the central character, the person we empathize with and in some sense the hero, or antihero.

A bold take on a classic superhero villain with efforts to shine a different light on a well known character. Many cinematic influences and an absence of a traditional origin story arc make for a compelling look into the descent into madness and create a tone of uneasiness and chaos. Worth a look – ⭐⭐⭐½

YASSA REVIEW

A colorful setting with a tasty menu, Yassa brings West African cuisine to Chicago.

Located in the historic neighborhood of Bronzeville, this South Side eatery serves Senegalese fare. This includes traditional stews, meat and fish dishes and my favorite- djolof rice!


RECOMMENDATION:

DRINK: PINEAPPLE JUICE

Pictured on the left

The drinks are a hit or miss, sometimes edging on the overly sweet. The pineapple juice is just right and serves as a good complement to the savory dishes.

SIDE DISH: DJOLOF RICE

A personal favorite, this spiced, red rice perfectly accompanies any entree.

MAIN COURSE: GRILLED TILAPIA OR THIOU CURRY

Depending on whether you prefer fish or red meat, provided two options. Both are of same calibre of taste. A blend of flavors with a crispy coating for the fish and a tender slow cooked lamb meat for the curry. Pictured is also Djolof rice.

DESSERT: THIAKRY

Millet, yogurt and cinnamon, need I say more?

Related image
Stock Photo of Tiakry (to give you an idea)

This is the perfect place if you want to expand your ethnic food horizons, a relaxed setting with occasional entertainment or if you want to practice your French. A must!

Tasty and a colorful locale – ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Find out more here: https://www.yassarestaurant.com/

Address: 3511 S King Dr, Chicago, IL 60653

Hours: Sunday through Thursday – 11am to 10pm

Friday and Saturday – 11am to 11pm

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT REVIEW

The film is much like a Springsteen song – a refuge for outcasts, people who feel stuck in their situation, and want a change.


MUSICAL(?)

I knew close to nothing going into this movie. I was surprised that it basically functioned as a musical if your definition of musical is a character needing to express their feelings through song. Except this time, it was Bruce Springsteen songs. That made it that the movie created an almost in between realm where some moments were real and dramatic while some were surrealistic and romantic.

Characters start dancing and singing along during a relatively normal scene. The choreography isn’t perfect and the singing sounds pretty normal. It feels like the characters could almost be joining along even if it weren’t a musical. The genre line between musical and not is tiptoed and carefully balanced. This leaves with more of an intimation or suggestion of a musical more than an actual musical. We can then focus on the songs themselves and the lyrics rather than the dancing, the showmanship and the technique.


BEING PAKISTANI IN 80s UK

Javed is a Pakistani boy from Luton (near but NOT London) who felt trapped in his life. Like Springsteen did to him, we were able to understand Javed’s experience because it hit on recognizable feelings of not being good enough, feeling trapped and wanting to break free. I do not know what it is like to be Pakistani in England in the 80s, but I do know the feelings of questioning myself and wanting a release and in that, Javed’s story becomes widely relatable for any who’s experienced those feelings too.

For a little history, the National Front in England is a fascist political party with an anti-Pakistani sentiment, who held riots and consisted of many “skinheads” followers. Pakistanis were treated like lower-class citizens, and Blinded By the Light doesn’t shy away from the abuse Pakistani families received. One scene depicts little boys peeing in mailboxes, something that happened so often [to that Pakistani family] that they splurged for a plastic carpet that was easier to clean the piss off of.

Those feelings, while unique to Javed’s experience, do mirror the Springsteen-ian angst of wanting to get out of their hometown. For the boss it was the ennui of the New Jersey working class lifestyle. For Javed, it was feeling trapped in not only his family but his skin color and roots.

The first song that connects Javed to Springsteen is “Dancing in the Dark”, which makes total sense. Lyrics appear on screen “I wanna change my hair, my clothes, my face” “Man, I’m just getting tired, tired and bored of myself” and of course “There’s something happening somewhere”. Javed finds solace in these words, and we find solace in Javed’s solace. He is a writer, holed up in his room, escaping the strict parenting of the household and this music is the first semblance of freedom and independence Javed’s been searching for.

Up till that point, writing has been Javed’s escape, but now it is Bruce Springsteen songs (introduced by a fellow Pakistani friend of his). Javed believes if he follows everything Bruce does, he will be able to extricate himself from the life he knows and become successful, like Bruce. In so, he tears off the sleeves of his shirts, buys jean jackets and adopts an all around denim look. And yet, by pushing his family away and seeing Bruce as his only savior he alienates the people who care about him.


COMING OF AGE

The Springsteen songs serves as a sort of trampoline for Javed to tackle his life and issues head on, fearlessly and energetically. This culminates in a life affirming trip to Asbury Park , NJ while the title song “Blinded by the Light” (the original, not the Manfred Mann version) plays in the background. But at the end of the day, this is a movie where we see the main character mature and see things from everybody’s perspective and not just his own.

He sees how his sister takes time out of the day to dance at a day-only student dance club. He empathizes with his father searching for work and his overworked mother trying to keep the family afloat.

“My dream is to build a bridge to my dreams, but not a wall between my family and me” – Javed

The lesson here is not that music is the answer, the panacea to life’s problems whether it be songs from the Boss or someone else. It’s that music can help guide us and realize our potential. Instead of trying to emulate someone else.

A fun movie with a nice message – ⭐⭐⭐⭐