How do you get lunch at work? Do you go out? order in? Maybe your company has a cafeteria or canteen, or maybe you pack in a lunch and eat at your desk.
In Mumbai, there’s another option: the dabbawalas. They form a labor-intensive distribution network that delivers your lunch to you, packed in a multi-tiered Indian lunchbox, or “dabba”. One carrier on a bicycle picks up a dabba prepared at your home, or at a restaurant with which you’ve made arrangements. They gather the dabbas, sort and group them according to their symbolic markings — many dabbawalas are illiterate — and send them out on the local train system. As each group nears its destination, another dabbawala takes them for delivery. And then they do it all over again, backwards, to return the dabbas after lunch. It’s been going on for over 130 years, with an error estimated once every few million deliveries.
First-time feature filmmaker Ritesh Batra wondered about that one mistake, and he’s spun that thread out into a beautifully romantic story. The Lunchbox is comfort food for the soul, at once rooted in its setting and universal in its sentiment.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) has been disappointed in her marriage, and wants to rekindle the sparks of romance. She takes the famous advice from Mrs. Deshpande, the old lady upstairs (Bharati Achrekar): the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. She sends off a special lunch and it comes back empty for once, but when her husband returns he doesn’t describe the same contents as she’d sent. The next day, she sends another lunch containing a note describing it as her husband’s favorite, which confirms that the lunchbox is going to someone else.
Thus begins the epistolary romance between Ila and Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower nearing his retirement from a clerk’s position. She shares her misgivings about her marriage, and he begins to open up not only to her, but to the life around him. He even makes friends with Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the ambitious and sycophantic orphan who wants to take over Saajan’s position after he retires.
It’s almost a cliché that you can feel alone in a city so large and crammed with other people, but Batra explores this sense of isolation with surprising nuance. In a culture that places such importance on family ties, an orphan like Shaikh is all but socially outcast. Ila courts a similar excommunication if she leaves her husband. And yet Saajan cuts himself off in his grief, pushing everyone away, though inside he still longs for contact and connection. Even Mrs. Deshpande, Ila’s confidante, nurses an ailing husband who is cut off from the world.
And which of us, no matter where we live, hasn’t felt disconnected? Batra’s film speaks to us, reminding us that these connections are all around us, waiting to be discovered through something as simple and absurd as a misplaced dabba. And ultimately it’s these connections that nourish us more than the contents of any particular lunch.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
Back when 300 came out, it was not exactly an accurate representation of the battle of Thermopylae, historically speaking: there are the basic facts it got wrong, the puerile hypermasculinity, the attempts to project a jingoistic, American mythology onto classical Greece. But the single biggest historical failure was the way it completely ignored the parallel naval battles that were far more decisive in repelling the second Persian invasion of Greece. And to the extent that it addresses these battles, 300: Rise of an Empire is an improvement. Of course, to make up for getting one thing right, Zack Snyder and company proceed to get almost everything else wrong, and the result is an alternately boring and grating mess.
But before we come to the battles of Artemisium and Salamis, the story flashes back to double-down on how evil those swarthy Persians are. Not only was their first invasion of Greece repelled at the battle of Marathon, but Darius I was actually there, according to the movie. And the Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) killed him on his barge with an arrow shot from the beach, but didn’t then do the same for his son, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Xerxes is, at this point, still “normal” — with the same masculine styling as most of the Greeks — but Darius’ general Artemisia (Eva Green) convinces him to seek revenge by recasting himself as a god-king. He is restyled into the depilated, bejeweled, and heavily made-up — in short, feminine — version we remember from the last movie, and launches the second Persian invasion.
About Artemisia: instead of the hereditary governor of Caria in what is now Turkey, she was orphaned and enslaved — because Frank Miller and Zack Snyder seem to know of literally no other way of developing a female character besides making her the victim of sexual violence — until rescued by a Persian who trained her in battle. And instead of leading five boats as in real life, she is the commander of the entire Persian navy. Artemisia is an utter non-entity, elevated here for the sole purpose of stripping Green naked in a sex scene with Stapleton that aspires to be as well-acted as those on late-night Cinemax, complete with her post-converted 3-D breasts.
But that scene at least engaged some sort of interest. For the most part as soon as the battle sequences end the entire film comes to a dead stop. What passes for story and dialogue is even more self-important speechifying than last time, doubling down on the transparent references to American mythologies of “freedom, justice, and democracy”, as if post-Enlightenment natural-rights democracy were anything but loosely adapted from the ancient Athenian version. It’s middle-school political theory for middle-school intellects and emotions.
Then again, the action isn’t really any more interesting. Bodies spin around with no coherent spatial orientation, lurching between fast- and slow-motion. Weapons swing, and with each slice and thrust a gout of computer-generated “blood” shoots out, looking more like a cross between paraffin and Kool-Aid than anything that came out of a body. Slap an instagram filter on the picture and call it a day.
Overall, this feels like nothing more than a late, cheap attempt to cash in on the unexpected monetary success of 300, and I have no doubt it will go over like gangbusters with its target audience. Nobody ever went bankrupt underestimating the taste of the American public, and this isn’t going to be the movie that changes things.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
Liam Neeson action movies have become something of a joke. There’s a whole running gag on the internet about his famous monologue from Taken. But while Non-Stop looks like more of the same, it’s actually a pretty fun locked-room mystery, though not without its share of ridiculous points.
Bill Marks (Neeson) is a federal air marshal, and he’s an alcoholic, as the opening shot of his whiskey flask makes clear. Still, he shows up for his job, flying from New York to London on a British airliner. Soon after they’ve cleared the Atlantic coast he gets a message on the plane’s secure wi-fi network: someone on the plane will die every twenty minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a certain bank account.
Marks takes the threat to the skeptical captain (Linus Roache) and enlists the help of the woman sitting in the next seat (Julianne Moore) to see if he can track down the mystery texter. But sure enough, twenty minutes later someone is dead. Worse: Marks is the one who killed him, and the TSA agent on the ground (Shea Whigham) says the bank account is in Marks’ own name.
So we’ve got a neat little mystery in a nice, confined space, with an added twist that the authorities outside the plane think Marks is actually the bad guy. Director Jaume Collet-Serra — whose previous feature was the similarly twisty Neeson thriller Unknown — makes the best use of the constraints of an airplane cabin. The action is nicely claustrophobic, especially when a fight breaks out in an aisle or a bathroom, and Collet-Serra is masterful at using his camera to misdirect. It also helps that the story — by first-time feature writers John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach — is a neat little puzzle-box itself, with a number of its moving pieces serving double-duty.
That’s not to say that the movie is without its share of howlers. Lots of little things don’t really feel completely plausible. Marks has an angry phone call early on; the tone is a key point in shaping the authorities’ mistaken impressions, but the content is a giant loose end that’s never really explained. And even if a transatlantic flight did have a live television feed from anywhere, why would a British carrier default to NY1 News?
Still, even if Non-Stop isn’t a masterpiece it’s still a solidly-executed thriller. Neeson’s action career may approach self-parody at times, but movies like this one should help remind us why he gets the offers in the first place.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
Thankfully, it seems that Miyazaki Hayao will not make The Wind Rises his feature directing swan song, after all, after a statement he made last month. For such an auteur — far and away the most critically acclaimed director of anime films — I’d hope for some kind of epilogue, summing up his sprawling body of work, or at least a climactic movement reiterating his major themes. The Wind Rises, however, abandons his usual flights of fantasy in favor of mere history. Instead of an epilogue, it’s a footnote. Instead of tying into his ongoing discussion on the need to engage and come into balance with the world around us we get a grasping attempt at commentary on the creative process, and not a very well-presented one at that.
Specifically, Miyazaki chooses to tell a heavily-fictionalized story about Horikoshi Jiro (Anno Hideaki; dubbed in English by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the aeronautical engineer who basically got Japan’s air force off the ground for World War II. The problem is, there’s no story here. Horikoshi grows up with dreams of making and flying airplanes, complete with visions of famous Italian engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni (Mansai Nomura; Stanley Tucci). He works hard, gets a job at Mitsubishi, and eventually comes up with the prototype of the A5M, the first Japanese-designed aircraft with an all-metal body, and the direct ancestor of Horikoshi’s later design, the A6M “Zero” fighter.
But we see no particular achievements along the way. There are no obstacles, either technological or social, in Horikoshi’s path. There is the idea that all-metal body construction is difficult, and there are setbacks where test flights don’t work as well as hoped, but we don’t really get an indication of what the problem is, or what’s going wrong. We see no particular insight or innovation on Horikoshi’s part, other than designing some structural elements after mackerel bones, which is more a poetic detail than anything else. He just works hard and eventually makes an airplane.
In the second half of the movie, as Horikoshi’s efforts become more technical and so there’s less for us to see, we ramp up a wholly fictional love story. Miyazaki cribbed this from a story by the Showa-period writer Hori Tatsuo about a young woman in a tuberculosis sanitarium. This story takes its title — and the title of the film — from a line in Paul Valéry’s poem “Le Cimetière marin”: “Le vent se lève! Il faut tenter de vivre!” — “The wind rises! We must try to live!”
But it has nothing to do with the real life of Horikoshi Jiro. Satomi Naoko (Takimoto Miori; Emily Blunt) exists only to paint Horikoshi as that much more of a kind and generous guy, and to underscore Miyazaki’s love for the ideas of purity; the love they share is so pure that they only ever hold hands as he works all night long. The love story is so weakly and simply sketched that it makes the work story look as nuanced as Miyazaki’s artwork.
But the biggest failing is an ethical one. I’m not going to quite go so far as some who call designing or using the Zero a war crime, but the film embraces a childishly simplistic view of the ramifications of Horikoshi’s work. In their dream discussions, Caproni says that airplanes are creations neither of war nor commerce, but that they are “beautiful dreams”. Horikoshi may be a pacifist — the version in Miyazaki’s story may be, at least — and he may be under scrutiny by more nationalistic Japanese, but his desire to create beautifully-engineered airplanes cannot be rendered wholly separate from the uses to which he knows full well they will be put.
Any honest engineer must come to terms with the uses of his or her creations. Horikoshi, working on a research and development grant with the Japanese navy, and in partnership with the German Luftwaffe, must surely have known that these planes were intended as tools of war, and he cannot simply dismiss his part in that war with an adaptation of Tom Lehrer’s “Wernher von Braun”: “Once the zeroes are up, who cares what they shoot down?”
It would be one thing if Miyazaki tried to quietly sweep the purpose of Horikoshi’s planes under the rug. If the film ignored the ethical fallout of engineering military technology entirely it would be a troubling oversight. But in fact he raises exactly this point, and then does a terribly inept job of answering it. Once you’ve admitted that you’re making a fighter plane with navy money, you can’t simply say it’s not your job to decide how it gets used.
It seems that with this foray into real history, Miyazaki is out of his element. As beautiful as the animation always is, this story doesn’t have much to say. It’s an uncharacteristically weak and hollow effort on his part, and I’m glad he’s decided to take at least one more pass before ending his career for good.
Worth It: only for Miyazaki fans; this is not the film of his to start with.
Bechdel Test: fail.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — “Metro”, for short — has had an ad up in its rail cars for the last couple months hyping how reliable the bus fleet is. Yes, this is part of the same series that brought down complaints of sexism, but I have a different complaint: even if you’re not a woman, Metro still thinks you’re stupid and innumerate.
In either version of the ad, one person notes to the other that “a Metro bus goes on average 8,260 miles before a breakdown.” And that seems like a pretty big number, all right, which is just what the ad wants you to think.
One way to critique this ad is by comparing to a more familiar domain; I’ve put about eight times as many miles on my current car and never had a breakdown, despite being less than scrupulous about scheduled maintenance.
But then I’m usually driving big highway miles, not all day, every day, in stop-and-go city traffic, so maybe this isn’t a fair comparison. Besides, we can’t expect every public-transit customer to be have even that much familiarity with automobiles.
There’s another way to peel back the wool this as tries to pull over our eyes, though: the numbers. Putting a big number like 8,260 in the as copy is designed to make your brain shut off and give up, but let’s push forward a bit.
WMATA runs about 160 bus lines. Let’s say that each one uses only one bus; obviously they use more but I’m trying to be generous to Metro here. Let’s further say that each one runs for five hours a day. This again seems an underestimate; five hours barely covers both rush hours, and if there’s some line that does run even less the slack will be taken up by our huge underestimates elsewhere. Finally, let’s say each bus averages eleven miles per hour, which again seems to be a low guess.
Now we have 160 bus lines with 1 bus per line, running for 5 hours per day, at 11 miles per hour. This gives us an estimate of 8,800 bus-miles per day. And remember that this is a dramatic underestimate; the real number is certainly much larger.
So what does this mean? Metro’s own ad gives an average of 8,260 bus-miles per breakdown. That is, they expect at least one bus to break down every single day, and likely more than that. Doesn’t sound so reliable now, does it?
But Metro is counting on you not realizing that this is what their ad really means. They expect you to say “big number; must be pretty good” and think no more about it. And, depressingly enough, they’re probably right. Most of the riders who see this ad simply don’t have the tools to take it apart like this.
Often when watching yet another period drama, it feels like it comes down to an exercise in sets and costumes more than anything else. I begin to wonder if maybe I’m just unfairly biased against the whole genre. And then comes a film like In Secret — based on Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin — and reminds me that yes, histrionics and art design can serve an actual story that’s fun to watch.
Thérèse starts off as so many protagonists of 19th century novels do: abandoned by her parents to an unfamiliar home, in this case that of her aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), and her cousin, Camille (Tom Felton), in rural France. Camille and Thérèse grow up together, he into a sickly young man without even the usual compensatory bookishness, and she into a sexually curious — and sexually frustrated — young woman. When they come of age, Thérèse is married to Camille, and the family moves to Paris for him to take a position as a clerk while Thérèse and Mme. Raquin open a sewing shop on a dark alley below their apartments.
And then one night Camille brings home an old acquaintance who just happens to be a clerk in the same office. Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac) is everything Thérèse has been looking for: tall, strong, handsome, artistic, and a passionate lover. But of course she’s already married to a milksop, so they carry on their affair in secret until they can’t stand being apart any longer. The obstacle must be removed, and accidents happen every day, don’t they? It would just take a simple boating mishap and they can be together. But the two lovers soon find that it may not be quite as simple as they think.
Novice writer/director Charlie Stratton does an admirable job of adapting Neal Bell’s stage version of Zola’s novel. Engaging in both halves, the film turns around Camille’s death, which upends everyone’s lives as surely as the rented skiff where it takes place. A passionate love story at the start, it swiftly pivots into a taut, paranoid thriller while deftly uncovering nuances and revelations about love’s many impostors.
In a nice surprise for this sort of film, Olsen and Isaac have actual chemistry. Their love scenes feel as intense as their later fights; Olsen in particular shows real longing before, and palpable relief after she finally finds a partner who can meet her needs. And Lange’s recent run on _American Horror Story_ serves her well when the tension ratchets up.
With the help of cinematograher Florian Hoffmeister, Stratton shoots a beautiful picture. Not only do the sets — modern Belgrade and Budapest standing in for Second Empire France — and costumes catch the eye, but so many shots catch the many period objects arranged as if in a still life. As has become fashionable, Stratton uses some moving handheld shots, but with tactful restraint, and only for effect when the action calls for it.
Is In Secret overwrought? sure; show me a recent movie set in the middle of the 19th century that isn’t. But it’s not just pretty pictures and the vapours; there’s a real, engaging story here under all the fabric and grime. It really is possible to make an interesting period picture, after all.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is Japan’s premiere cinematic poet of families in crisis, if not the world’s. With Like Father, Like Son he digs deep into well-trodden ground and still comes up with something new and sadly beautiful. While not as fun and enjoyable a childhood romp as his previous offering, I Wish, Kore-eda’s latest is emotionally richer and maybe more satisfying in the long run.
Nonomiya Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu) is a rising star in an architectural firm, the very model of the Japanese workaholic salaryman. He does try to be a good and affectionate husband to his wife, Midori (Ono Machiko) and his young son, Keita (Ninomiya Keita), who has just passed his entrance exams into a prestigious elementary school, but work generally comes first. He is driven to succeed, and he’s frustrated when his efforts to instill that drive in his son only go so far.
And then the call comes: the hospital near Midori’s hometown, where Keita was born, wants to talk to them. It seems that, despite preventative measures being in place for decades, Keita may have been switched at birth. A DNA test confirms it: the Nonomiya’s biological son went home with repairman and shopkeeper Saiki Yukari and his wife Yudai (Maki Yôko and Furankî Rirî), and has been raised as Ryusei (Hwang Shôgen).
The Saiki family are country bumpkins compared to the yuppies Ryo wants his family to be. They live in a disorganized flat above Yukari’s shop with his father and Ryusei’s two younger siblings. They even take their baths together in a tiny tub. But their house is filled with raucous laughter and racing footsteps rather than genial pleasantries and Keita’s piano practice.
Yukari is mostly concerned with how much they can get from the hospital in damages; Ryo is focused on blood relations. But since Ryo counts a lawyer among his old school pals he takes the lead in making arrangements. Ryo clearly sees Yukari as a money-grubber — he even play-acts complaints of whiplash while romping with his kids — and gets the idea that he and Midori might be able to buy off the Saikis and raise both boys.
The switched-at-birth story and its nature-versus-nurture consequences are not new, and neither is the idea that the rich might try to use their greater resources as leverage against the less well-off. But Kore-eda mines both grounds in his usual, contemplative style. Fukuyama and Maki each render their characters with impressive subtleties; neither one is all he appears to be at first glance. Kore-eda’s script manages to point to all sorts of nuance and complications without feeling the need to explore each one in detail. And, of course, he always gets incredible performances out of his youngest actors.
Yet again, Kore-eda Hirokazu continues to produce the most gently beautiful, thoughtful family dramas in the world. And this from the country firmly cemented in the American mind as the land of anime, 47 Ronin, and all that crap from The Wolverine. More beautiful, touching films like this one, please.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.