Mifune and Shimura in Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI: The Father and the Son

If you haven’t read “Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s “NORA INU / STRAY DOG”, please check that out first. Next, read Takashi Shimura, and Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON. This post is a continuation of those thoughts.

If I’ve wrtten at all the way I think it sounds in my head, by now you’re starting to get a sense that Kurosawa is using these two actors, Mifune and Shimura, to make a point. He’s telling us something, tied together across multiple films. In Seven Samurai, the dynamic between them becomes clear.

In his book about Kurosawa, Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro quotes the original film pamphlet for Seven Samurai: “What a wonderful thing if one can construct a grand action film without sacrificing the portrayal of humans.”(1) Here Mifune plays “Lord Kikuchiyo”, the outcast son in this film, the orphaned farmer boy who never quite becomes an accepted member of the samurai “family”. Shimura plays Kambei Shimada, the head of the group and the ideal leader figure: the other samurai join up because they recognize Kambei as a leader/father.(2)

As Gorobei says, though the plight of the farmers was moving, “it was your character that I am most interested in”.

Kikuchiyo, along with the others, is impressed by the quick and skillful way that Kambei dispatched the thief and saved the kidnapped child. He draws the dead thief’s sword in jubilation, waving it about while he shouts cheerfully. He then follows Kambei out of the village and seems about to talk to him when Katsushiro Okamoto (played by Kimura Isao) runs up, throws himself to the ground, and begs to become Kambei’s disciple, effectively taking the place of the son-figure and leaving Kikuchiyo as the outsider.

Both Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo have unshaven heads, showing them to be youths, and both are desperate for recognition. Kambei accepts Katsushiro as a samurai but questions Kikuchiyo’s credentials, shaming the man before leading Katsushiro away. Kikuchiyo tries several times to win the Kambei’s respect and gain a place as a member of the samurai family group, with little success. He brings the haul of dead samurai armor and weapons, expecting to be praised, and is angry when he is rebuked. Mifune’s well-played insecure warrior rants about farmers then reverses and defends their actions as being the only way to deal with the violence of samurai. When Kambei, in a moment of compassion, points out that he realizes “Lord Kikuchiyo” was actually born a farmer, the younger man flees.

In the next scene, Katsushiro walks over to Kikuchiyo, apparently to complement his armor (he is smiling but not laughing) but Kikuchiyo storms off, unable to handle another possible criticism. In this way he is like a stray dog, one that has been kicked too many times, and who shies away from even a gentle hand for fear of being kicked again.

“Throughout his career Kurosawa has preferred to let his films speak for him.”(3)

As both the director and editor on his films, he had the power to use his cinematography and editing to support his narrative vision.  The first time that the viewer sees the character of Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, it appears to be the first time that Kambei sees him as well. The freshly shaven samurai turns to the watching crowd and sees Kikuchiyo sitting on the ground, scratching his chest. Kikuchiyo leans forward expectantly, but Kambei turns away to confront the thief hiding in the barn.

In the following sequence of shots, Kikuchiyo pushes his way past the front; Kurosawa cuts to a scene of Kikuchiyo performing almost the same exact movement to get past the next set of watchers. The reverse shot is from a much lower angle and looks up from the ground to see Kikuchiyo (from behind) kick over a bucket for a seat while Kambei speaks to the desperate thief. Visually, Kikuchiyo is always positioned as the outsider: when the group of samurai initially enters the village, Kikuchiyo sits on a fence behind the others, laughing, while they stand stoically.

A “conspicuous formal trait that foregrounds the individuality of key characters,” evident in all three of these films, is Kurosawa’s use of “an extreme close-up of their faces.”(4) This individuality allows the characters the range to express themselves as both narrative figures and pieces of Kurosawa’s father-son dynamic, since they are not constricted by being forced to fit into a limited group stereotype.

Kurosawa shows the difference between Detective Murakami and Kikuchiyo in several ways. In Stray Dog, Mifune’s character pursues the “stray dog” and in Seven Samurai he is the stray dog. Mifune is hit over the head by Katsushiro (drunk, after a fight “fought like a wild dog”) and then confronts Shimura. Katsushiro runs off with his sword and they chase each other around the room like squabbling brothers. The other samurai play “keep away” with Mifune/sword. Shimura dismisses the passed out Mifune as a samurai “in his own mind”.

The next morning, the group leaves Mifune behind. Later, when they notice him following them, they try to shoo him off like a stray dog. When they view the new flag, Kikuchiyo is the triangle while the other 6 men (not counting Katsushiro) are circles, showing that he is not like them and will never be like them.

Mifune’s character in Stay Dog is able to redeem himself and win admiration from the father substitute. However, Shimura never takes in the character that Mifune plays in Rashomon, so the bandit suffers from having no one to teach or defend him. In Seven Samurai, Mifune’s aspiring samurai is eventually respected by Shimura’s Kambei, but only after sacrificing himself in a battle to save the villagers. He quite literally has to die in order to gain his father’s affection. However, Yoshimoto points out that without Kikuchiyo, and true alliance between the samurai and the villagers may not have been possible, a perspective that no one within the film’s narrative seems to grasp. (5)

Footnotes:

(1) Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto. Kurosawa. Duke University Press, 2000. Pg 240.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Alan Jaffe. “Review: [Untitled] / Something like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa and Audie E. Bock.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1983). University of California Press pp. 25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3697093

(4) Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto. Kurosawa. Duke University Press, 2000. Pg 242.

(5) Ibid. Pg 241.

Takashi Shimura, and Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON

If you haven’t read “Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s “NORA INU / STRAY DOG”, please check that out first. This post is a continuation of that thought.

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune are the two actors most closely associated with Akira Kurosawa’s work. Shimura had perhaps the longest run as an actor under Kurosawa, beginning before the end of World War II, and continuing until the end of his life (in 1982).

Susumu Fujita as Sanshiro Sugata

Shimura appeared in the director’s debut film Sanshiro Sugata (1943), and the last film of Kurosawa’s in which he acted was Kagemusha (1980); Kurosawa specifically wrote a part for him. His roles include the doctor in Drunken Angel (1948), the veteran detective in Stray Dog (1949), the flawed lawyer in Scandal (1950),  the mortally ill bureaucrat in Ikiru (1952), and the lead samurai Kambei in Seven Samurai (1954).

He was known for his “impressive and beautifully modulated performance(s),” and that acting ability helped Kurosawa elevate movies like Drunken Angel into a multi-faceted film that William Bernhardt suggested was, “a deeper probing of postwar Japanese life than one expected in a story of a tubercular petty racketeer and the drunken doctor who tries to save him despite himself.”(1)

Japanese poster for Rashomon

Rashomon (1950) is a story about how impossible it is to find truth in human memory, since the various views of the past are presented as being both similar and vastly different. The death of a samurai and possible rape of his wife are pinned on the young bandit Tajōmaru, portrayed by Mifune, while Shimura takes the role of a nameless Woodcutter. The Woodcutter is the only character who is both at the scene of the crime, and at the discussion of it afterwards, but the character shows us that knowing the truth doesn’t matter if you don’t come forward when necessary.

Tajōmaru, fearing dishonor more than death, boasts of killing the samurai but the dead man’s ghost swears otherwise. Just as he refused to admit that he’d fallen from the stolen horse he did not know how to ride, Tajōmaru refuses to admit that he was both afraid to fight a trained samurai and disinterested in fighting for the man’s wife.(2)

Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer, did amazing things with focal length, light, and shadow, in this film.

Shimura, as the Woodcutter, could have stepped in to be Tajōmaru’s surrogate father. He knows how the murder actually happened but because he stole (and sold) the samurai’s knife, he lies about what he knows in order to save himself.

In this role, Shimura is cast as the abandoning father, opposite to the supportive, caring, men he played in Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. He has six children of his own at home that he is trying to support, so he clearly knows the importance of looking out for the younger generation — considered an important aspect of the ideal man — but chooses to ignore that ideal in this case.

The young bandit could have been saved if the Woodcutter had spoken the truth at the trial. It is this betrayal that Shimura’s character tries to redeem by adopting an abandoned baby at the end of the film, but is that act enough?

Kurosawa’s direction and Shimura’s superb acting certainly imply that if the Woodcutter hasn’t found redemption by that point, there is hope for his future. What seems a very cynical film — lies, selfishness, wrongful convictions — closes on a shot of the sun coming out from behind the clouds after the rain.

That moment becomes a cliche over time, as a thousand filmmakers used it as a kind of shorthand in later films, but just then, it’s a relatively new way to show good fortune smiling down on us. Everything you’ve endured watching Rashomon through to that ending is worth it. Every misgiving you feel about humanity is lessened, a little, by knowing we can make the wrong choice, but that doesn’t stop us from making the right choice the next chance we get.

Would it have felt the same if the Woodcutter had been played by Mifune instead? Do we need Shimura’s age and depth to convince us that his complexity is real?

Shimura as the Woodcutter

Rashomon won several awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952, and is now considered one of the greatest films ever made.

If you haven’t seen it yet, make the time.

Footnotes:

(1) Donald Richie. “A Personal Record,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Autumn, 1960), University of California Press. pp. 26.

(2) James F. Davidson, The Antioch Review, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter, 1954), pp. 492-501

Note: While the film borrows the title and setting from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa‘s short story “Rashōmon“, it is actually based on Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove“, which provides the characters and plot.

Toshiro Mifune, and Akira Kurosawa’s NORA INU/STRAY DOG

I bumped today’s scheduled movie review when I realized that this past Saturday was the anniversary of Toshiro Mifune’s birth, and I could instead talk about Nora Inu (released in the US as Stray Dog).

First, let’s all remember the hotness that was Toshiro Mifune:

If you were expecting to see him in film-faux samurai garb, sorry to disappoint you. Mifune appeared in nearly 170 films as an actor, including 16 of Kurosawa’s, and most of them weren’t period pieces. He was an extremely versatile, expressive, and talented actor, with a wide range — which included dark, murky, detective film noir like Stray Dog.

Mifune originally worked as a photographer; he grew up in his father’s camera shop, and when he was drafted during WWII, he served in the Aerial Photography unit. Afterward, he got a job as an assistant cameraman for Toho Productions (home to Godzilla, and hundreds of other movies). It was there that he was “discovered” as an actor, first for his looks, and then for his ability to throw himself into a role, drawing on his wartime experiences, and general disregard for propriety during a performance.

He wasn’t afraid to be everything he possibly could, as an actor. You can see that onscreen, and Stray Dog is no exception.

Kurosawa saw Mifune during a screen test and immediately hired him. Mifune’s first role was in Snow Trail (1947), the story of three bank robbers who hide out on a snowy mountain lodge with an unsuspecting family; though Senkichi Taniguchi directed it, Kurosawa wrote the screenplay. The next year Mifune starred in the Kurosawa-directed Drunken Angel, and in 1949, they did Stray Dog together.

The short, spoiler-free description of the film is this: A rookie detective loses his gun, which is later used in a crime. To recover it, he teams up with a veteran detective on the verge of retirement. They traverse the darkest parts of Tokyo looking for it.

(If you’re thinking Kurosawa’s plot was “borrowed” repeatedly by Western filmmakers over the last 68 years, you’d be right.)

The longer description is this: Kurosawa used Stray Dog, Mifune, and another of his favorite performers — Takashi Shimura — to act out the complexities of the father/son dynamic within a noir story, just as he did with Drunken AngelRashomon, and Seven Samurai.

Here, Mifune is “Detective Murakami”, the son saved by his wise old mentor, “Detective Sato”, played by Shimura, while “Yusa Shinjuro” (the bad guy in the film, played by Isao Kimura) shows the negative alternative of how Murakami could’ve ended up.

After a long, hot, day, Murakami loses his gun to a pickpocket, which sets off a string of crimes he feels responsible for. His supervisor, seeing his determination to retrieve the gun, puts him together with Detective Sato in hopes that the older man can cool Murakami’s obsession. Sato has children of his own, and slides easily into the role of Murakami’s surrogate parent.

During the film, these characters talk about Yusa, whose first name literally means “second son,” as if the young criminal were a wild animal, a “stray dog” in danger of becoming a “mad dog”. Murakami, too, is in danger of this, having come from the same background as their criminal; both men even had their backpacks stolen when returning from the war.

In the end, Yusa, feeling trapped because the police are closing in, shoots Sato with Murakami’s gun, making the younger detective responsible for wounding his own surrogate father. His quest for redemption leads him to a muddy struggle with Yusa, where Murakami is wounded himself, but does not submit until the criminal is cuffed. In the end, he’s left to wonder how close he got to darkness, and if he’ll ever recover.

In addition to exploring the father/son relationship on a personal level, it also works its way through the traditional (at the time) Japanese “father as imperial authority” dynamic, altered forever by so many anchorless young men coming back from the war, who struggled to regain their place in society. It shows us parts of Tokyo society that weren’t often seen in films from before WWII, too: actors and criminals, broken households, and the often-degrading ways women survived alone in a hard world.

Plus, the cinematography is technical perfection. Look at these stills!

Stray Dog is heartbreaking and violent, frenzied and gorgeous, visceral and thoughtful, all at once. Just like real life.

I have the Criterion Collection version and recommend that.

Mini Movie Review: “Somm” and “Somm: Into the Bottle”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m reviewing these two documentaries together because they’re a matched pair: same director, much of the same cast, and two sides of the same coin.

You should watch Somm first, because it was filmed first, and introduces you to people you’ll see in the next film. It’s not the better movie, though. Somm is the backstage look at a small group of men who are preparing to take the Court of Master Sommeliers “Master Sommelier” exam, a three-part test to award the title and prestige that comes with being a master somm. (It is very prestigious; there are only about 200 Court-certified masters in the world, and ascending to that level comes with cache, swagger, and immediate job offerings all over the world.)

The test is truly difficult. It’s subjective, and it’s broad-ranging. To be a master, you need the skills of a botanist and a historian, along with a sensitive nose and an excellent memory for tastes and smells. It takes a combination of genetics and dedication, then, along with the money and privilege necessary to access the variety of wines you’ll have to memorize before the exam. So, of course these guys are stressed, and not every one passes.

If you already care about the master test, or you are working as a sommelier, this behind-the-scenes look will probably interest you. I learned a few things, watching it.

But Somm: Into the Bottle is far more educational. It brings back the guys from Somm, now employed by various wineries and restaurants, and has them help explain the history and mysteries of wine production. There’s obviously a bigger budget, and the director manages to get into some rare European locations to speak with winemakers whose families have been making wine since before there was an “America”, before the existence of many of the countries we know in Europe today.

I’d have liked to learn more about South American and Asian wines, but they do cover Australia, Europe, and California pretty well. They go over the botany, genetics, and economic/political pressures which make up a wine’s lineage and flavor profile. (War! Infighting between small wineries! Drinking lots of expensive wine!)

I don’t drink much wine, mainly because I could never afford to learn anything about it. I know a couple of things I like (bring unto me your finest Riesling, if you want me to be happy with your wine selections) and a decent amount of history (because, art historian). But knowing wine at the level of masters means knowing everything.

The thing is, I like to know everything. And I don’t like the realization that there’s this whole field which impacts culture and is grounded in history… which I haven’t accessed.

I need to read a few more books.

And definitely drink more wine.

(Both films are currently available on Netflix.)

Movie Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”

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This is the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years. The impact, if you open yourself up to what’s on the screen, is immediate, lasts throughout the relatively-short film, and follows you out onto the street afterward. I saw it a few weeks ago, but I can feel the echo of it around me still.

I was a little concerned, before I saw it, that the entire time James Baldwin’s words or images were on the screen, Samuel L. Jackson’s voice would hover over them. Nothing against Jackson, a great actor who I enjoy, but I went for the experience of Baldwin briefly-revived, and didn’t want that experience diluted. I didn’t have anything to worry about. Jackson did read Baldwin’s words, in places, but his softened his voice and cadence give us narration that was less “Nick Fury” and closer to Baldwin’s “delicate but precise New York writer”. Enough, anyway, that it worked.

Big chunks of the film are in Baldwin’s own voice, from interviews and lectures and if you haven’t seen that man lecture before, go now, go online, go to YouTube, and find him. (Thanks to the internet, he lives on, at least a little.)

The rest is photographs, old and new, and some small clips of Black Lives Matter groups protesting in the last few years.

But what it is, really, is James laid bare, reaching out, reaching forward, to remind us that racism is not gone, not in the past, not even that old. We’re not post-racial, here in America; we are the children and grandchildren of those angry white mothers and brash young white supremacist boys who spit on black children wanting nothing more than a seat in a schoolhouse so they could learn.

Some people reading this are old enough to have been there, clutching their purses which righteous indignation, carrying signs, screaming, spitting, throwing rocks, or worse. That’s not a condemnation of my readers. It’s just a fact — one this documentary reminds you of, softly, crisply, and clearly.

But it’s even more than that. It’s a history lesson. It’s a look at how black men and black men’s bodies were regulated, even as they turned a profit. It’s also a reminder to speak up, to be yourself regardless of the circumstances, to write boldly, to make a mark, to love, to live, before it’s too late. Because it’s always too late, eventually.

Go see it in the theater while you still can.

Watch the trailer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNUYdgIyaPM

Mini Movie Review: Meet the Patels

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With the help of his sister (Geeta V. Patel – amateur cameraperson, roommate, and occasional voice of reason), actor Ravi Patel chronicles his journey to find a suitable wife in this documentary. It was picked up by a distributor after being entered in a few film festivals; it won the Audience Award in L.A. On a production level, it’s not great, though the shaky handcam is balanced out by crisp animation and slick packaging (clearly added by a later producer). The film’s insightful, though in a limited way: Ravi shows some of what an American-born Indian might go through to find a spouse, but during the process, he never really commits to finding someone new, since he’s already got someone in mind. Because it’s clear from the beginning that he would rather be with his ex, Audrey, there’s no dramatic tension, and no real possibility he’ll fall in love with anyone else.

The problem arises not from the difficulties of finding a suitable wife, but because Ravi doesn’t want to tell his Indian-born parents that Audrey is white. Instead, they break up, and she moves progressively farther and farther away from him while he’s simultaneously searching the Internet for a “proper” Indian wife who’ll appeal to his American taste.  If you aren’t familiar with the ways a Patel in the US can find a wife – arranged marriages, matchmakers, dating websites, family conventions, and biodata sheets passed around by the mothers of potential dates – that part of the film is interesting. I wish there was more of a focus on that part of Ravi’s search, but each snippet is brought back, time and again, to Ravi’s internal conflicts (Audrey vs. what he thinks his parents want, what he thinks he should want) and Ravi’s clear need to be honest with everyone involved.

In the end, Meet the Patels is less about Ravi’s family, and more a letter to his first love: “Here’s the process of me figuring out I was an idiot,” the movie seems to say. Once he’s decided to introduce them, his parents very quickly agree that having a white American girl for a wife is much better than no wife at all. None of his feared “drama” arises at her identity, and only a little at his deception (quickly forgiven), proving Ravi should have just told them in the first place.

That’s true of most conflicts, though, isn’t it?

Overall, it’s cute, somewhat informative, and buoyed by Ravi’s charming family. Worth watching, but you can safely do other things while it’s on.

3/5*

Watch it on Netflix.

Mini Movie Review: Inspired To Ride (2015)

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“It just kind of settles in that you got to realize you got to run your own race. And it’s between me and me you know, me and my thoughts. Me, how far I can push myself, and, um, I don’t think I’ve really reached that yet.” – Brian Steele (USA)

Inspired To Ride  follows a handful of people as they embark on the inaugural Trans Am Bike Race in 2014 – a 4200 mile race across 10 states, without support teams, stages, or stopping other than to sleep as little as possible*. The filmmakers focus on the male winner, Mike Hall, and the female winner, Juliana Buhring, an endurance writer, cult survivor, and author, who starts out the race by crashing over her handlebars, and ends it by coming in 26 days faster than the next woman to finish. Her story is incredible, but in truth, they all are, and the filmmakers treat them all the same, whether interviewing the lead racer, or a disabled veteran (not part of their race, but biking along the same road for a while) they happen to run into along the way. Everyone has something profound to share.

There’s a lot of similarities to writing and biking/running long distances, which is part of why that sort of physical effort appeals to me**. There will always be some who tear through the route like they’re on fire, racing ahead of the pack, who push themselves to be fastest, to be first. But the ones who go slower, who fight a battle not of physical prowess but mental determination, they still arrive at the same finish line. They still accomplish something that most people will never do: they set a nearly impossible goal, and they didn’t give up until they’d reached it. Writing is like that. There will always be people who write 4 books in a year or 10,000 words in a day; some days that may be you, and some days, you may feel like you won’t be able to write another 10,000 words in the next year. The ones who stop, eat, rest, stretch, and get back on the bike again – get back to the laptop and the pen – are the ones who have overcome the biggest obstacle any of us face: our own heads.

As they said in the movie, about the riders who’ll see it through until the end, “They give 110%, whatever their 110% is.”

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Joanna Abernathy, on her last ride

For me, the moment with the most impact was the 30 seconds they spent talking to Joanna Abernathy, a 53 year-old high school teacher from Australia, who was riding the same stretch of road on her own as a tribute to Martin Luther King, and the courage to face one’s fears. She gave up the life she felt anyone could have had, and set out for an adventure she wouldn’t be able to completely control, accepting that she would meet new people, try new things. Her trip would take her across the entire United States, almost three months of riding alone. (Sadly, she was struck by a car and killed, only 500 miles from the end of her journey.)

Joanna wasn’t a world-class athlete. She didn’t need to be born someone special in order to accomplish her goals. It wasn’t natural talent or privilege that propelled her forward – it was drive. She wanted something, though, trained for it, and did it, racing against no one else but herself.

We could all do that. Most people won’t, but I know that I will. I am. You should, too.

4/5*

Watch Inspired To Ride on Netflix or Amazon.

* It is not a stage race, the clock never stops from the moment the riders leave the start to the moment that they reach the finish, so it is a long individual time trial. Riders must therefore strategically choose how much time to devote to riding, resting, and refueling each day. Being self-supported or unsupported means that drafting is not allowed, receiving any form of support from other racers, friends, or family is not allowed; all food, accommodation, repairs, etc., must be purchased from commercial sources. – Wiki

** Did you see my review of The Barkley Marathons?

*** Oh, and Brian Steele? Yeah, he’s that actor.

Mini Movie Review: Hot Girls Wanted

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This certainly could have been better, but the Netflix Original documentary is a starter look at the world of amateur porn, for anyone who’s not familiar with how that industry works. It interviews a handful of teen porn “stars”, as well as a broker, a couple of male actors, and one girl’s family. What it does right is show the dirt behind the glam: girls who are young and thin (more important than pretty), who look younger than the 18 years old they’re legally required to be, can have unprotected sex – often degrading, sometimes dangerous – only to be forced out of the industry because they’ve done everything anyone cared to pay for, after only 2 or 3 months. Most of them have to spend so much money on rent and their broker’s percentage and living the “porn lifestyle” to get exposure that by the time they’re washed up, they don’t have anything to show for it except a lifetime of being known as that girl who’s naked online.

Oh, and if you ever watched porn thinking that some random encounter was captured on film, or that a happy, sex-positive couple uploaded their fun for the world to see – well, most times, that’s just what they want you to think.

According to Wikipedia, the film’s focus was changed during shooting, when the filmmakers discovered their original idea wasn’t as interesting; the movie was changed again after it showed at Sundance, to address issues the audience had, and again after viewers took to Twitter to complain. (Also, the broker and two of his performers complained afterward that the film was cut to show “worst case scenarios” instead of the truth.) It has a choppy, slightly lost feeling that could be blamed on all of the changes, or on the directors not having a clear idea of what they wanted to say. Either way, don’t watch it expecting to know everything about the pro-am porn scene. Hot Girls Wanted doesn’t cover the aspects of sex work that can be safe, positive, and fulfilling – and I’ve known enough people in the industry to know that’s possible. This is one perspective, though, so it’s somewhere to begin.

After watching it, the story I was most interested in was the one this movie doesn’t cover: one of the actresses gets into porn as a way to escape her small town and controlling parents, but ends up with a boyfriend who’s ashamed of her work, so she quits to go back to the same town, the same parents, with the added pressure of her boyfriend telling her what to do and who to be. The movie doesn’t explore at all why she felt this was the only way out for her, or what her life is like now, as a small-town waitress that everyone knows “did porn”. Being in porn didn’t make her life any better, but neither did being in this movie.

Definitely NSFW.

3/5*

Watch on Netflix.

Mini Review: “The Search for General Tso” (2014)

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If you live in America, you probably know about General’s Chicken, that breaded and fried chicken dish, coated in a spicy-sweet sauce, available at almost every Chinese food restaurant. Ian Cheney directed this search for the truth behind the ubiquitous meal, which starts out with a few theories before examining the history leading up to the proliferation of the dish, and how it has changed over the years.

Along the way, Cheney explores the advent of Chinese food for sale in the United States. General’s Chicken, which is known by several similar names all over the world, is a hugely popular dish, and the documentary looks at its importance as a “way in” for Asian-Americans, interviewing restaurant owners and chefs, who talk about the racism they found in the new communities they moved into, and the acceptance that food brought to the table.

In the end, they do discover the original dish, and its creator, but like other appropriations – anyone familiar with McDonald’s chicken nuggets in sweet & sour sauce will recognize the similarities, discussed in the movie – that first version was “borrowed” and revised, too. In the end, I was a little sad, a lot more informed, and (if I’m being honest), hungry.

4/5*

Available on Netflix and Amazon.

On a related note, has anyone read Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food? If not, I recommend it!

Mini Review: “World of Tomorrow” (2015)

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World of Tomorrow is only 16 minutes long. It’s been nominated for an Oscar, won more than 40 film festival awards, including the Grand Jury Prize for Short Film at Sundance Film Festival, and Best Animated Short at SXSW. I’d be surprised if it’s not at least nominated for some of our genre awards (I put it on my Hugo list, for example). Created entirely by Don Hertzfeld, it takes science fiction staples – cloning, time travel, space travel, singularity, robots, and aliens – as fact, and then uses that backdrop to tell a dark but loving story focused entirely on humanity. The shiny scifi bits exist but don’t matter nearly as much as one woman talking to one little girl about everything that gave her life meaning.

The animation has been called “avant-garde”, but though I liked it, it didn’t seem that far out of the realm of what’s been done before. It suits the story, which matters; the voice actors are also perfect, and in fact, Hertzfeld recorded his four-year-old niece while she was playing, and then edited her into the film as the main character’s younger self.

World of Tomorrow is excellent storytelling, and is a spot-on example of how I like my fiction: character-driven, a little bleak, a little frightening, fully aware of our own mortality, but hopeful, too. What is it to be alive? What makes you, you? Hope isn’t granted without working for it, and love isn’t free,  but if you live every day the best that you can, at the end, you’ll have had a full life.

5/5*

Watch it on Netflix or Vimeo.