Category: American Independents

East Side Sushi (US 2014)

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) and Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) 'out front' in the sushi restaurant 'Osaka'

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) and Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) ‘out front’ in the sushi restaurant ‘Osaka’.

The ‘East Side’ of this title is in Oakland, California which is home to a significant Latino community. Juana is a single mother with a small daughter. Juana lives with her ageing father and works as hard as she can to support her family. With significant experience in the kitchens of local taquerías, Juana one day sees a job vacancy in the kitchen of a sushi restaurant. Although this is just a kitchen assistant’s job, she is attracted by the medical insurance benefits that come with a permanent post. Once in post, Juana soon impresses with her knife work and before long she becomes fascinated with the art and culture of sushi preparation.

East Side Sushi is an ‘ultra low budget’ film by writer-director Anthony Lucero. Although he had to virtually fund the film out of his own pocket, Lucero was able to use industry colleagues as crew and professional actors for key roles. In a Q&A he revealed that his day job is “freelancing for Lucasfilm in the documentary division”. This is evident in the strong documentary feel to parts of the film. I learned a great deal about the actual process of preparing the ingredients and presenting the sushi plate – more in fact than I got from the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (US 2011). Lucero also had the aim of showing the meeting of cultures, Mexican and Japanese, and this becomes one of the drivers of the narrative. Juana clearly has the knife skills to become a sushi chef, but will the twin issues of her gender and ethnicity prove to be unsurmountable obstacles?

Juana can see that there isn't much future in her fruit cart business . . .

Juana can see that there isn’t much future in her fruit cart business . . .

But East Side Sushi is not a documentary and it isn’t ‘social realism’ in the sense understood in European film cultures. This is an American film and it employs that familiar American narrative structure of ‘the hero’s journey’ – even moving into the genre of the ‘competition/sports film’. Can Juana win the regional heat of the ‘Champion of Sushi’ TV competition? Judging by the comments of the reporters of its film festival success (lots of ‘Audience Awards’ in the US), East Side Sushi is a winning ‘feelgood film’. I have to agree. Anthony Lucero might believe that he has produced a film that is ” . . . [not] mainstream, not your typical Hollywood film” – but it does have the same kind of audience appeal. The technical credits are all good and so are the performances, especially that of Diana Elizabeth Torres as Juana. The music works well and the subject is interesting. I enjoyed the film very much and I would support and recommend its wider distribution. Perhaps the one aspect that takes it outside the (US) mainstream is that a large part of the film is subtitled with dialogue in Spanish or Japanese. This leads into the most germane question for this blog. Is East Side Sushi a potential international film?

There is a large and rapidly growing Hispanic film and TV market in the US which, like the South Asian film and TV market in the UK, is largely confined to Spanish language TV stations and specific cinema distribution networks. It’s difficult to get a sense of how this works from a distance but I note that East Side Sushi will open in cinemas in California on Friday 18th September and particularly in the Maya Cinemas chain – multiplexes serving areas with a significant Latino population. Screening details are available via the official website (screenings are also scheduled for Colorado, Arizona and Texas) which includes extra information about the filmmakers.

Thinking about this film, I realised that the only directly similar film I can remember getting a (very limited) UK release was Real Women Have Curves (US 2002) which helped launch the career of America Ferrera. It would be good to see Diana Elizabeth Torres get similar further opportunities. Interestingly, Paraíso (Paradise, Mexico 2014) also features a cookery competition as a generic device. Although I have seen only a few films like East Side Sushi, I do note that it is often a younger woman who seeks to find ways to improve herself and in so doing has to prove her worth not only to her employers but also to a (usually supportive) father. I won’t spoil the narrative here except to point out that it does to some extent rely on generic elements in order to build up our expectations. I think I would have liked a grittier social realism feel to the story – but then I would have missed the detail of the sushi presentation and TV competition! So, if you get to see the film I’m sure you will have an enjoyable time.

Here’s the trailer:

and the Facebook link.

Dear White People (US 2014)

dwp_poster This is a satirical film on ‘race’ in contemporary USA that was produced, scripted and directed by Justin Siemen. So on that basis he presumably bears the major responsibility for the final product. It is certainly interesting, and has a number of distinctive qualities but I also found it fairly flawed. This seems to be an example of the influence of the contemporary meaning of the concept ‘auteur’; young filmmakers want to produce a ‘personal work’. One certainly gets a sense of a personal edge to the film. However I thought that the film would have benefited from a separate and critical view of the script. A friend at the Hyde Park where I viewed the film thought that the director is a ‘developing talent’ and that should allow for flaws. I thought a much sharper focus and delivery would have enhanced both the comedy and the satire. The film began its career through crowd funding. On completion it won an award at the 2014 Sundance Festival. So it falls into the tradition of US independents, but also relies on developments in the industry. The basic setting is an Ivy League University with problems about ‘race relations’. So on one hand this places it in a cycle of films that followed on from John Landis’ campus-based National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and also, more explicitly, Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). Both films are mentioned in reviews but the most important influence cited would be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2011). Spike Lee is referred to in the film’s dialogue: one character bowdlerised [badly] the title of his film production company and another provides the line ‘by any means necessary’. A film within the film reminded one of an early Lee short. Lee’s influence can also be seen in the form of the film, drawing on his Do the Right Thing (1989). For me unfortunately, this only highlighted the greater quality, cinematically and in terms of content, of Lee’s films. Even so the film has a lot to offer in terms on interest and entertainment. The primary focus are four Afro-American students at the fictional Winchester University. These are Sam White ((Tessa Thompson) whose campus radio slot is titled ‘Dear White People’. There is her ex and the current House President Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), whose father is the University Dean of Students. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay, has an impressive Afro-hair style and is a developing journalistic talent. Finally ‘Coco’ (Teyonah Paris) is a would-be TV name, and an expert blogger. All have media ambitions, which are a key target in the film. All four come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, obviously have talent but are all conscious of the demeaning and often disadvantaged experience of being black. It is worth noting that the film also has quite a gallery of key characters, and one of its merits is the way that it handles this. There is among the characters a certain amount of sexual activity across the ‘racial’ divide, though much less evidence of any across class divides. dear-white-people-sam Given the genre, it is not a great spoiler that the film’s contradictions come to a head at a House Fraternity party. The film here explicitly foregrounds the often implicit but not always recognised contempt for black people amongst sections of the white population, including the so-called intelligentsia. And, in a montage of stills, the end credits draw attention to the actual scandals that have demonstrated this in the higher Education world in recent years. One of its debts to Do the Right Thing is to offer a clearly staged structure, with a prologue, a number of chapters and finally an epilogue. The film also essays a certain style [often termed Brechtian] offering some distance for viewers. Thus the style of much of the film is almost observational and then becomes very much almost ‘blog-on-the wall‘ for the party. However, like the satire, many of the techniques seem over emphatic. The film uses positioning of characters, often with deep staging, in the mise en scène. But whilst some of this is very effective – a couple of sequences involving Lionel: at other times when it uses the University architecture I rather wondered what the intended point was. I was also distracted by half-a-dozen shots with characters set against a light source: typically a window. This may have meant to offer a visual comment: but it seemed to just diminish visibility. This also applies to the editing, there are some very effective cuts between parallel scenes, for example in the office of the Principal and Dean cutting to characters in the student halls – which suggest both comparisons and contrasts. But at other times, cuts between – say a group of black and a group of white students – seems to be for effect, but with little added meaning. Dear-White-People-group I should note that I did not pick up on all the references in the film. A couple of friends at the screening had similar problems. This presumably relates to the language in the USA, in use by Afro-Americans and in the college system. I was also bemused by the music. There is a seemingly important reference to Taylor Swift but the credits do not seem to feature her music. What was immediately recognisable were extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Bizet’s Carmen. Their relevance escaped me, though the choice of music may well have been dictated by cost as much as by choice. My major reservations were to do with the values inscribed in the film. Satire is a tricky form to take: it tends to be over-the-top which can make some of the views and positions grotesque. This is a problem, but not the major problem in this film. That I think is how it tackles the interests and prejudices at the University and amongst its characters. The film clearly addresses ‘race’ and class in the contemporary USA: to a lesser degree gender and sexual orientation. And when we reach the epilogue the writing presents the cynical collusion of interests between academia and the representative of the media and Capital. But at the personal level, amongst the key characters, we get a more or less satisfactory resolution of their personal lives. It seemed to me that the contradictions that had arisen in the course of the film were not amenable to such a pat closure. And there seem to be a couple of lacunae in the resolution of the plot. This is where Lee’s Bamboozled stands out: with a final sequence that is both cinematically and politically devastating. I would recommend re-visiting this film if you are able: I intend to revisit School Daze as well. I would reckon Dear White People is definitely worth seeing. A note of warning, the distributor is Curzon Film World and judging by exhibitor’s experience in West Yorkshire it is hard work to get the film. The film was shot on a 4K Red digital camera: but it seems to be circulating in a 2K DCP, which is not that complimentary to some of the exteriors and long shots. It runs for 106 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1. In terms of entertainment, two of the people I talked to after the screenings really enjoyed it and found pretty funny: two others were less impressed but still very interested by what the film had to offer. And it is a film and a treatment that is still relatively uncommon on British screens.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Instant Reprise

Sheila Vand as 'The Girl'

Sheila Vand as ‘The Girl’

Keith was not very impressed with this film and some of his observations in the previous post seem justified. Overall though I think he’s being a bit harsh on the young Iranian-American writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour (who was born in Margate, going to the US as a small child). I was going to just add a comment but I think that there is quite a lot to say.

First, this isn’t a ‘Hollywood’ film – in many ways it is almost the definitive American ‘indie’ film, developed from an earlier short (that was shown in Iran, I think). Second, I have to disagree with Keith about the location. If I understand him correctly, he says the setting could be like downtown Detroit (tying in with a reference to Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)). I agree on Jarmusch (but with reference to his early black and white features) but the setting of Amirpour’s film is very distinctive. The fictional location is ‘Bad City’ in Iran but it was shot in the small town of Taft in the Californian oilfields. Amirpour went to school in the nearest large town of Bakersfield. There are two specific ways in which the location contributes to the meaning of the filmic narrative space. The ‘nodding donkeys’ or ‘pumpjacks’ that litter the oilfield appear several times and are perhaps an ironic reference to Iranian oil. The ‘cowboy’ mystique is visually signified by a woman dancing and wearing a classic cowboy shirt, but it is also signified by some of the music (three or four tracks by Federale) which in turn refers to spaghetti Westerns and is ‘Tarantinoesque’. (Country music fans will also know that the ‘Bakersfield sound’ of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard represented an alternative to Nashville in the 1960s and 1970s, replacing syrupy strings with twangin’ guitars.)

I’m probably pushing this too much but I’d also connect the James Dean look of the lead male character with his 1957 convertible to Dean’s appearance in a film like Giant (1956) (i.e in the oilfields), though his white tee-shirt and leather jacket suggest Rebel Without a Cause. Keith’s right of course that the whole film is more about style than narrative drive. I felt compelled by the style to think of other films – A Touch of Evil (1957) for instance, or, in the closing scenes with the headlights on the road, Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Keith mentions Persepolis (France/US 2007) which makes sense as the Ana Lily Amirpour orginally wrote the story as a graphic novel. Sin City (US 2005) would be another possible reference point as a noirish graphic novel adaptation.

What there is of narrative development seems to take a great deal from Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008) or, as Mark Kermode suggests, from Near Dark (US 1987). In terms of building a story A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night doesn’t use these influences particularly well, but in its slow, mesmeric way it creates relationships and images which certainly resonated with me long after the film was over. I thought that Sheila Vand who plays the title role was particularly good and the concept of a vampire clad in a chador skateboarding down the road is sheer genius. In her room the girl plays 1980s music. In various YouTube clips the director explains that the posters in her room were ‘modified’ images of Madonna and the Bee Gees because the budget wouldn’t run to rights for the real posters. This is very much a ‘personal film’ and I recommend the YouTube collection of videos as an interesting set of source materials (check out the various songs as well – the soundtrack of music and effects is one of the strengths of the film and includes Iranian/Middle Eastern rock). Maybe the film is 5-10 minutes too long but the pacing worked for me and I’d recommend giving it a go.

(The entire film is delivered in Farsi – which the director has said she can only write phonetically, making constructing the script difficult. Farsi speakers may find it odd for this reason, but the English subs work well!)

An HD trailer:

The Last Five Years (US 2014)


The Last Five Years is a film musical based on an off-Broadway 2002 stage musical by Jason Robert Brown (which I hadn’t seen nor heard of until now) and directed by Richard LaGravenese (whom I only know for his screenplay for Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic.) It is a musical melodrama rather than a musical comedy, largely a two-hander, about the rise and fall of a love affair and marriage. It’s the story of a young couple who fall madly in love only to be pushed apart by the complications of life and their relative success and failure in their respective careers. Cathy (Anna Kendrick) plays the small town girl trying to make it in the city as an actor and singer. She meets Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), an ambitious young writer (the “new Jonathan Frantzen” according to his agent) searching for a publishing deal. As Jamie’s new novel projects him to the top of the literary scene, Cathy is still doing summer stock musical theatre in Ohio, and their diverging levels of success pose pressing and dire challenges to their relationship.

In a way the film reminded me of the various versions of A Star Is Born in that one of a couple feels the pain of their partner’s success. But whereas A Star Is Born involves the formerly successful partner declining while the other one rises from obscurity, Cathy in The Last Five Years never actually makes it and Jamie’s success combined with Cathy’s failure poisons the relationship.

The film is structured around sixteen scenes, each based on a song, eight for Cathy, seven for Jamie and only one where they sing together in the same scene. This occurs at the halfway point where they are in Central Park and Jamie proposes to Cathy and then the scene segues to their wedding in the same location. They sing first of all separately and then in a duet, the only one in the film. The fact that they don’t sing together, with the exception of this scene, derives from the original stage musical where the two characters sing on the stage alone in alternate scenes, appearing together only in the Central Park scene. I don’t know how effective this was in the stage musical but in the transition to film it could have been problematic. As one of the couple sings, the other stays mostly silent, reacting with looks, gestures, occasional grunts and minimal verbal responses. Sometimes the problem is dealt with one of the couple speaking to the other on the telephone and we infer the other’s responses. And in one scene, the action is conveyed by a Skype conversation. It could have resulted in mannered, one-sided interactions between the characters, but overall, I found this stylistic trope strangely beguiling in the way that it embodies visually the couple growing apart.

The first scene in the film, based on Cathy’s ‘I’m Still Hurting’, (“Jamie is over and Jamie is gone / Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on / Jamie has new dreams he’s building upon / And I’m still hurting.”) tells of the end of the relationship. This revelation might be considered a spoiler; however, the film itself opens with this spoiler as it is the first scene in terms of the plot and the last of the story. (I’m referring here to the distinction between plot and story with story consisting of all the events we see, hear, and infer in chronological order; and plot as the way these events are presented to the audience and which sometimes departs from chronological order.)

After this scene I expected film would flashback to the beginning of their relationship which indeed it does with Jamie’s song, “Shiksa Goddessbut rather than continue the narrative chronologically, we cut to the penultimate scene (in terms of the story’s chronology) – “See I’m Smiling” – which marks the beginning of the end of their relationship five years later. It then reverts to Jamie’s song, ‘Moving Too Fast’, showing the relationship developing in its early stages. What becomes clear is that all of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backwards to the beginning of their relationship while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. This can be a little confusing at first but you soon grasp that it ‘s neither in chronological order nor a simple flashback. Of course this (double) departure from conventional narrative structure can be seen as gimmicky but, on balance, I found it an effective way the portray the couple drifting apart.

It is a musical as well as a drama and so performance is of paramount importance in both fields. Producers of musicals have the problem of actors who can’t sing (the film has fun at the expense of producers of musicals when Cathy expresses her frustration at a casting session of not being paid enough attention with the lines, “Why am I working so hard, these are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical. Christ!”) and singers who can’t act. Classic Hollywood film musicals used to solve the singing problem by providing – uncredited – dubbing for the voices of well-known actors; for example, Marnie Nixon is only recently getting the credit for her work as the voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. But in The Last Five Years the performers cope more than adequately (Jeremy Jordan) and much better than that (Anna Kendrick). With the exception of Into the Woods, I wasn’t too aware of Anna Kendrick as I’m not exactly the demographic for the Twilight films where she got her break as the friend of the character played by Kristen Stewart (whom I wasn’t aware of until Still Alice). An interview in the Guardian last Friday reminded me that I must have seen her with George Clooney in Up In The Air but I don’t remember her. But in this film I found both her acting and singing to be excellent. She handles the fundamentals of dramatic singing — like phrasing and placing enunciation in the right places — so well. And her acting expresses very effectively the extremes of emotion Cathy is subject to.

It helps that Cathy gets the best songs and her characterisation is more nuanced than Jamie’s. Both characters get a comedy number. Jamie’s ‘The Schmuel Song – which I don’t think really worked – is a story about a tailor who achieves his dreams and, apart from cheering Cathy up after another rejection, contains a kind of ‘follow your dreams’ message. Much good it did her. Cathy’s comic song, ‘A Summer in Ohio’,  relates to Jamie (by Skype) just how miserable she is while doing summer in Ohio as Jamie remains in New York. She cheerfully belts out lyrics like, “I could wander Paris after dark / Take a carriage ride through Central Park / But it wouldn’t be as nice as a summer in Ohio / Where I’m sharing a room with a former stripper and her snake, Wayne”.

Brown’s score is an eclectic mixture of musical styles drawing on a number of genres  – jazz, rock, pop, Yiddish folk, ‘Sondheimian’. The songs are occasionally soulful. The best song, the break-up song that the film opens with, is quite poignant. The problem is that the subsequent songs don’t match up to this. Only a few of the songs stand out musically as opposed to being acceptable vehicles for developing the drama (though certainly no less than the much vaunted Wicked which I saw last week). This is a pity given the talent available.

Another problem for me is that, apart from a few words of spoken dialogue, it’s a sung-through musical (i.e. virtually all the dialogue sung – cf Les Misérables, Eva, Miss Saigon) and often this leads to a kind of relentlessness, depriving the audience of breathing space. One way of avoiding this is to create a soundtrack where big numbers alternate with a sort of melodic recitative with recurring musical motifs but this is not – with the exception of a section in the I’m Still Smiling scene – the approach of The Last Five Years, which is simply a sequence of songs that lack organic unity.

It seems to have been such a minimal theatrical release that it is more like an advertising campaign for its VOD release (which is where I found the film). The interview in the Guardian with Anna Kendrick I referred to above didn’t even mention the film. This is a pity as, despite the caveats I have expressed, I found the film engaging and enjoyable.

The information on the stage musical comes from

and the film from

Here is the UK trailer.