Friday, April 28, 2017

'Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent' Allows The Legend To Retain Some Mystery



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

I think I went to Jeremiah Tower's Stars Restaurant only once when it was close to the height of its fame. I remember this occasion because it was around 1988 or '89, and it was the first time I had gone out to a "fancy" dinner, just me and a friend, no parents and no parents' money.

It was just post high school, those days when we lived at home, didn't have to pay rent, but did have jobs and spending money. I'm not sure if it was for a birthday, or us just wanting to "to do it up," but it was certainly true that in those days, when you wanted to celebrate anything with a fancy night out, Stars was the first choice. We sat in one of its slightly raised dining areas; I'm pretty sure we ordered wine, and perhaps that buzz contributed to the effect, but I do remember Stars living up to the hype, with the whole evening making me feel like some kind of fancy adult for the first time in my life.

And then, a few years later, as tends to be the case with the majority of "it" restaurants, Stars was no longer the place to be, and soon after that, it wasn't a place at all. The new documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent tells the story of the Stars Restaurant creator, his formative years as the child of rich but neglectful parents, his rise in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, his success and stardom, and his eventual disappearance from the spotlight.

The documentary makes the case that Tower was one of the most influential chefs in America that most have people have never heard of. Perhaps that is true for the majority of the country, but for those who lived in the Bay Area any time between the late 1970s and 1999, Jeremiah Tower was a very familiar name. But that doesn't mean people actually knew him, and the film illustrates that even his closest friends never really did. And still don't.

Utilizing a combination of Tower family home movies and reenactments, along with voiceover from Tower, often reading from his own journals, we learn about his early life, the child of rich parents who lived to travel the world and throw fancy parties, with their children in tow, for better or worse.

"The worst thing that ever happened to me is that I wasn't an orphan," Tower reminisces, after recalling an event involving him alone on a beach, with a local fisherman who teaches him how to cook a fish, along with things a six year old probably shouldn't be taught.

On those frequently lonely trips on ocean liners and stays at fancy hotels, Tower took shelter in the kitchens and dining rooms, pouring over menus like they were books of fairy tales. Tower never took any kind of culinary training, instead utilizing those childhood memories and skills picked up having to help out his mother when she'd be too drunk to finish the menu for a party she was hosting, to cook for friends in college. His hobby eventually landed him job at a Chez Panisse in 1972.

His eventual split with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse has become the stuff of legend, and it's a shame Waters declined to participate in the documentary; it might have helped solidify the truth once and for all. But regardless, there's no denying that their partnership changed the landscape of American cooking and restaurants forever, basically inventing what would eventually become known as "California cuisine." (The archival footage of Chez Panisse in the 1970's and Stars in the 1980's are especially sweet additions for local viewers.)

Many famous chefs are interviewed throughout the film, which in itself is amusing since the concept of "celebrity chef" didn't really exist before Jeremiah Tower. Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Wolgang Puck and others all offer words of praise, acknowledging his influence, while also admitting Tower is an enigma...and a bit of a prick.

The Last Magnificent does shed some light on why Tower remained such a mystery, even to his closest friends, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We never really learn just why he stepped away from the spotlight for so many years. And a film that began as a portrait of the rise, fall, and disappearance of a maverick hit a road bump when, during its filming, Tower stepped out from retirement to head the kitchen at a high profile restaurant.

That story in itself could be its own movie. Instead, director Lydia Tenaglia weaves it into the last quarter of the film, which interrupts the linear flow she has going for the rest of the picture. But that's a minor complaint for a documentary so visually rich and centered on a man so endlessly fascinating. Like any great meal, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent leaves you wanting more, not less.

Friday, April 21, 2017

'The Promise' Is A Love Story Surrounded By Horror



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Taxes were due this week (if this is news to you, I'm sorry), and if you're a California resident paying state income tax, you may have once again been puzzled over a question on the tax form related to "Ottoman Turkish Empire Settlement Payments." Perhaps, like me, you thought, "I wonder what the hell THAT'S all about," but then quickly moved on to the next possible exemption, only to forget about it until next April 15th.

Enter The Promise, a historical romance that sheds light on some 20th Century history that many don't know much about, even if they're reminded of it every April.

Oscar Isaac stars as Mikael, an aspiring doctor from Armenia. Lacking the funds to pay for medical school, he becomes betrothed to Maral (Angela Sarafyan, herself Armenian-American), a girl from his village, knowing that her dowry will pay for his tuition in Constantinople. But once there, he falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon, and her refreshingly era-appropriate teeth), an Armenian dance instructor, who is herself involved with an American reporter (Christian Bale, in a role befitting his intensity).

It's 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, and while the Ottoman Empire is in its last days, Turkey's capital is still a fairly harmonious home to populations of Christian Armenians and Greeks as well as Muslim Turks. Mikael lodges with his rich uncle and cousins in their waterfront home, and evenings are spent in the opulent city, dancing and drinking absinthe. For small-town Mikael, it's heaven.

But not for long. When war breaks out, Mikael does his best to avoid enlistment, but soon he is forced into an even worse fate, as Armenians are singled out for a mass "deportation" that looks a lot like eradication. Like the similarly themed Bitter Harvest, released earlier this year, The Promise provides a look into a historical genocide that, to this day, continues to be denied by the country behind it.

Horrible things happen in The Promise, but we, as an audience, are supposed to care about the film's central love triangle, while around them mothers are being executed in front of their children, and whole villages are forced to walk across the desert to their certain deaths.

Christian Bale's reporter, as one member of the triangle, at least recognizes the bigger story going on around him. He often seems more annoyed by the ill-timing of Mikael and Ana's illicit romance than with its betrayal. As well he should!

It's an understandable trope, pushing a romance into a story that is, at its heart, about horrible things. The goal is to tell a story people will want to watch so the message will get through, like the proverbial spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.

And granted, Oscar Isaac brings his reliably smoldering charisma to the role, even if he's not really allowed to use it much. It's like writer/director Terry George (who directed another genocide drama, Hotel Rwanda) knew putting too much emphasis on the romance would be in bad taste, but the result is just tepid distraction. We barely care about who ends up with whom, and I kept waiting for someone to say, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

The film is a little better at the bigger story, not shying away from placing clear blame and calling genocide what it is: This is not a movie that will have many fans in Turkey. Where it falters is near then end, giving some American audiences what they clearly want — judging from the cheers from the crowd I saw the film with — with the appearance of a U.S embassy official (James Cromwell), swooping in and standing up to a Turkish official who has one character's life in his hands. (The scene ends with said official mentioning insurance policies held by Armenians, and a request for the names of American beneficiaries of those policies, a clear shout-out to that bit of California tax code!)

But because the story is never fully comfortable with its two narratives, it doesn't have the impact that was surely intended. It also doesn't delve too deeply into the whys. If you're wondering why the Turks felt the need to wipe out the Armenians, you'll get no answers here. But perhaps that's just as well. If we haven't learned by now that there is never a truly justifiable reason for the mass slaughter of millions of people, we probably never will.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Epic Adventure 'The Lost City Of Z' Tiptoes Through Thorny Racial Issues



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

James Gray's The Lost City of Z, based on the best selling book by David Grann, is an epic adventure that brings to mind cinematic classics like Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, and similar stories centered on obsessive men wading through plots rife with thorny racial issues.

The Lost City of Z centers on a fictionalized version of one Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a member of the Royal Artillery living in the shadow of his disgraced family name after his father loses the family fortune. Hoping to make a climb up the social ladder, Fawcett accepts an assignment from the Royal Geographical Society to map an uncharted river in the Bolivian jungle, leaving behind his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), and their infant son, Jack, for the two year assignment.

Fawcett is joined by the often drunk but always loyal surveyor, Henry Costin (an unrecognizably bearded Robert Pattinson). As they journey through the treacherous jungle and along its deadly river (complete with piranhas!), they are almost killed by the area's indigenous people, and must bring their journey to an end just as Fawcett becomes convinced he is on the verge of discovering the remains of a previously unknown civilization.

When he returns to England, he reports on his findings. Hunnam does a great job in this scene, as he stands before the Geographical Society, his booming voice and passionate words eventually able to persuade the naysayers that he was on the verge of a discovery that would change what the West believed to be true about the birth of civilization and the "savage races."

Of course the Fawcett of the film is far more progressive than the Fawcett of real life, who was actually convinced he was going to find proof that white men were behind this long lost ancient civilization, which better explains why the Society was actually so willing to send him back to Bolivia for further proof.

In actuality Fawcett went on eight separate expeditions through Bolivia, and while the film wisely cuts that number down to three, it still suffers a bit from repetition, and by the third trip, you may find yourself thinking, "Bolivia....S**t. I'm still only in Bolivia."

Wisely, the film breaks up the expeditions with Fawcett's returns to home, as his family grows bigger with the addition of another son and a daughter. Miller has one great scene that elevates her role above the usual "wife complains about her husband working too much," in which she tries to make the case for her own ability to accompany him to Bolivia, holding the horrors of childbirth over his head as the ultimate "tough motherf**er" card; if she can push a child through her vagina, surely she can handle a trip through the wilds of Bolivia. Fawcett, and, of course, the mores of the day, strike her down.

The film also finds time (it's about 140 minutes long) to throw World War I into the story, with Fawcett deployed to the front lines and its trenches and chemical warfare. The horrors of these scenes are a slightly obvious but still affective ironic commentary on just what constitutes savagery and civilization.

Grey chose to shoot the film on film, no easy feat considering the Colombian jungle locations and the need for daily film development, but by doing so, he was able to capture the classic look and feel of those epic films gone by. The scenes in the jungle — and some lovely surreal moments that bring the jungle into Fawcett's life in England — are so lush you can almost smell the trees and feel the oppressive humidity.

The Lost City of Z uses classic cinematic style, but puts a modern spin on a classic adventure story, with a white hero who has no desire to conquer the natives, and, in fact, is eager to engage with them. (A scene where Fawcett and his crew are able to get the Bolivians to drop their spears and welcome them into their village by merely singing at them is an amusing play on the classic malapropism "music has charms to soothe a savage beast.") While this may not be true to the history of the actual man and his adventures, it's a change that makes the movie easier to swallow. Ultimately, The Lost City of Z is the type of movie they don't make any more....because they kind of shouldn't.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Transphobic 'The Assignment' Is Too Inept To Deserve Much Outrage



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

The Assignment (also known as (Re)Assignment and Tomboy) is a terrible, ill-conceived, mess of a movie that, were its central premise not so tone-deaf, might have been bad enough to earn admittance into the "So Bad, It's Good" hall of fame, alongside such classics as Showgirls and The Room.

Apparently, director Walter Hill has been mulling The Assignment's story since the 1970's, and that in itself may prove a cautionary tale: If it's taken you almost 50 years to finally get your story made into a movie, it probably wasn't that great of a story to begin with.

That story centers on Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver, how could you?), who is being held at an insane asylum after everyone in her practice is massacred. Being the only survivor, they assume she is the culprit. She tells a different story to her therapist, (Tony Shaloub, how could you?), starting with the murder of her beloved brother by a hitman named Frank Kitchen. (KITCHEN?!)

Kitchen lives in the backstreets of "San Francisco," a gun for hire. I put San Francisco in quotes because this is one of those movies that is set in SF, but was clearly shot in Canada. We aren't even offered some measly insert shots of the Golden Gate Bridge or "Cable Cars" rolling in the background. Instead, we just have to trust that what we're seeing is the Tenderloin (which is apparently in Chinatown) because the movie says it is.

Frank Kitchen is played by Michelle Rodriguez, for reasons that will soon become apparent. In the meantime, she sports a fake beard and mustache that was probably purchased for a super discount at the local Spirit Store the day after Halloween, and, after a shower scene, a prosthetic penis that would make Dirk Diggler jealous.

After a double-cross by her mafia boss (Anthony LaPaglia, how... OK this casting makes sense), Frank is knocked unconscious, and following an indeterminate time, wakes up in a dirty hotel room, only to find his impressive penis has been replaced by a...vagina! He's also got some very real-looking breasts to go along with it.

All of this is the doing of mad doctor Kay, as revenge for the murder of her brother. She figures turning Frank into a woman can serve as both punishment and rehabilitation, because, of course, a woman would never allow herself to be a violent killer.

Dr. Kay offers some lip service about her utter "respect" for those seeking gender reassignment and for the doctors who perform the procedures, but this is just an obvious attempt by the writers to try and stave off criticisms of insensitivity to transgender issues. But, really, this is not a movie to be outraged about. It's too inept.

The notion that one's outward appearance can somehow change one's inner life, from bad to better, is a story well Walter Hill has been to before, in the 1989 crime drama Johnny Handsome. In that case, Mickey Rourke played a criminal who gets plastic surgery. That film barely worked, but it had the charisma of Rourke at his prime to propel it. Rodriguez is serviceable, and better as a man adjusting to living life in a woman's body, than she is as a woman pretending to be a man, which makes her casting in both roles merely a stunt that doesn't work. They could have just hired an actor to play the Frank Kitchen parts, and chalked up the complete cosmetic changes to the wonders of Dr. Kay, who is apparently skilled enough to perform scar-free surgery that requires no extensive rehabilitation time.

The Assignment has hints of a comic book style and fantastical feel, with a Sin City vibe. (In fact, Hill is behind a French graphic novel based on the film.) Some scenes end in comic book panel freeze frames, and there are a few shots photographed in black and white with splashes of red. But there's not enough of that. Maybe if Hill had pushed the fantasy world a little harder, like he did in The Warriors and Streets of Fire, The Assignment might have reached a more satisfying level of strangeness, one that would have made its problematic premise more overtly ridiculous, and thus more palatable.

The Assignment is currently playing at The Presidio, and is available to watch On Demand.