When film lovers are fortunate, the simplest story in the hands of a masterful director results in a memorable experience. And when the plot revolves around food, our senses can engage more fully as they do in Japanese director Naomi Kawase's Sweet Bean. The confection at the heart of a poignant encounter between joyless Sentaro and 76-year-old Tokue is Dorayaki.

 

Made by placing a sweet red bean paste between two small pancakes, the traditional, much-loved Dorayaki is made daily at Sentaro's small bakery. But his an, the bean paste, lacks appeal until Tokue answers manager Sentaro's ad for part-time help and teaches him to listen to the beans. She explains that they've come a long way from the fields and it would be an insult to cook them right away. They have to get used to the sweetness that she summons from them. A beautiful partnership blossoms with a needy teenage girl, Wakana, a regular customer with her own touching story.

Sweet Bean is no fairy tale, and unexpected revelations add layers of emotional complexity and metaphorical suggestions. But the film is a heartwarming, albeit bittersweet, experience. Credit first goes to the wonderful Kirin Kiki as Tokue. An actress with over a hundred credits, she melted my heart in her first appearance at the bakery and never wavered in her appeal, a mesmerizing presence. As Sentaro, Masatoshi Nagase offers a striking counterpoint to Tokue, and all the supporting actors give accomplished performances.

Based on Durian Sukegawa's novel, director Kawase's screenplay teases out meaningful interaction with no clutter. The visual appeal, suggested aromas, and meticulous preparation leading to a scrumptious final product made my mouth water. Sweet Bean joins the wonderful Tampopo and Jiri Dreams of Sushi as a story centered on food but celebrating the human connections that truly nourish. Reminded of this, senses stimulated, I appreciated my subsequent meals with friends paying more attention to the entire experience. Sometimes a child leads the way, and sometimes a 76-year-old woman does as in Sweet Bean.

In Japanese with English subtitles. Sweet Bean screens as part of Webster University's Film Series at the Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, May 20 through Sunday, May 22 at 8:00 each evening. 

 

The topic is provocative, the stars top notch, and the director in comfortable command of her craft in Money Monster. In order, they are: a corrupt money investment scheme promoted by a glib cable host, stars George Clooney and Julia Roberts, with director Jodie Foster at the helm. On full, ostentatious display is the financial advice show Money Monster.  

Its emcee Lee Gates (Clooney), more an entertainer than a sound analyst, evaluates and recommends capital funds. In Kyle Budwell's case, he invested his entire $60,000 inheritance in Ibis Clear Capital only to watch it tank due to CEO Walt Camby's programmed glitch in the trading algorithm. So Kyle takes a gun and an explosive vest to the television studio, cleverly outfoxes security, and takes Lee hostage with producer Patty Fenn talking to Lee in his earpiece, trying to keep him calm and the situation under control as the SWAT team swoops in.

For thrillers to work, the actors and pace must keep the tension at full throttle with periodic breathing room. At this, director Foster succeeds admirably, with brief cutaways to involve international programmers in Seoul, South Korea, and international exploitation issues in South Africa. She also expertly inserts reaction shots of Fenn, a superb Julia Roberts who, though largely chair bound in the studio control room, adds solid emotional moments. British/Irish actor Jack O'Connell plays Kyle with a feral intensity that has put him on my radar since seeing him in Starred Up and 71. All the supporting players turn in solid performances as well: Dominic West as the slimy CEO, Caitriona Balfe as Ibis Capital's spokesperson, Giancarlo Esposito as Captain Powell, and Lenny Venito as the central cameraman. The depth and expertise of the cast reminds me of old studio films with no weak links in the acting entourage.

That this takes place mainly in a claustrophobic TV studio adds to the pressure cooker atmosphere as Kyle channels some recognizable, perhaps even shared, anger and frustration. In addition, the alternating between an onslaught of noise and a nerve-wracking silence increases a feeling of unease. Suspend disbelief, sign on for the ride, and Money Monster offers a quick, entertaining hour and a half with a few stinging social jabs at culpable media, overwrought financial operations, and the gullibility of viewers. At area cinemas.

Norwegian director Joachim Trier tackles his first English-language film in Louder Than Bombs. Here the title refers to the impact of war photojournalist Isabelle Reed who has committed suicide in a purposeful automobile accident three years before the present day story begins. Set in a small town in New York state, it focuses on three men in one family.

 

Writer/director Matt Brown knows a great story when he finds one, and Srinavasa Ramanujan's certainly qualifies. As presented in The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story begins at Trinity College, Cambridge, England as G.H. Hardy, a member of the Royal Academy for his brilliant work in mathematics, remembers his most moving experiences with a formally uneducated shipping clerk from Madras, India. 

As the story proper begins in Madras, India, in voiceover narration Hardy describes his relationship with Ramanujan as "the one romantic incident in my life." But Ramanujan's life in Madras poses sufficient hurdles to his intellectual progress, for even after Hardy invites him to Trinity College, Brahmin culture dictates against Ramanujan's travel. His lack of formal degrees and of thorough mathematical proofs causes further difficulties with his acceptance as his work, nevertheless, continues to astonish the best mathematical minds.

Dramatically profiling a brilliant, theoretical mathematician challenges the best directors, and Brown solves the problem by focusing on the Cambridge community--those supporting and rejecting Ramanujan's ideas. The collaboration between G.H. Hardy and John Littlewood keeps the debates clear, the beginning of WWI adds additional tension, and Bertrand Russell introduces strong ethical commentary.  

The performances by a superb cast provide the solid substance needed to give mathematics the gleam it deserves. As Ramanujan, Dev Patel has a three-dimensional role he can sink his teeth into. Jeremy Irons as G.H. Hardy delivers the gravitas and humanity he always brings. And Stephen Fry, Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam and Devika Bhise are excellent in supporting roles.  

Cinematographer Larry Smith embellishes the India sequences with vivid colors and contrasts this palette with the more somber Cambridge scenes dominated by browns and greys, reflecting Ramanujan's physical isolation, emotional struggles, and tragic ending. The Man Who Knew Infinity brings to life a genius long overdue for recognition. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli cinemas.

 

It's hard to say why Dough doesn't work exactly. Could be that the writers, Jonathan Benson and Jez Freedman, tried to stir too much into one plot. Could be that the director, John Goldschmidt, could not juggle all the stories, which follow political, religious, family, and cultural lines. 

Dough offers religious sensibility when a Muslim man is put to work in a Jewish bakery. The young man, Ayyash, played winsomely by Jerome Holder, has not been able to find work in London, so he has joined with his friends to peddle dope. Both he and his mother are refugees from Darfur, and she works two jobs to keep them fed and bedded. Ayyash comes to this apprenticeship with pre-conceived notions about Jews, but the old baker, Nat, has his own about Muslims. Jonathan Pryce plays Nat with all the dolor and angst necessary. Nat runs his father's bakery and cares a great deal about the family business. His son the lawyer does not.

Widower Nat is also being pursued by a widow woman, played perkily by Pauline Collins from Shirley Valentine and Upstairs Downstairs. Into this mix come a developer and a competitor, each adding his own agenda to Nat's. And into Nat's recipe for muffins goes Ayyash bag of stash, thereby, surprise, creating quite the little business rush for this downwardly mobile concern.

Director Goldschmidt goes back and forth between the Muslim and the Jew, between their prayers and ablutions and families. The plot also dances between drug dealers and developers, When the old man asks the young one if he has any baking experience, the latter says, "I made toast this morning." The old man has his own jokes to tell, too.

Dough is predictable: the two male protagonists become friends and protectors in the end. It has its sweet spots, but the film just never seems to come together. It's hard to say why.

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