Monday, June 30, 2014

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

As near as I can tell, manager/PR agent Shep Gordon was really, really nice to Mike Meyers at a time when Mike Meyers really, really needed someone to be nice to him, and so Meyers decided to make a movie about him. This leads us to a couple of conclusions, one surprising, and one not so much.

The not-so-surprising conclusion: Decent people are so rare in Hollywood, the few there are seem like nearly divine characters.

The surprising conclusion: Mike Meyers (with an assist from Beth Aala) can make himself a fun documentary, with a lot of creative use of archival footage, photoshop and sharp editing.

It's a fun story, too: Gordon, after being summarily driven off on his first day as a juvie hall social worker, winds up crashing at the Hollywood Landmark Hotel, where a few musicians happened to be staying. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Musicians in need of weed that Shep happened to have.

Hendrix says he should be a manager. Who should he manage? Well, how about this "Alice Cooper" guy? They're not doing so well. Then, the cops start busting the hotel for drugs, and before you know it ol' Shep has to become a real manager. Which, of course, he has no clue about.

Life is funny.

Gordon's clever, though, and he understands how the media works, and how sex, violence and gaining the ire of parents is the key to success when marketing to kids. Some of his early attempts are hilarious failures, but ultimately he hits on some stunts that work and launches Cooper on his international career as the first shock/horror/goth/whatever star.

He employs subtler, though no less effective tactics, with Anne Murray.

This would've been a fun movie just with stories about his musical career, but Gordon notices something at the height of his career: Fame seems to get people killed. People he thinks of as family.

This sets him on a quest for something larger, something deeper, something to put his career into perspective. This is kind of interesting: The clichés of Hollywood fame are death-by-excess on the one hand, or dropping out on the other, but Shep seems to manage to maintain and grow his career while doing other things.

He manages more people. He produces movies for a stretch. He falls in with the Dalai Lama. He invents the "celebrity chef". He makes his home in Hawaii a little oasis for people who need to get away from it all. He evolves a philosophy to try to make everyone a winner, rather than a narcissistic pursuit of self-aggrandizement and destruction of his enemies.

And he's rather successful as a result.

So, yeah, fun movie. Seems like a cool dude.

And yet, even the Supermensch can't have it all: The most endearing aspect of the film is how Shep, a notorious womanizer, longs for a family of his own more than anything. In the twilight of his career (and life), his only regret was that he worked so much he never made enough time for a family. There's something charming about this megamillionaire super-agent wistfully musing that "there's still time".

And it might be a good reminder to all the women who listen to the "you can have it all" nonsense: Nobody can have it all. Not even—or maybe especially even—the most successful men on earth.

But you can have a lot of fun, make a lot of friends, and get some respect.

I enjoyed it; The Boy loved it. He likes stories of people who go out and live their lives balls out and never stop taking on new challenges. And Shep's one of those people.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

It's almost like they're daring us not to go see these movies. First, we got another superhero movie. Next, we got a reboot/crossover where the prequel (X-Men: First Class) encounters the future version of itself. And just to rub it all in, it's a freaking time-travel story.

Goddamn if it doesn't work, though, with the competent (alleged pederast) Bryan Singer back at the X-Men helm.

The story starts in a bleak future where the mutants have been all but wiped out by these adaptive robots (called Sentinels) that figure out their mutations, adapt to them and then figure out how to counter them. The only way the survivors have managed to last is through mutant Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can send someone's consciousness a few days back in the past—long enough to pre-empt the adaptive robots' victories.

I'm not sure how robots can adapt to something they never encounter (since it never happens, what with the time travel and all) but adapt they do, with only a few surviving mutants facing ultimate extinction: Storm, Wolverine, Dr. X and Magneto, as well as a few others who haven't yet starred in their own movies.

Dr. X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen, still alive! and actually looking pretty good) have reconciled at this late date, with Magneto realizing the error of his ways, since it was his conversion of Mystique in X-Men: First Class that lead her down the dark path which ultimately leads to the creation of the Sentinels.

The evil genius Trask, played by the always wonderful Peter Dinklage, is the creator of the Sentinels—and, actually, if this movie has a serious narrative flaw, it's that it's hard to see that he doesn't have a damn good point about the Mutant Menace.

Anyway, the plot is that they have to send someone back in time to prevent the events that result in their ultimate doom, and since the time travel process is so traumatic (when you're going THAT far back), they have to send someone who can regenerate really fast. That'd be Wolverine, if you're not up on your mutants. And because regenerating your body is just like regenerating your mind, I guess.

The continuity within the movie works okay, given the issues that arise with time travel, but I kept feeling like there was a serious loss of inter-movie continuity. Like, I think the same event that results in the creation of the Sentinels results in Mystique's death, but she was in the original three X-Men movies.

Also, Wolverine doesn't have his adamantine skeletal structure yet, though the only consequence of that is that his claws aren't very useful. Somehow, though, I thought the implication of previous movies was that he had gotten them well before the '70s (when this movie largely takes place).

It doesn't particularly matter much in Singer's hands: There's good suspense, action, comic book logic, fine acting across the board, and so on. The ending didn't annoy me too much, though it had the character of a "It was all just a dream" ending, pertaining to the previous five films.

I gotta wonder where they're going to go next or if they're just going to reboot or what. Or maybe give the whole franchise a rest for a while. I kid! If you had a money printing machine, you'd run it day and night, too. In fact, the next movie should be out in two years, and it's going to be called Apocalypse.)

There's also an annoying bit early on where they enlist a super-speed mutant named QuickSilver to help them free Magneto, and it quickly becomes apparent that, if they keep him along, they can pretty much do whatever needs to be done without any further fuss, so naturally they leave him behind for no good reason other than his powers are too powerful for the plot to sustain.

The '70s stuff is actually not too awful, I'm guessing due to Singer. There's enough to signal the '70s without getting too campy. There was a fleet of Citroëns, like in the last one, which made me miss The Old Man more than usual.

It's solid. Can't really complain. It's know...summer superhero movie.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

For A Woman (Pour un femme)

Say what you will about The French, they understand women. Having said that, I must endeavour to explain it in the context of For A Woman without sounding like a misogynous bastard.

For A Woman takes place shortly after World War II: Michel and Lena are living in their little apartment, happily married Communists, with Michel running a haberdashery and Lena bored and frustrated by her lack of employment (which Michel is rather against) when suddenly Michel's brother Jean shows up.

After a happy reunion, Jean is...well, opaque. How is it possible that he survived? The family was split up during the war, with Jean being trapped inside a Nazi camp in Russia while the parents were in Germany and Michel was in France. (I think I have that right. Point is: They were split up.)

Jean also seems to have connections. When Michel opens up his own haberdashery, Jean is able to come up with three boxcars full of unused fabric (diverted during the war but then forgotten) for the taking, giving the new business a real boost.

There's a certain wry humor to the proceedings: Michel's big fear is that Jean has fled the Soviet Union, which is just too reactionary for Michel's taste. In fact, Jean is more than happy to knock down Michel's idealized support for the USSR (as one who putatively escaped it), and Michel is more than happy to dismiss this counter-revolutionary talk.

So, is Jean a Soviet spy or a defector or something else?

I'd like to say that I called it early on and guessed exactly what he was and why he was there, though the film shook my smugness a little bit once or twice. And, in fairness, I figured it out based on feeling like we were supposed to like Jean and none of the obvious solutions made him very likable.

By the way, the movie is bookended by a story taking place in the late '80s and into the early '90s between Michel's daughters, and at the end of Michel's life. And he remains unrepentant Communist to the end of his days, enraged by the end of the Soviet Union.

I think this is based on a true story, and of course there are many real people who are like that. (Some of them even on the Internet!)

So, what's all this about women? Well, Lena and Michel are happy, basically, though Lena less so, both because she has little to do (and housework in post-war Europe was not easy), and while she loves Michel, he's boring. He's a businessman. He's staid. He's unmysterious. He adores her more than anything but she doesn't reciprocate, not to the same degree.

Oh, also? He saved her from the concentration camp by pretending she was his fiancee, and literally carrying her across country to save her life.

So, yeah, that might endear you to a guy, huh?

But when Jean shows up, he's everything Michel is not: Mysterious, dangerous, magnetic, sympathetic, and Lena is mistrustful of him, but definitely attracted. It is to the movie's credit, and a believable characterization, that she doesn't just jump into bed with him. At the same time, the attraction between them grows dangerously, threatening Lena and Michel's life together.

I couldn't help but note to myself "Dude saved your life. Can you really be unfaithful to him?" But of course the answer is: Sure. When Lena says "I could never cheat on Michel", her uber-Communist gal-pal who's cheating on her husband with a much younger stud-of-the-people, says "All women can cheat."

Actually, as big a mess as said gal-pal is, she also seems to have the best understanding of women, when she says she wants both men, because both men satisfy different needs (implying the same of Lena, and perhaps all women).

Writer/director Diane Kurys is said to have based this story on her own parents' lives and, secondarily, the effect it had on her life, and (perhaps surprisingly) this is a remarkably gentle and compassionate film. It both indicts her mother for her actions but not harshly so, demonstrating an understanding that nothing in life is that simple.

But if guys are going to take a message away from this, it probably should be: Dude, it doesn't matter if you save her life, if she's not into you, she's not into you.

The Boy and I rather liked it. We weren't crazy about the framing story, as it seemed to drag the story down a bit, but we could see why it was there.

The principles are fine actors: Benoît Magimel, who looked familiar but I can't think of anything I've seen him in, plays Michel. Nicolas Duvauchelle (The Well-Digger's Daughter) plays Jean. The regally beautiful Mélanie Thierry (Babylon A.D.) plays Lena.

It's a little heavy, of course, and sad in places, but it's not dreary or morbid, and mixes in a fair amount of suspense, mystery, romance and eroticism that makes it a good watch.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Tom Cruise plays a weatherman forced to live out the same day over and over again during an alien invasion of Earth in Edge of Tomorrow.

I may have mixed that up a little.

Edge of Tomorrow is a sci-fi action movie that takes the plot of Ivan Retiman's revered romcom Groundhog Day and says, "What if living out the same day over and over again allowed you to save the world!"? It's actually not that big a stretch from the original, though this movie has very little in common beyond this gimmick and some of the circumstances that arise from the situation.

Also, out of necessity, the power to reset the day has severe limitations, else you'd have no possibility of tension for the third act.

What's most surprising about this film, actually, is that it's very, very good. In spite of being a big budget action flick. In spite of being a time-travel movie. In spite of starring Tom Cruise.

I kid. Cruise is generally fine as an action hero. Usually he's doing the same role, though, so he doesn't stretch his acting chops much, of which he seems to have at least some modicum (see Rain Man, Magnolia).

One of the ways this movie exceeds expectations is by giving Cruise a deeper role. At the beginning of the film, he's a glib, abject coward lacking any sort of morality. This turns into a more traditional action hero role later on, but the character arc makes this feel satisfying, giving us a sense of how real life military men go from being average joes to hardened warriors.

In addition, his character changes much the way Bill Murray's does in Groundhog Day, in the sense that he gains a depth of feeling for characters who don't really know or like him. What's more, despite the virtually mandatory save-the-world motif, director Doug Liman keeps things tight and light, with the action mostly being local rather than awash in ruins of cities and what-not.

Frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie, Jack Reacher) co-wrote the script with frequent Liman collaborators Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and whatever the reason, this seems to have worked out extraordinarily well.

The Flower liked it, though she felt the denouement was cheap. I could see her point and I saw it coming, but at the same time, I wasn't sure it was going to play out the way it did, so I was relatively happy with it.

The Boy also liked, and was pleased with the relatively small amount of goofy action/war tropes, like the super-moves performed by Emily Blunt, who seems to have an uncanny ability to fight the aliens—an ability which, once you learn what's going on, does not in fact make any sense.

But there's a lot about this movie that doesn't make sense if you think about it, or is at least unanswered. To a degree this is handled by keeping things moving enough to where you don't have a lot of time to think about it, which is common enough these days. Better, though, is that it doesn't try too hard to offer an explanation. The movie gives you just enough of a back story to give you the hook, but not so much that you start thinking, "Well, if that's the case, then why don't they just blah blah blah?"

Movies are not the best vehicle for presenting plausible alien invasions.

Brendan Gleeson and Bill Paxton have small but fun supporting roles.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chinese Puzzle

In 2002, Cedric Klapisch made a film called L'Auburgene Espagnole (The Spanish Inn), and followed it up in 2005 with one called Russian Dolls. We had not seen either of those films, nor were we even aware of them, in fact, until we stepped up to the concession stand and someone said, "Oh, did you see the first two?"

No matter. This is a story of a fairly simple man whose life has become incredibly complicated through his associations with various women, none of whom seem to view any of this as a big deal.

When we begin, Xavier is married to Wendy. They've got two kids and his career as a writer is taking off. But when she flies off to America for some movie or TV show or something, she comes back wanting a divorce and to take the kids to the USA.

Xavier goes along with it (not sure if he has a choice given the laws of the land) but quickly misses his kids too much to stay in Paris while they're in NYC, so he packs up and moves. Whatever money he has for his writing does not equip him for living on Central Park South, where his ex is now living with her American producer boyfriend.

Although he has to scrape by for a living, his best buddy, Isabelle, lives in NYC with her lover and their baby. Allow me to clarify the "their": Isabelle is pregnant with Xavier's child because the two wanted a child and someone they knew, so Xavier donated against his wife's wishes. (Not that she ever finds out.)

But Isabelle argues him into it by saying he wouldn't be a father in the classical sense, just a donor, which turns out to be true until it becomes more convenient to have a father around. Especially when Isabelle needs someone to watch the kid while she's out diddling the babysitter.

Rounding out this trio is Martine, who was involved with Xavier before he hooked up with Wendy, and who has two kids she brings to New York for some reason (I forget) and ends up staying with Xavier and his two kids. While there she coaxes Xavier into having sex with her, and they rekindle an old relationship, at least while she's there.

Meanwhile Xavier is struggling to get some rights to his children, since Wendy's being a bit of a shrew.

These threads are all woven together, along with a backstory about Xavier's father, who apparently split from his mother when Xavier was quite young, leaving Xavier to wonder if the two ever loved each other.

And it all takes place against a backdrop that's essentially a love song to America. In a French film!

That's always kind of nice.

The Boy and I were rather fond of this film. Entertaining with strong characters, amusing story, remarkably uncynical: You can do worse making a movie (and many do). The acting is la creme de la creme of French cinema with Romain Duris (Populaire) as Xavier, Audrey Tatou (Therese, Priceless), Cecile de France (The Kid With A Bike, Hereafter) as Isabelle, and (English actress) Kelly Reilly (Flight, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows).

I keep feeling like we're seeing all these foreign films about the fallout from post-modern familial structures: The reviews are in and it seems like divorce doesn't lead to happy, together children.

I don't expect that observation to lead anywhere, of course.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Two Faces Of January

After the pleasant surprise of the low-budget '80s period piece Cold In July, I was feeling pretty optimistic about this 1962 period piece starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac.

Which is just how life sets you up for the big falls.

In The Two Faces of January, Isaac plays a grifter named Rydal who's scamming young tourists out of their money (and presumably other things of value) in Greece. Mid-scam of a young school girl (Dais Bevan) he spies Chester (Mortensen) and his young wife Colette (Dunst) and strikes up a friendship of the sort that can only occur when a good confidence game is at work.

Things take a dark turn early on when a threatening stranger shows up to threaten Chester and Colette, and that's all I'll reveal, because a few desultory semi-twists is about all this narrative's got going for it.

And that's kind of a shame: It's a good story; I have no reason to believe that the Patricia Hightower novel on which this is based is not a good read. The acting is fine. The cinematography is okay, though Greece looks like the bunch of barren rocks it actually is rather than the exciting, exotic locale portrayed in so many past films.

It's not hard to figure out why it fizzles: The movie is not so much a character arc (or series of arcs) but more of a character reveal (or series of reveals). But as we learned from Frozen, revealing characters for plot convenience without hinting at their true nature, or even presenting them falsely (how they behave when no one's watching) is very unsatisfying.

And that's this movie in a nutshell. As we learn more and more about Chester and Colette, it seems to invalidate everything we learned about them previously, and so feels less like a twist and more like a cheat.

Furthermore, writer/director Hossein Amini (co-writer of Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman) focuses on this stuff to the point of neglecting good potential action/suspense sequences, taking them down a notch until the final scene which, I think, is meant to recall The Third Man but you really just want to end so you can get up and pee.

Especially if you got that 44 ounce soda.

It's actually not that long and it actually doesn't drag out that much, really, probably just a little over 90 minutes excluding credits, which is a good thing. But it doesn't feel tight. It feels like a lot of missed opportunities.

The acting's good, though. The music was, well, kind of weird. Not in what it was so much as where they chose not to have any. I think that may have contributed to the lack of suspense in places.

We were pretty meh about it. I don't think it was that bad so much as disappointing after the pleasant surprise that was Cold In July.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Cold In July

Two thrillers suddenly popped up (how else would they appear, right?) in our theater last weekend and The Boy and I endeavored to see both, with the first being the low-budget indie Cold In July, starring Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson and Sam Shepard.

The first thing that struck me about this film is how good an actor Michael C. Hall is. Fresh off his turn as the eponymous serial killer in "Dexter", in this movie, he plays Richard Dane, nervous father/husband for whom things go awry when his house is broken into.

This movie is based on a Joe Lansdale story, and oozes with atmosphere, as well as going off in directions you'd never expect starting out. It reminds me very strongly of Lansdale's short story The Night They Missed The Horror Show, in terms of motifs, not exactly plot.

Dane has the story's main character arc, shrinking from something that seems evil, only to find himself confronting something horrific in a way that normal people can't understand. Sam Shepard's character, Russel, is a lot more opaque. We get that he's been through a lot and done some things, but he has a real sense of honor that powers the story.

Don Johnson is great as Jim Bob, a private detective who puts the pieces together both in terms of the mystery, and in terms of fleshing out the narrative, providing exposition, for example, where the laconic Russel would never, and keeping things from getting too grim (until they absolutely must).

It's a really fine noir thriller, complete with plot twists that don't really add up, and it takes place in 1989, with nice evocative music from Jeff Grace.

The only real shortcoming for me was that Dane's character arc doesn't quite work. He goes from a near milquetoast at the beginning who really doesn't want trouble to virtually seeking it out at the end. And the movie didn't quite support that change.

Eh, feels like a nitpick. The Boy and I loved it; it was a truly pleasant surprise to have this movie come out of nowhere and give us a classic pulp thriller.

Now, for the review's twist: The writer and director of the movie are none other than Jim Mickle and Nick Damici! And if you recognize those names, you're probably a dedicated enough reader of this blog to be considered a stalker.

The team of Mickle and Damici worked together on one of the best (and lowest budgeted) of the After Dark Horror Festival's films, Mulberry Street. While my review (linked there) suffers from having to write eight in three days, it's interesting to note that the better aspects of Mulberry Street are still in evidence: atmosphere, suspense, and characterization.

But where Mulberry unravelled, this film stays tight all the way through. If you're in the mood for a gritty noir thriller, Cold In July is a good bet.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Immigrant

If I said about a movie "Well, this wasn't as terrible as it could have been," you'd probably think I was saying it was a bad movie. But it really could be literal, as in "the way the movie unfolded could've been far more horrific than it actually did play out, and that's a good thing."

Which is my way of introducing writer/director James Gray's The Immigrant, a movie that isn't as terrible as it could've been. Allow me to elucidate.

The story is that Eva (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda, Polish immigrants fleeing—I think it's Cossacks—after World War I arrive at Ellis Island only to be split up. Magda has tuberculosis, and must stay on the island, while Eva has received some sort of black check on her record during the trip over ("questionable morals") and so will be sent back so as not to become a public charge, especially since the address she has for her Aunt and Uncle are apparently fake!

My main concern about seeing this film, by the way, was that it would be a big "let 'em all in" story. As I've said, I'm an open borders guy, but as should be obvious by now, imposing current political stories on historical—or even sci-fi/fantasy—narratives ruins them. Since The Immigrant avoids that, and sticks with a convincingly historical storyline, this is one important way that it wasn't as terrible as it might have been.

Eva is saved by a relatively sane-acting Joaquin Phoenix. I mention the "sane" part because I can't recall the last movie role he was in where he was sane, and even here, as Bruno, he's more than a little "off". But on the 1-to-10 JP-insanity-scale, he's only at about a three here. Crazy, but crazy in love, and mostly in control.

Bruno saves Eva through some sort of arrangement he has with the guards, and then offers her a place to stay in his apartment and a job sewing across the street. With enough money, he says, she can get her sister out.

Fortunately, since sewing jobs were so profitable in New York City in the '20s, she gets her sister out lickety-split and they reunite with their lost family and go on to live a happy and prosperous life as hot-dog magnates.


As if.

You can imagine how wrong things go for poor Eva, but—I want to stress this again—as bad as they go, they don't go as badly as they might. That is, the movie never fully descends into "misery porn" as so many of these costume dramas do.

Things get rough. And confusing, especially, when she finds herself enamored of Bruno's cousin, who seems a lot nicer than Bruno, but may actually be less stable. And that's always a feat when Joaquin Phoenix is around. (The cousin is played well by Jeremy Renner, who's taken some time off from pretending to kill people with guns/agitating against real-life guns, to do a more serious dramatic role)

The movie very cleverly avoids giving us a neat narrative. There are villains, but it's not always clear who they are. The System itself doesn't come off well, which is fair. They seldom should. There's also a sort of surprising Act 3 resolution which draws on a perfectly appropriate spiritual resolution, that's nonetheless not the sort of thing you expect to see much in movies today.

The Boy and I didn't think it was great, but it was surprisingly acceptable. And we don't say that lightly.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Grand Seduction

I was intrigued by the Rotten Tomatoes rating on this new Brendan Gleeson starrer The Grand Seduction, because it had an 81% audience rating but a mere 61% rating from critics. I'm not always on the audience's side on these splits, especially when there's no obvious political slant that would entice critics to be extra-critical.

On the surface, the story seems harmless enough: Murray (Gleeson) is an out-of-work fisherman who is trying to lure a doctor to his small town so that a company will build a factory in his little village—wait, no, it's not a village, it's a harbor, that's an issue here—so that the unemployed and depressed folk of Tickle Head (Newfoundland, Canada) can get to work again with pride.

Did you catch it? The little tip that might make a politically leftist critic dislike this movie?

Actually, there's a bunch: Tickle Head residents file in monthly for their welfare checks, but this doesn't make them happy. Oh, and why are they on welfare? Well, they can't fish because of environmental regulations! And they have to trick the doctor into signing a contract to stay there because socialized medicine!

Oh, and Murray's wife leaves Tickle Head for a job in "town" (Ontario?) which she ends up hating—and it's sorting recycling. And the factory they're trying to get in Tickle Head? It's a petrochemical by-product repurposing plant.

Not that there's any great love for the oil company behind the factory, and there's a sardonic quality to the proceedings that makes it seem like "well, the last resort is to work this way" but it's noteworthy that it's presented as being preferable to collecting welfare.

That's the underlying message, after all: Not a political one, just a truism about honest work being better than just about anything else.

Even if you have to lie, cheat and steal to get it.

Heh. The gimmick of the movie is that the entire town, in order to seduce the doctor, has to be part of an elaborate plot of being his dream town. To that end, they investigate him, they tap his phone, the pretend to like things he likes, and Murray goes so far as to pretend he had a son who died, about the same age as the doctor.

They also lie to the oil company, the bank, and anyone else who gets in their way.

I mean, in any cold analysis, it's reprehensible, but director Don McKellar (best known for being an actor in...uh...Canadian stuff) pulls of a neat trick: He makes the townspeople likable despite this, and transforms the doctor (played by John Carter himself, Taylor Kitsch) from a shallow, unlikable jerk to a sort of lovable patsy whose shallowness masks a naive, even sweet, gullibility.

The intervening hijinks are quite amusing, meanwhile, and the movie passes rather breezily to a satisfying conclusion. The Flower, who is a tough critic, enjoyed it, as did The Boy and I.

There are some excellent bits here, as well: For example, the doctor loves cricket, and the villagers pretend to be cricket fanatics, too. But unlike almost every other sport in the world, cricket isn't something you can fake an understanding of easily, much less a love of a game that runs six hours and over the course of multiple days.

From a dramatic standpoint, there's a nice touch with what should be the love interest. In a typical Hollywood film, Kathleen (Liana Balaban) would start by hating the doctor and the scheme, but begrudgingly go along with it, then fall in love, and that would be what would make the whole deception okay, after a tearful confession.

Here, while she plays a pivotal role, she's barely in the movie, which focuses primarily on the connection between Murray and the doctor. I liked that because I kind of think it's nonsense to think you can start a relationship with an elaborate ruse (I mean, apart from standard dating elaborate ruses) and then recover it with a tearful confession.

So, while not exactly great, this is definitely more toward the 80% than the 60%, and worthwhile viewing.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


The Dancing Skeleton Marionette is back! DSM is kind of a hero around Casa 'strom, having first encountered him as the only bright spot in the otherwise dreary Gloria. We cheered when we saw him in the trailer for Jon Favreau's new film Chef, even after we'd forgotten what movie the trailer was for.

"Wait, we gotta go see DSM in his new movie!"
"Yeah! Wait, which one was it?"
[proceed to check all the trailers with no luck]
"Wasn't it Chef?"
"I think so...maybe we saw a different trailer?"

Anyway, the mystery was resolved when my mother and stepdad announced they had seen it and we yelled, "IS DANCING SKELETON GUY IN IT?" And they affirmed, somewhat confusedly, that he was, though not for very long.

They don't get DSM: He's about quality, not quantity.


OK, digressions aside, Chef is the latest effort from Jon Favreau (of Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys and Aliens, Elf, and so on), and it is better than all those, and Swingers (which he wrote but didn't direct), and very different from those as well, except in one regard.

This movie is unabashedly pro-American. It's not political in any way, but check this plot out: A chef gets his mojo back by driving a taco truck across country and cooking local foods from Miami (cubanos) through New Orleans (beignets) through Texas (genuine barbecue) and so on, to Los Angeles, while teaching his son the art and ethics of cooking.

So, not only an American adventure but also a father-son movie, which made it two in a row after Peabody and Sherman.

Maybe America, and dads, are making a comeback.

We start with tattooed and doughy Chef Carl Caspar (Favreau) getting a bad review after his douchey (but not necessarily wrong) boss (Dustin Hoffman) insists that he serve a food critic (Oliver Platt) the same menu he's been serving for five years.

Chef, as he's known, learns about Twitter from his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony) and his cooking crew (Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo), but not well enough to not start a very public flamewar with the food critic.

Mayhem and Internet Celebrity ensue, but rather than try to parlay his notoriety into a reality show, as his ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara) and his ex-wife's publicist pal (Amy Sedaris, in a short-but-sweet role) would like, he very reluctantly decides to use Inez' contacts (basically, her former ex-, played by Robert Downey Jr in another short-but-sweet role) to go the taco truck route.

So, he bids farewell to his sweetheart/hostess (Scarlett Johansson) and heads off on his cross-country road trip. And this time, social media, with the help of his son, turns out to be he his friend.

As does money. Which is just awesome. Making bucks doing stuff people like used to be a common sign of "good things". Teaching your kids to do the same, with pride and honesty, did, too.

The food looks amazing all the way through, and Favreau got his chops (even if they're pretend chops) from the real chef whom he was imitating (tatts and all) who shows up at the end of the credits. But just the way he makes a grilled cheese sandwich is amazing.

And like all great chefs, he's not afraid to tell you what you should like, if you have any taste. This makes for some great moments with the kid.

It's really just a heart-warming tale. There's some language, some underage drinking, and a little weed, so it's naturally rated R, but I was sorry The Flower had bailed at the last minute, because it's really a family film.

We should probably talk about the love interest angle.

Now, if I'm writing/producing/directing/starring in a film, I might make my love interests Scarlett and Sofia, too, but some have, predictably, raised the "aesthetic imbalance" specter by questioning whether the large, balding Favreau could land those two birds.

I didn't find it improbable. First, he's a great chef. Chicks dig that. (As do guys, duh.)

But more than that, while Chef's at a low point through a lot of this movie, Favreau still plays the character with considerable swagger, especially around anything relating to food. His crisis of confidence is centered around a nagging feeling that the food critic might be right.

Almost as if he's at his low point when the movie starts.

This is only an issue if you think this is a movie about who some guy works for rather than a movie about being a man, and doing the right thing not just for yourself but for your family.

The Boy and I loved it, and it's easily in the top 5 non-documentary films of the year, possibly the best to date. My mom (who also loved it) sez "Don't go hungry."

Plus! Bonus Dancing Skeleton Guy! (Fun 'strom trivia: Mr. Bonetangles, as he's called here, was piloted by Will Schutze, who was last seen in a minor role, one of the "triplets", in the 2010 flick The Final.)