Saturday, August 23, 2014

"The One I Love"

 3.5 / 5 

Every couple who has had problems -- which is, to say, every couple -- has heard the story: There's this great place, this quiet and peaceful retreat way out in the country, that specializes in getting you "reconnected."  You'll learn who your partner is again, you'll discover unbelievable and wonderful things about each other, and you'll both leave the weekend better than you've ever been.


Often, the people who tell these kinds of stories do it with the same sort of glassy-eyed, slightly crazed look and overly cheery disposition that seems more at home on a member of "Up With People" or one of the Manson family.

It makes you a little afraid of what actually goes on during one of these weekends, the kind that promise that you won't leave as the same person you were.

The One I Love takes place at one of these country retreats, and that's just about all I can say about that.  Maybe I've already said too much.

The movie stars Mark Duplass, who was in the criminally underseen Safety Not Guaranteed, which I thought was one of the very best movies of 2012, and still puts a goofy smile on my face when I think about it.  Duplass specializes in playing a certain type of hangdog almost-loser, the kind of guy who is too focused on the things he didn't get in life to take solace in the things he did.  He's an almost-handsome actor, perfect for the indie rom-com vibe that runs through The One I Love.

Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men is his wife, and while it's hard to see what he could dislike about this pretty, smart, feisty woman, that's exactly the point: They have both completely lost sight of each other.  The best they can do at this point is try to remake the favorite moments of their courtship, and it's questionable whether they even like each other all that much anymore.

Their therapist (Ted Danson, for a few fleeting moments) sends them away to the retreat, which the movie uses as a launching point for a story you will find either refreshingly engrossing or utterly confusing, possibly both.  There have been a few precedents, perhaps, but it would be impossible to say you've ever seen a movie quite like The One I Love.

Part door-slamming farce, part philosophical musing, The One I Love combines the sensibilities of Charlie Kaufman, Neil Simon and Rod Serling in daring ways that may not be entirely satisfying (the ending is maddeningly vague) but are always disarming and compelling.

Toward the end, when things are either going drastically wrong or wonderfully right, depending on the way you look at it, Moss's Sophie tells Duplass's Ethan to stop worrying, they can find a way to stop the madness that's happening and be a better couple, which makes him stop her right there -- he doesn't want them to be different than they were; he likes that they have troubles, that their lives are messy, that they don't always get along and have a difficult, complicated relationship.

That's the moment The One I Love won me over.  Despite the machinations, it's at heart an honest movie about people who don't want to be perfect, they just want to be better, and much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, they discover they've had what they needed all along.  It's how they get to that revelation that sets The One I Love apart from anything else you've ever seen.  Whether it needs quite the level of complex invention it displays is another question altogether.

Much like the couple at its core, The One I Love is simultaneously convoluted, frustrating, exasperating and confusing -- but also charming, rewarding and worthwhile.  It may not be perfect, but in the midst of a summer riddled with thundering superheroes, giant robots and marauding monsters, its imperfection makes it all that much more intriguing.

Viewed August 23, 2014


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"The Hundred-Foot Journey"

 3.5 / 5 

For such a light and frothy concoction, carefully created to ensure maximum sweetness, The Hundred-Foot Journey contains the slightest hint of an unexpected bitter aftertaste, like a chocolate soufflĂ© made with saccharine: simultaneously rich and delightful, just a bit too airy and intangibly artificial.

The film sets up two restaurants at war with each other, an elegant, Michelin-starred French bastion of haute cuisine that faces a dilapidated old building transformed into the garish Maison Mumbai by a family of Indian food lovers.

That it's altogether sweet and adorable should be no surprise, since The Hundred-Foot Journey (give thanks to a properly punctuated title, at the very least) is directed by Lasse Hallström, who made such crowd-pleasing favorites as My Life as a Dog and Chocolat, to which this film bears no small resemblance.

The undercurrent of bitterness comes from the film's indecision over the short trip in the title, which refers to the hundred feet that separates the two restaurants.  The journey is made by Hassan, the oldest son of "Papa" Kadam (Om Puri), whose family fled India during violent political upheaval.  Hassan, who's played with a wistful soulfulness by American actor Manish Dayal, has a love -- and a talent -- for cooking, instilled in him by his mother, who was killed on the family's last night in Mumbai.  On the road from London (where "the vegetables have no soul"), the family breaks down in the sort of painfully picturesque French village that makes any non-European yearn for a life filled with town squares, rickety stone buildings and slightly bumbling mayors.

Papa decides right then and there that he will open an Indian restaurant in the village, where the family can dedicate themselves to serving aromatic, spicy food to townspeople who have never tried such a thing.  He determines the best location for this restaurant is the vacant building across from Le Saule Pleurer (or, The Weeping Willow -- I looked it up and discovered it's the name of a real Michelin-starred restaurant in the south of France).  The restaurant is owned by a frosty, regal woman named Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who scoffs at the idea that there is such thing as worthwhile Indian cuisine, much less refined Indian culture.

After the briefest of struggles, Papa's restaurant finds its footing and -- lo and behold! -- the French villagers like their curry.  Madame Mallory doesn't take kindly to the encroachers, and for a while the film plays as a charming war of cultures.  Then, one of them wins, and The Hundred-Foot Journey becomes a little problematic as it begins to imply that the only way for the Indians to truly succeed is through assimilation.

Momentarily, The Hundred-Foot Journey dabbles in some ugly (but compelling) issues of racial intolerance and violence, but Madame Mallory sees the error of her ways and extends an olive branch to the Kadam family by inviting Hassan to join her kitchen staff.

It's here that The Hundred-Foot Journey turns questionable, because Hassan accepts the offer, and the movie makes it clear that in Western culture, a journey of change and acceptance only works one way: The foreigner has to submit, there is no possibility that the established cultural mindset could be the one in need of change.  Madame Mallory allows for the slightest of spicy flavor to be added to her menu, but only if Hassan first learns how to properly prepare pigeon with truffles and perfect the five basic sauces of French cuisine.

It leads to an odd and disjointed sequence in which Hassan's fame (he helps Madame Mallory raise the profile of her restaurant, which was her motive all along, then moves to Paris) proves to feel empty, which results in everyone finding a way to be happy and content there in their little village.

But only if Madame Mallory is allowed to remain in charge.  Only if the French way of life isn't disrupted too much by these strange foreigners with turbans and embroidered silk robes.

It all plays out with a happy smile, of course.  Everyone lives happily ever after, a revelation that cannot possibly spoil the plot for those inclined to see it.  And The Hundred-Foot Journey most certainly is worth seeing.  It's filled with beautiful French countryside, a sensual fetishizing of carefully created meals, and wonderful performances by both Puri and Mirren -- who in a rarity for Hollywood films, is allowed to show the femininity that lurks beneath her stiff and proper exterior.  Everything glistens with a fine sheen; at first glance, at least, it's a fine and fresh meal.

It's just under-cooked ever so slightly, made less than outstanding by the uncertainty it feels about that central journey.  The Indians are exotic, slightly silly, outsiders who threaten the hard-won simplicity of a homogeneous lifestyle; they aren't really to be taken seriously, in the end, though the film takes care to introduce them as complex, intelligent characters.  Yet they end up as mild caricatures nonetheless, existing mainly to provide that slight bit of spice to 200-year-old recipes that are tried and true.

Yes, the heavily accented people with dark skin can give the dishes -- and life in general -- a little twist, as long as the taste remains assuredly, unwaveringly French and familiar.

Viewed Aug. 18, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Favorite Films: "The World According to Garp"

Robin Williams died.

It's not the reason I should be writing about The World According to Garp, because if there's any film that qualifies for the moniker "Favorite Films" in my book, it's Garp.

A lot of people don't like The World According to Garp.  These are mostly, I've discovered, people who love John Irving's source novel.  They would have preferred the film to be a more faithful, literal filmization of the book, but anyone who has read the sprawling, beautiful, unforgettable novel knows that would have been impossible.  It would also have offended and repulsed people, it would have seem stilted and contrived, much in the way that the film version of The Hotel New Hampshire did.

The World According to Garp takes most of the novel's sharpest, most dangerous edges and smoothes them out, but never dulls their impact.

George Roy Hill, who directed The World According to Garp when he was in his 60s, had mostly been known for movies that took genre conventions and turned them on their ear -- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a Western that had a real, believable relationship between two men at its core and is mostly known for a sweet interlude featuring Burt Bachrach singing "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head."  The Sting was a film with wall-to-wall men but that resonated with women, if only because they fantasized about Redford and Newman.

So, when it came to Garp, maybe those films blinded audiences to the idea that its director understood the conventions of gender -- and how to play with them.  In Garp, no one is what he or she seems.  Each character is fully realized, with on-screen time that is so vividly portrayed you can imagine what these people do when they leave each other.  The most important characters, of course, are T.S. Garp (Williams) and his mother, Jenny Fields (Glenn Close).  They are the ones we become closest to, and that's due in large part to the way Close plays the role.  As in the novel, Jenny plays with the expectations of what a feminist is -- and in the 1970s, a feminist was generally either a beautiful woman who derided men about focusing on her beauty, or a stout matronly woman shouting about the inequalities of gender politics.  Jenny was neither.  She was a mother to Garp because she wanted a son -- and, boy, did she ever want one.

T.S. Garp.  The bastard son of Jenny Fields.  Writer of short stories no one buys.  ("The same nobodies who lined up not to buy my first book are going to line up not to buy my second.")  Garp and his mother (though mostly Garp) have their ambitions, their visions of what life will be.  They are warped, unusual visions, perhaps, but visions nonetheless -- variations on the same kind we all have, imagining what will happen in two years when we get that promotion, or in 30 years when our parents die, or next month when the obnoxious guy down the street finally moves out.  We see into our lives looking only ahead, not thinking about the things that fling themselves at us from the sidelines.

In The World According to Garp, some of those things are little -- a dalliance with a babysitter, a gardener who drives too fast down the street, a chance encounter with a prostitute.  Some of them are big; bigger than big -- cars that kill young boys, women who carry lifelong grudges, men who want to influence politics.

Helping us navigate the course are the people we would never have consciously selected for our own crew: the overbearing mother, the sexually confused football player, the son whose brother died, the wife or husband who has every possible, every valid, every entirely justified reason to leave us forever ... but doesn't.

The World According to Garp makes something more clear on film than it ever did as a novel, a simple lesson: We do not choose where our life goes or who helps us along the way.  The variables that influence our lives are random, and they will be there with us until the end -- an end that end will come, whether we are ready or not.  Death is inevitable.

The World According to Garp is not a movie about death, but it recognizes, with kindness and even joy, that death is part of life.  Some people are murdered.  Some people are in horrible accidents.  Some of the dead are people we know well, some are people we never met but whose influence lasts long after they are gone.  Some people, the actor who plays Garp in the movie reminded us this week, even take their own lives.

"You know, everybody dies," Jenny Fields tells her son, quite matter-of-factly but with a look of saintly love and caring that perhaps only Close could have brought to the role, "My parents died.  Your father died.  I'll die, too.  And so will you.  The thing is to have a life before you die.  It can be a real adventure, having a life."

And many of those adventures will end far too prematurely.  There is no way to know when or why.  Only those not ensnared by death are left to worry about such petty questions.  For the others, they have only one last request, the one uttered by Garp at the end of the film:

"Remember, Helen."

"What, my love?"


"Yes, my love."

"I'm flying ... ta-ra-ta-ra-ta-ra."

Robin Williams died.

He is one of those rare people who had a real adventure.  In his last minutes, I hope he remembered everything.  I hope we will, too.  It isn't all wonderful, this life.  It doesn't go the way you hoped.  But it all ends up the same and, if you're lucky, in your final, final moment, you'll look up in the sky and realize that finally, at last, you are flying.

Robin Williams was, perhaps, never again as honest and effusive as he was in The World According to Garp, where Williams played the character and didn't allow it to play him.  To watch the arc of Garp's life is to mourn, finally, for Garp's last moments ... the way we will mourn for Williams.

It matters little how either of them -- how any person -- dies.  What matters is how they lived.  To have a life before you die.  Garp did.  Williams did.  I am forever grateful that more than 30 years after it was made, The World According to Garp will still instruct me on how to do just that, will remind me in the non-adventurous moments that I am not doing it right, and in the moments in which I can seize the courage or have the heart, living a happy life is its own reward.

It won't seem happy at the time, most likely.  There will be impossible developments.  You will turn around one day and find someone has been shot.  Or lost an eye.  Or divorced.  Or changed sex.  That is what happens.  It's what makes it all so much more interesting.

The World According to Garp should be mandatory viewing for anyone affected, in any way, by Williams' own death.  This fine, I might almost say perfect, film version of the novel will serve only as a reminder that even in the darkest, most inconceivable moments, there will, in the end, be a smiling baby ... in the end, if you look for it (and mostly if you anticipate it), there will be a smile and a laugh, because what other end could there possibly be?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

"Guardians of the Galaxy"

 3 / 5 

There's a reason you don't hear people walking out of McDonald's asking, "How was your food?"  You don't go to McDonald's expecting a memorable meal infused with the passion and personality of the chef.  You go because you want to eat at McDonald's, and the food will always be no better or worse than it needs to be.

What McDonald's is to food, Marvel has become to film: Both have perfected the mass-production of standardized ingredients that are neither particularly appetizing nor objectionably bland.  You do not go to a Marvel film expecting a movie infused with the passion and personality of its director.  You go because you want to see a Marvel movie, and as Guardians of the Galaxy proves, the experience will be no better or worse than it needs to be.  I didn't hear anyone walking out of Guardians of the Galaxy asking, "What did you think?"  It was exactly the film the audience expected they would get.

Guardians of the Galaxy is ostensibly directed by James Gunn, but if you took a sequence from this movie and inserted it in, say, The Avengers 4 or Iron Man 6, it would be impossible to know the difference.  That is not necessarily a criticism.

No series of films has ever perfected a uniform studio vision quite as effectively as the Marvel movies have, at least since 1930s, when Warner Bros. made gangster movies and women's melodramas that achieved a consistent visual look and MGM was a factory that churned out musical after musical.

It's impressive, really, what Marvel has done, and even the marketing and publicity machines behind Marvel movies feel exactly alike.  Marvel is as close to the old studio system of moviemaking as anyone's come in the past seventy years.  Marvel has a "house style" that sets its films apart from anything else in the market.

The result is such an astounding consistency that it seems virtually irrelevant that there are specific directors or writers behind these films; they represent the common vision of Marvel Studios, not a filmmaker.  That's enormously evident in Guardians of the Galaxy, which seems like it is the umpteenth Marvel movie in the past year.

True, this one features a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree at its core, but are these computer-generated characters all that different than the mostly animated Iron Man, the computer-altered Steve Rogers in Captain America, or the CG Hulk?  Not really, and for that matter the basic concept of animated leading characters is the same as it was when Eddie Valiant teamed with Roger Rabbit or Pete's Dragon romped on screen.

The plot involves a boy from Earth who's kidnaped by an alien spaceship and becomes an Indiana Jones-type pillager of precious objects.  His memories of his life on Earth seem relatively unimportant except for a Walkman that he values more than anything else, particularly for the single cassette it plays over and over without breaking, a mix of 1970s songs given to him by his mother.

As the movie starts, the good-natured rogue, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is searching for a sphere that, it turns out, houses an "Infinity Stone," which is an important part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- the movie equivalent of McDonald's recipe for secret sauce.  It's what distinguishes the Marvel movies from any other, in the same way that secret sauce makes McDonald's different than Burger King.

Quill has a bounty on his head, and the talking raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and the big tree (Vin Diesel, who must have had the shortest voice-over recording sessions in history) are just about to collect on the money when they, along with the green-hued daughter of a very bad guy (kind of like the Emperor from the Star Wars movies), are all caught and sent to prison, where they meet up with a big hulking tattooed guy (Dave Bautista) and try to keep the sphere out of the wrong hands.

Those hands want the Infinity Stone in order to destroy the universe.  In essence, the stone serves the same purpose as the secret plans in the Star Wars movies -- everyone wants them, and the movie is all about trying to find them and make sure the bad guys don't get them first.

Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy owes a lot to Star Wars.  It even has a final battle that is like a hyperactively edited version of the Death Star trench battle in the first Star Wars movie.  Will the good guys win?  Spoiler alert: Yup.

Guardians of the Galaxy holds few surprises (though its animated characters, particularly Groot, are unusually endearing).  It is exactly what it claims to be.  It has more humor than other Marvel movies, perhaps, and has the same visual problems as the other films -- sometimes, it's impossible to follow what's happening on screen.  The story meshes with the other Marvel movies in ways that are sometimes quite remarkable, as if every MGM musical made after 1939 contained a direct plot reference to The Wizard of Oz.

Guardians of the Galaxy is, like a McDonald's meal, neither good nor bad.  It is not a film for those who prefer movies that take risks and strive for cinematic ambition.  That does not mean it is not enjoyable; in fact, it is, quite.  Then again, when you're hungry and don't have a lot of time, a Big Mac can be entirely satisfying.  It will also be like every Big Mac you've ever had, and you'd be a bit of a fool to complain about that.

Viewed August 9, 2014 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Catching Up: "Heaven is for Real"

 1.5 / 5 

It is entirely possible to make a good film about religious faith.

Think about a movie like The Exorcist, which despite all the pea soup and rotating heads, was a movie about how a priest who was losing his faith and a woman who never had any discovered they both were right.

There's a movie like the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, in which a man watched his life fall apart and wondered why he was so faithful to a God who treated him so badly.

Look at Field of Dreams, a movie about one man's faith in an unseeable, unknowable spirit, and the way his family supported his convictions, no matter what.

Movies like The Passion of the Christ or The Last Temptation of Christ were not simply about religion but about the way their directors thought so carefully and so long about matters of faith.

More recently, Noah was nine types of whacko, but it was rarely boring and no matter what you thought of the rock creatures trudging around helping Noah build his ark, it was clear that Darren Aronofsky felt passionately about the story he was telling.

In the 1950s, movies about religion and the Bible were mainstream, blockbuster smashes.  Ben-Hur, The Robe and The Ten Commandments were big-screen epics that weren't simply "faith-based," they were full-on Biblical movies.

I say all this just to reassure myself that it is, indeed, not only possible to make a good film about religious faith, but to prove that it has been done, over and over.  It is entirely possible to make a good film about religious faith.

Heaven is for Real isn't one of them.

This is a goody-two-shoes, ultra-wholesome slice of the Heartland that takes an interesting concept and polishes it to such a bright, shining luster that everything that could be potentially interesting gets rubbed away, too.

Heaven is for Real takes an eternity to get to its main story, which is a sure sign it doesn't really have a story.  It's about this really great guy (Greg Kinnear) who lives in a big house in rural Nebraska with his sweet-but-sexy wife and his two adorable moppets.  Times have been tough, but he's the kind of guy who's not going to bow to the pressure of something like Obama's Economy; he repairs garage doors and takes items for trade instead of accepting cash payments, because, gosh, things are rough all over.  He's also the high-school wrestling coach.  He's also the town's preacher.

I don't know when he has time for everything else, because he's always being asked by people to do all sorts of favors like fixing garage doors in exchange for carpet remnants and visiting dying people to give them non-denominational last rites.

He is on the softball team, too, of course, and one day he breaks his leg.  Later, when his leg is healing, he gets kidney stones, and his friend the town banker thinks the kidney stones are really funny, and his sweet-but-sexy wife takes their little boy on an outing when Dad is passing his stones, while the soundtrack plays the kind of jaunty, happy music that usually accompanies a caper than ends with someone getting pushed in a lake and emerging with a happy smile.

What does any of this have to do with finding out whether Heaven is for real?

Nothing.  Not a thing.  It doesn't have to do with anything at all except to say this guy is Just Like You, if you are white, lower-middle-class, more or less unemployed, and go to church at least once a week.  In other words, this movie panders to the only audience it knows it's going to get.

There are a couple of black people, and I spotted two guys in the church congregation who might have been "those kind."  I don't know.  They weren't interesting, though.  No one in this movie is interesting.  They are the kind of people that used to populate Disney movies like Charley and the Angel and The $1,000,000 Duck, but at least those people said things like, "Gol-dang-it," which we all know was a G-rated way of saying a bad curse word.  The people in Heaven is for Real have never thought about cursing.  They wouldn't dare.  It might offend someone.

Anyway, finally for no reason other than the movie has to have something happen, Dad's little boy starts throwing up.  It turns out he has a ruptured appendix.  They race him to the hospital and the little boy loses his grip on his Spider-Man™ action figure -- in slow motion so we know this is a really serious moment (and also so we'll know this film is from Sony, producers of the Spider-Man™franchise and also the happy providers of the VAIO computers used in this production).

Then Something Really Big Happens and the little boy goes to Heaven.

He only reveals his journey after he's fully recovered.  For the remaining hour or six of the film, Dad looks perplexed and shocked and tries to find answers.

At one point, he goes to see a Liberal Psychologist, who just says that maybe there are other explanations for why the little boy said the entrance to Heaven was through the doors of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church, and that the first person he saw in Heaven was Jesus, who was fair-skinned and blue-eyed and wearing pressed white robes and sandals exactly like the ones Sunday school teachers tell 5-year-olds that Jesus wears.

There are angels who look pretty much exactly like angels look in all the children's books, and the angels giggle when the little boy says they should sing "We Will Rock You," which is a little family joke.  A very little one.

Anyway, no one can believe that the little boy went to Heaven, except everyone believes it and eventually he writes a best-selling book and everyone lives Happily Ever After.

You don't see Heaven is for Real because you wonder if Heaven is for real.  And, I guess, if you like your religion to be very safe and wholesome and American, this might be sort of a nice (if meandering) story.

It's just a really bad movie.

If you haven't seen it, you can just take that on faith.

Viewed July 25, 2014


Sunday, July 20, 2014


 5 / 5 

Is that all there is?
Peggy Lee (1969)

Nearly three hours long, Richard Linklater's Boyhood left me wondering the same question Peggy Lee sang, but for a different reason: I wanted more.

It couldn't end this way, without real resolution, in the middle of the life of Mason Evans Jr., the boy we have watched grow from 6 to 18.  Boyhood is a long movie, but it proves Roger Ebert's famous axiom that no bad movie is too short and no good movie is too long.  Boyhood may be lengthy, but it feels like it's just getting started.

Linklater also directed the Before series of films (Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight), which explore many similar themes, though from the standpoint of a single relationship.  Boyhood goes ones step further, beginning with a 6-year-old boy, the remarkably compelling Ellan Coltrane, following him through his first day of college at age 18.

Cinematically, it's not like anything that's ever been done before.  Of course, we've seen child stars grow up and grow old in front of our eyes in long-running TV series, but Boyhood is different, it condenses the boy's experience into a single feature film, surrounding him with characters who grow with him.  The primary concern may be stated right there in the title, but Boyhood is about more than one boy -- it's about the growth, maturity and struggles of everyone around him.

While other filmmakers concern themselves with visual effects and technological developments in an effort to present audiences with something unique, what Linklater has done with Boyhood is a singular achievement that thrills in ways those movies can only dream of doing.

Boyhood captivates us by combining simple, anecdotal moments with a full-bodied story that makes us lean forward in our seats and feel tension, worry, genuine joy and moments of surprised pain because after a while we realize it could truly be heading in any direction.

Loosely, the story is that Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's own daughter) live with their mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette).  Their father (Ethan Hawke) abandoned them and moved to Alaska, but he's back in Texas and wants to be part of their lives.  Mason Sr. isn't exactly the picture of appropriate parenting, but the kids love him.

Mason adores his mother, too, and she is the best parent she can be, though her choices in men may be less assured.  For a while, it seems they might find stability, but it is always a chimera.  Mason learns how to tolerate the uncertainty much better than his mother ever does.  He sees her trying, and it instills in him the same strong desire to move forward, even when life pushes him back.

Boyhood makes this small domestic drama feel wonderfully large and meaningful, and entirely relatable.  Linklater and his cast draw the outlines of Mason's life in necessarily broad yet effectively specific strokes, so that its struggles and its successes seem to mirror every life.  Not much works out exactly the way Mason, or especially his mother, expects it will, because it so rarely does for anyone.  There are old grudges, constant temptations, bad decisions, perpetual injustices, and more than a few solid disappointments.  Eventually even the worst scars heal and fade, the best moments rise to the surface as the stuff of which we are made.

Throughout, there is beauty and even real meaning.  Boyhood finds its beauty in simple places: a crystal-clear lake, a flat Texas road, the backyard.  From its wide-eyed view of childhood to its Texas setting, there are some similarities here to the difficult, languorous Terence Malick film Tree of Life, but Linklater isn't attempting to be a visual poet, nor is he trying to be a faux documentarian.  He's trying to find honesty and truth, and he succeeds.

It would have been easy to turn Mason into a troubled teen, to make his story into some sort of cautionary tale about the perils of broken marriages or the way modern media make kids grow up too fast.  Boyhood doesn't go for easy plot machinations.

Along the way there are surprises, to be sure, and not all happy ones, a familiar situation to most of us -- jobs that don't work out, relationships that begin promisingly but end in acrimony, friendships aborted, rooms that need to be painted before moving too soon.  There's a deeply touching moment toward the end of the film in which Olivia echoes some of the same sentiment of that Peggy Lee song, but through it all is a warm and satisfying optimism, a solid belief that tackling life's challenges is worth the effort.

Boyhood is as close to a perfect film as you are likely to find.   Its final scene is an altogether appropriate one, and I appreciated it but also didn't want Boyhood to fade out; I could have spent another 16 years with Mason, and perhaps in 2030, Linklater will bring us the next installment of this life.  Boyhood may have begun as an experiment, but it has ended as the most satisfying three hours I've spent at the movies in a long, long time.

Viewed July 19, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Friday, July 18, 2014

Favorite Films: "Joe Versus the Volcano"

There are some films, just like people, that find ways into your heart and stubbornly insist on lodging themselves there despite all reason.  Others may insist your heart is wrong, but it is they, of course, who are mistaken.  It may well be true that what you like is generally not considered likable, what you adore is generally not considered adorable.  So be it.

Such is the way for me and Joe Versus the Volcano, a movie I've heard people call loud, obvious, crass, facile, silly and too clever for its own good.  I've heard it described as grim and depressed.

I also know people who are called those things, and some of them are truly fine, wonderful people once you see past the surface.  I am proud to know them, even if others are not, and when I hear criticisms of them, I feel most sorry for the people passing judgment.  Their view of the world is limited, informed not by their hearts but by their heads.

Joe Versus the Volcano, to be fair, is puerile.  It is silly.  It is often loud, sometimes crass and frequently too clever for its own good.  There is fairly little doubt in my mind that it is obvious, too, but only in the ways that fairy tales and fables are obvious.  It is neither grim and is the opposite of depressed, though it starts out that way.

It begins with a man who is sad.  He faces the anxieties of modern life, problems like a soul-sucking job (he works at "the home of the rectal probe," which seems like a satirical extreme except that rectal probes exist, which means someone actually does make them), a hateful boss, and co-workers who look like zombies.  But how do you show problems like these in ways that really get to the heart of what people feel when they have dead-end lives?  It's a problem for many films, which try to portray life in ways that are at least marginally realistic.

Director/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, who won the Oscar for the lyrical magic in his Moonstruck, knows the problem with realism is that it's never at all realistic.  So, from start to finish, Joe Versus the Volcano frames its story as a modern-day fable.  It even begins with the words, "Once upon a time ..."

That should be a clue that Joe Versus the Volcano is going to be anything but realistic, but perhaps because it's not an animated musical, most people seem not to take it that way.  When Meg Ryan shows up as three different characters, each with ridiculously abstracted personalities, people seem incapable of grasping that this is not realism but fantasy.  They have a hard time with a doctor explaining that Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is going to die of a "brain cloud."  They want to know what a "brain cloud" is and why they've never heard of it.  They've never heard of it because a "brain cloud" is a disease that exists in the kind of world where chocolate manufacturers wear purple velvet coats, where slippers are made of glass, where puppets turn into boys and houses fly to Oz in tornadoes.

By the time Joe Versus the Volcano was released in 1990, things like that didn't happen in the movies anymore.  That's a shame.

In Joe Versus the Volcano, Joe is directed -- for reasons far too elaborate to explain here -- to fling himself into a volcano on a remote South Pacific island where the natives include Abe Vigoda and love to drink orange soda.

He tries to get to the island on a boat whose crew is led by one of Meg Ryan's three characters, Patricia, a wounded woman who has one of what I would consider one of the all-time great screen monologues in which she explains that the pain in her soul is something Joe is going to see.

Joe and Patricia survive a shipwreck, incongruously dance to classic rock-and-roll while floating on top of expensive luggage, and almost die.

Joe's near-death scene is a visually magnificent one, and a beautifully honest one in the ways of honesty in fables: As he watches the moon rise over the South Pacific, he is humbled in the presence of the universe, and utters a short prayer to "God, whose name I do not know."  He understands that his life is more than he ever imagined it to be, and in that moment he isn't just talking about the grand adventure he has come to experience, but even that awful life under fluorescent lights at the rectal-probe place.

Eventually, Joe and Patricia stand atop the volcano and face their moment of truth.  Again using the tools of fable-telling with brilliant precision, Shanley creates a moment of rare insight as Patricia explains the options to a still-scared Joe.  "Nobody knows anything, Joe," she says.  "We'll take this leap and we'll see.  We'll jump, and we'll see.  That's life, right?"

Yes, that's life.  And if those words were the only ones anyone ever remembered from the impressive career of John Patrick Shanley, they would be enough.  They are simple, straightforward, even mildly lyrical.  They are the reason Joe Versus the Volcano exists -- to hearten those who have been disheartened, to embolden those who have become timid.

It is the best reason a film can be made: To impart a particular vision of the world that might help make the lives of others a little bit better.  They are words I come back to over and over in my own life.

Perhaps they are spoken by an unlikeable character in a film that is loud, brash and unsophisticated.  I don't care.  They are honest words in a movie overflowing with sincere, sympathetic observations about the plight of people who think they have to stay stuck in their jobs, that their lives have become small, that they must have a "brain cloud" that will get them in the end one day.

We all feel like that from time to time.  Seek out this odd, beautiful, imperfectly perfect little film sometime, ideally on a cold and rainy day when you can't imagine the sun returning.  If you give it just half a chance, Joe Versus the Volcano will make you feel better about life.  No matter who you are, Joe Versus the Volcano believes in you.

The same can't be said for many films.  Joe Versus the Volcano is an adorably optimistic, admittedly uneven piece of work -- and it's that unevenness that makes it so rare.  It is not the best film ever made, it is just one of the most loving, kind and secretly sweet films ever made.  Its failures are evident, but its successes outshine them.

It's the movie I return to time and time again when I need to be reminded of my own capacity for strength, daring, risk-taking and adventure, whether big or small.  It's the movie that helps me feel better about myself.  I hope someday, when you're on your own homemade raft looking for any sign of life on an endless sea of your own making, it will do the same for you.

Other people may tell you it's not worth watching, that it's a big epic mess of a movie.  Don't listen to those people.  They have brain clouds.