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 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 probably even be 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