Friday, June 20, 2014

Favorite Films: "The Station Agent"

The Station Agent is the happiest film you'll ever see about sorrow and loneliness, and the way it skillfully rides the rails and balances the pain of its main characters and the unexpected joy they discover in finding each other makes this brief, leisurely movie into something special.

Watching The Station Agent never fails to make me glad, because it begins with characters who want absolutely nothing to do with each other and finds a genuine and honest way to make them connect.

Peter Dinklage, in his breakthrough role, is the title character, whose name is Finbar McBride.  Trains are Finn's curious passion.  Finn is also a dwarf.  He believes his height has isolated him from other people, and has come to accept solitary days and nights.  In fact, Finn is often around people, but keeps himself separated, even from the man he works with, who owns a model-train store in Hoboken.  One day the man drops dead, and when Finn pushes open the door that always keeps the pair separated, he steps into the world that has long shunned him and, he expects, always will.

The old shop owner has left something in his will for Finn, a few acres of land alongside railroad tracks in rural New Jersey.  ("There's nothing there," the probate attorney tells Finn. "I mean, no-thing.")  To Finn, it sounds perfect.  He can spend his days and nights imagining a time before air travel and cell phones, pretending it still exists.

Finn just wants to be left alone, and the way Dinklage plays him, it's clear he means it.  Finn isn't angry or even particularly disillusioned about life; he just wants to do it on his own terms.

He wakes up on his first morning to find there actually is something there in the allegedly empty countryside: an incongruously placed food truck that specializes in Cuban coffee.  The owner of the food truck is ill, and his son Joe (Bobby Cannavale) has taken over.

Joe is tall, gregarious and energetic, everything Finn is not.  Joe is also unusually needy, and as soon as he sees Finn, he thinks not about the stranger's height but of his potential as a friend.  Finn has no interest.

The man really only wants to be left alone, to fend for himself by doing things like walking a mile and a half to the nearest convenience store.  Along the way, he's nearly run over by Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a woman who seems absent-minded but, it turns out, is generally focused on the death of her small son two years earlier.  If she appears not to be paying attention to things like talking and driving, it's because she's not -- she is thinking about her boy and all she has lost.

Like Finn, she has chosen isolation over the pain of heartache and rejection.  She is still in love with her ex-husband, a man who has decided to do what she cannot and has moved on with his life.

Finn and Olivia do not want company.  They do not want friendship.  Joe, on the other hand, does, and he has a hard time taking no for an answer.

"He does love life," Olivia finally admits one day while watching Joe.  Finn nods in agreement.

By this time, friendship has snuck up on them, and it continues to do so in unexpected ways.  There's the local librarian (Michelle Williams), who has her own secrets and despair.  There's Cleo (Ravin Goodwin), a stout little girl whose skin color leaves her out of the running when it comes to making friends at school.

The Station Agent is about how they all become friends, especially Finn, Olivia and Joe, and how their personal anguish is easier to bear when it's shared -- and easier to wound when it flashes its teeth.

It's a movie that takes great pleasure out of presenting simple moments, like Finn, Olivia and Joe on a railroad bridge eating beef jerky.  That particular scene is a little gem because it is in love with its characters but doesn't brag about it; near the end of the scene, Olivia takes a piece of jerky, chews on it and says, "Good jerky," and everyone, including the audience, is delighted by her tiny discovery.

The Station Agent is about people who derive pleasure from doing things like sitting on park benches, having small dinners on a warm summer night, and walking through woods filled with the sounds of summer insects.  It is not, in other words, an action-driven film.

But it is, I think, one of the most honest and affecting portrayals of real friendship that I've ever seen in a movie -- not phony movie friendship where people sharply accuse each other of betrayals only to find it has all been a misunderstanding as the music swells and the camera spins.  Real friendship is both simpler and more complex than that.  It is founded upon the idea that people who have nothing much in common decide they like each other, and are willing to accept each others' weaknesses and insecurities.

The Station Agent has real humor, too, derived from the simple observations of the way people actually are.  Joe's desperate neediness, Finn's terse answers, Olivia's wounded heart, Cleo's simplicity all stand out because they're presented so matter-of-factly.  The characters talk to each other the way they might in real life: hesitantly, uncertainly, warily.  Even the big dramatic moment is treated without flash, rather as an act of simple friendship.

Toward the end of the movie, Olivia's anguish and pain have become too much for her to bear and she lashes out at Finn in a moment that feels both shocking and unfair.  He does what Finn has always done with rejection: He abides by it.  But he surprises himself by discovering that he needs her friendship, that he misses her when she is gone, the way he does Joe.

The Station Agent is similarly surprising, because when the movie is over, we miss spending time with these people.  They are filled with sadness and disappointment, but opening themselves up to each other makes them realize that although they might never have the lives they'd like, the unexpected relationships they forge make the lives they do have more bearable.

The first time I saw The Station Agent, on an airplane, I immediately went back and started it again.  It's the cinematic equivalent of spending a long, leisurely summer evening with a best friend; it's just too hard to say goodbye.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


 4.5 / 5 

Chef is the movie you always say they don't make anymore.  It's a relief to know they do, and a surprise to know that they can be made by people like this.

The director, Jon Favreau, is better known for mega-budget visual-effects spectacles like Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Elf.  Of course, he made his big mark in Hollywood by acting in and producing Swingers, the quintessential independent breakout hit, and it shows.  The director of Swingers, Doug Liman, went on to seemingly eschew his roots and focus on big-budget action movies like this summer's Edge of Tomorrow, and Chef shows what he (and everyone else) is missing by choosing a diet of fast food.

As both the director and star of Chef, Favreau seems to have tired -- at least momentarily -- of the empty calories.  Chef doesn't feature a single explosion, car chase or computer-generated character.

Interestingly, perhaps because of Favreau's reputation as a really nice guy and terrific director, it does feature gigantic movie stars, some of the biggest, in small, un-flashy roles: Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara and, briefly, Robert Downey Jr. are among Favreau's co-stars.  Right alongside them are indie-movie regulars John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt and Bobby Cannavale.

You'd expect a casting recipe like that to result in the cinematic equivalent of Olive Garden -- a not-quite-satisfying meal that seems a little too much like junk food but with some culinary aspirations.  Instead, Favreau has worked a little miracle, delivering a frothy, tasty concoction that's delicious, goes down easy and leaves a lingering sweetness behind.

It's also a rarity in the midst of the summer cacophony: A movie in which people who look and behave like real adults experience the kinds of self-doubt and messy lives that will feel familiar to anyone who thinks Dolby Atmos makes movies too loud and 3D glasses don't work too well with corrective lenses.

Chef begins with a man who's lost his way.  Favreau plays Carl Casper, a longtime chef with a passion for food who was once one of the culinary world's brightest stars. Though Chef Carl loves nothing more than experimenting with ingredients, the restaurant's overbearing owner (Hoffman) insists the chef play it safe when a prominent food critic pays a visit.  Disappointed not only at the review but at his own lack of courage in standing up to the owner, Chef Carl not only quits his job in a fit of pique, but goes one step further and launches into a tirade that ends up being a viral Internet sensation -- and not in the good way.

So he finds himself in a crisis of confidence.  Both his ultra-glamorous ex-wife (Vergara) and his sometime romantic interest (Johansson) urge him to return to his roots and open a food truck, but to Chef Carl such a move would only be admitting failure.

Carl also has a bit of a messy personal life.  There's that insanely rich ex-wife (in one of the story's rare missteps, we never find out exactly what it is she does), who despite her trappings has real concern and genuine affection for her former husband.  Together, they have a 10-year-old boy, Percy (the fantastic Emjay Anthony, who avoids every kind of cloying behavior most child actors would bring to the role), who can't hide the way he idolizes his father.

Ultimately, Carl does open the food truck, and naturally it's a hit, because Carl regains his passion, dignity and self-confidence.  If that sounds like I just gave away the plot, rest assured it barely hints at the rich, delightful layers of the movie.

Overstuffed with images that border on food porn, and equally rife with sometimes distracting product placement from Twitter, Facebook and Vine, Chef is, in the end, about a man who has allowed himself to focus so much on his job he has given up on his career, whose attention to what he is has left him disconnected from who he is.

Chef contains more than a little middle-aged-male wish fulfillment: The portly Favreau, who gets to make jokes about his weight in the movie, is seemingly irresistible to women who look like they haven't eaten more than a celery stick in the past few years, and inevitably music-filled montages make hard, back-breaking labor look like little more than a fun lark.  (There's also the issue, which I found it hard to overlook, that no one in the kitchen seems to wash their hands.)

But those little annoyances are like finding a couple of seeds in an otherwise impeccably prepared and presented meal.  They just prove that real people labored mightily to create the concoction.  In an so-far disappointing summer of sameness, it's a charming and altogether tasty proof of a beating heart among filmmakers.  Chef is one of the can't-miss movies of the year.

Viewed June 14, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Edge of Tomorrow"

 3.5 / 5 

If rampaging, villainous aliens ever do come to Earth to take over and rule the planet, we will know what to do: Look for the mother ship/queen alien/hive brain/controlling entity and attack it first.  It will be there.  I am sure of it.

I know this because Edge of Tomorrow, like countless films before it, promises that this is the way alien minds work.  Yes, they seem terrifying and insurmountable, but in fact they are easily and quickly destroyed with one or two grenades thrown into the mouth/lair/hive/control room of that single massive creature.

Hey, wait!  Isn't that a spoiler?  Only if you've never, ever seen a science-fiction film before.  Assuming you have, not to worry: The good news is that for the majority of its running time, Edge of Tomorrow is wonderfully fresh and intriguing, despite a "high concept" storyline that can best be described (in the way Hollywood prefers) with one line that recalls other successful movies:

Edge of Tomorrow is Saving Private Ryan meets Groundhog Day with some Starship Troopers and Alien thrown in for good measure.

There's a rather heavy sense of dèjá vu to the film that makes it all feel old yet remarkably new, like the biggest, best 1980s star-powered action movie that never got made.

It could be Arnold or Sly or Harrison Ford in the lead, but rather it's Tom Cruise, who would have been too young to play the role thirty years ago and now seems just ever so slightly too old.  The script dances around this nicely, because the story requires Cruise's character, William Cage, to be a private in the armed forces, and even if the military reinstated the draft there probably wouldn't be many 50-something privates.  So, the movie smartly imagines Cruise as a senior PR type who is camera ready but can't imagine the idea of combat.

Nonethless, he's thrust into the middle of a war between Earthlings and a vicious, nasty set of aliens called (for no apparent reason) Mimics.  Cowardly, panicky and utterly unprepared for war, Cruise finds himself on a sortie that will end in calamitous defeat.  It's the sci-fi version of Saving Private Ryan's beach battle, a futuristic D-Day in which Cruise is killed almost immediately.

Except that something happens -- something that will, rest assured, be explained, and that sets Cruise's character on a path that's not at all dissimilar to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but with many more explosions and a substantially increased body count.  As he relives the day over and over and over, Cruise gains expertise; the way he racks up experience points makes Edge of Tomorrow feel much like a big-screen, non-interactive video game in which the hero can't be killed, he can only pick up right where he started and move on, putting to use everything he has learned.

Along the way, he meets a female soldier (Emily Blunt) who is best known as "The Angel of Verdun" -- she's the reason humans were able to score a rare victory against the Mimics in the French town.  She also holds a secret, a surprising one, and one it would be entirely unfair to reveal; her revelation, and Blunt's no-nonsense performance, lift the Edge of Tomorrow even higher above expectations.

Then, just as the film really gets cranking, everything leads up to a dark, confusing, muddled mess of a final battle that brings it all crashing down.  The final third of Edge of Tomorrow is exactly the movie that the first two-thirds tried so hard not to be.  It's particularly disappointing, and amusing, to find out where the aliens hide their big, giant group brain -- it's a location that's been used before in a story that also traded originality and intelligence for a big, bombastic, utterly pedestrian ending.

Still, there is a lot worth admiring here, especially the two central performances by Cruise and Blunt (who, of course, manage to find time for an eye-rolling kiss).  Cruise has always been an intelligent, interesting actor, and even though the movie shies away from some of the more intriguing complexities of his character's inner path toward heroism, it's a brave choice to begin the film with Cruise as a sniveling, spineless coward.

Blunt, too, is a surprise.  She's an actress best known for supporting character roles, and she finds an interesting, slightly off-balance character here.

The breakneck editing and whiplash camera moves likely will be more confusing and distracting than immersive in IMAX and 3-D -- Edge of Tomorrow is a movie best viewed in traditional ways, and even in good old 2-D I found myself squinting and rubbing my eyes in the last murky 20 minutes.

But I also found myself, up to that point, unexpectedly entertained.  Everything about Edge of Tomorrow feels pleasingly familiar and also surprisingly new.  Halfway through, I wasn't sure where it was all headed, though I was confident its filmmakers did.  I gave my trust to them and enjoyed ride, even if the destination was exactly where I expected it to be.

Viewed June 8, 2014 -- ArcLight Cinerama Dome


Saturday, June 7, 2014

"The Fault in Our Stars"

 4 / 5 

The Fault in Our Stars is the kind of movie John Hughes might have made if he had been put in charge of Terms of Endearment or Love Story, a movie about beautiful people dying beautifully with a healthy chunk of teen-aged angst thrown in for good measure.

It opens with a line of narration not found in the best-selling novel, as 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) explains that life isn't like the movies, where nothing is ever so bad that apology and a Peter Gabriel song won't fix it.  Then, for the next two hours, the movie is filled with apologies and songs that aren't by Peter Gabriel but could very well be.

If the movie is aware of this enormous irony, it makes no acknowledgment of that, and this must be said: Movies that lead to tearful apologies backed by Peter Gabriel songs are actually pretty effective.  The Fault in Our Stars is no exception.

Apart from that line, this is less an adaptation of John Green's phenomenally successful novel than it is a filmization of that book, and although I came through the novel with dry eyes, I admit the same can't be said for the movie, and it's either a credit to the author or the filmmakers, or both, that the movie mostly reflected exactly what I envisioned in my head while reading the source material.

Somehow, though, the movie rises above the novel, which seemed to me to be trying too hard to wring tears out of the reader.  The movie is more effortless, thanks primarily to the terrific central performances by Woodley and by Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters.  If you don't know Augustus's fate, I won't reveal it here, but let's just say one of these two kids isn't going to make it to the final reel.

Both of them are dying of cancer, though the movie's version of cancer is a sweet and lovely one, in which the primary side effects are having to wear a sleek prosthetic device or a discreet cannula hooked to a wonderfully portable oxygen tank.  Neither Hazel Grace nor Augustus looks at all sick, and I suppose that if either one of them had, the movie would have lost more in physical appeal than it gained in realism.

Augustus is the impossibly beautiful boy who falls in love with a relatively plain-looking girl after they meet during a support group for teen-aged cancer patients.  When I say he is impossibly beautiful, I mean it: At a Saturday matinee screening, the audience comprised almost exclusively of teenaged girls swooned and screamed when he appeared on screen, and much later collectively hyperventilated during a scene in which he removes his shirt.  It makes sense that Woodley, though a capable actress and ostensibly the main character, is comparatively plain because she is the kind of girl the primary audience for The Fault in Our Stars can imagine being.

The movie makes being terminally ill look attractive, no doubt, and if it seems like I'm opposed to the way The Fault in Our Stars tells its story, I'm actually not.  The movie is made first and foremost for people who have never once seen Love Story or Terms of Endearment or Beaches or Brian's Song, to whom real death is something they are not accustomed to seeing on screen.

Given that, The Fault in Our Stars tells its story with admirable straightforwardness and restraint.  The plot leads Augustus and Hazel Grace to Amsterdam, and there's a scene in a restaurant that's more romantic and filled with more dignity and respect for its two main characters than anything else I've seen on screen this year.  The Fault in Our Stars might not be the most original movie ever made, but it is certainly one of the most sincere.  Later, Augustus and Hazel Grace visit the Anne Frank House, and the effective use of the famous diarist's own words draws tears honestly and appropriately.

As it was in the book, a long digression into a subplot involving Hazel Grace and Augustus meeting their favorite author and discovering that he is an embittered old sham (in other words, a grown-up) is less effective and doesn't seem completely thought through.  It connects to the plot, but only in a circuitous way that probably could have been handled differently.  But as with most filmizations of best-sellers these days, the filmmakers weren't about to make a substantial change, and it does allow the movie the luxury of some beautiful moments in a beautiful European city with beautiful doomed lovers.

Even in those Amsterdam scenes, The Fault in Our Stars is a movie with little visual flair, that takes no chances by diverging from its source material. In ways similar to the teen movies of the 1980s, it also doesn't quite know what to do with its adult characters -- though there is a fine, emotionally raw scene between Woodley and Laura Dern, who plays her mother and finally, for those few important moments, drops the faux happiness that worked so well in the TV series Enlightened but otherwise feels forced and uncomfortable here.

The movie isn't about the adults -- it's about the kids, who are learning some lessons that are all too rarely seen on film these days, lessons about integrity, dedication, relationships and the harsh realities of life.  In that regard, it's an almost shockingly old-fashioned view of the world by today's standards, but one whose very squareness makes it feel new and fresh.

The movie ends exactly the way its opening scene implies it won't: With a smile and a swelling pop song on the soundtrack.  But you know what?  Who cares?  There's a promise implicit in that movie convention -- life will get messy and unhappy and difficult, but ultimately there will always be something to smile about.  The Fault in Our Stars is sometimes messy, unhappy and difficult, but in the end, it is a movie very much worth smiling about.

Viewed June 7, 2014 -- Pacific Theaters Glendale 18