Monthly Archives: August 2014

A Month of Audrey.

MBDBRAT EC032They did it with Hitchcock and Neil Simon; now it’s Audrey Hepburn’s turn. Inspired by the imminent arrival of a stage production of the thriller Wait Until Dark, Rochester’s Geva Theatre has teamed up with WXXI and The Little Theatre to schedule a monthlong Hepburn retrospective.

The series, which starts tonight, includes:

  • August 20 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), the definitive Hepburn film, with the star playing an elusive Manhattan party girl.
  • August 27 – Wait Until Dark (1967), a classic woman-in-jeopardy thriller with a blind Hepburn fighting off killers in her cramped basement apartment.
  • September 3 – Funny Face (1957), my personal favorite of her films, a magnificent style mash-up of Beat poetry and ’50s glamour – all set to a soundtrack of Gershwin songs, and with Fred Astaire. You can’t go wrong with Funny Face.
  • September 10 – A double feature of Sabrina (1954), featuring Hepburn opposite Humphrey Bogart and William Holden; and Charade (1963), Stanley Donen’s fizzy caper, also starring Cary Grant.

All shows start at 6:30pm at The Little, 240 East Ave. in Rochester. A multi-night ticket discount is available; for details, visit the Little’s page.

R.I.P., Movie Guide – and Thanks a Lot, Progress.

movie guideRemember books? They were fun while they lasted.

I came of age in the 1980s, when entertainment journalism was less sophisticated than in our Internet Age of today. Back then we didn’t have databases from which to instantly pluck arcane tidbits about Citizen Kane or Bullitt; all we had was Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, published like clockwork every year, right about now.

Back then Maltin was probably best known for his film-critic duties on Entertainment Tonight; but in my house we didn’t really watch that show. I did, however, keep the latest Maltin Guide nearby at all times. More than a resource, it was an argument-resolution device, a literal game-changer for the Trivial Pursuit era – and for a budding film critic like yours truly, a crash course: Concise Cinema Lit 101. Before I discovered Pauline Kael or the critics of the Village Voice and the Boston Phoenix, these capsule reviews were an entry point into a new way of looking at film.

When I graduated from college and moved to New York City, I worked for a couple of years at Viking Penguin publishers, where as luck would have it I became the publicist for that very book. Leonard and I became friendly: I called his home once and his young daughter Jessie answered, thinking I was Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid. And when he came to New York for that leg of his book tour, we talked about film criticism, watched a couple of movies (Pacific Heights and Memphis Belle were playing that week), and grabbed dinner at John’s Pizza on Bleecker Street – still my choice for Manhattan’s best pie.

None of this nostalgia can obscure the fact that the Internet has made the Maltin Guide, in all its printed glory, obsolete – and so the announcement today that the 2015 edition, to be published next month, will be the last for the venerable reference text. We can all get capsule reviews (and much more) with a few keystrokes now, which has inevitably diminished the value of a curated compendium, from a single reputable source, that could sit comfortably next to an armchair in all its analog glory.

Everything printed has felt the pinch of the web; this is just Leonard’s turn. Maltin himself is online too, of course, and his written “voice” is as clear and passionate about film as ever. (Entertainment Tonight never came close to tapping his talents.) But it’s not – and won’t be – the same.

O Captain My Captain: RIP Robin Williams, Seriously Funny.

robin williams the fisher king (blog)

Last year, upon the passing of legendary humorist Jonathan Winters, I offered up an affectionate but unquestionably smart-alecky Facebook eulogy: “He did everything Robin Williams ever did – only first, better, and with less body hair.” Williams, the famously hirsute comic actor who died today of an apparent suicide at age 63, was a lifelong fan of Winters’ fiercely individualized comedy – and he often gave much of the credit for his improv-flavored stagecraft to the unmistakeable style of his spiritual mentor, even long after he had  transformed that inventive style into something unique and utterly his own.

But I was wrong: Ultimately, Williams went places that Winters never did. He gave us so much more than comedy; in fact, if it weren’t for the actor’s surprising facility for heartfelt dramatic roles, I wonder if his long and accomplished career would have made the same lasting impact on film history. His boundless energy and joke-machine charisma served him well, and catapulted him to Hollywood A-list status with Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987. But that early performance became so instantly iconic that it’s easy now to forget it was actually his seventh starring role, and that in two previous films – Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and The World According to Garp (1982) – he had already distinguished himself as a serious actor of serious talent.

Williams’ name will always be synonymous with comedy, but he achieved screen immortality on the strength of performances that took offbeat paths to nuanced drama. In Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989) he gave new lift to a hoary Hollywood cliché – the inspirational teacher – by adding a splash of enigma that fascinated his audiences in the theater as well as in the classroom. In Good Will Hunting (1997), the film that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he toned down the comedy even further, limiting his one-liners to wry comebacks that punctuated the scenes of painful healing between his psychotherapist character and Matt Damon’s tortured genius.

And in my personal favorite of his performances – as Parry, a damaged and demented homeless man who is saved by an act of friendship – Williams gave us the first, best onscreen avatar for Terry Gilliam’s peculiar brand of artistic inspiration in 1992’s The Fisher King (above). In that dark, unjustly forgotten jewel, Williams showed us an astonishing range that channeled his comic intensity rather than giving in to its uncanny power. It transcended the stereotypical sad-clown role, and I can’t think of another performer who could have pulled it off as flawlessly as Williams.

Sixty-three is an obscenely few number of years to spend on this Earth, and no less for the talent and passion Williams brought to his work – and for the laughter and grace he gave us all along the way. Rest in Peace, sir.

And please – if you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. As Williams noted in Hook, “To live would be an awfully big adventure.”


“The Hundred-Foot Journey,” Reviewed: Weak Sauce.

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEYLasse Hallström is an odd duck. One the one hand there’s his gift for nuanced views of complex human relationships, such as the small-town siblings in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) or the orphan abortionist bobbing for normalcy in The Cider House Rules (1999). But give him a screenplay with raw, gooey sentiment – say, the three-hankie Hachi: A Dog’s Tale or either of the two (two!) Nicholas Sparks adaptations he’s made – and his directorial integrity melts like superfluous butter on a hot croissant.

I’m sad to say Hallström is firmly in croissant mode for The Hundred-Foot Journey (rated PG), the third and least effective food-is-life saga to be released this year after Chef and The Lunchbox. And I mean, I really am sad. The ingredients of this soufflé – the central premise, the picturesque visuals, the thoughtful foodie footage – are all top-notch. It’s just that the chef behind the camera doesn’t seem to know how to combine them into much more than a flavorful flop.

Based on a 2010 novel by Richard Morais (and produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey), Journey follows a displaced Indian family as political unrest forces them from the subcontinent to Europe. Hassan (Manish Dayai) and his siblings lost their mother in the turmoil that sent them packing, but not before she spent Hassan’s childhood training him to cook. Now he’s the star attraction of their traveling restaurant – one that promises to bring authentic Indian cuisine to the south of France, in one of those sleepy-but-elegant villages seemingly tailor made for a cinematic close-up.

Their only problem is the neighbors, or rather one in particular: Literally across the street from the site of Maison Mumbai is a Michelin-starred classical French eatery, run with imperial precision by the frosty Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) who doesn’t take kindly to ruffians infiltrating her ambience with A.R. Rahman music, Taj Mahal cutouts and the smell of curry. Mirren’s cut-from-granite demeanor here is old hat for the actress – and telegraphed early on as being the first stage in a transformation. Like the haughty critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007), she’s been created so we can watch her get friendlier.

And so she does – but does it have to take so long? The film’s two-hour-plus running time is due to Hallström’s failure to designate an A-plot. What’s the movie about? Is it Hassan’s ascension in the culinary world, as he becomes one of France’s most celebrated chefs even while pining for the comely sous chef (Charlotte Le Bon) who works for Madame Mallory? Is it the furious competition between the two restaurants, epitomized by a series of comic set-tos between Mallory and Hassan’s father (Om Puri)? Their clash of culinary cultures is bracing and zesty, but there’s only one place for it to go – and every time these two master actors gain some onscreen traction, the director runs away to scenes of Hassan cooking, or more shots of the postcard-perfect countryside.

If nothing else The Hundred-Foot Journey works as food porn, with abundant cooking sequences and sumptuous arrays of sauces, noshes and platings. The film’s primary conceit (even if the director doesn’t always have faith in it) is Hassan’s innate culinary skills, which he approaches with an almost beatific calm – he’s possessed by the spirit of his mother, I suppose, and channeling her memory as he inhales the aroma of her legendary spices. The trouble is, I didn’t believe it. Dayai is too inexpressive to connect with the material; the script simply asks us to accept that he’s capable of his meteoric rise. The gradual détente between Puri and Mirren’s characters is similarly incredible – as is the fact that Maison Mumbai would succeed in the first place, for that matter. Hassan’s siblings do a much better job of explaining the roadblocks to their success in the first reel than the film ever does of explaining how they overcome them.

Ultimately, there’s not enough meat on this bone to satisfy anyone looking for more than a great-looking table setting. The only thing The Hundred-Foot Journey made me hungry for is a better film.

(IMAGE: Manish Dayai and Helen Mirren in The Hundred-Foot Journey. Photo courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures.)

“Guardians of the Galaxy,” Reviewed: Marvelous.

guardians of the galaxy - spaceship (marvel) blogIn the last six years Marvel Studios has done something rather extraordinary: produced nine big-budget, effects-laden blockbusters that stand alone while interlocking just enough to tell a larger story. (They’ve also managed to avoid making a single bomb so far, which I suppose makes Marvel the heir to Pixar’s abdicated throne.) As satisfying as they’ve been, though, those nine films – two Captain Americas, three Iron Mans, a Hulk, two Thors and an Avengers, with more on the way – have become a tad claustrophobic. What good is having a Marvel Cinematic Universe if you’re not willing to tell stories that feel universal?

Enter Guardians of the Galaxy (rated PG-13), and exit laughing. Marvel Movie No. 10 breaks the creative shackles forged by the Avengers-centric films to showcase a completely distinct band of adventurers – a motley crew as different from Captain America and Thor as you’re likely to find. Director James Gunn’s earlier films, the horror comedy Slither (2006) and the indie costume comedy Super (2010), featured a decidedly non-mainstream voice. By trusting this guy with the keys to one of the shiny cars in its billion-dollar garage, Marvel has proven that it’s open to taking risks – by Hollywood standards, a trait that’s downright heroic.

Who are the Guardians of the Galaxy? Think Star Wars, only everybody is either Han Solo or Chewbacca. The film opens prosaically in Missouri, circa 1988, as eight-year-old Peter Quill watches his mother die of cancer and runs sobbing from the hospital, where he’s promptly picked up by a waiting spaceship. (Why this ship is trolling for eight-year-olds is never explained; just go with it.) Twenty-six years and many millions of miles later, Quill is a not-quite grownup (Chris Pratt) bopping around the galaxy as a wise-cracking scavenger who wants to be called “Star-Lord.” His first adventure is inspired heavily by the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark (keywords: idol, chase, getaway), except Quill – excuse me, Star-Lord – clearly won’t be donating his find to a museum.

That stolen object, a grapefruit-size metallic Orb, makes Quill the target of any number of interested parties. The evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) has partnered up with Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to get it; they send Thanos’ green-skinned daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to personally pluck the Orb from Quill’s cold dead hands. Instead, Gamora teams up with Quill, along with a gang she calls “the biggest idiots in the galaxy”: Drax the Destroyer (WWE star Dave Bautista), a gruff muscleman; Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree whose only English are the three words “I am Groot”; and Rocket, a genetically modified raccoon who loves big guns and possesses the smart mouth of Bradley Cooper.

The one thing this group can agree on is that none of them are heroes in the conventional sense. They each have their own motives for sticking around, resulting in a sense of vaguely coordinated anarchy that’s nicely sustained by Gunn and his co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman. Gunn maintains a deft balance of sci-fi action and comedy, such as when Rocket hastily concocts a plan to rescue Quill and Gamora from the blue-skinned bandit Yondu (Michael Rooker) – only the plan involves threatening to blow up Yondu’s ship if the captives aren’t released in five seconds. It works, but only accidentally, and leads to an argument over why five seconds really wasn’t enough time for the bad guy to comply.

Why everyone wants the Orb begins to make sense as the film progresses, but the object itself is mostly a MacGuffin to drive the action; like Peter’s childhood abduction, the “why” doesn’t much matter compared to the growing sense of family that develops among these occasional good guys. With their adventures set to a soundtrack of late-’70s classic rock – courtesy of Star-Lord’s Walkman, his only memento of his days on Earth – these Guardians of the Galaxy, and the film that bears their name, achieve a kind of instant timelessness. Their story should age very well, with the explicit promise of a sequel offering a reminder that the Marvel universe is plenty big enough for more than one heavy-hitting super-team.

(IMAGE: Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney.)