They All Fall Down

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Seven nearly perfect movies for autumn

Fall, that wonderful time of the year, when our thoughts shift from sandcastles and water ice to brightly colored leaves and jack-o-lanterns. In movieland, it’s the season to shift from teen-centric blockbusters meant to fill the cash drawer to contemplative fare intended to win awards. Similarly, films set in the fall tend to appeal to more melancholic, or at least, dramatic tastes, as in the DVDs suggested below.

Autumn Sonata (1978)

The focus here is on Ingrid Bergman, acclaimed star of Hollywood’s golden era (Casablanca, Gaslight), in her last big screen role, playing an aging concert pianist visiting her daughter (Liv Ullman), who longs for her mother’s love. Directed by Ingmar Bergman (Fanny and Alexander, Wild Strawberries), the movie is steeped in the chilly melancholy of Sweden but is warmed by the terrific performances of the actors.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

It’s bittersweet to watch the late Robin Williams play the popular high school English teacher at a conservative private boys’ school as he encourages students to find and follow their passions. In the buttoned-up 1950s, though, his efforts have unintended consequences. Many of the boys’ roles are played by young actors who have since become stars: Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Boyhood), Josh Charles (just killed off in TV’s The Good Wife), and Robert Sean Leonard (TV’s House).

Far from Heaven (2002)

Julianne Moore stars in this emotional family drama about Cathy Whitaker, a 1950s housewife whose life slowly comes undone when she gets romantically involved with her African-American gardener. Vibrantly photographed in saturated autumnal colors, the film is director Todd Haynes’ paean to the classic Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sir (All That Heaven Allows). Dennis Quaid is surprisingly effective as Cathy’s closeted, conflicted husband.

The Four Seasons (1981) Another Year (2010)

Both these films, made 30 years apart, follow a couple and their friends through the ups and downs of a full calendar year. The Four Seasons was a star-studded affair in the 1980s, featuring Alan Alda (who also directed), Carol Burnett, Rita Moreno, Sandy Dennis, and others through a rather tumultuous turn of the seasons. Although the film was successful in its original release, its earnest marital dramas have not weathered well. Another Year uses a similar conceit to reveal simpler, resonant truths about a happily married English couple. Played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, the couple becomes uncomfortably involved in the unhappy life of Mary, one of the wife’s coworkers.

Indian Summer (1993)

A quiet comedy about a group of friends who reunite, at the invitation of their former counselor (Alan Arkin), for a week at the summer camp they all attended as kids. Diane Lane (Under the Tuscan Sun) and Matt Craven (X-Men: First Class) also star in this sweet and nostalgic look at the good old days, which were definitely sunnier than the grown-up lives of the former campers.

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The trouble is that he is dead, rather inconveniently for several residents of a small New England town in this black comedy from Alfred Hitchcock (it’s one of his lesser classics). John Forsythe and Shirley MacLaine (in her first film role) star, with clever supporting work from Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick. The often-hilarious and beautifully photographed movie is also noteworthy for a brief appearance by Jerry Mathers (before his Leave It to Beaver days) and as the first collaboration between Hitch and composer Bernard Herrmann.

Without a Wink and a Smile

Murray, McCarthy transcend personas in St. Vincent

Who would have thought that the TV sketch performer who epitomized a cool, detached and self-aware comedy style nearly 40 years ago would turn out to be such an immersive actor? I’m talking, of course, about Bill Murray, who became a star on Saturday Night Live as Nick, the winking lounge singer, and later slyly included the audience in his antics in such classic comedies as Meatballs, Stripes and Caddyshack.

These days, as evidenced by his latest performance in St. Vincent, Murray has evolved into an actor who can sublimate his gonzo personality into a character study that is nuanced and convincing.

Melissa McCarthy plays Jaeden Lieberher's mother, while Naomi Watts is a Russian prostitute in St. Vincent. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima)
Melissa McCarthy plays Jaeden Lieberher’s mother, while Naomi Watts is a Russian prostitute in St. Vincent. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima)

Murray plays Vincent “Vin” McKenna, a solitary barfly and misanthrope who accidently ends up as a daily babysitter for his new neighbor’s (Melissa McCarthy) precocious bully-magnet son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Vin introduces the boy to his colorful but complicated world of racetracks, barrooms and nursing homes. This unconventional mentorship teaches Oliver a lot about a hardscrabble way of life, but it also endangers Oliver’s mother’s custody of the boy.

Within the universe of the movie, Vin and Oliver’s relationship is genuine and mutually beneficial, if a bit difficult to explain to authorities at schools and divorce courts. One of the strengths of St. Vincent is that, like the audience, Oliver clearly sees Vin’s abundance of flaws, yet still likes and admires him. This is because Murray gives a subtle, layered performance that creates a character with a multitude of off-putting traits who is ultimately likable. The viewer forgets that this is Bill Murray, one of the most familiar faces and personas in Hollywood.

In a similarly effective way, Melissa McCarthy dials down her usually strong and offbeat comedic style to play single-mom neighbor Maggie as a plausibly real person. The solid cast is rounded out with quirky performances from Naomi Watts (as a pregnant Russian prostitute!), Chris O’Dowd and Terrence Howard.

As interesting, unique and relatable as the main characters are, the movie suffers from sloppy plotting and far-fetched transitions from Director-Screenwriter Theodore Melfi (in his feature film debut). Perhaps it can be attributed to his inexperience, but St. Vincent never truly transcends the sentimental, even manipulative weaknesses of Melfi’s script.
Set in the working-class, immigrant-heavy neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, St. Vincent has the look of gritty realism. The streets, bars and racetracks become another character in a rich but careworn backdrop for the story.

In the end, the movie doesn’t really hold together, but it’s still worth the time for these fascinatingly flawed and credible characters.

Splendor Is the Grass

Eight munchie-evoking movies

Pineapple Express (2008)
A pothead process server (Rogen) and his dealer (James Franco) are on the run for their lives after he witnesses a gangland slaying. Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, scripted this uneasy blend of crime thriller and stoner comedy, which also stars Gary Cole, Rosie Perez and Danny McBride. The title refers to a particularly potent variety of marijuana, and the logic of this movie’s plot probably depends on how much of the stuff the viewer has smoked before watching.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)
John Cho and Kal Penn are the title slackers in this goofball comedy about two guys with the mad munchies in an obstacle-rife search for a White Castle. Throughout an endless night across the wilds of New Jersey, they encounter a group of punks, a cheetah escaped from the zoo, some racist cops, a raccoon with attitude, and a horny, drug-addled Neil Patrick Harris (playing himself). The surprise success of the film spawned two lesser sequels.

Saving Grace (2000)
The only movie in this lineup that doesn’t draw heavily on the humor of actually being stoned, this modest British comedy stars Brenda Blethyn and Craig Ferguson. She is a resourceful widow with a green thumb whose recently departed husband left her with exhausted bank accounts, and he’s her gardener with a little pot-growing project on the side. They throw in together for an illicit enterprise with comic consequences for all.

Half Baked (1998)
Today best known as a frequent self-deprecating punchline on The Daily Show, this movie, starring stand-up comedians Jim Breuer and Dave Chappelle (with Jon Stewart in a bit role), is an occasionally funny, occasionally embarrassing exercise in Mary Jane jokes and bad acting. Throw in a parade of well-chosen cameos by Tracy Morgan, Snoop Dogg and Tommy Chong, and you have a hazy entertainment for the short-attention-span crowd.

Dazed and Confused (1993)
Written and directed by Richard Linklater (Boyhood), this ‘70s era coming-of-age comedy features a young ensemble cast, many of whom have gone on to become stars, including Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, Parker Posey, and, of course, Matthew McConaughey as arrested adolescent David Wooderson. The film captures the funny and often painful rites of passage of high school, and the presence of pot is not a primary source of comedy but an accurate reflection of the pastimes of teenage life. All right, all right, all right!

Up in Smoke (1978)
The granddaddy of all stoner movies, this loosey-goosey comedy draws heavily on the performance rhythms and counterculture humor of its stars, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. The stand-up duo plays two guys smuggling a van into the United States, unaware that the vehicle is made entirely of weed. As they travel and toke, they are pursued by an overzealous yet incompetent narcotics officer, Sgt. Stedenko (Stacy Keach). This feature spawned a set of similarly slapdash Cheech and Chong films.

Reefer Madness (1936)
Intended to be a stern warning about the perils of pot for our impressionable youth, this cautionary tale from the 1930s has evolved into a hysterical comedy, especially if one is in an altered state. Two adults use wild parties with jazz music as lures to corrupt high schoolers. The film’s original tagline encapsulates the threats in store: “Sin, degradation, vice, insanity!” It was parodied in 2005’s Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical.

This Is Where I Leave You

(L-r) TINA FEY as Wendy Altman, COREY STOLL as Paul Altman, JANE FONDA as Hilary Altman, JASON BATEMAN as Judd Altman and ADAM DRIVER as Phillip Altman in This Is Where I Leave You. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. According to the new dramedy This Is Where I Leave You, apparently you can go home again, but it may not be a good idea.

This movie has an appealing, all-star cast and a promising set-up, and I really wanted to like it. And I do, but in spite of itself.

Despite the valiant performances of Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, and Jane Fonda, the movie is a hot mess of contrived situations, implausible character motivations, and unconvincing plot turns.

There was a lot of wonderful material to mine in a situation where a dysfunctional family is forced to deal with its childhood baggage as unhappy adults. But too often director Shawn Levy and screenwriter Jonathan Tropper settle for an easy, quick laugh instead of sustained truth. There are a lot of funny moments, but the movie just doesn’t hang together. Take it or leave it.

*** out of *****

Mazed and Confused

Latest young adult film covers much familiar ground

The Maze Runner, the latest post-apocalyptic young adult best-selling fiction series to be transferred to a cinematic counterpart, has many of the features that seem to be required of the genre. There is the dystopian landscape, the unknown and deadly peril, and the youthful hero with the character to meet and defeat that peril… after overcoming several forbidding obstacles and violently losing some companions along the way, of course.

Our hero, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), awakes one day to find himself in a place called The Glade, joining an assemblage of boys who don’t remember their pasts and are uncertain of what they are doing here. They have learned how to survive and create a semblance of community, but they are surrounded by a forbidding maze that keeps them isolated and fearful. The maze is filled with giant and fierce creatures called greavers, and if that weren’t bad enough, the structure remakes itself every night, defying their attempts to find a route through it to safety.

The problem with this movie version of the tale is that it feels way too familiar, a mishmash of themes and characters from other, far better books and films.
Using The Maze Runner as an example, how does one construct a successful post-apocalyptic young adult book series and translate it to the silver screen?

Start with an assemblage of traumatized teenage boys under stress in an unfamiliar landscape (The Lord of the Flies, check). Sort them into groups based on their skills or personalities (Divergent, got it). Give them a life-threatening obstacle that requires them to work cooperatively and/or compete to survive (OK, The Hunger Games). Add into this stew of adolescent rivalries an individual with compelling personal traits that set him apart as special (Hello, Harry Potter). And top it all off with an adult society where the reality is deliberately manipulated with language to hide true intentions (1984—perfect).

Neophyte director Wes Ball displays the skills he has learned in a long career of film art direction. The world of The Maze Runner is visually striking, and Ball keeps the action moving. But the screenplay, by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin, does neither the director nor the appealing cast any favors. Aside from the derivative flaws described above, the script offers no compelling characters, just stereotypical teenage types (the calm leader, the order-obsessed adversary, the wise sidekick, and the valiant, rule-breaking hero), so the viewer struggles to be invested in their plight.

I appreciate the appeal of these post-apocalyptic thrillers for young adults. In a modern teenage world filled with cyberbullying, sexting, and body-shaming, it’s probably perversely reassuring to see kids facing far worse life-or-death threats. It’s even better to see them overcome those threats, using their own resourcefulness and grit, especially without the hovering ministrations of mom and dad.

But, to transcend the limitations of the genre (as The Hunger Games clearly has done), you need to bring more to the party than a box of tired conventions and characters that are little more than ciphers.

The Maze Runner stumbles when you want it to race.

** out of *****

Hail to the Chef

Films that focus on the men and women behind the knives

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014, still in theaters)
An Indian family opens a restaurant in the south of France at the most difficult location possible: directly across the road from a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by the formidable Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The resulting clash of two classic cooking traditions resounds throughout the small village. But as each family ventures across the road (the hundred-foot journey of the title), the horizons of each widen and Madame becomes able to recognize the extraordinary culinary talent of Hassan (Manish Dayal), the son of her rival proprietor.

Chef (2014, DVD to be released Sept. 30)
This unexpected summer hit (reviewed in full in June O&A) charmed moviegoers with its close-up food shots alternating with commentary on modern restaurant trends and social media. Jon Favreau stars as a celebrity chef whose career collapses after a spat with a food critic; he slowly rebuilds his reputation and his family life by rediscovering his love for food via a cross-country journey on a food truck.

Julie and Julia (2009)
The Julia of the title is Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the master chef who introduced French cuisine to America in the 1960s. Her joy in cooking and life are a delight. Not so much Julie (Amy Adams), a contemporary Julia Child wanna-be whose dissatisfaction with her dead-end job and her life are just irritating. But Julia’s enthusiasm trumps Julie’s dumps to rescue this movie.

Ratatouille (2007)
This Oscar-winner for Best Animated Feature tells a sweet story of a rat who loves to cook and a woefully inexperienced under-chef who meet accidentally in the kitchen of a famous restaurant. The unlikely duo achieves great success by working together to overcome the prejudices of the French cooking establishment.

What’s Cooking (2000)
This minor indie film from Gurinda Chadha, the director of the later Bend it Like Beckham, possesses that same hard-won awareness of minority cultures fighting for their place in a dominant society. Set in an ethnically diverse neighborhood of Los Angles, the movie follows four families’ relationships as they gather for Thanksgiving. Although the foods and accents may vary, all four groups must deal with the same issues of interpersonal conflict and familial misunderstanding.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)
A stellar cast—led by Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon and Tim Roth—evoke this uncompromising, even difficult story of a mob boss restaurateur and his bored, disenchanted wife. Director Peter Greenaway brings his cryptic, stylized approach to this vicious tale, set largely inside the gangster’s restaurant. If you are squeamish, leave before the chef serves the final dish. Hint: it’s an alternative protein.

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978)
George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, and Robert Morley star in this offbeat comedy mystery set among the culinary luminaries of the continent. The chefs are dropping like flies but strangely, they are all being killed in the same manner in which their signature dishes were prepared. The movie is dated and mostly entertaining for its broad portrayals of snooty European celebri-chefs, at a time when cooks were not as overexposed in the media as they are now.

And for dessert, The Trip to Italy, a follow-up to The Trip (2010), promises to be another bracing mixture of food porn and British humor served up by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The recipe for the second film is the same as the first: take two comedian friends and attention hogs, send them on a tour of trendy restaurants, and watch as they hilariously entertain and taunt each other while being served a variety of appealing dishes. This variation has the two Englishmen traversing Italy, so the viewer can expect an additional flavoring of “fish out of water” hijinks.

Moretz Helps Us Want to Stay

Jamie Blackley as Adam and Chloe Grace Moretz as Mia Hall in If I Stay, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Photo by Doane Gregory)

Teen tragi-romance survives on lead’s appeal

Chloe Grace Moretz came to the movie-going public’s startled attention as the foul-mouthed, butt-kicking adolescent Hit Girl in Kick Ass. Her role as creative, sensitive Mia in the new If I Stay could hardly be further from that earlier performance, but the two disparate films share one asset: the remarkable appeal of the winsome Ms. Moretz. Her winning portrayal of a young girl struggling through a life and death scenario (quite literally) rescues this touching-if-predictable teen melodrama.

Moretz plays Mia, a thoughtful, introverted cello prodigy, who navigates the perils of her first romance. She and her beau, Adam (Jamie Blackley) meet through a mutual love of music, though she is a little bit Beethoven and he’s a little bit rock and roll. Their relationship is tested by different musical career goals that start taking them in opposite directions.

The situation becomes even more poignant (or perhaps overwrought, depending on your point of view) when Mia and her family are involved in a serious automobile accident. In an out-of-body experience, Mia watches her actual self stuck in a coma. She must decide whether to stay and live a life radically altered from her prior expectations.

Moretz plays a cello prodigy who is involved in a serious car accident. (Photo by Doane Gregory)
Moretz plays a cello prodigy who is involved in a serious car accident. (Photo by Doane Gregory)

If I Stay suffers from an overly earnest world view and a screenplay full of endearing yet familiar tropes. Her parents are a little too terrifically unconventional, the musical gulf separating the two young lovers is clichéd, and the family and friends’ tense moments in the hospital waiting rooms too reminiscent of a solid episode of ER.

But the film survives on the connection Moretz creates with the viewer, a skill she demonstrated more coarsely in Kick Ass, more gothically in Let Me In, and more whimsically in Hugo. Here, as in many of her other earlier roles, she comes across as grounded and accessible, similar to Jennifer Lawrence but without Lawrence’s edginess. As Adam, Blackley holds his own with Moretz, but director R.J. Cutler knows the story (and the film) depend on Moretz. He keeps the camera focused on her.

If I Stay is not a film for everyone. One can only assume its demographic will skew heavily to teen girls in sympathy with the protagonist’s rites of passage. For them, the story and the star will transcend the limits of the screenplay to deliver the wished-for sequence of sweetly sorrowful pangs that yield smiles of triumph.