THE PROGRAM (2016)

March 18, 2016

the program Greetings again from the darkness. The fallen king. The disgraced idol. We expect there to be more to the story of Lance Armstrong, but the bottom line is really pretty simple. Lance Armstrong is a liar. Lance Armstrong is a fraud. The movie offers little in the way of excuses or explanations, and you’ll likely think even less of Armstrong after the movie … if that’s even possible.

Ben Foster turns in a nice performance and is believable as Lance the cyclist, Lance the teammate, and Lance the doper. But even Foster can’t quite capture the public façade or reach the level of deception that the real life Lance maintained for years. Chris O’Dowd is spot on as David Walsh, the sportswriter who wrote the book on which the film is based, “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”. In fact, the movie would likely have been more interesting had it focused on Walsh’s research and pursuit, rather than re-hashing the all too familiar Armstrong deceit.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, The Grifters) works with the screenplay from John Hodge (Trainspotting) and we see how Lance battled through testicular cancer and later sought out Dr. Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) – the Godfather of blood doping. We get many shots of the familiar yellow jersey during numerous Tour de France races, and we hear Lance pontificate on what sets him apart: desire, hunger, heart and soul, and guts. Later we hear his proclamation of innocence followed by “I’m the most tested athlete on the face of the planet”.

Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”, “Fargo”) has slimmed down and plays the crucial role of Floyd Landis – a devout Mennonite, Lance teammate, and the final straw in the crumbling of an empire. It’s Landis who broke “the silence around cycling”, and forced an industry and the public to accept what most of us hoped against all hope wasn’t true.

Armstrong’s infamous “Oprah” appearance and public admission brought poignancy to his own words: “We are the authors of our life stories.” Perhaps this lesson is as valuable as all the money Livestrong raised for cancer research. Picturesque Hamilton Pool in Austin makes an appearance, as do songs from The Ramones, The Fall (“Mr. Pharmacist”) and Leonard Cohen. While the film is not at the level of Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie, it is a reminder that real life can be more dramatic and devastating than the movie version.

watch the trailer:

 

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CHEF (2014)

June 16, 2014

chef Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes it’s nice to to just sit back and enjoy a pretty simple and familiar story with (mostly) likable people and an uplifting message. Don’t worry, I’m not going soft on movies … it’s just that I found this little movie made me laugh and smile, and despite the formulaic approach (it plays like a sports movie) it made me care what happened to the characters (even though there was never any real doubt).

Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, the chef at a swanky L.A. restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman. When a powerful food critic (Oliver Platt) is headed their way, chef and owner butt heads like the true artist and bean-counter they are. The Chef wants to wow the critic with a unique meal, while the owner wants to stick to what’s been filling seats for a decade. Guess who wins? Once the Chef’s public berating of the critic goes viral on social media, the soul-searching begins. Our hero soon learns that all phases of life – including parenting and cooking – work out much better when passion and full attention are in place. The film is a not so subtle reminder to all of us that our attitude determines our altitude (thanks to Zig Ziglar).

This is a remarkable cast, many of which appear on screen for only a short time. The Chef’s lead assistants are comprised of Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo. The maitre’d is Scarlett Johansson. Chef’s ex-wife is played by Sophia Vergara, and her other ex-husband is Robert Downey Jr in a hilariously mind-muddling scene. Amy Sedaris has a funny scene as the fast-talking publicist and comedian Russell Peters plays a photo-happy Miami Beach cop. Even Emjay Anthony, as the young son Percy, has some nice moments.

Mr. Favreau has had a remarkably varied film career as a writer, director, producer and actor. He wears all of those hats here. It’s clearly a personal project for him and he wears it well, though a bit of script tightening could have elevated the film a notch. You might remember him from writing and starring in (with Vince Vaughn) Swingers in 1996, and of course, he more recently directed colossal blockbusters Iron Man and Iron Man II. It’s been quite a career, and it’s nice to see him take on the smaller, more personal projects again.

The best “foodie” movies I can recall are Mostly Martha (2001), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and the animated classic Ratatouille (2007). This latest culinary comedy from Favreau definitely holds it’s own, and gives us an exceptional soundtrack and road trip from Miami to New Orleans to Austin and back to LA. My only wish was that the language had been toned down for a PG-13 rating so that more families could enjoy it together.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  a low-budget, star-studded, charming, funny road trip foodie movie with father-son bonding is just what you need in the midst of blockbuster summer season.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  a fluffy comedy utilizing the gimmickry of superstars in brief roles is too lightweight for your movie tastes.

watch the trailer:

 

 


QUARTET (2013)

January 27, 2013

quartet2 Greetings again from the darkness. The latest entry into the gray cinema genre is also the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman. Oddly, Mr. Hoffman chose a British play for his first film. Ronald Harwood adapted his own play for the big screen and it certainly benefits from some giants in the acting world.

Beechum House is a retirement home for retired musicians and performers. It’s a beautiful home with a stunning property ideal for long nature walks, croquet or simply taking tea on the patio. Many details of the movie probably worked better on stage, but Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins are wonderful as renowned singers famous for their rendition of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.

quartet3 In a convoluted plot mechanism, Beechum House needs a cash infusion to keep its doors open, and the answer comes from a hoped for reunion of the above mentioned quartet in this year’s fundraising gala. Convoluted seems like the right word because, of course, the house gets “saved”, but there can’t be more than 50 people in the audience … some of which are the students Mr. Courtenay teaches in his music class.  It seems doubtful this crowd would have generated enough money to save the house from financial ruin.

Anyway, this isn’t meant to be an in-depth character study. It’s just a simple, sentimental, and even sweet story of some aging, quartet5talented performers who are struggling with the pains and insecurities of old age. Michael Gambon wonderfully captures the pomposity of a once-great director who still thrives on what little power can be grasped at Beechum House.

This one is not near the level of last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, though it’s enjoyable enough for light-hearted and well-meaning entertainment. The gala also features a wonderful aria performed by famed opera singer Gwyneth Jones. Take this one for what it is … a pleasant movie experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a pleasant, light-hearted movie with likable characters is what you are after

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking something with a bit more insight into the aging process

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSEnh8Hi62E

 


THE GRADUATE (1967) revisited

August 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the 45th anniversary of this film’s release and it was awarded a limited theatrical re-release, which I took advantage of last evening. Unlike so many films, the big screen doesn’t really bring anything special here, but then, it really doesn’t require any assistance. I fall into the category of those who consider this one of the all-time best films. Not only is it off-the-charts entertaining, the dialogue is brilliant, the performances are pitch perfect, and the camera work and soundtrack are highly complimentary.

 As my number of viewings have increased over the years, I have become a true admirer of the performance of Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson. It is heart-breaking and emotional. The first glimpse of her always makes me smile … she is in the background as Ben (Dustin Hoffman) pinballs through the party trying to avoid the clutches of his parents’ friends. In her scene in bed when she tells Ben about her college background in art and how her dreams came crashing down, her voice and facial features are filled with pain. Watch the movie from Mrs. Robinson’s point of view and my guess is you too will have a renewed understanding.

Of course, the age differences of the lead actors breaks all of my “movie pet peeve” rules. Dustin Hoffman was 30 at the time and he is playing a soon to turn 21 year old Ben. Anne Bancroft has a line to Ben where she says she is “twice your age“. Actually, she was only 36 at the time, and Katharine Ross (Elaine) was 27. Also, William Daniels who plays Ben’s dad, was only 10 years older than Hoffman.

 The movie is based on the Charles Webb novel and the screenplay was written by Buck Henry, who also plays the hotel clerk with whom Ben has an ongoing dialogue. Calder Willingham is also credited thanks to a lawsuit brought after the fact. The director, Mike Nichols has had a terrific career, and was also a co-founder of Chicago’s Second City Improv. He is also one of only 12 EGOT’s: winners of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. One of Mr. Nichols’ most famous collaborators is Elaine May, who plays the roommate delivering the note to Ben … and is the target of a most interesting camera angle.

There are so many iconic moments and shots from the film. Everyone is aware of Mr. McGuire’s “Plastics” advice to Ben, and we see Norman Fell as Ben’s landlord who has no appreciation for “agitators“. It’s also fun to note that we see a glimpse of a young Richard Dreyfuss who says he’ll “get the cops“, and Mike Farrell (from “MASH”) makes his film debut as a bellhop at the hotel. It’s also the final screen performance for Alice Ghostley, who many know from “Bewitched”. One of the most famous film posters in history shows Dustin Hoffman photographed through the leg of Mrs. Robinson. Actually, that leg belongs to Linda Gray, who went on to fame as Sue Ellen Ewing in the “Dallas” TV series. It should also be noted that the pivotal Taft Hotel in the film is actually the very famous Ambassador Hotel, which of course, is where Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. The hotel was later demolished in 2005.

 On a personal note, some of my favorite moments in the film include the shot of Mrs Robinson reflected in the glass top table as she arrives for her first night with Ben. Also, director Nichols allows the camera to linger on a furious and disgusted Bancroft as Hoffman shows up for his date with Elaine. And yes, it should be mentioned that Katharine Ross became the “dream girl” of the 1960’s thanks to this role and her role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As for the Simon and Garfunkel music, the most interesting piece is the unfinished “Mrs. Robinson” song that Nichols selected, even though Paul Simon presented it to him as “Mrs. Roosevelt” (as in Eleanor). Singing only the chorus and relying on acoustic guitar and an endless supply of Di-di-di’s, the unfinished version is a perfect fit for Ben’s pursuit of Elaine. One of my guilty pleasures from the film is courtesy of Murray Hamilton who seems to just choke on his lines as he spits them out to Ben – in both of their key scenes together. Hamilton went on to be Mayor of Amity in Jaws, but his career peak was in not shaking hands with Ben.

Though it’s not technically the final shot, the faces of Elaine and Ben on the bus is one of the most memorable endings in movie history … the cherry on top for one of my absolute favorite films.

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs Robinson opening up her personal life for Benjamin:


BARNEY’S VERSION

February 26, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ordinarily, a film with Rosamund Pike and Bruce Greenwood in key roles would be sufficient for me to stay home and watch The Weather Channel. However, Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, as son and father, in a story based on Mordecai Richler’s novel was motivation enough for me to buck up and give this one a shot. And what a pleasant surprise this film is.

Giamatti has mastered the role of cynical, self-absorbed, frumpy schlub and his Barney is every bit that. The story is told through extended flashbacks after we learn a detective has written a book accusing Barney of killing his best friend (Scott Speedman). No charges were brought and it’s not until the end, in an extremely creative reveal, that we understand what really happened that day at the lake. Unfortunately, we aren’t sure if Barney ever understands, but that’s a whole different topic.

Barney’s first marriage comes about because his girlfriend gets pregnant. This one ends in tragedy and betrayal and drives Barney to spend much of his life on the path of cynicism, alcoholism and cigar-chain-smoking. He is no pretty sight – from inside or out. He stumbles into his second marriage, this one to Minnie Driver. Ms. Driver is wonderful as the Jewish princess with a Master’s Degree. How do we know? She continually reminds us of both facts. Ever known anyone that just constantly reminds you of how smart they are? How this marriage ends leads to the whole suspicion of murder and loss of best friend for Barney.

The real key to the story occurs at his wedding. Instead of worshiping his new bride, Barney watches hockey, does shots with his Dad (Dustin Hoffman) and experiences love at first sight … not with his bride, but with a guest played by Rosamund Pike. This encounter puts Barney on a singular mission of winning over Ms. Pike, despite his marriage to Driver. Can’t really give anything away here other than the story is very clever in how it handles the pursuit, failed marriage and subsequent true love story.

 The only thing is, Barney never really “gets” what true love is. Pike has a wonderful scene where she explains that life and love are in “the seconds, the minutes, the routines”. Barney nods but is clearly in over his head in so many ways. Part of the genius in the script is that we somehow find ourselves pulling for Barney, despite his long list of faults and none-too-impressive quirks.

The other thing I really appreciate about this story is how there are so many relationships that seem to spring from reality … people we know in situations we’ve been in. The title, of course, refers to Barney’s version of reality. How he sees things. We could each replace his name with ours for a movie on our life. Do we see reality, or is reality how we interpret these seconds, minutes, routines? The answer seems pretty clear.

 The film is directed by Richard J. Lewis (not the comedian) but is really a product of the amazing story and talented cast led by the extraordinary performance of Giamatti. Dustin Hoffman’s scenes are all excellent, and his real life son Jake, plays his grandson in the film. Don’t miss the quick scenes featuring standout directors Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Ted Kotcheff. It’s also character actor extraordinare Maury Chaykin‘s final film. And I certainly can’t omit mention of the fabulous, spot on soundtrack featuring T-Rex, JJ Cale, Donovan and others. Leonard Cohen‘s “I’m Your Man” plays over the closing credits so don’t leave early!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you thrill to well told stories that are extremely well acted OR you just want to admire Giamatti’s god-awful posture.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need a “good guy” lead character OR you are concerned that the sight of Paul Giamatti in boxers could lead to nightmares.


LITTLE FOCKERS (2010)

December 27, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third installment of the series that began 10 years ago with Meet the Parents, a very fine, creative adult comedy with plenty of laughs. The second film introduced Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand as parents of Ben Stiller‘s character. The comedy became much more risqué, yet less funny.

Now we have the third and hopefully final installment … although, the last scene certainly sets the stage for another. Whatever chuckles there might have been were ruined by the over-played trailer. This has become the norm for American comedies. For some reason, movie producers believe the trailers should include 2 full minutes of funny scenes. Unfortunately, that just about uses up all the laughs from most comedies. This little focker is no exception.

The star-studded cast is back – Robert DeNiro, Blythe Danner, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Teri Polo, Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman all reprise their roles. This time we are also treated to a spastic Jessica Alba, a quirky Harvey Keitel, a creepy Laura Dern … and even Deepak Chopra makes an appearance. Even this cast is not enough. Jay Roach directed the first two and turns the reins over to Paul Weitz (In Good Company, About a Boy). But even new directorial blood is not enough. Though comedy is truly an individual taste, it’s pretty clear that more effort on the script was needed. Let’s hope this is the end of the line for the Fockers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you haven’t seen the preview and you enjoyed the second one.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are hoping they have recaptured the magic of Meet the Parents

** NOTE: I am purposefully not including the trailer in case you haven’t seen it and you want to see the movie.  Trust me … it’s best this way.