Movie Review ~ The Hundred-Foot Journey

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Kadam family clashes with the proprietress of a celebrated French restaurant after they open their own nearby eatery.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon

Director: Lasse Hallström

Rated: PG

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Before the screening I attended of The Hundred-Foot Journey, producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg took a minute to introduce the film and use various food metaphors to describe the experience they had reading the book and seeing it transition from page to screen. Both seemed a little too earnest in their praise, making it feel like we should like the film because they liked it so much…were it only that easy.

I’ll say that The Hundred-Foot Journey is a rare case of a film knowing exactly what kind of viewers it wants to target. It’s the Oprah Book Club members, your moms, your third grade teachers, and the AARP members that may not be able to travel to the South of France but will surely queue up for a movie involving a displaced Indian family opening up a restaurant across the street from a hoity-toity French eatery. The trouble is, once Spielberg/Winfrey get audiences in the door, they don’t have a main course to satiate our hunger.

Nicely (if pedestrianly) directed by Lasse Hallström (The Hypnotist, also at the helm on another okay-ish foodie orgy film, Chocolat, in 2000), The Hundred-Foot Journey has been slyly marketed as a battle of the restaurants with Indian patriarch Papa Kadam (Om Puri, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) setting up shop too close for priggish Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren, Hitchcock) comfort. Actually, the film spends little time on this plot, instead feeling content to pinball between numerous arcs before settling on the least interesting one of the lot.

Ah, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself, something the script by Steven Knight (adapted from the novel by Richard C. Morais) could never be accused of.

Hallstrom and Knight pack a lot into 122 minutes and if only more of it were as engaging as Mirren and Puri are in their supporting roles. The film engages these two only when conflict or comedic relief is needed before shuffling them off to the side in favor of blander ingredients. That would be Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon as, respectively, Puri’s son and Mirren’s sous chef. Though Le Bon manages to impress with charms suggesting a Gallic Winona Ryder, Dayal is stuck in the weeds as the character we should be rooting more for. When the film switches focus (again) to Dayal for the latter part of the film, it falls completely flat and never recovers.

Thinking back on the film I kept landing on several opportune occasions and characters that, for whatever reason be it script or novel, are just flat out ignored. Though Papa has five children only three are given any sort of screen time and even then two of them eventually evaporate into the background. Taking place in a quaint French village, the foodie mayor and his disapproving wife are shown often but their quirky interaction is never fully explored.

A major complaint I have about movies set in a foreign land is the insistence on speaking English in situations where no one believably would. Mirren runs a high end French restaurant with, it’s insinuated, a fully French staff. So why does she stop in the middle of a lesson to make a point in saying “In English please, so we can all understand.”? I looked around to see if she was referring to us because who else would need to hear it in any language other than French? Though Mirren makes the most out of a role surely intended for Meryl Streep, she can’t get away from the truth that the character is reduced to a plot device rather than feeling like a flesh and blood creation.

Staying two reels (or, courses) too long, I didn’t love this journey…but I did overhear the lady sitting next to me exclaim to her friends “I would have watched the movie for another five hours!” So, Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Spielberg…you might just have a savory sleeper on your hands. I’ll pass on seconds, though.

Movie Review ~ The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A look at the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during World War II.

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, William H. Macy, Werner Herzog, Mae Whitman, Jennifer Grey, Darren Criss, Elijah Wood, Ronan Farrow

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 126 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: After all these years of going to the movies it took The Wind Rises to finally get me to ask myself the question…can you truly appreciate a movie and not wholly like it?  If so, then legendary Oscar winning animator (and driving force behind Japan’s animation juggernaut Studio Ghibli) Hayao Miyazaki has wrapped up his storied career with a highly respectable and deeply personal tale that’s free of the whimsy of fantasia found in his early work and one that’s more grounded in historical reality.

Though the film is a highly fictionalized work, its central character Jiro Horikoshi was no figment of Miyazaki’s imagination.  Known today for creating the Zero fighter plane, Horikoshi served as chief engineer of many of Japans fighter planes during World War II.  Miyazaki takes the idea of the character of Horikoshi and his life’s work and fashions a biographical tale that has its share of moments that soar into the heavens but more often than not feels too earth bound.

A story that could have (and should have?  and will?) be told as a live-action film, it falls victim to the Miyazaki style of animation favors featureless characters that unfortunately all start to blend together after a while.  Even the animals have odd human-like faces that are more than a tad off-putting for a picture that seems to resist going for a mythical element as is found in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro

Yet even though Miyazaki is going for something more naturalistic, he finds ways to let his imagination run wild such as in the sequences of Horikoshi’s dreams that find him commiserating with Carponi, an Italian aeronautical architect who conjured up some awe-inspiring designs for the future of travel.  Accompanied by a soundtrack made up of human voices that stand in for an orchestra or sound effects, these passages may be cool to the touch but are warm in spirit.

Between earthquakes, sickness, the threat of war, and a love affair with a girl from his past, Horikoshi’s story is revealed in metered bits that somehow manage not to feel choppy or overly episodic.  As with most of Miyazaki’s work, the film runs over two hours and this one feels like it…so I could have done with the film clocking in twenty minutes shorter.  Even so, the value of seeing the final work of Japan’s master makes it worth the extra time in your seat.

Nominated for Best Animated Film at the 2014 Oscars, several theaters will be showing The Wind Rises in its original subtitled version or in a dubbed edition for those that are averse to hearing a film in its native tongue.  I saw the film with the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon), Emily Blunt (The Five Year Engagement), John Krasinski (Promised Land, Big Miracle), Martin Short (Frankenweenie), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), and Darren Criss (Girl Most Likely), though none of the Hollywood voices add much to the mix.

A work to be respected, I’m still not sure if I truly liked the film.  It’s slow and a bit of a slog to get through.  Still, like walking through a museum of fine art, I came out of the screening appreciative to have taken the journey.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Splash

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A man is reunited with a mermaid who saves him from drowning as a boy and falls in love not knowing who/what she is.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Dody Goodman

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Growing up, I think I saw Splash more times than I care to admit (it was the first movie I saw on Beta!).  I think it was the fantasy nature of the film that made it so appealing and I always got a huge kick of John Candy but the romance angle of the movie went right over my head…as it often does for young children.  As I revisit some Ron Howard movies (like Backdraft, The Paper, and Parenthood) I couldn’t let this one slide by because it was a landmark film for several reasons.

First off, though Splash wasn’t the first film that Howard directed it was the huge success of this one that cemented the child actor’s transition to dependable Hollywood director.  Howard became quite in demand, churning out a movie a year for the next two decades.  In addition to making Howard bankable, this was the first role that Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah got major notice for and rightfully so.  Though the film was originally intended for Michael Keaton and Brooke Shields (which would have been interesting), watching the movie now I see how much of the film’s success is owed to the performances of Hanks and Hannah as two people from different worlds destined to be together.

The charm these two exude could fuel a mid-size city and there’s a surprising amount of chemistry on display.  Though Hanks would go on to win Oscars and Hannah would show up in lesser/lighter fare, the star wattage from both is just one piece of Howard’s excellent casting choices here.  Candy, as Hanks’ sweetly crude brother is dynamite and long before he was an American Pie dad, Levy (American Reunion) is goofball gold as a bumbling scientist trying to prove Hannah’s mermaid origins.

Ah…that’s right.  This is, after all, a mermaid tale and the Oscar nominated script manages to not date itself too much but instead works wonders with the star-crossed lovers storyline.  There’s a sense of destiny and fate that surround Hanks NYC businessman and Hannah’s sea-life mermaid that just gels and rises above its marginally silly set-up.

The first film released from Disney offshoot Touchstone pictures, Splash was an unexpected box-office hit (spawning a less impressive Disney Movie of the Week, Splash Too!) and hurtled all involved to instant stardom.  Though I’d seen it countless times, this recent viewing revealed it to be a touching love story with a little bit of magic added to the mix.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Indian Summer

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven friends reunite for a week-long reunion at a summer camp in Ontario they used to attend as children which is now threatened with being closed down.

Stars: Alan Arkin, Matt Craven, Diane Lane, Julie Warner, Vincent Spano, Sam Raimi, Elizabeth Perkins, Kimberly Williams, Kevin Pollak, Bill Paxton

Director: Mike Binder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  This is truly one of my favorite movies and my appreciation of it has only grown as I’ve become an adult.  Released in 1993, Indian Summer was called out as ‘The Big Chill goes to summer camp’ — a not entirely unfair comparison when you consider it involves a group of friends gathering together after years apart to reminisce about their youth, rekindle old flames, and come to terms where their life journey has taken them.

Why this film has become as valuable to me as an adult is the way it handles the sensitivity and humor that’s found in the transition people go through as they age.  Some people can never really outgrow their teen angst or feelings of inadequacy…just as some see maturing as a way to start over again.   Director/screenwriter Binder (Crossing the Bridge, The Upside of Anger) manages to shuffle a wonderful cast around in situations that may seem like retreads of any number of films…without ever making them feel old-hat.

That’s partly thanks to the breezy script but most certainly attributed to a fine cast of actors who interact with each other and their surroundings over the course of their week-long stay at the summer camp of their youth.  The standout to me is still Perkins (The Doctor, Avalon) as a wise-cracking but wise single that has something to say in every situation but closely guards her own emotions.  She’s followed by Lane’s grieving widow that maybe hasn’t truly accepted the loss she experienced.  Warner and Spano are appealing actors that I miss seeing in film — their troubled marriage  has impacts on several other characters.

Craven, Pollack, and Williams too have nice turns with their well-drawn characters and a scene stealing Raimi (director of Oz The Great and Powerful and the original The Evil Dead) is a riot as a simpleton handyman around camp.  Academy Award winner Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine, Argo, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) balances his deadpan aloofness with a warmth that reminds us all of someone we look up to and want to emulate.

Filmed on location at Binder’s Canadian summer camp, the movie absolutely glows with a vibrancy that few films can really capture well.  Returning to this film at least once a year I find myself drawn to its wacky humor, late-night hi-jinks, and serious heart – it has an authenticity that keeps me smiling and continues to be a film I whip out when someone needs a recommendation for quality entertainment.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Pretty Woman

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets… only to fall in love.

Stars: Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Jason Alexander, Laura San Giacomo, Ralph Bellamy

Director: Garry Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though Julia Roberts had already turned out memorable performances in Mystic Pizza and earned an Oscar nomination for Steel Magnolias, it would be Pretty Woman that sealed the deal and made her a bonafide movie star.  Even more surprising was that this glossy fairy tale about a hooker with a heart of gold was one of the biggest hits of the year and earned Roberts an Oscar nomination as Best Actress.  That thousand-watt smile was put to good use opposite the squinty eyed Richard Gere and the two made a great pair. (This magic was not present in a later collaboration, Runaway Bride).   Watching the movie now, I’m still impressed with how well it sidesteps its adult themes for an admittedly cleaned-up version of Los Angeles and its seedier parts.  Originally intended as a much darker film, director Garry Marshall knew that there was a shiny Cinderella story hidden underneath the grime so he relies heavily on his stars.  Marshall has always been a rather pedestrian director and that’s true here…but his casting is impeccable from Roberts all the way down to the bum that closes the movie.

Down From the Shelf ~ I Love Trouble

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Peter Brackett and Sabrina Peterson are two competing Chicago newspaper reporters who join forces to unravel the mystery behind a train derailment.

Stars: Nick Nolte, Julia Roberts, Saul Rubinek, Marsha Mason, James Rebhorn, Robert Loggia

Director: Charles Shyer

Rated: PG

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  On paper, I’m sure that writing team Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer thought they had a winner.  Aping the same style of rat-a-tat comedy that worked so well for the likes of Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn in movies such as Bringing Up Baby, I Love Trouble was intended to be a modern take on a classic concept.  Unfortunately, Meyers/Shyer have overstuffed their turkey of a plot with about 40 minutes of extra material and made more than a few blunders in the casting department.

At the time of its release, Roberts was the top movie star and could have easily been the only headliner to draw in crowds.  They wanted to see their pretty woman in light romantic fare and matched up with a swoon-worthy fella to recapture that magic.  Now, no one is saying that Roberts had to stick with that formula and to her credit I think she signed on to the film with the best of intentions.  It’s the addition of Nolte as her co-star that put a large hole in an already weighty ship.

Nolte is a strong dramatic actor, a ruggishly handsome dude that worked his way through the 70’s and 80’s in a string of diverse turns.  He’s so uncomfortable in this type of movie that it’s almost painful to watch him try.  It was well documented that Nolte took this film for the money and didn’t get along well with Roberts…and it all shows up on screen.  Though Roberts and Nolte give it their best effort and create a few interesting moments, the lack of chemistry is apparent to the point where you almost beg them not to kiss.

It’s not all their fault, though.  The script from Meyers/Shyer and Shyer’s direction are wooden and forced without a lot of cohesion. There’s a vague murder mystery plot that reporters Roberts and Nolte team up to try to solve (mostly for their own glory rather than any real dedication to the good of the public) and to say the reasons behind the murder were loony would be an understatement.  There’s a big to-do about growth hormones in cows and how it causes cancer…great stuff for setting the scene for romance, right?

The movie is way too long and should have been trimmed down from 123 minutes to 90…just enough time for the mechanics of the film to present themselves and run their course.  I remember seeing this film in the theaters when it was released and not being a huge fan.  I’ve been drawn to it several times since and will learn my lesson that it’s just not a very good film someday.  I do love bad movies but I do not love the trouble this one causes.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Doctor

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Jack McKee is a doctor with it all: he’s successful, he’s rich, and he has no problems…. until he is diagnosed with throat cancer. Now that he has seen medicine, hospitals, and doctors from a patient’s perspective, he realizes that there is more to being a doctor than surgery and prescriptions.

Stars: William Hurt, Christine Lahti, Elizabeth Perkins, Mandy Patinkin, Wendy Crewson

Director: Randa Haines

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Even if you’re healthy as a horse, chances are you’ve seen more than a few doctors in your life.  Maybe it’s just a routine check-up, or maybe it’s for something more serious.  Bedside manner is an oft-joked on subject where the medical profession is concerned and we all are aware at how important and attentive an understanding professional opinion is when we need it most.  That feeling gets to the heart of what 1991’s The Doctor is really about, making it more than a personal story of one doctor previously out of touch with everything outside of an operating room.

The trouble with The Doctor, however, is in the title performance from Hurt who could play aloof in his sleep…it’s when he’s called on to become compassionate and caring that some serious false notes are struck.  There’s something quite resistible in his portrayal of a hot-shot surgeon that seems to see each patient for their stitches and maladies, rather than the person that is living with them.  He’s not very present in his personal life either with a wife (Lahti) and son (Korsmo) that have learned the hard way what it’s like to put too much faith in him to come through in a pinch.

That all changes when the doctor suddenly becomes the patient after being diagnosed with throat cancer by new colleague (Crewson), a practitioner even chillier than he is.  Through frustrating appointments, botched treatments, and a healthy dose of a taste of his own medicine, our doctor begins to see the light and makes strides to change himself.  This sounds like the plot for any countless big screen and small screen tales…so what makes this film notable?  Not much, really.

Twenty years later, the film still moves briskly through its paces and is amiable enough to be decent casual viewing.  Perkins is more interesting than any other person in the film as a cancer patient tasked with delivering the obligatory “Who do you think you are” speeches to Hurt as he blusters frustratingly along.  Hurt gives us such a removed and unlikable character at the outset that you really don’t care when the changes to his personality do come.  I mean, even Scrooge has to be somewhat redeemable for the ending of A Christmas Carol to work, right?   

It doesn’t help that Hurt plays the newly enlightened doctor as a holier than thou know it all.  It seems wrong to side with Hurt when he tells off a fellow surgeon for not caring enough when thirty minutes prior he was in the exact same situation.  Hurt and director Haines were more successful with their collaboration on Children of a Lesser God…probably because Marlee Matlin was easily the true star of that picture. 

A perfectly fine film that works better as home viewing, The Doctor has a nice little nugget of an idea (it’s loosely adapted from a novel) that might have gone down easier with a better lead.   Had Hurt not been present, audiences and critics might have responded better to the film upon its initial release.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Stella

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Stella is determined, courageous, vulgar, unfashionable…and all her daughter has. Through the trials of teenagehood, to the problems of adulthood, Stella will do anything for Jenny…ending in an selfless, unforgettable sacrifice.

Stars: Bette Midler, John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason

Director: John Erman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Between the success of Beaches and the head-scratching failure of Scenes from a Mall, Midler showed up on the big screen in this second remake of Stella Dallas.  Fifty three years after the last adaptation, Midler took on the role that was played memorably by Barbara Stanywck in a melodramatic but quite effective three-hanky weeper.  Though critics were generally kind to Midler and the film itself, audiences didn’t respond like they had with Beaches and the movie was seen as a flop.  That’s too bad because though quite manipulative and schmaltzy, it features one of Midler’s most underrated performances.

Brusque barmaid Stella (Midler) has a brief romance with a young doctor (Collins) and when she finds herself pregnant (or “stubbing her toe” as she recalls her mother would have said) she decides to do it alone…knowing that the doctor doesn’t really want to marry her and be saddled with a child just as his career is taking off. 

The child, Jenny, grows up in modest accommodations until her successful dad benignly enters her life again…giving Jenny the experience of growing up in two different worlds and income levels. The older Jenny (Alvarado who is pleasant but doesn’t resemble either Midler or Collins) goes through the typical teenage embarrassment from her mother and it isn’t long until mother and daughter have to face certain realities about the life they have created together. 

What elevates this film from its humble origins is Midler’s fiercely committed portrayal of a take no crap kinda lady that doesn’t let the outside world in easily.  All she knows is her daughter and her identity is all about how to provide for her and keep her happy.  Parents sacrifice for their children all the time and if there is one lesson you can take from Stella, it’s that though it can seem that your parents don’t have your best interest at heart they are all simply doing the best they can with what they have.

Midler gets nice support from Collins as a character that could easily have been marked as the villain but is too honest for his intentions to come off as anything but sincere.  Better still is Mason as Jenny’s potential stepmom…she follows the lead set by Collins and makes her character easy-going and likable.  The only actor that still doesn’t quite fit here is Goodman as Stella’s longtime friend, an alcoholic that always seems to turn up at the wrong time.  Goodman was riding the Roseanne high at the time and couldn’t totally shake his TV character when tackling something this tricky.  He’s either too big or too small…no medium ground exists with Goodman (see recent efforts in Argo and Flight). 

Director Erman contributes some pedestrian direction with what could easily be turned into a stage play when you consider how much of it takes place inside Stella and Jenny’s duplex accommodations.  The screenplay by Robert Getchell hits the appropriate notes of drama and cinematographer Billy Williams doesn’t let the camera get in Midler’s way insomuch that it follows her lead.   

Though I go back to Stella once every few years, it’s a movie with an impact that hasn’t changed much over time.  I think I’ve grown to appreciate my family more since seeing it in its first release in February of 1990 – I’ll never forget leaving the theater and my grandmother almost being killed by a light that fell from the movie theater ceiling at the old Southdale theater in Edina.  The ending still creates a happy-sad emotion in the viewer and it’s a harmless blip on the Midler radar screen…but it’s worth investigating further.