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Column Fri Aug 08 2014
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Calvary, What If, A Master Builder & Alive Inside
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
I wish I felt more passionately — positive or negative — for the latest attempt to get the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back into the cultural spotlight. Clearly inspired by by the recent wave of superhero movies, this version of the turtles stick to the same basic origin story, but gives the reptiles a little more grit and attitude. Their shells are worn and chipped, their usually colorful green forms are muted and worn in. Their voices still reveal their hyper-teenage brains (with the exception of Johnny Knoxville, inexplicably brought in to voice Leonardo), but they are forced to deal with some very dark and serious situations that could result in some nasty business courtesy of their old enemy Shredder.
The biggest (but far from only) problem with the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the the genuine fun has been all but wiped from these characters. I certainly wasn't looking for a retread, but I was hoping to laugh and smile a bit. Instead, the heroes are being beaten to a pulp, put at real risk of death (or those around them are), and just generally being put in the middle of some truly grim situations. Director Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls, Battle Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans) doesn't seem to have any real affection for the turtles, and if he does, it doesn't show. I'm not too traumatized about their new, more humanoid look the way some are, but it doesn't really add much to the film either, the way, I don't know, a story or minor character development might.
Speaking of empty characters, the humans in the film might be worse than the turtles, beginning with Megan Fox as reporter April O'Neil, who is investigating the existence of a New York crime organization known as the Foot Clan (led by Shredder), along with her wacky, flirty cameraman Vern (Will Arnett, who you just have to feel sorry for every second of this film). TMNT's one semi-saving grace is the occasional appearances of William Fichtner as Eric Sachs, who runs a firm that is somehow responsible for the entirety of New York City's security (presumably supplementing real police) and was once a good friend and co-worker of April's father, so naturally that's enough to make her trust him, ignoring the fact that he's William Fuckin' Fichtner.
The film's "story" picks up right as both the Foot Clan and the turtles are on the verge of coming out of hiding and making themselves known to the world. Tony Shalhoub voices the turtles' sensei, Master Splinter, a giant rat with a fu manchu mustache and other weird body hair, who seems to know every secret in this film before it's even posed to him. I loathe lazy writing that features characters that possess crucial information that would save themselves and their loved ones pain, but they hold onto it until the plot dictates they must. I don't care if these aren't humans or not, upright creatures don't act that way. And if they do, why should I care about them?
Speaking of upright creatures, Megan Fox is a horrible actor; I'm not sure if anyone has ever pointed this out before, but she's just awful, especially here. And the only thing more painful than experiencing her acting is watching her try to pretend to be an in-the-field broadcast journalist. Painful, pure and simple. I don't think I've ever really gone after her as an actor because she makes it easy to get blinded to it. But in TMNT, she's striving to be taken seriously as a journalist, which I'm all for, but her idea of serious is to be stiff and boring and forget what emotions are. Groot was less wooden than Fox is here.
There are a couple of flashy fight sequences that are at least somewhat interesting, if only because the effects are so good that it's sometimes tough to tell what is real is what is digital. But the rest either involves characters that are supposed to be smart acting like morons or countdowns to catastrophic events that are stopped short exactly when you think they will. I used to think the worst thing for a film like this to be is boring, but TMNT has proven that being pointless might be worse. The film was produced by Michael Bay and the folks at Platinum Dunes, and for a fleeting moment, I believed that might actually be the ones for this job. But after the 14th slow-motion martial arts fight sequence, I was ready to crawl back in my shell.
The Hundred-Foot Journey
People seem to have a thing for food porn and/or pretty much anything related to chefs, whether it be films ranging from Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night and Eat Drink Man Woman to the wonderful documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the Pixar great Ratatouille and Jon Favreau's recent Chef. And I'm not even including the endless supply of reality shows and how-to programs on TV channels all over the dial. So for a sizable number of moviegoers, a film like The Hundred-Foot Journey from director Lasse Hallström (who also made Chocolat, The Cider House Rules and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) is easy pickings, with its glorious displays of trips to the market for fresh ingredients, food preparation and experimentation to get just the right recipe, and the final plating that often resembles a carefully composed work of art.
The film also doesn't play fair with those in love with this type of film because it features three distinct types of cooking, from old-world French cuisine to fragrant Indian fare, with a bit of molecular gastronomy thrown in just to really blow your mind. Still, with all of these delectable goodies, does that make The Hundred-Foot Journey a fulfilling viewing experience? It certainly benefits from the added heft of great actors. Helen Mirren plays the icy Madame Mallory, who runs classical French restaurant (replete with two Michelin stars) Le Saule Pleureur in the south of France. Her world and business are rattled when the Kadam family, led by its patriarch (Om Puri), opens up an Indian restaurant, Maison Mumbai, directly across the street, with (in her eyes) gaudy decorations, loud music and overly spicy aromas.
But what the Maison Mumbai also features is Papa's brilliant chef son Hassan (Manish Dayal). Armed with specially made spices, he creates dishes that open up entirely new possibilities for his family and his future. Before long Hassan begins a secret friendship with Madame's sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon of Mood Indigo), and the two help each other beef up their cooking skills. The two establishments begin an all-out war on each other, mainly through complaints to the mayor, but after an overtly racist late night attack on the Hassan's restaurant, Madame Mallory realizes things have gone too far, calls a truce, and even hires Hassan on a trial basis.
There are few moments in The Hundred-Foot Journey (based on the book by Richard C. Marais, adapted by Steven Knight) that aren't wholly predictable, especially when it comes the relationships. If you line up the ages, you can essentially see where the flirtations will kick in. There are a few important moments in the story that also telescope where the plot is headed. The annual visit by the Michelin reviewers is coming up, and if they get that third star, a lot could change for everyone. A third-act scenario in which Hassan becomes one of the world's great purveyors of molecular gastronomy seems a bit unnecessarily far reaching, but it's certainly plausible in this culture of raising up the great chefs to rock star status.
I don't believe every film needs to be challenging. I get that some people just want to go into a movie and be taken away to somewhere they've never been that they'd love to go. And the stunning locations in the south of France certainly qualifies, especially with all of these wonderful meals paraded in front of you.
Like most of Hallström's works, The Hundred-Foot Journey is beautifully photographed (by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who also did American Hustle), but for a film that features so much cooking, there's very little meat on the bones. If even half of the passion that went into the cooking could have been translated into passion for the film's characters, there might be something really special in this work. If you generally like these kind of films, congratulations, you've found a new home for two hours. But for me, the flavors simply didn't mix well.
The first spoken sentence of the latest film from writer-director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) is so shocking, so memorable that even Father James, the lead character played by Brendan Gleeson, remarks as to it being a "startling opening line." And you can't help but laugh at him saying exactly what's going through your head, even though the words he's responding to have to do with a man at the other side of the confessional recalling being molested by another priest as a child. Not long after, that same unseen and unknown man says that Father James must pay for the sins of the church by being murdered at his hand in a week's time. It's more like a startling open scene.
But Calvary is fully loaded with great and memorable writing, acting and emotional truths about all manner of human suffering that this priest, a true and decent man, listens to as he goes through his small Irish community filled with its requisite share of sinners, cynics and morally questionable folks — and those are just his closer friends. Gleeson spends much of the film strolling though town seemingly unphased that he's just received a possible death sentence. He meets with various member of the town to discuss their problems and concerns, not his, and it's clear that while the town may not have much use for a man of God (his masses are sparsely attended), they do seem to like James the man just fine.
Near the start of the film, the priest's estranged daughter Fiona (the perfectly bleak Kelly Reilly) arrives in town with fresh evidence on her wrists that she's attempted to kill herself again. She makes light of it, but it's clear she still suffers the wounds of a long-dead mother and a father that chose to abandon his child when she needed him most to join the priesthood. As a father, he wasn't exactly a prince, but he was a committed alcoholic, which made his retreat into religion more a test of sobriety than faith. McDonagh weaves these stories into Calvary with an natural grace and perfection that none of them seem like mere plot points. Instead they feel like hard lives led by these characters, who are both melancholy but still hold onto a dark sense of humor.
Speaking of which, the cast features a great number of actors usually associated with comedy delivering both humorous and deadly serious dialogue that will sometimes give you a chill. Dylan Moran, David Wilmot, M. Emmet Walsh, and even Gleeson's son, Domhall Gleeson (About Time, and the soon-to-be-released Frank), make appearances as town citizens with their fair share of troubles and troubling issues. But it's Chris O'Dowd who gives one of Calvary's most fully realized runs as the town butcher and husband of a cheating wife, who both confounds and amuses him with her choices in lovers.
There are a lot of layers to Calvary (the film's name comes from the supposed site where Jesus was crucified, which may give a thing or two away about Father James' fate). The ongoing troubles with pedophile priests hovers over the entire film without considerable direct discussion. There are also issues at play here including payback, redemption, about how some think you can buy your way into heaven after a life time of terrible living, and all the while Father James exists as the tarnished heart of his town, ready to die for it if it makes another man ease his burden. Calvary is a reward unto itself, featuring one of the single best performances you'll see all year and some of the most fulfilling, complex and rewarding writing I've had the pleasure to soak in in quite some time. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
To read my exclusive interview with Calvary star Brendan Gleeson and writer-director John Michael McDonagh, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Replacing yuppies with hipsters doesn't hide the fact that What If (originally titled The F Word when it premiered at last year's Toronto Film Festival) is a by-the-numbers romantic comedy that adds very little to the genre outside of a few slightly more interesting faces.
Let's select a couple particularly shocking names that are featured in this film. Adam Driver is utterly wasted playing a watered-down version of his standout character in "Girls." His saving grace is that the woman he's dating for most of the film, Nicole, is played by the equally interesting actress Mackenzie Davis, who is the absolute highlight of the terrible That Awkward Moment and the underrated AMC series "Halt and Catch Fire." And even she seems underutilized here. Another name to toss at you is Zoe Kazan, the writer and star of Ruby Sparks. Whatever you may have thought of that 2012 film, at least it tried to be something different within the romantic-comedy milieu, so it might be the most disappointing to see her in this film, which offers nothing by way of originality or insight.
The film centers on Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe, utterly drained of his sense of humor), a medical school dropout who has seen a series of relationships fizzle out over the years, who meets Kazan's Chantry at a party. Just as he's about to make his move, she drops the bomb that she's in a long-term relationship with Ben (Rafe Spall). Naturally, they spend the rest of the film trying to convince themselves and others that they aren't interested in each other beyond being best buds and hanging out all the time. If this sounds like shades of When Harry Met Sally... for the skinny jeans and trilby hat crowd, you win the Obvious Prize.
Director Michael Dowse (Good, Take Me Home Tonight) and writer Elan Mastai (adapting the play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi) are practically doing summersaults to make What If even remotely interesting, sending characters out of the country, into the arms of inappropriate others (including an ill-advised moment when Chantry's sister, played by Megan Park, tries to get into Wallace's britches), and all over the map with their attitudes on various significant others. The whole thing feels like characters being put through the motions to make it look like something interesting is happening rather than human beings going through real emotional crises, and talking about it to each other like actual people.
I was actually shocked at how poorly Radcliffe performed in this largely comic role. I've seen him be funny many times, but nothing he does or says made me even smile. Kazan's character is supposed to be an animator, so naturally there are little animated bits that are meant to represent this friendly relationship that are just so cute, you'll want to murder kittens. It's truly baffling to me when I watch a film filled to the rafter with actors I truly enjoy, only to see them crash and burn so famously and completely. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, but please don't give it your money.
A Master Builder
Actors and general creative types Wallace Shawn and André Gregory (My Dinner with André, Vanya on 42nd Street) have once again brought their unique brand of theater to film, this time with the able assistance and held-held camera of Jonathan Demme. At this point Shawn and Gregory have more or less perfected the practice of making a dialogue-heavy work interesting and completely captivating. A Master Builder is a refreshingly strong reworking of Henrik Ibsen's play about ailing architect Halvard Solness (Shawn) and the way he controls and manipulates those in his life with thoughtless, gleeful abandon.
The film begins with Halvard's former mentor (Gregory), also gravely ill, come to his bedside to beg that Halvard provide some minor kindness on behalf of the mentor's son, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), who happens to work for Halvard. The younger man is quite talented, but Halvard's paranoia and ego are so great that he fears that any encouragement on his part would cause Ragnar to leave. To make doubly sure Ragnar stays put, Halvard is having an affair with his fiancée Kaia (Emily Cass MCDonnell), who is utterly obsessed with the architect. Waiting in the wings, crushed from years of emotional neglect, is Halvard's wife, Aline (Julie Haggerty), who is torn between her devotion to her husband and anger at his flagrant affairs over the years.
At a critical point in Halvard's health, in walks Hilde (Chicago actor Lisa Joyce), a lovely combination of breathless professional admiration and pure sexual heat, with a side of laugher that will cut through your soul. It turns out the young woman met the builder when she was only 12 years old, and there may have been some inappropriate exchange between the two at the time (her grasp of memory is about the same as her grasp on sanity, at times). But the more she recounts the tale of their first meeting, the more it becomes clear that she has built her entire life around a promise Halvard made to her when she was a girl, and she has arrived to collect.
A Master Builder's second half (after Joyce enters the picture) may result in some decidedly divisive reactions. The conversation and physical dance that Shawn and Joyce do while talking about the good-old days are as riveting as they are disturbing. And once it becomes clear that Hilde is not there to admonish Halvard, but rather to rekindle something, well, some audience members' taste thresholds may be tested.
Despite his most successful and famous film being Silence of the Lambs, Demme has always been a filmmaker who has cared more about the inner workings of characters' minds than action sequences or plot contrivances. He keeps his camera work from getting too flashy, instead opting to put it in the midst of his characters, giving us the uncomfortable benefit of being in the room, standing next to these slightly insane people (few of the characters escape being labelled "mentally ill" by others).
Like the other films that Shawn and Gregory have worked on together before, A Master Builder is, more than anything, an acting exercise by a group of highly gifted, nuanced actors who are able to tap into joy, rage, lust, and whatever else is required. Sometimes they go too far, but I feel like that happens just to see if you're paying attention. This film version doesn't feel stagey, despite largely being confined to a few rooms in a rather stately home. There's room to breathe, except when the intention is to make you feel trapped. It's experimental without making the audience feel like the collective lab rat, and it's great to see such perfectly suited performers stretch their acting muscles and take this on, while appearing to have fun biting into the material. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Actor Lisa Joyce will be present for audience discussion on Saturday and Sunday. Chicago Tribune chief theater critic Chris Jones will moderate the Saturday discussion, and I'll be moderating the Sunday discussion.
In a truly eye-opening and inspiring documentary from director Michael Rossato-Bennett, Alive Inside begins as a simple exploration by social worker Dan Cohen, who gained notoriety recently when he started a program of supplying patients with Alzheimer's and dementia with iPods loaded with their favorite music. In nearly every case, not only did the patients (largely residents in an elder care facility, to start) respond by singing and moving along to the music, but it opened up avenues in their memory that had been shut down for, in many cases, decades.
According to the experts interviewed (including well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks), this response is not surprising since the brain takes in, processes and stores music differently than other memories, and apparently that apparatus is the last to be impacted by the relentless progress of dementia. But no matter how much prior knowledge you may have about this phenomenon, watching these wonderful older people come to life again never gets old. In fact, it was a video of a patient named Henry that went viral and popularized Cohen's methods. But Alive Inside also reveals that using this method in people in the early stages of Alzheimer's and dementia can make caring for them at home an easier experience.
The films goes from a conversation about Cohen's deceptively simple methods to a conversation about why old-age homes might be resistant to adopt them. And I'm pretty sure there's a veiled phone call from Cohen to Apple about donating iPods that doesn't go well either. All of these moments are pre-Henry video, and now Cohen's experiment has became a part of elder care in hundreds of facilities.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Alive Inside, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is how it transitions into an examination of how the United States (and other Western nations, to a degree) is one of the few cultures that seems to devalue the elderly, rather than embrace them for their history, tradition and wisdom. Western societies are so afraid of those who have lived beyond their "peak" years, that they push the old into homes, out of sight and mind. And the countless headlines about appalling conditions in some facilities, elder abuse, and just general lack of interaction that these folks endure is heartbreaking.
While Alive Inside may dip a little too often into talk of the spiritual power of music and other new age hooey (Bobby McFerrin's talk about cultures all over the world responding to the same rhythms borders on the tedious), watching sequence after sequence of these wonderful people coming to life, being social and eager to share their stories, is undeniably moving, bordering on miraculous. It's an experience you won't soon forget, and perhaps will one day be able to use one day. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.