Thursday, February 26, 2015

Il Sorpasso (1962) ***1/2

There were plenty of Road Movies before “Il Sorpasso,” and there have been plenty since, but I would have to say that this is one of the best. The winning performances combined with organic camera work place you right there in the car with the characters, the wind in your hair and the open road ahead. Except the road isn't open, of course. It's choked with vacationing Italians, which is where the title comes in. “Il Sorpasso” is Italian for overtaking, as in passing another car on the highway, which the main characters do repeatedly in this film. Ultimately, all of this reckless speeding and passing is seen to be a metaphor for post-war Italian society.

The film starts with Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) driving a sporty convertible ( a Lancia Aurelia, it turns out) around a ghost-town version of Rome, emptied out by the mid-August holiday. Searching for a phone to call his friends, Bruno winds up meeting a young student, Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Having missed his friends, Bruno impetuously invites Roberto to grab a meal with him, and the shy, serious Roberto allows himself to be cajoled into this stranger's roadster and whisked off for a weekend of adventure.

“Il Sorpasso” follows the classic, road-trip, buddy-film formula, or perhaps the film created it. Bruno is impetuous, outgoing, and garrulous. He is always up for a new adventure, and he treats everyone he meets as a friend, including bumming money off them. Roberto is quiet and introverted, and spends much of the trip trying to figure out how to just get back to his quiet apartment and his books. The two have chemistry, however, and Roberto gradually opens up under Bruno's constant urging. How could he not? Bruno is reckless, but he has the luck of the madman, and life seems more fun inside his bubble of insouciance.

Vittorio Gassman plays Bruno with an abandon and physicality that remind me of Vince Vaughn in the movie “Swingers.” One can easily imagine Bruno saying “You're so money, and you don't even know it.” Jean-Louis Trintignant is also excellent in the more subtle role of Roberto, but it is clearly the Bruno character whom I will remember long-term. It's also worth mentioning Catherine Spaak, who plays Bruno's daughter. In a film chock-full of Italian beauties, she stands out.

In a film as funny and delightful as this, it is shocking when, at the end, the tone turns suddenly serious and grim. For me, it's a serious flaw. Some commentators defend the ending as a necessary punctuation to what is an allegorical commentary on post-War Italian society. Italy enjoyed a sustained economic boom during the 50's and 60's which transformed Italian society, and “Il Sorpasso” was part of an artistic movement to critique what many saw as the reckless individualism and consumerism of that time. Viewed in that context, the ending does make some sense, and perhaps the jarring change of tone is meant as a warning. Nonetheless, it left a bad taste in my mouth after what was otherwise a highly enjoyable movie experience.

Despite the unsatisfying ending, “Il Sorpasso” is well worth watching, and probably worth a repeat viewing. The memorable performances, beautiful cinematography, and that cool roadster make for an unforgettable film. Maybe it's supposed to be an allegory, but what I will remember is the feeling of a beautiful, sunny weekend, the top down, and the freedom to go wherever your caprice takes you.

3.5 stars out of 5

Monday, February 23, 2015

Begin Again (2013) ***1/2

“Begin Again” was written and directed by Rob Carney,who brought us “Once,” and it represents another celebration of music and the people who create it. Keira Knightley plays Gretta, an English songwriter who follows her boyfriend (Adam Levine) to New York only to get dumped once his musical career takes off. Mark Ruffalo is Dan, an alcoholic, down-on-his luck music producer who hears Gretta sing one of her songs at a bar and decides to make her a star. They gather some musicians and set about making an album recorded live, on the streets of New York.

I would say that on the whole, I didn't feel quite the same delight in watching “Begin Again” that I felt with “Once,” which featured unknown actors, haunting songs, and seemed to come out of nowhere. It's close, though. With the exception of the Oscar-nominated “Lost Stars,” the songs aren't quite as powerful as those in “Once,” but Keira Knightley impressed me as a pretty passable singer. It's hard to fault the director for using big-name actors when they are this good. Mark Ruffalo totally knocks it out of the park playing an alcoholic. He understands that the key is that a drunk is trying NOT to seem drunk, and his portrayal is spot on. The movie also sports excellent supporting turns from James Corden, Catherine Keener, and musicians Mos Def, CeeLo Green, and Adam Levine.

With the excellent acting and rousing songs, “Begin Again” is a lot of fun, but it must be said that the movie doesn't dig very deep. Dan's broken home, lagging career, and drinking problems don't in the end, add up to much of a crisis. The film focuses on the music at the expensive of any serious narrative conflict. Fortunately, the music is worth it. If you liked “Once” and are interested in a dose of something similar, “Begin Again” is just what the doctor ordered.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ida (2014) **1/2

As the front-running Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, “Ida” is one we felt we should check out. This black-and-white Polish film about a nun with a connection to the Holocaust has it's qualities, but honestly it is the kind of film that makes people think they don't like foreign films.

Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), is a Polish orphan who, after growing up in a Catholic orphanage, is preparing to take her vows as a nun. Before she does that, her Mother Superior insists she go visit her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda. From Wanda she learns that her family was Jewish, and that they died during the Nazi occupation. Curious to see their graves, Ida convinces Wanda to take her looking for their resting place and the cause of their deaths.

“Ida” turns out to be a road-trip movie, a murder mystery, and a coming-of-age story all rolled into one. It is so slow-paced and restrained, however, that I was hard-pressed to stay awake for the story. The film isn't just in Black-and-White, it's GRAY. The miserable-looking people and the flat-ass, Polish landscape all look completely colorless. To emphasize the boxed-in nature of their lives, the movie has a square aspect ratio instead of the usual wide screen, which does nothing to enhance the viewing experience. I mean, if I'm going to have to look at a featureless, Polish, winter countryside, I at least want to see lots of it. The film does feature some beautifully-framed shots. You could make a museum exhibit from stills of this movie. Some may find the under-acted performances to be impressively subtle and restrained. The story is also rather thought-provoking, exploring as it does the shock of Ida's discovering her unexpected identity and tragic family history. Not that Ida expresses any of that shock; we in the audience have to imagine it for ourselves. (Come to think of it, we should be due for a partial refund, given how much of this story we have to fill in for ourselves.) The film is inarguably artistic, but unfortunately, there is no escaping the fact that it is boring. Plus, do we really need another Oscar-nominated movie about the Holocaust?

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Theory of Everything (2014) ****

I expected that “The Theory of Everything” would either be a traditional love story or a love letter to science. It turns out to be a love letter to life itself, to making the most of what you have, and to the idea that where there is life, there is hope. There's also some romance and science.

Everyone by now has heard about Eddie Redmayne's amazing performance as physicist Stephen Hawking. The story picks up with Hawking entering graduate school at Cambridge. He is a bit nerdy and socially awkward, but not as much as you might expect. There's a twinkle in his eye, and he isn't afraid to say hi to a pretty girl at a party. This is how he meets Jane (Felicity Jones), who eventually becomes his wife. It is during this time that Hawking not only develops some of the theories about time and black holes for which he became famous, but also to manifest the symptoms of the early-onset ALS which inexorably paralyzed him.

Redmayne really does deserve kudos for this performance. The sheer physicality required to display the various stages of Hawking's illness is impressive. Equally impressive is the way Redmayne uses his increasingly limited physical repertoire to portray this incredibly vital man, sometimes saying volumes with only the twinkle of an eye.

Movies about people with an illness can be movie-of-the-week downers, but “The Theory of Everything” is not hard to watch at all. Redmayne's vibrant portrayal of the funny, impish Hawking, combined with Felicity Jones's adorableness, make for a thoroughly enjoyable movie experience. I do wish they had focused a little more on the science, but if there's one thing we can learn from Hawking's life, it's that you can't have everything.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Chef (2014) ***1/2

There's a scene in the movie “Swingers,” starring and written by Jon Favreau, where his character attempts to leave a message on a woman's phone. He keeps calling back to amend what he said before, and his messages just get worse and worse as he blows any chance he had with the girl. It's a classic film sequence that is hilariously painful to watch, and it pretty much sums up Favreau at his best.

There's a scene in “Chef” that captures that mix of everyman naturalism, insecurity, and physicality that Favreau is so good at. His character, Chef Carl Casper, has allowed a bad restaurant review to get under his skin. In a spiral of bad decisions, he winds up losing his job and blowing up at the reviewer in a tirade that is, as with every event today, captured on cellphone video and disseminated on the internet.

It turns out that being a viral internet sensation doesn't help much in a job search. Unemployed and depressed, Carl accompanies his son and ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) to Miami, where the Cuban food re-invigorates his love of good, basic cuisine. He finally swallows his pride and lets his ex-wife's ex-husband (Robert Downey, Jr.) give him a beat-up, old food truck, which he turns into a mobile, gourmet sandwich factory. Carl, his son (the talented Emjay Anthony), and his best friend and sous-chef (John Leguizamo) drive the truck to L.A. in an odyssey of food and culture.

I should have offered a spoiler alert, because I basically just revealed the entire plot. There are no big twists or major conflicts in this film. It's just a basic story of a guy redeeming himself by getting back to basics. Incredibly, this plot-less movie is delightfully fun to watch. Between the funny, organic performances (especially from Favreau, Leguizamo, and Anthony) and the unending sequences of delicious food being prepared and consumed, “Chef” is just a fun, easygoing film experience.

I enjoyed the way the internet and social media feature in the movie. Carl isn't internet savvy, and his troubles really start to snowball when he accidentally picks a fight on Twitter with that food blogger. Then, of course, that video of his tirade becomes an internet meme. The knife cuts both ways, however, as Carl's son uses social media successfully to promote their food truck. In the end, though, “Chef” is about those things that take place offline, spending time with family and eating delicious food.

3.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) ****

“Napoleon Dynamite” is the kind of film you feel like re-watching every few years. Its fun catchphrases (“Flippin' Sweet!”) and bizarro, geek-chic ethos made it a comedic, cultural event. With such movies, there's always a temptation to re-watch and try to re-capture that delight you felt watching it for the first time.

Watching it this week, I found that delight hard to find at first. The characters are so intentionally bizarre that they are hard to relate to, and it takes a while to get even the film's minimal narrative going. For those who haven't seen the movie, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is an extremely nerdy high-school student. With his mouth half-open and his eyes half-closed under tinted glasses, he comes across as mildly autistic. With no friends, the guy lives in his head, drawing pictures of ligers and playing solo-tetherball. Napoleon befriends a new kid in school, the equally sleepy-eyed Pedro (Efren Ramirez). They wind up connecting with the awkward Deb (Tina Majorino), and the three of them form a little, nerdy team. Meanwhile, Napoleon's stunted older brother Kip tries to find love online, while his crazy Uncle Rico dreams of traveling back in time to his high school glory days.

The magic of “Napoleon Dynamite” is that while the characters are initially so bizarre that they seem unrelatable, they become highly relatable by the end. Most movies about teenagers present outsider status as some kind of badge of honor. The hyper-articulate “nerds” wear black clothes, listen to cool music, and read interesting books. They are highly aware of their outsider status, and they are rewarded when they make a deep connection with a fellow outsider. These movies, like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” basically depict the kind of nerd that the adult filmmaker wishes he had been as a teen. “Napoleon Dynamite,” for all of its strangeness, is more real. Napoleon and his friends lack self-awareness. They just sort of muddle through, mostly clueless about themselves and others. I think this feels very familiar to most people.

There's a great scene in the film where the kids are at a dance and the Alphaville song “Forever Young” plays. The lyric “I want to be forever young” is deeply ironic considering how difficult being young is, for Napoleon and his friends, and really for most people. They say old age is not for sissies, but adolescence is no picnic either.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) **1/2

Talk about a sophomore slump! As cracking as the first Hunger Games movie ("The Hunger Games" 2012) was, that's how much the sequel falls flat.

In the first film, we met Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteered to take her sister's place in the brutal Hunger Games, an annual gladiatorial fight-to-the death for teens. The Games force all twelve districts in the fictional nation of Panem to send two of their children to fight every year. Since the winner is almost always one of the highly-trained warrior jocks from the rich districts around the Capitol, the Games serve as a way for the Capitol to express its domination over the poorer districts.

Spoiler alert here: Katniss and her fellow District 12 contestant Peeta wound up winning that first game. “Catching Fire” picks up after their victory, which was supposed to mean a nice pension and a life of peace and quiet. Their unexpected victory, however, got the outer districts riled up. In order to put down the civil disorder, President Snow declares a special Games, featuring past winners from every district. His plan is to make sure that Katniss dies in some ignominious way that will defuse her value as a symbol for the resistance. Katniss and Peeta return to the Game, but find some unexpected allies.

This sequel really isn't all that bad. The main problem is that dragging the stars back into the arena for another Games feels like such a typical sequel move. I could feel myself identifying with the contestants way too much as they expressed their anger at having to play the Games a second time. Everything feels less fresh in this sequel, as if the actors were phoning it in. The battles are less interesting and feel obligatory. Ultimately, however, there is more or less a payoff, and you get the feeling that “Catching Fire” was just something you have to suffer through to set the stage for what will hopefully be a much better final two films in the series. “Mockingjay – Part 1” is in theaters now, and while I haven't seen it yet, I am hoping it fulfills the promise of the first movie.

2.5 stars out of 5