The Trip to Italy

Coogan, Brydon, Michael Caine impressions return in ‘The Trip to Italy’

“I have drunken deep of joy, And I will taste no other wine tonight,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ah, but how sweet it is to experience both, drinking in the pleasures of frivolous banter while also admiring the drinks and cuisine of choice.

“The Trip to Italy” is drunk on such vices, a simple, palatable film that improves on the original “The Trip” without striving for much more. The carefree structure is the same, the food porn is just as succulent, the dialogue is just as snooty, sophisticated and silly, Steve Coogan is ever the droll sourpuss and the travelogue setting of Italy over the England countryside is even more beautiful.

The first “Trip” pleased many with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s playful yet eloquent and polished back and forth of impressions ranging from Michael Caine to Al Pacino to Woody Allen. Those who thought the Michael Caine bit from the original was “The Trip’s” high point and enough reason to revisit it on YouTube time and again will be pleased to know his voice has made a reappearance to warrant an admission price yet again. This time Caine is flanked by muffled, inscrutable impressions of Christian Bale and Tom Hardy from “The Dark Knight Rises,” two intense actors you’d never mention to their face you can’t understand a word they’re saying. Continue reading

What If

‘What If’ is a charming Millennial rom-com

While the romantic comedy formula rarely updates, the rules about love, friendship and sex must adapt to the way people experience relationships today. Modern rom-coms have been obsessed with high-concept rule making involving social media, texting and most recently sex tapes inexplicably uploaded to “the Cloud”, but they’ve never resonated with the Millennial generation. Our generation has fashioned itself more self-aware, ironic and cynical to all the social norms and barriers that define our romantic lives.

“What If” may just be the first Millennial rom-com, a spiritual successor to “When Harry Met Sally”, an often insightful look at the way contemporary notions of love shape our relationships and the first big studio rom-com in a long time in which every character in the cast feels like a human being.

It starts with the simple meet-cute of Wallace and Chantry in front of a refrigerator playing with magnets. Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) has just gotten over a year-long depression over a bad break-up. Chantry (Zoe Kazan) seems perfect, and she even gives out her number, just as she mentions she has a boyfriend. Continue reading

Particle Fever

‘Particle Fever’ observes Large Hadron Collider, search for Higgs Boson

Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye can go on TV today and make waves and a compelling appeal for science by remaining logical or taking the moral high ground. We should do more about climate change because it makes sense and it’s the right thing to do for the survival of our planet.

“Particle Fever” is about as dense of a science documentary as they come. But it appeals to the thrills and excitement of science by exploring what it is to be a scientist. “The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human,” someone says. That idealistic sentiment is what drives any scientific endeavor, and Mark Levinson’s film gets the passion behind understanding the world and discovering the mysteries it contains.

In “Particle Fever,” the beauty and coolness in question is the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, a giant machine designed to smash together particles with the intent of observing how they break apart and locating the elusive “Higgs Boson” particle that may be the key to the whole puzzle.

The scientists behind it say that the purpose of this machine started with the idea that they’re going to learn something that will change everything they know about physics forever. Or they’ll fail and be set back decades in terms of scientific understanding. Hyperbole much? Continue reading

Guardians of the Galaxy

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is fun, but doesn’t shatter the mold

The narrative surrounding “Guardians of the Galaxy” is that it’s something of a risk and a departure for Marvel. The comic on which it has based has no name recognition outside of comic fans, and the on-paper, ragtag bunch of misfits that includes a goofy thief, a green assassin, a hulking, deadpan behemoth, a raccoon with a rocket launcher and a sentient tree, could come across as a bad attempt to recreate the success of “The Avengers” or just a strange, downright misfire. But Marvel is specifically known for making movies that are becoming increasingly calculated, planning movies out a decade and including them all in their intersecting web of stories known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

To put it lightly, Marvel isn’t stupid, and like the group at the movie’s core, it’s stronger and more put together than you’d think. “Guardians of the Galaxy” may just be the most idiosyncratic movie in the Marvel canon, but any illusion that the film is taking this oddball story and shattering the mold of what Marvel is or does is really pushing it. Continue reading

The World According to Garp

Rapid Response: The World According to Garp

Robin Williams passed away this week, and in every tribute written about him (including one of  my own) he was described as “a great comedian but also…” In another tribute this week I wrote that being a great comedian was enough because he was a wild man while doing it. But more often his praise as an exceptional actor was that he could take surprising, dramatic turns in movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “One Hour Photo,” “World’s Greatest Dad” or “Insomnia” while also playing the fool in “Aladdin,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” or “The Birdcage” or the exuberant hero in “Good Morning, Vietnam” or “Dead Poets Society”.

One movie that rarely crossed the threshold into conversation was “The World According to Garp”, George Roy Hill’s 1982 black comedy based on the controversial and bestselling novel by John Irving. Williams made it near the end of his run on “Mork and Mindy”, and what’s immediately surprising is how ordinary Williams comes across, considering he was famous for playing an alien. This isn’t strictly a dramatic performance, but come to think of it he probably never says a funny thing despite the movie being a comedy. Much of the comedy comes from the inanity and anarchy going on around him, and Williams has both the toothless likability as well as the energy to keep pace with it all.  Continue reading

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

‘Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me': A touching profile, now an elegy

At the start of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” we see the legendary Broadway actress strutting down Manhattan city streets in a giant fur on her way to a rehearsal. She crosses the street and yelps theatrically. An actress she’s worked with recognizes her on the street and Stritch’s comment is “This business sucks.” As the camera follows her, it edits and darts down the street at the spitfire speed of her voice.

Even if you are not familiar with Elaine Stritch, you know this woman. Her poise and the way she is depicted here defines her as a star and a woman who has seen it all. Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary profile is less interested in Stritch’s storied past and more in how she carries herself in the here and now.

“Anyone aging gracefully really knows something,” Stritch says. Having just passed away less than a month ago, not long after this movie was first released, Stritch really did have it all figured out, and yet she was no less afraid of death or any less human. She makes for a wonderful character study not because of her history but because of who she was in 2013 in the last year of her life.

And what we see is a documentary that may as well have been directed by Stritch herself, even if someone else was behind the camera. Always aware of the ins and outs of show business and forever concerned with her image and putting the best show forward, she scolds the cameraman for getting too close (“This isn’t a skin commercial!”) and demands reshoots when he seems to be a mile away.

In fact the film is so selective that it doesn’t bother with its own version of narrated or edited history; her memory will do just fine and be told more theatrically than any editor could muster. Her ability to think on her feet and always play for laughs or an emotion echoes on stage and off. “Shoot Me” mostly follows Stritch during the production of a one-woman show in which she sings the work of Stephen Sondheim. She’s performed these songs dozens if not hundreds of times over, but at this age and this stage in her career, she’s a different actress. “It’s hard enough to remember Sondheim lyrics when you don’t have diabetes,” she jokes during rehearsal. Karasawa plays that lapse of memory for a strong callback later when on stage she visibly forgets her lyric, but manages to turn it into a charming moment of truth and storytelling for the audience.

Not everyone is a Broadway fan or may not even be familiar with Stritch’s resume, but “Shoot Me” is loaded with amusing anecdotes and witty to tender commentary from Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and another recently departed legend, James Gandolfini.

“She is a molotov cocktail of madness, insanity and genius,” a friend says about Stritch. “Shoot Me” gets at that perception with its own confection of ingredients and stories as well as its own sharp tongued look at a woman so deserving of the attention.

3 1/2 stars

Mood Indigo

The colorful, fantastical ‘Mood Indigo’ teeters between charming and insufferable

Perhaps just as great a cliche as the indie that takes itself way too seriously is the indie romance full of way too much fantastical whimsy. The director of “Mood Indigo,” Michel Gondry, is one of the pioneers of this style of 21st Century filmmaking with his film “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind,” an enduring masterpiece of the 2000s. While he may never recapture the magic of that film, Gondry has returned to his roots in France to adapt a French classic with a story so silly and inventive that it just begs to be liked. “Mood Indigo” unfortunately teeters on charming and insufferable and can’t find solid footing up in the clouds.

“Mood Indigo” is based on a novel by Boris Vian, but this is Gondry’s world, one in which every mundane object in existence has been transformed into a mechanical cartoon of unnecessary complexity and charming artificiality. Telephone operators work on conveyer belts sending messages on typewriters, pet mice are actually tiny people dressed in costumes scurrying around tubing throughout a house, cooks fight to grab eels out of pipes and reach through TVs to add an extra pinch of salt, and our protagonist has invented a piano that makes cocktails based on the melody you perform. Continue reading

A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in last role ‘A Most Wanted Man’

The best spy movies are built on their gray area, the thorny nuance of corruption, deceit and betrayal that keep the wheels turning and our minds guessing. “A Most Wanted Man” is all gray area, with a criminal without a plan or motive, a spy without authority or intentions and a government without regard or patience. Anton Corbijn’s film based on John le Carre’s novel is so densely plotted and hazy that it’s tough to see out the other side.

In Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last complete starring role, he plays Gunther Bachmann, a spy for the German government in Hamburg leading a team of terrorist insurgents so secret that even his unit isn’t officially recognized. For all intensive purposes, they do not even exist. Bachmann’s target is Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy Muslim philanthropist he suspects is directly funneling money to Al Qaeda under the guise of his many charities.

When a half Russian and half Middle Eastern refugee named Issa Karpov (Girgoriy Dobrygin) shows up in Germany, his focus changes. Corbijn carefully leads us down a rabbit hole into believing he’s an imminent terrorist threat, but a wrinkle shows up in the form of the German lawyer Annabelle (Rachel McAdams). She shows us there may be reason to trust him, as he’s looking for asylum from the Russian government and is seeking a banker (Willem Dafoe) who may be of help.

“A Most Wanted Man” is easier to follow than the remarkably deep and jargon filled “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” another le Carre novel, but Corbijn’s film too is one of constant exposition. The talking is endless, the surveillance goes on behind closed doors and the action never truly starts. Continue reading

Boyhood

‘Boyhood’ reveals the pleasant, modest marvels of life

“Boyhood” isn’t a movie; it’s a time capsule. Filmed over 12 years, Director Richard Linklater has done the remarkable and captured a life in progress. It’s the themes of every adolescent, coming of age story rolled into one journey. This is a movie that you feel you can live inside, and one that feels like it could continue forever.

Linklater’s idea seems simple and high concept on paper. Let’s make a movie watching a 5-year-old age to 18. Let’s have him deal with family, childhood, puberty, life choices, romance, sex, and let’s watch it unfold in real-time. Let’s take the adolescent life lessons that come packed into a few months, weeks or a single day in movies like Linklater’s own “Dazed and Confused” or “School of Rock” and apply them over the course of a lifetime.

The remarkable challenge though is that it’s never been done. To make a single film over such a lengthy period of time, to wrangle actors year in and year out and to take the time to watch a person grow presents enormous challenges.

“Boyhood” has an uncanny sense of self and time, one in which the machinations of the movie are as unpredictable and volatile as life itself. It remarkably captures the culture and the feeling throughout the 2000s, understanding ramifications about the movie’s present, despite the impossibility of predicting their relevance in the future. Linklater remains true to his characters and is perceptive to their growth years after their lives and the culture around them have been rewritten.

There has been remarkable hype surrounding “Boyhood”, but it’s a fact that never in the history of cinema has a movie been so in tuned to how we grow, how we change and how life happens around us, simply because never before has a director devoted as much time and patience to his subjects as Linklater does here. Continue reading

Wait Until Dark

Rapid Response: Wait Until Dark

Movies are filled with heroics. Lucky losers manage to stop the bad guys, damsels in distress turn out to be badasses and the heroes of the world seem to have no limits.

“Wait Until Dark” is a movie that challenges our dependence on others for survival. It crafts suspense based on the protagonist’s limits and what she’s really capable of.

Adapted from a single room stage play by Frederick Knott, “Wait Until Dark” stars Audrey Hepburn as Suzy Hendrix, a blind woman highly dependent on her husband and her young neighbor for going about day to day activities, who is caught up in a ruse by gangsters wishing to take advantage of her disability. They suspect a doll filled with heroin has gone missing inside Suzy’s home, and they invent a story and sneak around her blindness to cajole her into turning it over. Continue reading