Wednesday, June 25, 2014

You've seen this movie before

Daniel Cohen's Le Chef, which opens at the Main Art Theatre Friday, is one of those films that you swear you’ve seen before. It has all the pat characters and plot. It’s a light comedy. There’s tension between the two protagonists who ally to thwart a dastardly opponent as obstacles get thrown in their way. In this case it’s two chefs – Jean Reno as famed Alexandre Lagarde and Michaël Youn as Jacky Bonnot (pictured) as an upstart and apostolic devotee of Lagarde’s traditional French “gastronomie” or haute cuisine. Jacky is such a purist he gets fired from restaurants for brazenly telling diners what to eat (“you almost hit a guy who put mustard on his sole,” one irate manager tells him). Until one day he hooks up with Alexandre, who must find an assistant after new corporate owner Stanislas Matter (Julien Boisselier) wants to convert his resto to nouveau or “molecular cuisine.” (You know, tiny morsels served with supposed finesse.) Stanislas wants to put Alexandre out to pasture and tries to influence a group of critics that the chef “hasn’t evolved.” To the rescue comes the lowly Jacky, who seems to know Alexandre’s recipes better than the old man and, in a pinch, throws together a “new menu” combining both traditional and new cuisines and that wows the critics. This movie is all very predictable, from Jacky’s lying to his pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaëlle Agogue) about his “apprenticeship” non-paying job – and she leaving him – to the villainous corporatist Matter. And the French public – surprise to North Americans who hold France as the pinnacle of gastronomic taste – comes in for a drubbing for loving the same bland “steak et frites” as we do. It’s all a rather shopworn plot. Instead I would have liked something more focussed on the two chefs themselves, rivals or not, working intricately to prepare some of the best food around. I think of movies like  Big Night (1996, Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci) or even Joël Vanhoebrouck 2012’s Brasserie Romantique, which had more intimate settings and a focus on the subtle inner workings of the restaurant. Yes, Le Chef is about food, but food could have been substituted for any number of things over which good versus evil is played out on a wider scale. And there are the stereotypical characters: charming upstart, arrogant master, corrupt capitalist, and poor suffering though beautiful girlfriend. Even the score has the quirky comedic, uh, flavour, of which you’ve heard a hundred variations. This movie will go over well with a certain kind of audience member (fill in the blank) but don’t expect anything less conventional.

Monday, June 16, 2014

This generation's Virginia Woolf

Between/Us (2013, Dan Mirvish) is this generation’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966, Mike Nichols). Like the earlier picture, based on the Edward Albee play, it features two couples. Emotions are revealed, truths uttered too literally. And marriage breakdown is in the offing in this Millennial Generation equivalent of the famous Burton-Taylor combo playing opposite George Segal and Sandy Dennis…..Here we have Taye Diggs and Julia Stiles as the bohemian Brooklyn couple versus David Harbour and Melissa George’s upper crust Midwesterners. Part of the film takes place in the gated community home of the latter, part – in film time a couple of years later – in the cramped messy abode of the former. Lifestyle-wise these couples couldn’t be more different although they had a sinew of friendship. What’s left falls apart over the two meetings, and it ain’t pretty. The movie scores on all points – great direction, acting, hand-held camera often in claustrophobic situations.

There are under-the-radar films – movies one's never heard of – but which apparently did get released. I saw two of these on the weekend…..One, Bigger Than the Sky (2005, Al Corley) stars John Corbett and Patty Duke, of all people. The story is slight. Overly earnest Peter (Marcus Thomas), dumped by his girlfriend, seeks a role in a community theatre company. He’s never acted and the plot is about how he integrates himself into the world of "crazy" theatre people. The movie is plodding and as earnest as the character himself though you have to give it credit for trying to capture the real world of amateur theatre. Corbett and Amy Smart (as the leading lady) are particularly good.……Then there was a movie with a similar title, Reaching for the Moon (2013, Bruno Barreto of 2000’s Bossa Nova and 1976’s Dona Flor and her Two Husbands), a film set in New York and Brazil based on the life of Pulitzer winning post-war poet Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop (Miranda Otto) travels to Brazil for a respite but discovers the wonders of an exotic society and the love of esteemed architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires). Unfortunately a ménage à trois develops (the third woman is Mary Morse played by Tracy Middendorf) and we know how those go. This is a pretty good biopic with a lot of subtlety exploring the relationships of these three women. Treat Williams plays poet Robert Lowell.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Roughing it at the movies

They say camping is roughing it. But on a recent camping trip – travelling around Lake Superior – perhaps the roughest part was finding a decent movie to go to in the evening. I tried to pick campgrounds near towns that were large enough to have at least one movie theatre. In Mackinaw City Michigan, for example, there was the Courtyard. In Iron Wood, Mi. – a stone’s throw from the Wisconsin border in the UP – there was Cloverland Cinemas. And in lovely Sturgeon Bay, Wis. – a tourist and outdoor recreational mecca north of Green Bay – there was good ol’ Cinema 6. In one city, Thunder Bay, Ontario, I decamped in a motel because of a massive downpour.  The helpful clerk at the reservation desk recommended Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors with Zac Efron and Seth Rogen. But when I discovered my room’s cable had Turner Classic Movies I knew I need not go anywhere else and opted for Howard Hawks’s 1938 Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and an extremely zany Kate Hepburn. Finally in South Haven, Michigan, the only movie at the Michigan Theatre (how many Michigan / State Theatres are there in the state of Michigan? There are also ones in Ann Arbor and Traverse City) I hadn’t seen was Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. But by this point I had had my fill of schlock so went back to the campground to make a, well, campfire instead….. The thing to know about small theatres in Anywhere North America is that the offerings are, shall we say, limited (and not in engagement). Let’s call them Top of the Schlock. So in Mackinaw City I chose what I thought was the best, or least worst. That was Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent. In Iron Wood, it was, alas, Neighbors. And in Sturgeon Bay it was Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla. Here are capsule reviews:

Maleficent: It makes sense that Stromberg, who directed the otherworldly and spooky 2006 Pam’s Labyrinth, made this, since Maleficient’s forests are as exotic and creepy. This is a remake of Sleeping Beauty, folks, and the special effects are impressive. If you like sci-fi, chivalry, knights and castles, and all that stuff, this is for you, though it didn’t seem to set the few kids in the audience on fire.

Neighbors: I have to hand it to director Stoller. He threw everything into this kind of Animal House update. The arguments, fighting, and alcohol and drug induced partying seemed all very real, taking me back, er, to my own high school years. But for all the fireworks and mayhem this seemed labored and beside the point.

Godzilla: This very realistic remake has Godzilla battling monster bird like creatures, all feeding off of radiation, as per the reason for the original Godzilla franchise. The scenes of a destroyed Waikiki Beach or San Francisco are extremely well done – what they can do with effects these days! But this is a dark and depressing movie, making one feel there is no human hope to survive powers we cannot control.