Chasing Mavericks

“Chasing Mavericks” is filled with gorgeous shots of the ocean and its mighty waves. Watching surfers ride those waves gives an exhilarating, vicarious thrill.

Mavericks is a challenging stretch of shoreline in northern California near Half Moon Bay that, with the right weather conditions, produces dangerous monster waves. For surfers, it presents the biggest challenge on continental US shores.

Jay, a real life teenage surfer, played by Jonny Weston learns about Mavericks from his neighbor in Santa Cruz, a grownup surfer named Frosty (also a real life person), played by Gerard Butler. Frosty becomes Jay’s guru and father figure, guiding him on getting ready physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually to take on Mavericks.

The story of Jay and Frosty is told with dramatic embellishments, but serves as a good framework for the surfing challenge. Along with Jay’s preparation to ride the big waves, the movie gives us side stories involving an absentee father, alcoholism, drug use, teen romance, teen bullying, death of a spouse, anger issues and such. There’s nothing groundbreaking in the onshore melodrama, but it does manage to depict Jay and Frosty as people with complicated lives away from the ocean.

You can probably guess how Jay’s quest to ride the big waves turns out. You may be surprised by Frosty’s remark to Jay just before he takes on Mavericks. A brief postscript provides more information about Jay’s life beyond his Mavericks rides.

Speaking as one who has lived near the beach (in Jacksonville, FL) and vacationed many times at the ocean, I loved all the shots filmed in and around the water. The beauty and the power of the ocean are stunning in “Chasing Mavericks” and the ocean is the reason to see it.

“Chasing Mavericks” is rated PG and is appropriate for preteens.

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Cloud Atlas

“Cloud Atlas” is just a big ol’ mess. Its parts are good, but the whole is bad.

If you believe in reincarnation, you might love “Cloud Atlas.” For the rest of us, it’s a movie with cool things and interesting people to look at, but the assembled product lacks real continuity.

The film attempts to tell six stories: some from the past, some from the future. Actors play different roles at various points on the timeline and the audience is expected to connect the dots. Honestly, it’s not worth it.

Last year, we had the polarizing “The Tree of Life,” a movie with interesting parts and incredible images, but, as a whole, was a real head scratcher. It was loved by some, hated by many (including many theater walk-outs).

In 2012, we have “Cloud Atlas.” You can go online now and see numerous blurbs touting this movie’s greatness. I beg to differ.

The star power here is strong: Tom Hanks, Hallie Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, among others. It’s slightly interesting to see these folks play multiple roles, although some of the make-up is laughable. (The facial prosthetics used to make Hugh Grant look like a 70-something are embarrassingly ridiculous.)

The film, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings who brought us the “Matrix” movies, also features Hugo Weaving in multiple roles—none of which are as memorable as his Agent Smith in the “Matrix” trilogy.

“Cloud Atlas” is like a stew containing several of your favorite food items that just don’t work well together in the same pot. It’s big (nearly three hours long), it’s ambitious, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Step Up To The Plate

The French documentary “Step Up to the Plate” is more about family and generations than about food and restaurants.

Yes, SUTTP does present wonderful shots of beautiful food presentations. But the focus is more on a father, his son and their extended family. The father, Michel Bras, knows it’s time to hand over control of his three-star Michelin restaurant to his son, Sebastien, who has known from an early age that his destiny was to follow in his father’s footsteps.

As Sebastien works to assemble flavors to create new dishes, his father stands nearby with constructive criticism. Dad points out that he is a tougher critic than diners might be. It becomes clear that, while his son will take over, Michel will be nearby.

A quick montage shows print coverage of the restaurant over the years: first one star, then two, then three. The restaurant, in France near the town of Laguiole, has relocated in recent years to a modern structure in an isolated area away from town.

“Step Up To The Plate” does a nice job of telling the story of the people involved in this restaurant as well as its food and its operation. By showing Michel’s elderly parents as well as Sebastien’s young children, the filmmaker gives a good overview of family tradition through its generations, including an affinity for bread spread with blackberry jelly and topped with a slice of the local cheese.

One sequence, in which Sebastien takes a nostalgic visit to his grandparents’ barn, might explain why he uses milk in so many of his dishes: he recalls that, as a child, he would drink raw milk in the barn, moments after it had been taken from the cows.

In just under an hour and a half, we enjoy a visit to the scenic French countryside (with a side trip to Japan), we meet a likeable family and we get an inside look at their restaurant and its leadership transition. Unlike most of the food shows we see on American TV with their quick cuts and short sound bites, SUTTP’s pace is slow and relaxed—the way most of us prefer a fine dining meal to be presented. Savor it.

“Step Up To The Plate” is in French, with subtitles.

Argo

“Argo” is a home run. Ben Affleck confirms his talent as a storyteller with a film that has new relevance following recent anti-American turmoil in the Mideast.

Most Americans don’t know about the CIA operative who guided six U.S. Embassy employees out of Iran in early 1980. The mission was declassified in the 90’s and now the tale can be told, with dramatic embellishments. The embassy staffers had taken refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence during the siege that began the hostage crisis in 1979.

Ben Affleck is director and star of “Argo.” Look for a best director nomination for his excellent work with a compelling story and a strong cast.

“Argo” grabs attention from its opening frames. Following a brief prelude that gives an overview of Persian history, “Argo” presents a graphic recreation of the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

What distinguishes “Argo” from other rescue mission movies is the scheme employed to convince Iranian officials that the six Americans (and the CIA guy played by Affleck) are members of a Canadian film crew. A Hollywood makeup man (played by John Goodman) and a veteran producer (played by Alan Arkin) provide a legitimate cover story for the “crew.” Goodman and Arkin’s characters also provide vital comic relief.

Affleck, Goodman and Arkin sift through a pile of rejected movie scripts. From the many, one is chosen. Titled “Argo,” it gets the full Hollywood treatment: storyboards, posters, a media event, coverage in movie trade papers, etc. The Iranians buy it. The CIA guy gets into Iran. Getting the six others and himself out is the hard part.

The pacing of “Argo” is near perfect. Its narrative unfolds neatly, switching among settings in Iran, CIA HQ, the White House and Hollywood.

Our trip back to the beginning of the 80’s accurately shows long hair and sideburns on men, omnipresent smoking, 70’s cars and archival clips of TV news coverage of the hostage crisis. An answering machine similar to one I owned back in the day is an appropriate period prop.

Bryan Cranston is Affleck’s CIA boss. Kyle Chandler is almost a dead-ringer for former Carter administration Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan.

Some who post on message boards are distressed that the role Affleck plays was not given to a Hispanic actor, as the real life CIA operative was a Latino. Friends of the real life Canadian ambassador claim he was given less credit for his role in the mission by the filmmakers than he deserves. Others posters claim that the movie is little more than US propaganda to get the country ready for our upcoming war with Iran. Folks, it’s a movie. It’s based on a true story, but it’s a movie.

Hollywood likes movies about movie making, which means “Argo” could be a contender for best picture.

“Argo” is a “must see.” Those who can recall the awful feelings we felt in America during the hostage crisis will appreciate the fact that during that horrible period, our country managed to do at least one thing right.

Seven Psychopaths

Among a strong cast, Sam Rockwell is a standout in “Seven Psychopaths.” It’s not that the performances from Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and Colin Farrell were lacking. They’re all good, but Rockwell’s character has the most to work with.

“Seven Psychopaths” is an ultraviolent comedy. As with “Pulp Fiction” and similar films, the audience goes from repulsion to chuckles (or vice versa) in seconds. Some of its elements are serious. We see innocent people meet violent ends. But soon after, absurd events or remarks bring us right back to the funny.

Farrell plays an alcoholic screenwriter in L.A. who has an idea for a movie called “Seven Psychopaths,” but just can’t get started. Walken and Rockwell are dog kidnappers who then respond to “lost dog” postings to collect rewards. Harrelson is a hood whose Shih Tzu, Bonny, is taken.

Walken and Rockwell provide Farrell with ideas for the movie’s plot—the one he’s writing, that is. Some of the elements discussed for that screenplay do turn up in the movie we’re watching. The trio takes refuge in the desert after Rockwell kills his girlfriend (who is also Woody’s girlfriend). Woody, meanwhile, wants his dog back.

Among the supporting cast is Tom Waits as a psychopath who shares his personal story with Farrell about the killing he’s done. Gabourey “Precious” Sidibe appears briefly as Woody’s careless dog walker.

“Seven Psychopaths” benefits from the strong quartet of leads, each of whom has been in absurd comedies before. Each man has a commanding screen presence and, as a group, they help the movie over a bumpy section or two.

Worth noting are a couple of fantasy sequences (involving a graveyard shootout and a Vietnamese holy man) that add compelling action.

Writer/director Martin MacDonagh (who also wrote and directed “In Bruges” in ’08) has put together an totally entertaining movie. Its violence makes it off-limits for the squeamish, but for the rest of us, it’s fun.

 

 

 

 

Frankenweenie

“Frankenweenie” is classic Tim Burton—weird and goofy. It riffs on the original “Frankenstein” movie as well as several others films.

Victor Frankenstein is a schoolboy in the town of New Holland, which looks amazingly like the town in “Edward Scissorhands.” Except in “Frankenweenie,” the houses are not pastel-colored, they are in black-and-white.

Victor’s science teacher, who looks like a character from a Don Martin cartoon in Mad magazine, demonstrates how electrical current can cause a dead frog’s legs to move. This inspires Victor to exhume his dog Sparky, recently killed when hit by a car, and use lightning to reanimate him.

When Victor’s friend Andrew, an Igor lookalike, spreads word of Victor’s success, the other kids in town then reanimate their deceased pets and havoc ensues.

“Frankenweenie” exceeds expectations with its clever characters, terrific animation, a decent story and a great sense of humor. The energy and tempo are more consistent here than in Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride.”

Unlike Burton’s previous stop-motion animated films, “Frankenweenie” is not a musical. The soundtrack is by Burton’s longtime music man, Danny Elfman.

Among favorite elements of “Frankenweenie” is Victor’s attic which functions as his lab, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein’s in the 1931 classic film. Also, some of the New Holland townsfolk look like they stepped directly out of a Gary Larson “Far Side” comic panel. The opening scene with Victor showing a movie he made (starring Sparky) is priceless. The science teacher’s response when a parents’ group attempts to chastise him is a wonderful piece of writing.

“Frankenweenie” is rated PG. Preschoolers will be bored by the movie, but most kids will, I think, like it. Adults who appreciate Tim Burton’s sensibilities will love it.

Personal note: I saw “Frankenweenie” less than 24 hours after my own dog died. I was concerned about seeing a movie about a dog being killed. But “Frankenweenie” entertained me and actually lifted my spirits a bit. It’s been a tough week. I miss my dear dachshund Princess. But I look forward to seeing “Frankenweenie” again soon.