Welcome To Marwen

Marwen

Welcome To Marwen is weird. The film’s first trailers hinted at an Oscar push for Steve Carell who portrays a man damaged in many ways by a savage gang beating. The trailers also showed a tiny village the character has created where he depicts scenarios using dolls, including one that looks like him.

The story of the challenges Mark Hogancamp (Carell) faces after the attack dials up audience pity as he flashes back to the encounter with local rednecks. His mental state is fragile but Carell never goes “full retard,” to use the non-PC term coined by character Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) in the 2008 film Tropic Thunder.

The weirdness comes in those scenarios with the dolls and their depictions in the film as animated narrative episodes in which his attackers become Nazi soldiers. In many of the episodes, several of the women in his life become a gang of voluptuous babes who come to his defense.

On one hand, the dolls provide subject matter for Hogancamp’s artistic photos, which he manages to get booked for a show at an art gallery. On the other hand, they fuel his nightmarish replays of the attack as well as other fantasies. One imagined scenario involves new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) who spurns his romantic intentions.

It’s an ambitious attempt to bring to the screen the mental goings on of this troubled man whose recovery appears doubtful. But it is too much. The doll scenarios occupy huge chunks of screen time and many are redundant. The fantasy world becomes tiresome.

The women, seen as dolls as well as real people, include Gwendoline Christie, Meritt Wever, upcoming R & B singer Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez and Leslie Zemeckis, wife of the film’s director Robert Zemeckis. (Diane Kruger appears only as a doll.)

But… does Carell stand a chance at getting awards love? His performance is good in a flawed film. Carryover from his work in the film Vice and the general good will he seems to convey in real life may go along with Welcome To Marwen to get his name in the mix. Playing a damaged individual is often the path to an acting nomination. As long as one does not go “full retard.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Judge

 

The two Roberts are terrific in The Judge. The rest of the movie is pretty good, too!

An estrangement between a parent and child is a painful thing to observe and, for those who have that situation in their lives, the hurt lingers every day. In the case of Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) and his father Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), the reasons for the resentments each carries appear, on surface, to be justified. But a series of events has the potential to result in healing of their emotional wounds.

Hank is a hot-shot Chicago defense attorney who learns that his mother has died. He returns to his small hometown in Indiana for the funeral and tense dealings with his father who has been the town’s judge for 42 years. On the evening following his wife’s funeral, the judge kills a man in a hit-and-run. As Hank prepares to return to Chicago, his brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) calls to tell him that their dad has been charged with a crime.

The judge/dad/Joseph chooses as his lead attorney local yokel C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), an antiques dealer who just happens to have a law degree. C.P’s shortcomings are quickly exposed and in short order, Hank takes over.

Courtroom scenes have famously provided opportunities for talented actors to strut their stuff and give memorable performances. The two Roberts do not miss their chances to bring their best. With Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecutor and Ken Howard as judge, father Joseph takes the witness stand and son Hank does his best to create doubt about his father’s part in the incident.

The Judge provides laughter among the tension. The jury selection process is fun and C.P.’s ritual of puking before each courtroom session lightens the mood.

During his time back in town, Hank, whose marriage in Chicago is troubled, reunites with old hometown girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga). The attraction is still there.

The Judge contains a particularly gorgeous shot, taken from a copter or a drone, that shows Hank at the wheel of his car before the camera pulls back to show a panorama of unending verdant farmland.

The Judge is longish, clocking in around 2:20. But the complicated relationship between the father and son merits the time spent for examination of past events and current circumstances that have brought them to this point in their lives. The two Roberts make The Judge a movie worth seeing.

 

Chef

Chef is a film that fills me with joy. The food is gorgeous, the music is superb, the characters are (mostly) likeable and this redemption story is neatly presented. This movie is a good time.

Jon Favreau is the cinematic chef for this delicious entrée. He wrote it. He directed it. And he stars as chef Carl Casper, a man with a passion for cooking.

In Chef, the Los Angeles restaurant where Carl cooks is about to get a visit from noted food blogger Ramsay Michel (Oliver Platt). Carl is ready to prepare a creative menu when the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) intercedes and orders Carl to cook the same menu the restaurant has featured (successfully) for a decade.

When Michel rips Carl for serving the same old same old, Carl is upset. When he sees that Michel’s slam has been shared on Twitter, he replies obscenely, not knowing how Twitter works. (In real life Favreau is a Twitter master with 1.71 million followers.)

Carl asks for a re-do and invites Michel to come back and let him cook what he wanted to cook in the first place. The owner steps in again and says no, causing Carl to walk out. But he walks back in during dinner service, and launches into a dining room tirade against the critic that is captured on iPhones and shared across the internet.

Any creative person who’s every wanted to rip into a critic for knocking their work, but had the self-control to resist, can appreciate watching Carl rage out of control.

With his career wrecked after this fit of anger, his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) invites him to join her and their son Percy (Emjay Anthony) in Miami. Shortly after arriving, Carl visits Inez’ previous ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) who gifts Carl with a commercial van that he converts into a food truck.

With an assist from his LA kitchen staffer Martin (John Leguizamo) he equips the truck and begins selling Cuban sandwiches on South Beach. Along with Percy, they take the truck to acknowledged food meccas New Orleans and Austin, before coming home to LA and a storybook ending.

Scarlett Johansson appears as the LA restaurant’s hostess and Carl’s girlfriend. Russell Peters has a funny turn as a Miami cop who wants to take selfies galore with Carl and his food truck crew.

For foodies and those in the food and beverage industry, Chef is a “must see.” Favreau shows great respect for those who cook in Chef. He captures the passion that the best chefs (and kitchen staffs) bring to work every day and night. Impressively, he has good knife skills. That’s no stunt double chopping carrots.

Chef gets a special commendation, too, for getting social media right. Twitter helped bring about Carl Casper’s downfall. And, as anyone who owns a food truck will confirm, Twitter is a valuable tool for telling people where you’ll be parked and serving next. Young Percy is the chef’s social media guru whose Twitter savvy brings crowds to the truck’s windows as soon as they open. Twitter giveth and Twitter taketh away, as Chef clearly shows.

I promise that if you see Chef on an empty stomach, you’ll leave hungry. And I bet you will also walk out happy. Chef is a tasty treat. Savor it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now You See Me

Now You See Me presents illusion on a grand scale. Not only the outsize magic tricks, but the characters and the plot points, too, are not always what they seem to be. The result is a vastly entertaining movie.

At the movie’s start, four magicians are introduced in brief vignettes: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher) and Jack (Dave Franco). After demonstrating their talents, each gets a mysterious card inviting them to a meeting that results in their forming a team.

The Four Horsemen, as they call themselves, begin with a true WTF? illusion in which they rob a bank in Paris from their Las Vegas stage. Hard to explain the depth of the illusion here, but it’s a mind-blower. (The audience volunteer for this trick looks, on first glance, to be a very big star in a cameo. Whoa! But, no, it’s not actually Robert Downey Junior, just a guy who looks a bit like him.)

When the Paris bank finds that their Euros have gone poof, FBI agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma (Mélanie Laurent) question the four, but release them. Also entering the story is Thaddeus Bradley (played by Morgan Freeman), a former magician who has made a career debunking and exposing other magicians’ tricks via a line of successful videos. Michael Caine appears as the Four Horsemen’s manager/advisor/benefactor.

As the fast-moving storyline progresses, the main question to be answered is who assembled these four and what is this person’s motivation? Following a trick/stunt in New Orleans that includes the apparent criminal theft of more money, our gang of four retreats to New York. As authorities close in, they run. Magician Jack is pursued in an exciting chase through Manhattan traffic that results in a fiery crash on the 59th Street Bridge. Jack’s apparent demise leaves no one feelin’ groovy.

After the Four Horsemen’s penultimate bit of business atop an NYC rooftop, all is explained and the elaborate, tangled web is unraveled.

With some films, you might hope to get to know the characters better, but with Now You See Me, it’s the plot that keeps the wheels turning. Mere surface awareness of the film’s individuals turns out to be for the best, I believe. Because, as Eisenberg’s character Daniel says at the movie’s beginning, “The closer you look, the less you see.”

(Rated PG-13.)

“The Avengers”

Marvel’s “The Avengers” is too much and too many.

Not that you shouldn’t see it. You should. Just prepare yourself to be stuffed. Like a huge holiday meal, “The Avengers” will leave you totally sated.

It’s also analogous to a sports All-Star game. Sure, it’s great to see all the Marvel heroes together. But as an All-Star game is not always an entertaining game, so does “The Avengers” fail to deliver a truly great movie.

The interaction—including verbal and physical battles—among the characters is fun and often funny to watch. It’s amusing as Captain America (Chris Evans) tries to assimilate into the 21st century world, after awakening from a 70-year nap.

Thankfully, the film’s writers and director give the biggest chunk of screen time to Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man/Tony Stark. This is good because Downey is a much better actor than the rest of the cast. Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk/Bruce Banner is also excellent in his Marvel debut.

The other main players: Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Tom Hiddleston as the villain Loki.

The movie’s pacing brings to mind the latter Star Wars movies with long periods of exposition between the action scenes. The film’s final battle is spectacularly good, but overlong—not unlike having three pieces of pumpkin pie at the end of a holiday feast.

Clocking in at 2:20 or so, it’s a long movie. But with so many characters to feature and so much action to fit in, it has to be.

“The Avengers,” like a Transformers film, is critic-proof. Even if every reviewer in America from Ebert on down said the film sucked, it would still gross $100 million plus this weekend.

It doesn’t suck. But it’s not as good a movie as one might have hoped for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”

I have read that Action/Comedy movies are hard to make because you don’t want to compromise one genre too much to accommodate the other. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” covers both bases well with a good balance of action and comedy.

Robert Downey Jr., who plays Holmes, is always worth watching. He brings massive on-screen charm. The film crew brings the gimmickry, which provides much of the film’s fun.

The plot, however, is a bit of a mess. But the movie has action galore, clever disguises, explosions, deeds of derring-do, even some opera. Does it all add up? Well, sort of, yes.

“SH: AGOS” has some pacing issues. Some of the exposition takes long chunks of dialogue. Overall, though, the movie gets its job done. That job, of course, is to channel the highlights of the successful 2009 Holmes movie and add a few new wrinkles.

Jude Law returns as Watson, Holmes’ assistant, consultant, rescuer, foil and chronicler. Rachel McAdams is back, but only long enough to pick up a check and get her name on the credits. If you’re going just to see her, stay home. The new female player in this game is Noomi Rapace (who starred in the Swedish versions of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is a good, not great, holiday diversion.