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Chef (2014)

chef-posterChef must have been something of a needed break for its star, writer, and director, Jon Favreau. He’s directed three large-scale Hollywood sci-fi mega movies in a row, a long way from Favrieau’s first big break, Swingers, which he wrote for himself. It was time for something a little smaller, quieter, and more personal, and Chef is just the ticket, a familiar but still greatly satisfying slice-of-life movie about a frustrated chef finding his mojo. Favreau plays a famous chef who cracks under the pressure of delivering the same safe food day in and day out. He loses his job after an increasingly hostile Twitter war with a food critic who calls him out for his safety in blandness. This pushes Favreau out of his comfort zone; he starts an independent food truck, bonds with his son, and generally begins to embrace his new invigorating freedom. Don’t see this movie on an empty stomach because it will be torture. The food preparation shots are tantalizing as are the general discussions over the adoration of food, the heavenly feel of a good meal (an aspect that’s even utilized as foreplay in the film). The entire film is stoked by a laid back charm, an amiable camaraderie between Favreau and his cast, so much so that we don’t care when the film sort of stalls. It’s a far lengthier period between Favreau losing job and getting the food truck than necessary, and the ending is abrupt with an almost absurd amount of resolution tie-ups crammed together without additional progression. The characters are likeable enough, funny, and their passions have a way of enveloping the audience, so much so that a fairly predictable plot is excusable. Chef is a lovely little palate cleanser at the start of the summer movie season and an enjoyable excursion. Just fill up before seeing it or else.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Guilt Trip (2012)

1901A funny thing happened after seeing The Guilt Trip. My father asked me what else Seth Rogen had been in that he had seen. And I was stumped (in retrospect, I could have said 50/50). I think that summarizes the mishmash of audiences for this mother/son road trip comedy. Rogen teams up with the ultimate Jewish mother, played by Barbara Streisand (Meet the Fockers), to travel the country. From that premise alone, it’s pretty much exactly everything you’d think it would be. The comedy is rather flat mostly because both characters feel mismatched from a comedy perspective; neither is given enough edge. I was surprised then when I found the warmhearted dramatic parts so much more skilled than the comedy (remember, sliding scale). The heart is better than the laughs. The deteriorating mother/son relationship is given some thoughtful consideration, and there are a few sweet emotional turns at the end to find a satisfying departure. It’s a rather nice movie, nothing too special or interesting, but nice can be perfectly fine under the right circumstances. I’m a Rogen fan and always enjoy his cocksure presence onscreen, and Streisand, at 70 years old, is still a natural movie star. The post-credits outtakes point to funnier material from their pairing, but director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) sticks to the well-worn path of the road trip movie. It’s fairly inoffensive and safe, but The Guilt Trip has some light-hearted pleasures to offer its older audience, especially middle-aged parents and grandparents. Simply put: if you have to see one older-appealing movie with your family this holiday season, Parental Guidance or The Guilt Trip, take the trip.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Due Date (2010)

Due Date feels less a wholesale rip-off of 1987’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and more of a full-blown film inspired by the one sequence where Steve Martin unleashes a profane tirade at an airport clerk. It has two talented actors (Robert Downey Jr., Zack Galifiankas) in situations that should come across as funny, but the movie only gets so many laughs. The road trip angle has been done to death but the mismatched pairing of Downey, acerbic anger, and Galifianakas, continued goofball man-child, should have compensated for any stale genre formula leftovers. I think Due Date, under the direction of Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School), really just doesn’t know what to do with all its misplaced mean-spirited rage. So we end up with kids getting punched, people being beaten by disabled veterans, multiple cars crashing in spectacular fashion, public masturbation with dogs, people enduring great injury, and somehow the characters bond through all the adversity, even though neither changes at all. The comedy setups are all fairly transparent and can only deliver medium-sized payoffs; when a man’s ashes are kept in a coffee can, you know it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs. For better or worse, this is a two-man operation; the supporting actors are all wasted, particularly Downey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang co-star Michelle Monaghan (Eagle Eye) as Downey’s pregnant wife. She isn’t even given one funny thing to say or do the whole movie. Due Date is a comedy that will make you laugh sporadically but it should have performed better. It’s a mid-level comedy with medium-level payoffs that ultimately prove to be underwhelming given the upper-level talent involved.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Eat Pray Love (2010)

Eat Pray Love is based on the best-selling memoir about Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts), a woman in her 40s trying to recover from personal setbacks. She’s divorcing her husband and she’s generally unfulfilled with her life. It seems to be missing meaning. Her solution is to set off on a journey to Italy, India, and Bali in order to rediscover who she is and what is missing in her privileged life.

Granted I am not in the target demo for this movie’s audience, but I found the main character to be rather hard to relate with. The film opens with her deciding to end her marriage to Billy Crudup (Watchmen). So far I’m okay. The dissolution of a marriage, especially when you’re older, is a prime starting point to reevaluate your life now that you’re on your own and, frankly, terrified by that prospect. But then the movie presents Gilbert as a rather self-involved and almost callous individual. Her husband is devastated, but she’s only tear-eyed one night as she prays to God why she’s in her marriage. Then we get a scene where the couple meets to talk about their impending divorce. Crudup wants to talk and work on fixing whatever problems exist. Gilbert won’t even do that. She is bailing. Her refusal to even try to fix her marriage, in the face of her husband who is willing to choose his wife over everything in the world, is a perplexing filmmaking decision. Gilbert seems shallow. The movie throws out some half-hearted excuse, saying her husband is wishy-washy about his career, but it’s a smokescreen. Why even leave this stuff in there if we’re just going to dislike Gilbert? That’s like including an opening scene in Schindler’s List where Schindler beats a child to death. A hyperbolic example, yes, but proof that it’s a terrible idea to have an early scene kill audience sympathy for your main character.

And so Gilbert goes about on her globetrotting voyage of self-discovery, chiefly to fulfill her health, spirit, and heart. Except the movie seems to get worse with every stop on the map. The overly long beginning in New York shows that our flighty main character shacks up with a hunky theater actor (James Franco), and then even there agonizes over how unhappy she is with this new guy. She needs to learn to love herself before anybody else, she says. Not to sound sexist, but I think many women wouldn’t have problems being in relationships with Crudup and Franco (edit: written before revelations of Franco and sexual harassment surfaced). Now people can find unhappiness in all stripes, especially with beautiful people, but Gilbert is packing up a lot of self-absorption before she ever leaves New York City. In Italy, she finds freedom in losing herself to food. She feasts on fine Italian cuisine and doesn’t obsess over her weight gain. In fact, she and a buddy treat shopping for larger sized jeans as a joyous celebration. I?m pleased that people can become more comfortable with their bodies, but Roberts celebrating gaining 10 pounds and not caring may rub some core audience members the wrong way. However, this Italy section focuses on food and fellowship, and Gilbert learns the language, enjoys the company of a group of locals, and cooks a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her new friends. This is easily the most likeable Gilbert will be in the film.

First off, a film about a character finding personal discovery and self-awareness is going to be hard to pull off. Internal journeys of self-actualization and enlightenment don’t necessarily scream great movies, a medium of images and movement. For this to work you need a good story and a character worth rooting for, somebody who the audience can empathize with and cheer on the arduous path to personal grace. Elizabeth Gilbert is not that character. The other two segments in India and Bali are a true test of patience. Watching Roberts sway around, chant to herself, and look forlorn waiting for enlightenment to come is not the best use of 40 minutes. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) gives the film’s best performance in the most tedious segment, which kind of reignites the “tree falling in a forest” scenario. When Indians have spiritual crises do they travel to New York? The end feels even more leisurely paced and I found myself nodding off here and there. The movie was failing to keep my attention short of some lovely scenery.

Director Ryan Murphy, co-creator of TV’s Glee, knows that his audience wants beautiful countryside, beautiful food, beautiful men, and Julia Roberts smiling. To that end, Eat Pray Love is a success. Murphy seems to enjoy filming the food sequences the most. The food is portrayed like a glamour reel. It’s easy to feel the rumbles of hunger while watching this movie, and my wife and I came directly from dinner when we saw the film. Pizza from Naples looks divine. But Murphy also serves as co-writer, along with Jennifer Salt, so he should have known better about the plot deficiencies that keep the audience at a distance from embracing Gilbert. The actors all seem to be having a good time, and why wouldn’t they? Visiting exotic places and stuffing their faces with local delicacies? It feels like I’m watching someone else’s boring vacation videos that go on for 135 laborious minutes.

Eat Pray Love seems to be missing something, namely the soul of its journey. By design, so much of this existential crisis is internal, which is where the book can fill in all the clarifying and illuminating details to make this feel like a full story. As a movie, it just doesn’t work on screen no matter how powerful Roberts smiles. The main character is hard to relate to and even harder to sympathize with as she becomes swallowed up in her self-absorption. How many people can solve a midlife breakdown by flying across the world for over a year? How did Gilbert afford this? I’ll tell you how. Gilbert pitched the idea to a publisher and then used the advance to pay for her yearlong trek of dining and self-discovery. She was banking on her travels solving her personal woes before she ever left the country. That makes me question some of the Gilbert’s motives. It makes me doubt how genuine this whole journey really was, considering she sold the ending before she ever reached her catharsis. Maybe the title should have been Eat Pray Cash Check.

Nate’s Grade: C

My Life in Ruins (2009)

Tacky on nearly all fronts, this Big Fat Greek Wedding wannabe sequel features that hit movie’s star, Nia Vardalos, and plops her in Greece as an unhappy, uptight, undersexed tour guide. The movie follows her exploits to regain her “kefi,” Greek for “mojo.” My Life in Ruins paints in obnoxious broad strokes with its bus of fools, making sure the Australian tourists are never without a can of Fosters in their hand. The stereotypes are plentiful. The lame jokes are easily telegraphed and usually lowbrow (the bus driver’s name is “Poupi Kakas”), the acting is hammy, and the stabs of drama thanks to Richard Dreyfuss as a traveling widower feel alien. Being a romantic comedy replete with stock characters, naturally everything is predictable. Vardalos does a credible job here trying to hold this mess together, though she’s too prone to going for funny faces as a saving grace. Twice characters tell her that she’s not funny, and to this the audience will easily agree. I am dumbfounded that longtime Simpsons writer Mike Reiss wrote this crap. The only real enjoyment you’ll receive from this movie is marveling at all the fabulous Greek sights, from the ancient ruins to the seaside villas. I understand why the cast and crew would sign up to film this movie in Greece, but does that mean I have to subsidize their vacation with my own money? No thank you.

Nate’s Grade: C

Wild Hogs (2007)

It’s hard to imagine that this lowbrow, homophobic, uninspired, painfully nostalgic film is the top grossing comedy of the year so far. I don’t really want to further elaborate on what this says about the general public. The boys (John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy, a more random grouping of actors I challenge you to find) are all henpecked and unhappy with their dull, predictable, socially comfortable lives, so what’s a group of men facing midlife crises to do? Road trip. The idea of the freedom of the open road and the rebelliousness of touring the country on the back of a motorcycle seems quaint and naive at this point in life. What follows on their biker odyssey is a lot of lame slapstick and each actor trying to outdo the other in masculinity. A protracted third act standoff brings the film to a halt that it can never recuperate from. Wild Hogs isn’t a comedy disaster of sorts but it’s definitely got enough aimless misogyny and retroactive Boomer nostalgia to make you gag.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Elizabethtown (2005)

Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker I generally admire. He makes highly enjoyable fables about love conquering all, grand romantic gestures, and finding your voice. His track record speaks for itself: Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous (I forgive him the slipshod remake of Vanilla Sky, though it did have great artistry and a bitchin’ soundtrack). Crowe is a writer that can zero in on character with the precision of a surgeon. He’s a man that can turn simple formula (boy meets girl) and spin mountains of gold. With these possibly unfair expectations, I saw Elizabethtown while visiting my fiancé in New Haven, Connecticut. We made a mad dash to the theater to be there on time, which involved me ordering tickets over my cell phone. I was eager to see what Crowe had in store but was vastly disappointed with what Elizabethtown had to teach me.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) opens the film by narrating the difference between a failure and a fiasco. Unfortunately for him, he’s in the corporate cross-hairs for the latter. Drew is responsible for designing a shoe whose recall will cost his company an astounding “billion with a B” dollars (some research of an earlier cut of the film says the shoe whistled while you ran). His boss (Alec Baldwin) takes Drew aside to allow him to comprehend the force of such a loss. Drew returns to his apartment fully prepared to engineer his own suicide machine, which naturally falls apart in a great comedic beat. Interrupting his plans to follow career suicide with personal suicide is a phone call from his sister (Judy Greer). Turns out Drew’s father has died on a trip visiting family in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Drew is sent on a mission from his mother (Susan Sarandon) to retrieve his father and impart the family’s wishes. On the flight to Kentucky, Drew gets his brain picked by Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a cheery flight attendant. While Drew is surrounded by his extended family and their down homsey charm and eccentricities, he seeks out some form of release and calls Claire. They talk for hours upon hours and form a fast friendship and stand on the cusp of maybe something special.

I think the most disappointing aspect of Elizabethtown for me is how it doesn’t have enough depth to it. Crowe definitely wears his heart on his sleeve but has never been clumsy about it. Elizabethtown wants to be folksy and cute and impart great lessons about love, life, and death. You can’t reach that plateau when you have characters walking around stating their inner feelings all the time, like Drew and Claire do. They might as well be wearing T-shirts that explain any intended subtext. Crowe squanders his film’s potential by stuffing too many storylines into one pot, thus leaving very little attachment to any character. Elizabethtown has some entertaining details, chiefly Chuck and Cindy’s drunk-on-love wedding, but the film as a whole feels too loose and disconnected to hit any emotional highs. If you want a better movie about self-reawakening, rent Garden State. If you want a better movie about dealing with loss, rent Moonlight Mile.

This is Bloom’s first test of acting that doesn’t involve a faux British accent and some kind of heavy weaponry. The results are not promising. Bloom is a pin-up come to life like a female version of Weird Science, a living mannequin, possibly an alien with great skin, but he isn’t a real compelling actor. He has about two emotions in his repertoire. His whiny American-ized accent seems to be playing a game of tag. He’s not a bad actor per se; he just gets the job done without leaving any sort of impression. To paraphrase Claire, he’s a “substitute leading man.”

Dunst is chirpy, kooky and cute-as-a-button but is better in small doses. Her accent is much more convincing than Bloom’s. Sarandon deserves pity for being involved in Elizabethtown‘s most improbable, cringe-worthy moment. At her husband’s wake, she turns her time of reflection into a talent show with a stand-up routine and then a horrifying tap dance. Apparently this gesture wins over the extended family who has hated her for decades. Greer (The Village) is utterly wasted in a role that approximates a cameo. Without a doubt, the funniest and most memorable performance is delivered by Baldwin, who perfectly mixes menace and amusement. He takes Drew on a tour of some of the consequences of the loss of a billion dollars, including the inevitable closing of his Wildlife Watchdog group. “We could have saved the planet,” Baldwin says in the most comically dry fashion. Baldwin nails the balance between discomfort and bewilderment.

Elizabethtown wants to be another of Crowe’s smart, feel-good sentimental field trips, but it falls well short. I was dumbfounded to see how little the story progressed. It lays the groundwork for a menagerie of subplots and then, in a rush to finish, caps everyone off with some emotionally unearned payoff. To put it simply, Elizabethtown wants credit and refuses to show its work. The film is packed with characters and ideas before succumbing into an interminable travelogue of America in its closing act, but what cripples Crowe’s film about opening up to emotional growth is that the movie itself doesn’t showcase growth. We see the rough and tumble beginnings of everyone, we see the hugs-all-around end, but we don’t witness that most critical movement that takes the audience from Point A to Point B. The results are beguiling and quite frustrating. Take the subplot about Drew’s cousin, who can?t connect to his father either and wants to be friends to his own son, a shrill little terror, instead of a father. Like most of Elizabethtown‘s storylines, these subplots die of neglect until a half-hearted nod to wrap everything up. Father sees son perform and all is well. Son does little to discipline child but all is well. Elizabethtown is sadly awash in undeveloped storylines and characters and unjustified emotions, and when they’re unjustified we go from sentiment (warm and fuzzy) to schmaltz (eye-rolling and false). I truly thought Crowe would know better than this.

Crowe has always been the defacto master of marrying music to film. Does anyone ever remember people singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” before its virtuoso appearance in 2000’s Almost Famous? Crowe has a nimble ear but his penchant for emotional catharsis set to song gets the better of him with Elizabethtown. There’s just way too many musical montages (10? 15?) covering the emotional ground caused by the script’s massive shortcomings. By the time a montage is followed by another montage, you may start growing an unhealthy ire for acoustic guitar. Because there are so many unproductive musical numbers and montages, especially when we hit the last formless act, Elizabethtown feels like Crowe is shooting the soundtrack instead of a story.

Elizabethtown is an under-cooked, unfocused travelogue set to music. Crowe intends his personal venture to belt one from the heart, but like most personal ventures the significance can rarely translate to a third party. It’s too personal a film to leave any lasting power, like a friend narrating his vacation slide show. Elizabethtown is gestating with plot lines that it can’t devote time to, even time to merely show the progression of relationships. The overload of musical montages makes the movie feels like the longest most somber music video ever. Bloom’s limited acting isn’t doing anyone any favors either. In the end, it all rings too phony and becomes too meandering to be entertaining. Elizabethtown is a journey the film won’t even let you ride along for. This movie isn’t an outright fiasco but given Crowe’s remarkable track record it can’t help but be anything but a failure.

Nate’s Grade: C

Euro Trip (2004)/ Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

In 2004, there was a gold mine of smart but crude comedies. I cannot fathom why people have ignored both Euro Trip and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Not only are both movies extremely funny, they serve as perfect examples of a great teen comedy. And both had characters that weren’t idiots or stoners. A trio of former Seinfeld writers penned Euro Trip and the fast-paced wit and love of the absurd is evident. The leads of Harold and Kumar are Asian-American and Indian-American, which gave and smart intriguing ethnic point of view to teen comedies. Harold and Kumar were studying to respectively become a doctor and an accountant. These characters aren’t dumb, just in over their heads as they hunt all night for those tiny White Castle burgers. Harold and Kumar has many laugh-out-loud moments that won’t make you ashamed for doing do. Neil Patrick Harris’ lurid cameo is a highpoint. Euro Trip and Harold and Kumar are intelligent, crude, and blisteringly funny. Rent them if you can.

Both Grades: B

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