Wednesday, 13 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY



Walt Disney Studios Films

Food, glorious food. Cinema is no stranger to the culinary arts and long before MasterChef -- and social media -- made food porn a phenom, food has been lovingly, and lustily captured on film. Tampopo, Babette's Feast, Like Water For Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, and even this year's Chef have all boasted menus as enticing and memorable as the characters and stories themselves.

Lasse Hallstrom, no stranger to food films (see 2000's Chocolat), directs The Hundred-Foot Journey, an adaptation by Steven Knight of the Robert C. Morais bestseller. Best described as a fairy tale, it tells the story of the Kadam family, restaurateurs in Mumbai who, following a personal tragedy, uproot to Europe and quite by accident -- literally -- decide to open an Indian restaurant in the south of France.

As fate or luck (or mere story contrivance) would have it, the Kadams' new kitchen is directly opposite the one-hat Michelin restaurant operated by Madame Mallory. As played by Helen Mirren, she's an imperious woman who objects as much to another restaurant opening on her doorstep (the two venues are a hundred feet apart, separated by a road) as she is to these loud, colourful foreigners bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood.

Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam (veteran Indian actor, Om Puri) immediately lock horns but Hassan (Manish Dayal), the natural chef of the family (there are four other siblings), is determined to make a go of the new restaurant as well as win the Madame over with his culinary skills, not to mention the heart of her sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon).

The French locales are idyllic and the food is appetite-inducing. And while Mirren is a solid presence, it is the charming and wily Puri who steals their scenes together. American Dayal also makes for a handsome if a little wet protagonist but there's nothing remotely challenging or, indeed, original about The Hundred-Foot Journey. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's the movie equivalent of comfort food, more a French pastry than a spicy Indian dish and there's nothing wrong with that if that's what you're in the mood for.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: BEGIN AGAIN



Roadshow Films

Can a song save your life? Perhaps, at the right time and place. It certainly provides a lifebuoy for flailing record producer and A&R man, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who is having a very bad day when he stumbles into a New York bar and into the audience of an impromptu performance by Gretta (Keira Knightley). Her sugary/folksy vocals on a self-penned song about suicide-by-subway has Dan seeing a star -- not to mention player-less instruments springing to life -- in the making.

But Gretta's not looking to be discovered. She's actually booked a return flight to London the next day, heartbroken after the collapse of her relationship with boyfriend and songwriting partner, Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levine), whose career has skyrocketed following the inclusion of one of his compositions on a hit film's soundtrack.

That may be a sly nod to writer-director John Carney's most famous film Once, the glorious little Irish indie which won hearts and an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2007. Begin Again (originally titled Can A Song Save Your Life?) is no Once (my favourite film of 2007), but like his more famous film, Carney has produced a charming, sweet and unaffected tale of two souls brought together by, and healed and redeemed through the power of music.

Replacing actual musicians (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) with Hollywood A-listers may lose some of the authenticity of the Dublin-set musical, but Begin Again is no less winning as Gretta and Dan, and a bunch of fellow musicians, including Gretta's fellow ex-pat, Steve (James Corden), record an album of original tracks (Knightley performs all her own singing with the songs penned by Gregg Alexander) on the streets of New York over the course of a week or so during the summer; Yaron Orbach's camera capturing a picture-perfect if not-so touristy Big Apple.

Ruffalo, looking homeless but exuding charm, and Knightley, refreshingly corset-free and as lovely as she's ever been, have an easy chemistry and there's a constant 'will they, won't they' tension between the two throughout the film; their attraction kept at bay by the work at hand and their emotional realities: Dan wants to make amends with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and his adolescent daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), while Gretta debates herself about reconciliatory gestures from Dave.

The ending may not be as bitter-sweet and note-perfect as Once but John Carney ensures Begin Again ends on the right note. Like the most effective pop music, it works its way in and leaves you with a smile on your face and a skip in your step.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

FILM REVIEW: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Walt Disney Studios Films/Marvel Films

Adapting Marvel Comics' Guardians of the Galaxy for the big screen was seen as the riskiest venture yet for Marvel Studios/Disney who, with The Avengers -- assembled, and individually -- had a better known property and thus a more solid ($6.3 billion and counting, though not all Disney; Paramount launched the first five) financial investment with Iron-man, Thor, Captain America and The Hulk.

That trepidation may also have had something to do with the Guardians, who are not superheroes, boasting a trigger-happy raccoon and a vocab-challenged tree among its group of rag tag misfits who, like The Avengers, come together to defeat world-destroying evil. (The risk certainly isn't in the plotting, which, penned by Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn, follows a proven Marvel template.)

Or maybe it was that these adventures took place in space, in galaxies far, far away? For while Disney may have every confidence in the success of the next Star Wars film, there's always the spectre of John Carter in the back of their minds (and accounts department). That somewhat unfairly maligned 2011 martian adventure -- and subsequent flop -- couldn't garner much audience interest even after dropping the 'Of Mars' from its title: "Hey, look guys, no more space!"

Guardians begins on Earth, and in 1988, where a young Peter Quill bids a teary farewell to his sickly mother in her hospital bed before being whisked away by a spaceship before he's even had the chance for a good cry. Cut to 26 years later and Quill (played by Chris Pratt; slimmed down, buffed up and relishing his new found leading man status) is a scavenger-for-hire, travelling across the galaxy to retrieve artifacts for a price.

That's how Quill comes into possession of the orb, an energy source which is also able to level entire planets. As such, it is a highly desired object by all but especially Ronan (Lee Pace), a survivor of a once proud now subjugated race who, with the backing of Thanos (yes, the villain glimpsed at the end of The Avengers), is out to wreak revenge.

It's in his bid to evade capture by all and sundry that Quill comes into contact with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a kick ass lieutenant of Ronan's who has her own agenda, and Rocket and Groot, the aforementioned raccoon and tree who are an odd couple, bounty hunting duo who recall Han Solo and Chewbacca but operate on a whole other level of dysfunction.

Imprisoned together they meet the final member of their eventual quintet, Drax the Destroyer (former WWE wrestler, Dave Bautista), a mountain of a man who takes everything literally and who wants in with the others for the chance to avenge the death of his family at the hands of Ronan.

And as good as Pratt and Saldana (seemingly the sci-fi blockbuster go-to girl after Avatar and Star Trek) are, it is the CGI duo and Bautista who steal the show. Who knew a former pro-wrestler, let alone a tree and psycho rodent, could provide most of the film's thrills, laughs and, yes, some heart.

It's not a motion-capture performance like that of Andy Serkis' Caesar in the Apes films, but Cooper brings a depth to the life-like CGI of the bitter critter, Rocket. By turns comic and cynical, with a barely contained rage, it's a voice performance to rival the best -- Eddie Murphy (Shrek), Ellen DeGeneres (Finding Nemo) -- of the best. Groot, too, is an impressive achievement given the tree-like being's limited vocabulary. Having said that, Vin Diesel's voice work is a little less integral to the success of the character's achieving its unlikely humanity.

Of course, they owe a great debt to the screenplay which boasts a lively sense of humour, tossing off quips and one-liners, pop culture references and a little blue work at a steady pace. Perlamn and Gunn (and no doubt with Avengers maestro Joss Whedon's once-over) ensuring that zero gravity need not mean zero laughs. Guardians of the Galaxy is a lot of fun.

At the time of writing, Guardians had debuted to an impressive $166 million worldwide opening weekend, including an August record of $94m in the U.S., so that risk (perhaps in letting Gunn, a writer-director with minor successes and not-so mainstream appeal?) seems to have paid off. Maybe Marvel honcho Kevin Feige will rethink his recent statement that Marvel Studios will not be doing a female superhero film in the foreseeable future?

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

FILM REVIEW: JERSEY BOYS



Warner Bros./Roadshow Films

When is a musical not a musical? When it's a big screen adaptation of a Broadway smash, helmed by a director better known for masculinity and economy rather than razzle dazzle.

Not that there isn't a song or two in Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys -- the story of the rise, fall and rise of Frankie Valli and the Four seasons -- nor the occasional dance number, but any joie de vivre that was to be found in the original stage production seems to have gone AWOL for the movie.

Yes, the hits are there -- Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like A Man, Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You -- in one form or another, but as the story progresses from the suburbs of New Jersey in 1951 to the big time (and from varying points of view as in the stage version), there's very little in the way of drama or emotion. There's barely even a pulse.

But it's not all Eastwood's fault. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who wrote the original musical book for the stageplay, have adapted their own work, perhaps not realising that what works on the stage doesn't necessarily translate to the screen.

The same can be said for leading man John Lloyd Young. Young originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway when Jersey Boys debuted in 2004 and the boy can sing (though he's a little too old to pass as a 16-year-old Valli). But his screen presence is lacking, and the role as written doesn't provide much in the way of character.

Frankie may have the voice of an angel but he doesn't have much in the way of a personality. It's Vincent Piazza's Tommy DeVito who has the hutzpah (or whatever the Italian equivalent is), and there's some fun from his to-camera posturing as well as to be had at his expense; Bob Gaudio (Erich Burgen) is the bland pretty boy who writes the hits, and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) is the good-natured fourth wheel seemingly there to make up the numbers.

Success, internal group tensions, mob affiliations (hello, Christopher Walken as the least threatening Godfather ever) and family breakdowns play out without any sense of excitement, danger or emotion, thus the audience's investment in this age old tale of rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches may come down to one's appreciation for the back catalogue of the Four Seasons. And if you loved Jersey Boys on the stage, you may just get a kick out of seeing it on the big screen.

The same goes for those who are fans of Eastwood the director but not so much the musical as a film genre. For Jersey Boys is no Dreamgirls (2006). Or Hairspray (2007), or Chicago, the 2002 film which sparked a revival of the musical in Hollywood following its Oscars* success, though a little of that film's razzle dazzle could have gone a long way here.

(*Eastwood and co. need not worry about keeping their calendars clear for February 2015).