November 29th, 2014

WISH I WAS HERE (2014) ** ½

Zach Braff stars, co-wrote, and directed this offbeat, uneven, and occasionally funny tale of a struggling actor (Braff) at a crossroads in his life. His wife (Kate Hudson) is forced to put food on the table while he goes out and (unsuccessfully) auditions. His father (Mandy Patinkin) is paying for his kids to go to an exclusive Jewish school, but he pulls the funding to pay for his cancer treatments. Faced with the prospect of homeschooling his kids and a dying father, Braff has to man up and take control of his family and his life.

Braff gives a good performance and there are a couple of good zingers here and there, but Wish I Was Here falters when it tries to do too much. The scenes of Braff coming to terms and making amends with his father are easily the best in the movie. Patinkin is excellent and he completely steals the show. I also enjoyed the scenes of him trying to reconcile with his lay about son (Josh Gad), whom he always saw as a disappointment.

The scenes of Braff homeschooling his kids and taking them on various “field trips” are hit and miss. Some of them have a ring of truth, but many just don’t work. The fantasy sequences of Braff being an astronaut are kind of unfocused and goofy too. The many subplots (like Hudson dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace) also clutter the narrative. Still, there are just enough laughs here to warrant a look.

THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) *** ½

Elliott Gould stars as Phillip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s freewheeling adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel. Marlowe is not having a good day. His cat leaves him, and the police and local mobsters want to either book him or beat him; all because he gave his buddy (Jim Bouton) a lift to Mexico. He takes a job finding a missing author (Sterling Hayden) for his sultry wife (Nina Van Pallandt) and winds up getting involved in a complex web of deceit and betrayal.

The Long Goodbye is often exhilarating and sometimes frustrating. I liked the way that Altman assigned his iconic style to the hardboiled detective genre. There are several little Altman touches that I just loved. The way John Williams’ title song changed and mutated to fit each scene was simply awesome. I also dug that Marlowe didn’t have any of the usual detective narration you’d normally see in a picture like this. Instead, he mumbled his thoughts out loud, which leads to the purely Altman motif of multiple vocal tracks.

Gould makes for a fun Marlowe. He was miscast on purpose, and it works because Gould can be coldblooded when he has to be. Other times (like the scenes with the cat) he can be totally Elliott Gould and it still feels right.

The supporting cast is great too. I really enjoyed Hayden’s electric performance as the crazy writer and Henry Gibson had some good moments as a devious doctor. A lot of fun also comes from spotting David Carradine and a soon-to-be-famous Arnold Schwarzenegger in small roles.

Any fan of the detective genre will be a bit dismayed by the final act. Since Altman and his actors were clearly winging it and making stuff up on the fly, none of the plot pieces fit exactly right in the end. This will irritate some viewers. However, most detective films are about the journey and the process, and not necessarily the resolution. Elliott Gould’s final confrontation with Jim Bouton is shocking and memorable; which makes up for a lot of the shortcomings.

LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002) ***

Lost in La Mancha chronicles director Terry Gilliam’s various perils in trying to film The Man who Killed Don Quixote. It was to be the most expensive movie financed solely by European money. Even with the star power of Johnny Depp, several problems plagued the production and caused it to get shut down.

You couldn’t script the problems this film ran into. Before shooting even begins, the budget is slashed. The first day of shooting is troubled by passing jets flying overhead, constantly ruining shots. Then a sudden rainstorm washes out the rest of the day. The star, Jean Rochefort is plagued with a painful prostate problem and can’t even saddle his horse. When his doctors refuse to allow him to return to work, the investors shut the movie down.

The fact that Gilliam is on a quixotic quest of his own is not lost on anyone. Orson Welles once tried to mount his own production of Don Quixote, which met with similar results. Hey, if Orson Welles couldn’t pull it off, no one could. Since we all know the outcome already, watching the film is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Narrated by Jeff Bridges, Lost in La Mancha is fun and engaging. However, it never really digs its heels in the way the best documentaries about films do. At worst, it’s a glorified DVD extra. At best, it’s a cool glimpse of what could’ve been.