If "The Pink Panther" had been made by Britain's Ealing Studios, you'd have some idea of what "Mortdecai" is like. I mention that film because so many have made a comparison I simply don't see. If I were going to be blunt, I'd say "Mortdecai" is like "The Pink Panther" except that it's genuinely funny. Yes, David Koepp's fim (adapted from Kyril Bonfiglioli's novel by Eric Aronson) features a clueless and bumbling main character – though Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is all too aware he's a bumbler, cowardly and unscrupulous. He's a bankrupt British nobleman who has deals in stolen art, though not with complete success. MI5 is aware of his activities so agent Martland (Ewan McGregor) looks the other way because Mortdecai can be of help on certain cases and also because Martland is smitten with Mortdecai's wife, Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow in a delicious performance). When a renowned art restorer is murdered and a Goya painting that had been in her possession goes missing, Martland insists Mortdecai locate it or face prosecution for a very thick dossier of crimes. But while our (anti)hero is trying to figure out who has the painting, Russian thugs, angry Orientals, a U.S. art dealer (Jeff Goldblum), and a terrorist are all after Mortdecai because they think he has the painting that, by the way, has the codes to Swiss bank accounts full of Nazi loot scribbled on the back of the canvas.
"Mortdecai" is globe-trotting fun as the title character is kidnapped by the Russians, stalked by the terrorist and travels to Los Angeles to sell his Rolls (partly because he needs the money and partly because the buyer is that art collector who might have the painting). He's always accompanied – or trailed – by his improbably dedicated manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) who repeatedly rescues his master from life-threatening situations, often gets accidentally wounded by Mortdecai in the process. This is only one of several running gags that thread through the film (the title character's absurd moustache practically becomes a sub-plot). For those of us who recall the kind of comedy for which "Mortdecai" serves as almost a valentine the dry approach taken is much funnier than if they'd been bludgeoned home. Koepp and Depp are aiming at the kind of films that characterized British comic adventures such as "Our Man in Havana" up to such later efforts as the original "Casino Royale" where absurd situations are played as if perfectly normal. Those who seem to think Depp is channeling Peter Sellers – or worse, Steve Martin – as Inspector Clouseau clearly don't know their movies – and while it's sad to see supposed movie fans who apparently know of almost nothing made more than 40 years ago, seeing professional critics being equally ill-informed is truly distressing. Those who get the kind of film "Mortdecai" is referencing will find it a treasure.
2015 / Lionsgate / 107m / $19.99 BR [PG-13]
As I started watching "The Cobbler," I began to wonder if my critical colleagues were wrong in declaring Adam Sandler's newest film a train wreck. It isn't great, I found myself thinking, but it's not bad; maybe given Sandler's CV they were just expecting something quite different. Of course said colleagues had the advantage over me of having watched this film to the end and by the time I got there I was forced to agree – but it's a train wreck that happens in increments. Now I'm no fan of Sandler's comic persona, so the prospect of seeing him tackle something new was a plus – as was a cast that includes Ellen Birkin, Steve Buscemi and (unbilled on the DVD box) Dustin Hoffman. And no, Rob Schneider anywhere to be found! Sandler portrays Max Simkin, a Manhattan shoe repairman who still refers to his shop as being his long-gone father's business. He lives in Sheep's Head Bay with his mother (Lynn Cohen) who suffers from some unspecified form of senility. He's what is called "a good son" but he's also a sad one; he is unattached and not happy with the work he's doing (it's unclear that he knows what he'd prefer doing). All this is beautifully handled and some of the credit must go to Sandler for a sensitive performance I'd not suspected he was capable of delivering. The unassuming, self-effacing and insecure Max is a far cry from the Sandler film persona.
In the shop's basement, Max discovers an ancient stitching machine that gives him the ability to take on the physical semblance of the owner of whatever shoes are repaired on it. And here – once the film has reached its premise – it begins to lose its way in no small part because it resembles one of those features made by compiling episodes from a TV series. At first Max wanders about the city looking like other people (does the old saw about not understanding someone until you walk in his shoes apply if you merely appear Oriental while strolling through Chinatown?). He impersonates his own father (Hoffman) for a dinner date with his mother. This is a lovely scene due to the playing of Hoffman and Cohen and it's wisely played out without dialogue for the most part. Why after all wouldn't ask where he's been for the last 15 years? Eventually Max deciders to use the power of the shoes to take down a slumlord (Birkin) and her thugs, the latter headed up by some cat who wants to be known as "Method Man" but who, despite that rapper name, delivers one of the film's best performances. All this leads to a revelation that you'll see coming and a finale that is so mind-crogglingly outré that I regret I can't reveal it here. "The Cobbler" has destructed well before that however because it can't decide what it wants its premise to address or what tone to adopt as it hovers uncertainly between comedy and drama.
2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 90m/ / $34.97 DVD+BR [PG-13]
THE LAST FIVE YEARS
If the movie musical shows intermittent signs of sputtering back to life I don't think "The Last Five Years" will be a major factor in its resuscitation. Oh, it's agreeable enough and in Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, it has attractive leads with glorious voices and no small amounts of acting talent. As they are pretty much the whole show in a film that tells the story of their characters' five-year relationship that's a plus. The gimmick is that we see those five years in reverse from Cathy's perspective and from beginning to end from Jamie's and it's primarily related in song. The first scene portrays Cathy after Jamie has left her while the next scene is of Jamie whisking Cathy home and into bed, waxing rhapsodic about his "Shiksa Goddess." Jamie is an aspiring writer who very shortly thereafter gets his first novel published while Cathy's acting career refuses to take off (her only theatrical employment seems to be a yearly stint at an Ohio summer theater). Her lack of success leads her to resent Jamie's and the demands it makes on her time; he in turn begins cheating on her with a variety of women.
In its theatrical incarnation – with only two actors – "The Last Five Years" was in some ways an updated version of "I Do! I Do!" (based on the play "The Fourposter"). And perhaps it works better as a kind of song cycle. As a story it lacks tension because we know from the start how the story ends and the details of how this particular relationship destructs just aren't all that novel (and sympathy seems skewed toward Jamie). Additionally the music doesn't strike me as particularly distinguished. But others may get more mileage from the film than I did. Its Off-Broadway stage version, though not a success, has been produced internationally since and has legions of fans, all of whom are likely to lap this film up like mother's milk. I was very impressed by Kendrick and Jordan and by how director Richard LaGravanese staged and filmed the scenes, many in long, unbroken takes with a fluid camera. It certainly doesn't feel like a filmed stage play. The material the trio are dealing with left me underwhelmed.
2014 / Anchor Bay Entertainment / 94m / $34.99 BR [PG-13]
"Miss Julie" was the first of Swedish playwright August Strindberg's attempts to create "naruralistic" drama. It has the rare distinction of being produced at least once every year somewhere in the world since its debut in 1888. There have been several film and TV productions before this latest from actress Liv Ullman who directed and adapted the material. The play takes place entirely in the kitchen of a grand house in Sweden belonging to a count. (For no discernible reason the film relocates things to Ireland and the estate of a baron – though I'm relatively certain such a title is not in use anywhere in the UK.) The titular Julie – who displays signs of mental instability – imperiously orders about the cook Christine and the uncommonly educated valet Jean. Christine obligingly drops off to sleep every now and again so Strindberg can deal with the real meat of his play: the attraction between Julie and Jean, complicated by their very different social classes. Because neither can openly declare their love (or possibly merely lust) they battle verbally until things get physical (offstage of course). That of course is when the real complications begin because Jean views sex as recreational and may only be interested in her money so that he can start a hotel.
My first clue that something might be awry with Ullman's film of "Miss Julie" came from the running time. The play is a one-act, admittedly a long one but is doesn't clock in at well over two hours as this adaptation does. Ullman has added an unnecessary wordless prologue of Julie as a child, drawn out the ending to an excruciating degree inserted oodles of pregnant pauses in between. The play works precisely because the white-hot sexual confrontation between Julie and Jean is restricted by a single set; by opening up the play – admittedly a standard procedure in bringing stage works to the screen – and by letting things proceed at such a laconic pace the intense drama dissipates. In a puzzling touch, Ullman has the action begin with Catherine (as the cook has been renamed), per Julie's instructions, poisoning her mistress' dog because it has allowed itself to be mounted by a mere mongrel (in the play the pooch is merely administered an abortifacient to rid her of the pups). Julie is enough of a horror without this alteration. Ullman has a solid cast with Jessica Chastain in the title role, Colin Farrell as John (he's been renamed, too) and Samantha Morton as Catherine. Chastain is especially impressive and her late in the film monologue as she breaks down threatens to bring the production to life. But it can't save a film that is too reverential for its own good.
2014 / Lionsgate / 130m / $26.98 [PG-13]
BLOOD OF THE VINE (Le sang de la vigne), Seasons 1, 2 & 3
The murder mystery genre has three basic approaches. There's the police procedural (almost a separate class of its own), the professional detective who may be a cop or a P.I. and the ever-popular amateur sleuth who just happens to be better at detecting than the professionals around him or her. The French TV series "Blood of the Vine" centers on enologist (that's a wine expert) Benjamin Lebel (Pierre Arditi) who seems to encounter homicide on every assignment for which he's hired. He publishes books on wine and an annual guide so when Inspector Barbaroux (Vincent Winterhalter), who in the first season seems to end up on the case no matter the apparent jurisdiction, encounters a peculiar murder he seeks our hero's expertise. An old gent has been smothered to death and the killer has left behind a horseshow arrangement of wine glasses with wine poured into only one of the glasses. The policeman suspects the wine may be a clue to the murder – which soon becomes plural of course – and so calls in Lebel to identify it. To the inspector's annoyance, Lebel can't refrain from poking his nose further into the case. It turns out that his skill in determining the various grapes used to create a vintage translates into sorting through clues to detect the killer. Naturally the police don't welcome his intrusion.
The first episode also introduces France (Claire Nebout), a fellow enologist who becomes Lebel's romantic partner, and two assistants who aid Lebel in his critical guides and, somewhat reluctantly, in his sleuthing (Catherine Demaiffe as Mathilde and Alexander Hamidi – who after a single episode was replaced by Yoann Denaive as Silvere). The relationship between Lebel and his assistants is prickly, especially when he involves them in sleuthing without warning them of potential danger and the man has a talent for annoying people ("It's part of my charm," he smilingly tells one police officer) so the tone lightens what are often quite brutal murders (the shotgun killing of an old couple in an early episode is particularly nasty). Based on "The Winemaker Detective Series" by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen the movies aren't far removed from such US productions as "Murder She Wrote," though the setting lends an exotic touch for us Yanks. You may even learn something about wine (did you ever learn anything about writing from Jessica Fletcher?). Episodes take place in France's winemaking regions so there are the glimpses of the French countryside, small towns and magnificent (mostly ancient) houses; it seems winemakers there all live in houses that are practically castles, making me question my choice of vocation. So pour a nice glass of something red (but not too heavy), serve up a nice cheese and some pears and kick back with "Blood of the Vine."
2010-13 / MHz Networks / 371m, 370m, 370m / $39.95 ea. [NR]