Category Archives: Movies

Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #9 Breaking Away

#9. Breaking Away (1979)  Breaking Away will always have a spot on my top 10 favorites list because of the influence it had on my life.  I saw it with my family when it came out in ’79, and it sparked a passion for cycling that has never burned out.

The story, set in Bloomington, Indiana, is about a group of four townies who are stuck in the no-man’s land between high school and adulthood.  They are referred to by the college kids as Cutters, a derogatory reference to their blue-collar fathers who work in the nearby quarries.  And so, in addition to being a coming-of-age story, it’s also a story about class, and more specifically, identity.

Dave Stoller is a Cutter.  He’s a dreamy, goofy kid with only one noticeable talent – cycling.  His backstory involves some undisclosed illness in which a bicycle aided in his recovery.  The bike has become an extension of his identity, and to his friends and family, he’s a harmless eccentric.  But he’s got real talent.  His obsession with cycling is manifested in his devotion to all things Italian.  His room is filled with posters.  He listens only to Italian opera.  He even speaks broken Italian with an exaggerated accent.  Did I say he was a bit goofy?

His friends include: Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley, who also played Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears movies), a dirty, sweaty, dog-loyal redneck with a heart of gold, Cyril (Daniel Stern, from Diner and The Wonder Years), a lovable loser, and Mike (Dennis Quaid).

Mike is the former quarterback/captain of the football team who can’t come to grips with the fact that he no longer has a real team to lead.  He desperately tries to keep the four guys together, even insulting and badgering them as they start to feel out new directions in their lives.  He becomes the archetypal ex-jock – soon to be the old guy with the beer gut who was once the muscle-bound hero for the local team.

And so all of these boys struggle with identity as they grope their way into the next phase of their lives.

As a kid, I identified completely with Dave.  Untouched by the harsh realities of life – in contrast to his cynical, hard-working father (brilliantly played by Paul Dooley) – Dave lives in a dream world where he passes himself off as an Italian exchange student in order to escape his drab existence and possibly win the love of a beautiful coed at Indiana University.

This carefree, head-in-the-clouds existence is galling to Dave’s father, who resents his son’s optimism and worries about his future.  And there to mediate this generation gap is Evelyn/wife/mom (Barbara Barrie, in an Oscar nominated performance), who knows how to encourage her son’s dreams while soothing her husband’s frustration.  She’s a cross between June Cleaver and Henry Kissinger.

Dave gets his dose of real-life soon enough when two events come together at once.  First, he has a hand in his father’s heart attack in a comic scene where used-car salesman dad argues with a dissatisfied customer who tries to return a lemon.  The second, and perhaps more damaging, incident occurs when Dave finally gets to race against his heroes from Italy’s Team Cinzano, who are touring America in exhibition races.  When the Italian’s can’t out-ride pesky Dave, they resort to dirty tricks and cause him to wreck.  In the process, they rob him of his innocence.

From there, things start to unravel for Dave.  He confesses his true identity to his coed girlfriend, who rejects him.  In turn, Mike loses confidence in himself and just about gives up his struggle against the smug college boys.  Moocher threatens to break up the team by secretly getting married.  Cyril is…Cyril.

Potential redemption comes in the form of yet another bike race.  Because of the bickering between the college boys and the Cutters, the school decides to open their annual bike race – The Little 500 – to a team from the town, which sets the stage for either cathartic revenge or crushing humiliation.

If the story sounds conventional, well, it is.  But it’s in the telling of the story – Steve Tesich’s writing, the acting, Peter Yates’ directing – that it rises above cliche and becomes something special.  Breaking Away has lost none of its resonance or charm.  Even after 31 years.

Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #10 The Incredibles

If I’ve learned nothing else from David Letterman, it’s that I like Top 10 lists, and what follows are my Top 10 favorite movies of all time…as of this writing.  Check back tomorrow, and it could be slightly different.

These are movies that I never tire of watching, that stir me as much today as they did when I first saw them.

#10.  The Incredibles (2004).  I love just about all of the Pixar movies (A Bug’s Life, not so much), but this one is easily my favorite.  Like the best Looney Tunes cartoons, The Incredibles has something for everyone: great animation, great action, funny gags, and at least a half-dozen fully formed characters.  But more than this, The Incredibles is great storytelling.

In addition to the super-hero-vs-super-villain-based plot that rivals the best of the James Bond movies, we get a sly bullseye of a critique of the way we in America both worship and destroy the extraordinary among us.  As the country takes the so-called Supers for granted, a backlash emerges, and the Supers are driven into what amounts as a witness protection program for the amazing.  As this happens, a super-villain emerges with the goal of distributing technology that promises to make everyone special – and when everyone is special, no one will be.

Finally, The Incredibles is a love letter to the nuclear family.  The Parrs – Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack – have their problems, but their greatest strength comes not from their freakish talents, but from the synergy of coming together in moments of great need.

The Incredibles is the ultimate family film, the ultimate Pixar film, as well as a great film for anyone who likes more than just loud explosions and T&A.

Film Review: Greenberg

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield’s oft-quoted meditation on the act of creating, he describes the great enemy of our creative impulses, that constant negative force that seeks to block us from rising to our higher level, a mocking, doubting-Thomas voice that rises up to tear us down when we strive for something better.  Pressfield calls this force Resistance, and in his cataloguing of the methods employed by Resistance to keep us stuck where we are, he could have included a DVD of “Greenberg”, the latest release from Noah Baumbach, the director of The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and co-writer of Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, is a man plagued by the fallout of a colossal failure from fifteen years earlier.  When we meet him, he’s just been released from a New York psychiatric hospital and has travelled to Los Angeles to housesit for his more successful brother.

It turns out that Roger was once the front man for an up-and-coming rock band, and on the eve of making it – of being signed by a major label – Roger freaked out – gave in to Resistance – and single-handedly killed the record deal, along with his band-mates’ careers in music.  Roger ended up in New York, a carpenter, cynic, and a writer of sarcastic and angry letters to companies and governmental agencies that don’t measure up to his perfectionistic standards of excellence.

Once in LA, Roger re-connects with old friends, like former band-mate Ivan, who know nothing of his breakdown, and are   He declares that he just wants “to do nothing for a while,” which is perhaps the highest expression of Resistance.  It’s also a project at which he fails miserably.

First, he re-connects with an old girlfriend, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, at a party and learns that she’s going through a divorce.  She reminds him of himself pre-collapse, and he sets out on a half-hearted attempt at rekindling the flame.

Second, and more pivotal, is Florence, played by indie it-girl Greta Gerwig, the personal assistant of Roger’s brother.  Florence is a woman cast adrift in her mid-20’s, alone and unsure of what to do with her life.  That is, until she meets Roger.

Having gotten his old girlfriend’s phone number, Roger can’t bring himself to call her.  Instead, he reaches out to Florence, time and again, to avoid being lonely.  An unlikely bond takes root as Roger at first uses Florence, but comes to depend on her good will and unspoiled nature to help him regain himself.

But it ain’t easy.  Throughout the film, Roger pushes Florence away, in favor of his quixotic pursuit of the old flame.  It’s this inability to let go of the past emerges as Roger’s (and Florence’s) primary stumbling block to contentment.

Greenberg is filled with fine performances, with Ben Stiller leading the way.  Though he’s played variations on this angry, dysfunctional guy before, Stiller has never been this good, this complete in his portrayal of a deeply flawed character.  It’s a testament to his performance that we root for him, even as he behaves terribly.

Similarly, Greta Gerwig takes a spin in familiar territory playing a girl who’s just getting started without a clue as to where she’s headed.  See her in Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes The Stairs and you’ll see a progression from Mumblecore goddess to mainstream movie star that is as seamless as it is appealing.  Gerwig keeps us from writing Florence off as a masochistic loser by infusing her with depth and sureness of purpose, even as we question her choices.

Rounding out this fine cast is Rhys Ifans, from Notting Hill, Roger’s former songwriting partner who has struggled with life after music, but comes to not only accept but also love the life he’s struggling to maintain.  As Ivan suffers through Roger’s self-obsessed rants and tantrums, he finally explodes on Roger near the end of the movie, and as he vents his anger at Roger’s thoughtlessness, he inadvertently challenges Roger to a new mission.  “…to embrace the life you never planned up.”

With credits that include Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and now Greenberg, Noah Baumbach is building an admirable catalog of very good films that feel like they could have been adapted from great American novels, complete with memorably quirky characters that challenge the conventions of what film heroes and heroines are supposed to be. Roger Greenberg is his most daring yet.  In giving us a protagonist who is angry, whiny, self-absorbed, and a whole host of other negative traits, Baumbach challenges us to see past the outward expression and find ourselves in Roger’s struggle.

The people in Roger’s world all roll with life’s punches and fight Resistance in their own way – some more successfully than the others.  And by coming home, at long last, Roger must decide whether to stay mired in the past or join the fight for an uncertain future.