Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Into the Woods

*** out of ****

I really enjoyed Into the Woods. That doesn't mean everyone will. This is a film that appealed to my specific tastes in a way that made a gratifying experience. The fact that it passed my late-night viewing test, where the movie kept me awake instead of leading me to slap myself in the face, is a good sign.

Everyone in this movie, from Meryl Streep to Chris Pine, could sing -and I have a special affection for beautiful women, like Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick singing beautiful music. The other appeal to my specific taste is its co-creator. I think that broadway legend, Stephen Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist and composer of heavenly music. 

As I've learned, even from people who like musicals, not everyone enjoys his work. It's not as pop-music oriented as the kind of stuff people get from Andrew Lloyd-Webber or animated Disney films.

Here, Disney has thankfully produced an aesthetically rich live-action opera, filled with grand production design and elegant special effects that don't reach the overkill level of their film, Maleficent, from earlier this year. Director Rob Marshall does good work with a talented ensemble to recreate a show that combines multiple Grimm fairy tales in their grotesque incarnations playfully inhabiting the same world.

The movie is refreshingly silly and thankfully free of any last-minute moronic sincerity often found in family entertainment. Its only real problem was shared with me by friends long before I saw it: The final act drags. It is my presumption that this is due to its adaption being too true to the original. In big stage shows, you have the benefit of an intermission, welcoming an extended finale. In a movie, it can feel tedious, wearing out its welcome. I'm sure everyone involved knew this, but probably also knew there was no easy editorial solution. Regardless of this flaw, I still found it to be a lot of fun.   

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


**** out of ****

Jean-Marc Vallée didn't impress me as much as he impressed others with Dallas Buyer's Club last year. It was a fine film that told an important story with great performances from his cast, but I felt like it was held back by a TV Movie-style narrative, similar to this year's The Theory of Everything (though not nearly as bad) which created a somewhat monotonous experience.

Watching his new film, Wild, however, led me to recall how often Vallée likes to incorporate flashback footage into scenes without their audio, preferring the white noise of the environment the character inhabits during their recollection. This is nothing new, but I've always considered it to be a very effective method in conveying memory -and it really hasn't been used in mainstream movies to the point of becoming a standard editorial formula. To the benefit of this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir, he utilizes non-linear editing on a much heavier level this time and I'm beginning to appreciate him, as a director, much more.

Reese Witherspoon embodies the humanity of a soul-searching wanderer, dodging the phony hippy cliches through physically strenuous situations and strong narration, making poetic literary quotations with the earnestness they require. Nick Hornby was a good choice to adapt Strayed's story for a screenplay.

Her memories of life decisions and tragedies that befell her are a constant in her consciousness, as she hikes 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The most painful of all these memories are those of her mother (Laura Dern), whose passing affected her so deeply, her life spiraled out of control. What's so true and beautiful about this film, is seeing how remote things in the wilderness can trigger memories and provoke self-reflection.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

American Sniper

*** out of ****

When formulating a title, why does anyone arrive at "American [insert noun here]"? So many movies, including good ones, have wound up with "American" as part of the title and I'm surprised they don't disinterest more Americans for such a broad sense of identity.

Maybe I need to know how they compare to films like, "Hungarian Pie," "Argentine Graffiti" and "Canadian Hustle."

In American Sniper, Bradley Cooper delivers a performance worthy of his nomination, as Chris Kyle, a patriotic Navy SEAL who became the deadliest marksman in US history, while serving four tours in Iraq. Clint Eastwood’s film may tell the story of a super-soldier, but it is likely to connect with veterans of any role - and their families - who have ever dealt with the uncertainty of war and the trauma that follows.

Like a lot of Eastwood pictures, the film is a fine balance between raw spontaneity and traditional straightforward storytelling with the tendency to feel redundant using too many scenes in its long runtime, that communicate the same thing again and again.

It's also likely to evoke strong feelings anyone ever had about the war in Iraq. It's hard to express my feelings on the film without getting political. What I got out of the movie was fascination for the skill and life of an expert in deadly work, and the traumatic pressure a soldier can carry. However, The Hurt Locker and many other films with similar themes managed to be more interesting.

Eastwood portrays military procedural situations, SEAL training and horrifying shootouts incredibly well, but his insistence that I admire the main character was lost on me. I don't like people like Chris Kyle -or at least the character portrayed in this film. This judgement isn't as much about what he did as it is about what he believed. 


***1/2 out of ****

In Selma, David Oyelowo, an actor who does not resemble Dr.Martin Luther King, does wonders in humanizing the saintly historical figure as a brilliant strategist in non-violent protest. Director Ava DuVernay, working with a screenplay that was restricted from using any of King’s actual speeches finds a formula similar to what we saw in Spielberg’s Lincoln*. It focuses on one section of the hero’s legacy in order to ground the film, rather than stuff it with an entire life story.

We get to see a man behind the public persona, filled with frustration as he fights for voting rights through life-risking demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, where he accurately estimates that media exposure of the inevitable police brutality will bring support to their cause. In the company of Ralph Abernathy (Coleman Domingo), James Bevel (Common) and student organizers like the young John Lewis (Stephan James), a great movement begins -and all following King's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize when he knew his work was far from over. 

We also see his interactions with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), which are rightfully the source of historical criticism. Johnson is portrayed as hesitant to jeopardize his other goals, but it is debated that Johnson was, in fact, very cooperative with King.

One must ask why Lyndon Johnson needed to be yet another obstacle, requiring manipulation in a story where King and his collaborators were unquestionably the leaders in this call for freedom. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and the Alabama state police were already the source of great villainy.

The film has some distracting casting. Oprah Winfrey is so good as Annie Lee Cooper in her one dialogue scene, that I was hoping for the movie to be more focused on her story. There was also a lot of famous white people playing historic figures whose roles in the film may have had more weight, if I didn't associate their recognizable faces with their body of work. Stephen Root is always good, though.

Selma is a historical biopic and bound to be filled with embellishments, but it is thankfully focused on communicating the essentially important aspects of its history lesson through skillful traditional drama. 

{*Side note: It's interesting that Oyelowo was in the first scene in Lincoln as a vocal black Union soldier sharing a vision expectations with the President, by listing all the things African Americans might be allowed when freed, concluding with "the vote."}

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Life Itself

**** out of ****

During the last days of film critic Roger Ebert's life, his family, friends, colleagues and some of the film industry's most prominent figures all contributed to making his legacy known. Documentarian Steve James, whose film, Hoop Dreams, Ebert championed, made sure that this film would do the man justice.

Based on Ebert's widely praised autobiography (written shortly after a surgery for salivary cancer took away his ability to speak), Life Itself follows around Ebert and his loving wife Chaz in and out of a Chicago Hospital, while undergoing exhaustive treatments and surgeries. Ebert bravely allows himself to be captured in a very vulnerably uncomfortable state. Without a jaw or the ability to walk due to a fractured hip, we see him enduring a great amount of pain when nurses tend to his many needs. During free time, he communicates using his computer's keyboard with an electronic voice program.

Passages of Ebert's book are read, while archival photos are shown. We are treated to anecdotes by filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris -and film critics, like A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss, who discuss their professional interactions with Roger.

The highlight material, however, is found in the best-of moments between Ebert and his departed At The Movies co-star Gene Siskel, which reminds us of a time when film criticism was passionate and had a strong following. Their arguments were incredible. 

The real heart of the film is in Ebert's relationship with his wife and step-children whose role was a source of great joy in his personal life, for which, until they entered, was lonely and insecure.

I saw this film last summer, and skipped reviewing it, because it gave me more motivation than ever, to move on to another movie and write a review. As I conveyed in this blog, after Ebert's passing, he was a great support in my life as a film fan, reaffirming my fondness for under-appreciated films (Joe Versus the Volcano), pointing me towards great films I would have otherwise ignored (Out of Sight); stopped me from gathering friends to see a highly anticipated dud (Snake Eyes); and explained his point of view fairly even when I didn't agree with his stance on a film (Team America: World Police).

In an age of internet consensus, there is a flood of snarky commentators spouting off fallacies with little care for what makes a movie work. In movie conversations, I still regularly encounter people who think that the star is the source of the movie's value.

Here is a movie where the protagonist is an old, jawless, bedridden man and it's one of 2014's best.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

Inherent Vice

**1/2 out of ****

After his crowning accomplishment, There Will Be Blood, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s films seem to be missing something. I wouldn’t be quick to blame it on Joaquin Phoenix as his current go-to leading man. Phoenix is undoubtedly talented, but not at winning my sympathy. Still, I consider his animal-like demeanor to be a welcome challenge when he is the protagonist.

In Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, Anderson embraces film noir of the countercultural variety. Like in The Long Goodbye and The Big Lewbowski, our detective is an unconventional hero. In this case, “Doc” Sportello, played by Phoenix, is a bumbling doper of a P.I. in early nineteen-seventies L.A., lending his services to hippies, misfits and radicals who can’t look to the law for help.

In accordance with the genre, he embarks on an investigation, sparked by a beautiful woman (Katherine Waterston) and is often side-swiped by legitimate investigators (in this case, a hippy-hating bull of a police detective wonderfully played by Josh Brolin), while meeting weirdo after weirdo, and being knocked-out and beat-up multiple times along the way. Sometimes there is narration, but instead of the deep and gruff first-person voice we’re used to, we hear the squeaky feminine delivery of singer Joanna Newsom, a minor character in the film.

Anderson’s proven competence with period settings and love of the seventies dominates the overall tone of this film gorgeously. The costumes, hairstyles and architecture are all captured perfectly on celluloid, but I’d be lying if I claimed that the two-hours and twenty minutes of aimless disorienting narrative with too many characters left me feeling satisfied.

The movie reminded me of the drug-addled quest seen in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where odd twists and turns seem to be enacting nonsensical story elements from an unreliable perspective. Like noir going all the way back to the Bogart/Bacall flick, The Big Sleep, there is so much to follow, it hardly seems worth following. I just went with the flow, wondering which of this film’s long list of eccentric casting choices would steal a scene –and it happened plenty of times.

There are a lot of laughs and delights scattered throughout in this film’s experience, including fearlessly directed segments involving seduction and inexplicably weird actions, but I didn’t leave with that feeling of invigoration that Anderson’s indulgences used to earn.

The Imitation Game

***1/2 out of ****

Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game tells us the story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), an unsung hero of the Second World War, whose work remained a secret long after his tragic end. Turing was a mathematician, working with British Intelligence intercepting Nazi transmissions and messages encrypted with the supposedly unbreakable Enigma code. He was responsible for a code-breaker machine (the first algorithmic computer), which cracked Enigma, helped the allied forces win the war, and set in motion a world of modern digital computing.

The film may be formulaic, but not in any way that I find annoying. Every dramatic turn and character arc feels earned, regardless of how embellished it may be. This movie isn’t very inventive but it effectively uses great talent and dependable tactics to tell us a dramatized story based on history worth knowing.