Friday, April 24, 2015

Antarctica: A Year on Ice (2014) [PG] ****

A film review by Marc Mohan, Special to the Oregonian, posted on on December 4, 2014.

You'd think the movies have covered Antarctica pretty thoroughly by now. Whether prompting existential ponderings (Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World), hosting strange and beautiful wildlife (March of the Penguins) or serving as the backdrop to extraterrestrial terror (The Thing) the seventh continent has fascinated filmmakers.

But we've never gotten a real sense of what life is like for the hardy souls who live in the most inhospitable place on Earth, which is what director Anthony Powell provides in Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Powell, a communications technician from New Zealand, has spent nine winters there, and not only taught himself filmmaking, but devised equipment that could withstand extreme cold to make this film.

One of the first and most surprising points he makes is that the people at Scott Base (New Zealand's outpost) and McMurdo Station (the American one) aren't all, or even mostly, scientists. It makes sense, of course, that you'd need retailers, firefighters, office managers and other support staff for a functional community, but it's still refreshing to get the perspectives of ordinary folk — at least, as ordinary as you can be and still agree to spend a full year at the bottom of the world.

A Year on Ice also gives you an appreciation for the logistical hurdles involved in supplying a small town during the months when it's inaccessible to supply ships. It acquaints you with the particulars of T3 Syndrome, the mental fogginess that overtakes everyone after weeks of darkness and relative isolation. And it demonstrates the bonds that form between these hardy, vaguely loony souls, including home-movie footage of Powell's Antarctic wedding to a fellow traveler. To be tolerant is very important, understates one winter resident regarding the challenges of being cooped up for six months with relative strangers.

Powell doesn't stint on the visuals, either, using time-lapse to capture stunning auroras, terrifying storms and awe-inspiring vistas. (He also points out that a penguin colony isn't all cuteness and light — for one thing, it smells terrible.) Despite all the camaraderie, natural beauty and exotic weather, though, you couldn't pay me enough to live there, especially not when there's a movie like this to show me what I'm missing. [Mohan’s rating: ‘B’, equivalent to *** out of 4 stars]

[Blogger’s comment: While this was an educational documentary, for me the definitive films on the subject of Antarctica remain the 1983 Japanese language film Antarctica (original title Nankyoku monogatari) with music by Vangelis, and its 2006 remake, Eight Below starring Paul Walker, Jason Biggs and Bruce Greenwood.]

Labels: adventure, biography, documentary, drama

The Longest Week (2014) [PG-13] ***

A film review by Justin Lowe for on Sept. 1, 2014.

The familiar tribulations of wealthy white New Yorkers become the target of half-hearted, self-regarding social commentary in The Longest Week, a blithely derivative romantic comedy that isn’t without a certain smug charm. Video on Demand specialist Gravitas Ventures will give the film upcoming releases both in theaters and on-demand, where its recognizable casting is likely to achieve the most impact.

A frequent, insufferably omniscient voiceover (by Larry Pine) introduces luxury hotel heir Conrad Valmont (Jason Bateman), who’s pushing 40 and has made a vocation of being unemployed his entire life. Valmont experiences an unwelcome wake-up call, however, when he’s unceremoniously cut off by his divorcing parents and summarily evicted from New York’s Hotel Valmont, where he’s lived for decades. With his expense accounts frozen, he’s forced to move in with his well-off painter friend Dylan (Billy Crudup), although he keeps his precarious financial status to himself, explaining rather that his hotel suite is under renovation. Dylan immediately begins enthusiastically telling Conrad about Beatrice (Olivia Wilde), an attractive young model with a taste for Victorian literature, whom he’s recently met.

Then, when Dylan introduced him to Beatrice, Conrad realizes she’s the same mysterious woman he met on the subway the previous day, and who gave him her phone number. Although he promises Dylan not to interfere with his friend’s pursuit of Beatrice, Conrad sets up a date with her anyway and they quickly become lovers. When Dylan discovers this betrayal, he naturally kicks Conrad out of his place. Now homeless, Conrad moves in with Beatrice, who’s still unaware that his parents have disinherited him. It won’t be long before this is also exposed as well, and Conrad will face a reckoning that may finally force him to take responsibility for his rather inconsequential life.

Writer-director Peter Glanz’s A Relationship in Four Days, a short film selection at Sundance and Cannes, serves as the basis for his debut feature, which freely references the work of various auteurs ranging from Godard to Woody Allen. Valmont similarly aspires to follow in the steps of highly regarded novelists, but since he’s lazy and not particularly talented, his book project has been languishing for a decade. Bateman readily grasps the minor conflicts inherent in Valmont’s lifestyle, but he’s less successful at articulating his major life crises. In part this is due to Glanz’s preference for consigning major plot and character developments to the narrator for novelistic voiceover description, so that these key story points often occur off-screen or during insignificant transitional scenes.

Styled like a New York version of Anna Karenina, Wilde would fare better if the film were a more even-handed two-hander, but caught between the affections of competing men with very similar characteristics, Beatrice remains incompletely articulated. Crudup’s Dylan could also have benefited from clearer delineation and more definitive conflicts with Valmont to achieve a degree of character differentiation that’s often lacking.

As either romantic comedy or late-life coming-of-age material, the film’s arc falls short of the transformative experiences typical of these genres, although Glanz’s mildly amusing tone remains appealingly lighthearted throughout. [Lowe’s rating: ** ½ out of 5 stars]

Blogger's comment: If you're a fan of highly stylized films with voice-over narration, like Wes Anderson's work (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom) and you enjoy watching the three leads (Crudup, Bateman, Wilde) then you will likely enjoy The Longest Week. Otherwise... probably not.

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

The Fault in Our Stars (2014) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on June 5, 2014.

Calling The Fault in Our Stars a teenage cancer romance might be understating the film's laudable qualities, but it's also a reasonably accurate three-word summary of the plot. Adapted from John Green's best-selling young-adult novel of the same name, The Fault in Our Stars merits notice not because of its formulaic storyline but because of the heartfelt manner in which it is presented. The acting is top-notch, the characters are three-dimensional, and the dialogue is sharp and witty. Josh Boone's direction is unremarkable but he understands how to get out of the way and let the actors do their thing. In the era of the auteur director, it's sometimes refreshing to find a filmmaker who recognizes the value of self-effacement.

To call a movie in which both leads have cancer and are dancing with the Grim Reaper a feel good experience isn't as unlikely as it might seem at first. Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) are in many ways more alive than most due to their constant awareness of the fragility of their existences. The average teenager isn't aware of his or her mortality; Hazel and Augustus have no choice but to be intimately acquainted with theirs. They live in the present because they may have no future. The movie captures this sense of immediacy in an effortless, unforced manner. Only toward the end, when events reach their terminus, does Boone overdo the manipulation. The only thing missing at this point is a blinking neon sign demanding: Cry, dammit! It's obvious The Fault in Our Stars doesn't want a dry eye in the theater.

The movie is told from Hazel's perspective and, although her voiceover narrative isn't a guarantee that she'll survive the proceedings, it offers a sense of reassurance. We’re introduced to her around the time she first encounters Augustus at a cancer support group meeting. Both of their diseases are in remission but she carries around an oxygen cylinder because her lungs are prone to filling with fluid and she can't breathe without it. Augustus appears completely healthy, having apparently beaten his affliction after losing a leg to it. The two bond, flirt, send each other witty text messages, and move forward with a quasi-romance until Hazel decides they should just be friends. She argues that since she's likely to die sooner than later, it would only hurt Augustus to become embroiled in a love affair with her. He demurs and continues to pursue her.

The screenplay contains more humor than can be found in the average cancer-related film, although it falls short of the pinnacle achieved by 50/50, which largely avoided the kind of overt manipulation that emerges late in The Fault in Our Stars. The characters here are beautifully realized. As cliché-riddled as the plot may be, Hazel and Augustus stand out as genuine, credible individuals, and the honesty with which they are brought to the screen trumps many other concerns and obfuscates nitpicky flaws. Shailene Woodley, who has blossomed in motion pictures during the past year with star turns in The Spectacular Now and Divergent, is in top form here (even if she seems a little too old to play a teenager). Her lover is brought to life by Ansel Elgort (who portrayed her brother in Divergent). Laura Dern is Hazel's mother; her role is meatier than is common for parents in teen-centered motion pictures. Willem Dafoe is Hazel's favorite author, Peter Van Houten, whose introduction argues that sometimes heroes and icons are best kept at a distance.

The movie adaptation of Green's novel is faithful to the source, in large part due to the author's ongoing involvement in the production. Fans of The Fault in Our Stars are unlikely to find fault with how the material has been transitioned from page to screen. The core demographic will likely be thrilled but even those who haven't read a page of the book and come to this project with a natural inclination toward cynicism will find things to appreciate about this tragic-yet-uplifting love story. The tale itself may be unremarkable but the characters and emotions are real, and sometimes that's all it takes for a movie to win over the unbelievers. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, romance, teenager, tragedy

American Sniper (2014) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Dec. 23, 2014

American Sniper lifts director Clint Eastwood out of the doldrums that have plagued his last few films. Loosely based on the life of decorated Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, the movie not only represents the best effort from Eastwood since his Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby but the finest acting we have seen thus far from two-time nominee Bradley Cooper, who is asked to do (and succeeds in doing) far more here than in any of his past roles. This gripping film recalls (in different ways) aspects of two recent war-related pictures: Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Jim Sheridan's Brothers. Although packaged as a thriller, American Sniper has a strong dramatic underpinning that enriches the characters. And, as is always the case, strongly realized individuals populating a movie result in greater tension and suspense because we care about the fates of those involved in the events.

Kyle, who served four tours in Iraq during the 2000s, has 160 confirmed kills to his name - the most of any American sniper. The movie opens with a powerful sequence set in the streets of a small town near Nasiriya, Iraq. It's March 2003 during the initial invasion. Kyle is positioned atop a building overlooking an abandoned street. As U.S. forces approach from one direction, a woman and her son emerge. Sighting her through his scope, Kyle recognizes that she has what appears to be a grenade, which she gives to the boy. Kyle must make a decision: shoot and risk killing an innocent child (They'll fry you if you're wrong - they'll send you to Leavenworth, his spotter cautions him) or hold his fire and risk a catastrophe. It's not an easy decision and Eastwood makes us complicit in Kyle's choice.

The scene, like many in the movie, has been doctored from its real-life counterpart to make for better cinema. The real account, as related in Kyle's autobiography, doesn't include the child. It's just the woman. American Sniper plays fast and loose with the facts in several instances to make it a more compelling movie. Kyle is given an enemy with the name of Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) and there are times when these two appear to be fighting their own private struggle within the war. I have no problems with straying from the historical record in a non-documentary motion picture and at least most of American Sniper's changes work within the film's context.

Following the opening sequence, we are treated to an extended series of flashbacks that encapsulate 25 years into an equal number of minutes. We spend a few short scenes with Kyle as a child, struggle through the mud with him at Basic Training as he learns to be a SEAL (all the while expecting R. Lee Ermey to pop up with a cameo), meets cute his eventual wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), experiences the seismic cultural shift that comes from 9/11, and ships off to Iraq. His kill on that day near Nasiriya is his first but far from his last. In his many years spent in the war-torn country, he participates in many of the major actions and earns the nicknames of The Devil of Ramadi (given by the insurgents) and The Legend (given by his fellow soldiers).

Eastwood pulls us into the chaos of war without having to resort to shaky handheld cameras - proof, if it was needed, that a capable director can capture the essence of war without having to abandon a tripod. The first 110 minutes of American Sniper represent masterful cinema - taut, smart, formidable stuff. Unfortunately, the movie stalls during its final twenty minutes as it attempts to switch gears and present a theme that other films (like Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July and the aforementioned Brothers) have done better. Nevertheless, the anticlimactic denouement is more muddled than bad and doesn't undo the power of what precedes it.

American Sniper is pretty much Bradley Cooper for 134 minutes. As good as Cooper was in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, his work here represents a career-best. This is his first transformative role - a part where he has stretched beyond his comfort zone and not been found wanting. As I write this, it's unclear whether the Academy will recognize him but there's little doubt his portrayal, which includes moments of machismo interspersed with instances of pathos and inadequacy - is worthy. A barely recognizable Sienna Miller plays the light and love of Kyle's life and does her best to make Taya more than the token supportive-but-abandoned wife.

American Sniper does no political preaching. Kyle's book drips with patriotism, some of which translates to the screen, but this is no jingoistic piece of propaganda. Neither is it an anti-American hatchet job. Instead, it keeps the rightness or wrongness of the war at arm's length and focuses instead on the struggles of the men in the trenches. This is about their lives, their difficulties, and the demons they must wrestle with both in country and after they return home. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: action, biography, drama, history, thriller, war

Before We Go (2014) [PG-13] ***

A film review by David Rooney for on Sept. 12, 2014.

First-time director Chris Evans stars alongside Alice Eve in this nocturnal odyssey of two strangers in New York

If you’re going to make an ultra-naturalistic, two-character, walking-and-talking romance that tips its hat to Before Sunrise, the film that began Richard Linklater’s exquisite trilogy, then it’s best to avoid a script loaded with contrived situations and overwritten dialogue. That’s the obstacle that hobbles Before We Go, Chris Evans’ wispy directing debut, almost from the start. Bland characters don’t help much either. Still, this Toronto Radius pickup makes New York City look nearly as pretty as the two leads, which might give it minimal cachet as a date movie — or at least a date VOD.

Working from a screenplay co-written by Ron Bass (Rain Man), Evans has surrounded himself with an accomplished craft team. That includes cinematographer John Guleserian, whose limber camera conducts a love affair with the nighttime locations, and editor John Axelrad, who brings gentle, fluttering rhythms to the action that further the script’s real-time illusion. But a nice-looking package will only get you so far, and the insubstantiality of this actor-driven exercise makes it seem simultaneously modest and a vanity project.

Evans may have cast off his Captain America suit, but he’s fashioned himself another kind of hero in beautiful loser Nick, a jazz trumpeter with a heavy heart. We can’t hear him beneath the soundtrack’s first melancholy blast of indie rock, but we see him busking in the halls of Grand Central Station when gorgeous art consultant Brooke (Alice Eve) makes a dash for the last New Haven train. Her obvious distress upon missing it prompts him to put his woes on hold and rescue a lady in a jam.

Turns out well-heeled Brooke’s Prada handbag was stolen with all her cash and cards, and she broke her cell phone running for the train. While she’s somewhat abrasive in response to Nick’s initial attempts to help, his gallantry won’t be deterred. It seems anything is preferable to the prospect of a party where the ex for whom he still carries a torch has shown up with another man on her arm.

So begins a nocturnal odyssey that’s basically Strangers in the Night, heavy on the doo-be-doo-be-doo part. Whether the film is in sexy-flirty mode, or whimsical and funny, or if it shifts into needling banter or painful emotional disclosure, there’s a weightlessness to Before We Go that makes you wonder if it might just float away.

The script concocts various ways — many of them transparently phony — to keep the two of them together and talking long enough to reveal their respective struggles and sorrows. There’s an abortive bid to retrieve Brooke’s purse from a Chinatown fencing operation, an improvised ploy to raise carfare by posing as the musical entertainment at an upscale hotel reception, and a mood-deflating visit to the party Nick has been avoiding, where he encounters his former flame, Hannah (Emma Fitzpatrick).

In an effort to up the stakes with some dramatic urgency, a real reason emerges why Brooke needs to be home by morning. That prompts much soul-searching about her marriage and whether or not it’s worth saving.  Likewise, Nick faces personal truths about his lingering emotional impasse and the crisis of confidence that could affect his chances at an important audition the next day.

Both actors are appealing. They show as much depth and sensitivity as is probably possible with these thinly conceived roles, and their easy rapport makes the instant connection credible. But the characters' problems and fears are not complex enough to be engrossing, and ultimately, they never become much more than a windily contemplative extension of a meet-cute scenario. When a twinkly-eyed old storefront psychic (the always reliable John Cullum) tells Nick and Brooke he sees a future together for them, it’s difficult to share his investment. [Rooney’s rating: * ½ out of 5 stars]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

Rudderless (2014) [R] ****

A film review by Sam Weisberg for on Oct. 15, 2014.

Of all the movie hybrids, William H. Macy's feature directorial debut, Rudderless, is among the strangest, combining plot elements of the schlocky 1980s rock 'n' roll franchise Eddie and the Cruisers with that of somber grieving dramas like We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The result, despite a few stellar moments, is a not-quite-tragic-enough meditation on mourning and self-healing, crossed with a not-quite-gritty-enough portrait of indie rockers trying to break big. A fine Billy Crudup plays a once-successful businessman turned alcoholic, houseboat-dwelling recluse, shell-shocked after the sudden death of his college-aged singer-songwriter son.

At a dying, open-mic bar a local teen (Anton Yelchin, in nattering Jesse Eisenberg mode) sees Crudup's character perform one of the son's many unreleased songs and then tries to convince him to start a band. When Crudup isn't reluctantly jamming with kids half his age, he's being hounded by his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman) for not coping better with their loss. Macy and his co-writers, Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison, deserve accolades for putting together an indie folk band that is actually good (like Wilco without the whining).

They have a shrewd grasp on the enthusiastic, motley crowds that patronize small-town joints; the throngs vary wildly in age and get pumped up by such kitsch as a stomping punk version of Wheels on the Bus. But it's puzzling why a talent like Macy bothered with a project that is so long on sentiment and short on comic relief — and unclear on what it wants to say on a variety of hot-button topics. [Weisberg’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, drama, music

Laggies (2014) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Nov. 6, 2014

Maturity can be an evanescent quality. Sometimes, even when you've acquired it, you don't recognize it. As a grown woman or man, having left childhood long behind, it's still possible to think of oneself as a young person playing the part of an adult. Many introspective individuals have probably had the experience of suddenly recognizing that, by virtue of their chronological age, they no longer fit in with a group of teenagers. That part of life is gone, never to come again. Time to move on…

For Megan (Kiera Knightley), high school graduation was 10 years ago. Now, at age 28, unemployed and adrift in her home town of Seattle (despite an advanced college degree), she finds herself at loose ends, like another verse in Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days. All of her friends are married (or marrying) and accepting the responsibilities of their new positions. But something in Megan rebels against it. She finds herself instead seeking the companionship of 16-year old Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a kid she meets by chance and ends up forming a friendship with. Feeling suffocated by her life, which includes a well-meaning but inept fiancé, Anthony (Mark Webber), a philandering father, and busybody neighbors, she puts her life on hold and heads off to Annika's for an extended slumber party. Annika's single father, Craig (Sam Rockwell), is suspicious of this friendship between a grown woman and his still developing daughter but, like Annika, he is drawn to Megan, although perhaps for different reasons.

Initially, we are invited to see Megan as being trapped in a state of arrested development, unable to move on from the best years of her life, confined in the past and unwilling to face the future. As the narrative unfolds, however, we determine that Megan's stasis is not the result of immaturity but a fear of entering the Stepford Wife lifestyle embraced by her friends. What attracts Megan to Annika isn't necessarily her youth but the possibilities inherent in that youth. Annika is with like-minded people who appreciate her for who and what she is. Megan's same-age friends have grown apart from her but are trying to keep her close. They, not her, are clinging to the past.

Over the course of her career, Kiera Knightley has played her share of famous characters, including Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, but in some ways she's at her best portraying contemporary characters: Jules in Bend it Like Beckham, Penny in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Megan in this movie. The performance is natural and the emotions are unforced. We feel for Megan and, most importantly, we understand her. She is ably abetted by two strong co-stars: the up-and-coming Chloe Grace Moretz, who has become the go-to-girl for female teenage roles, and quirky character actor Sam Rockwell.

Director Lynn Shelton opts for a simple shooting style that emphasizes relationships and dialogue rather than trying to call attention to the filmmaker's talent. The party scenes have just the right amount of chaos and the quieter moments don't feel rushed. I have some issues about the ending, which is too pat and upbeat, but that's only five minutes out of 100. For the most part, Laggies offers an engaging portal into the life of an appealingly confused 28-year old who doesn't have all the answers and isn't afraid to admit it. Coming-of-age stories, it seems, needn't be limited to teenagers. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, romance, teenager

Like Sunday, Like Rain (2014) [R] ***

A film review by Gary Goldstein, for the L.A. Times on March 20, 2015.

Writer-director Frank Whaley, primarily a busy film and TV actor (Field of Dreams, The Doors, Pulp Fiction, Vacancy), has crafted a tender, evocative tale of an unlikely friendship in his fourth outing behind the camera, Like Sunday, Like Rain.

The title, which evokes some lost Neil Diamond song, refers to a music composition written by 12-year-old Reggie (Julian Shatkin), a math and cello prodigy, music composer, voracious reader and all-around genius who lives in hollow luxury on Manhattan's Upper West Side with his tense, dismissive mother, Barbara (Debra Messing).

Then there's Eleanor (Leighton Meester), a 20ish waitress with a man-child guitarist boyfriend (Billie Joe Armstrong) who's just frayed her last nerve. A perfect storm of events leads the floundering Eleanor to a gig as Reggie's live-in nanny, just as Barbara is leaving for a stretch in China with her second husband. (Her first spouse, Reggie's father, died in a car accident.)

As the summer progresses, Reggie and Eleanor become friends and cautious confidantes, with Reggie developing a gentle crush on his musically inclined guardian. In ways that are warm and credible, their odd-couple dynamic ultimately poses the question: who's the nanny for whom?

A rocky trip to see Eleanor's dying father and her low-rent family in upstate New York seals the bond between Reggie and Eleanor. Their late-night motel conversation is especially poignant.

Whaley nicely calibrates this wistful dramedy's emotional quotient, never allowing sentiment to turn into sap. He also smartly dials down Reggie's initial precociousness to reveal a kid who's deep, resourceful and strangely sensible.

Shatkin and Meester are terrific together, deftly navigating roles that could have become phony or clichéd. Messing is effective in her brief turn, though it's a one-note part.

A touching ending caps a quite wonderful journey, one that's greatly enhanced by Jimi Jones' fine camera work and a lovely score by Ed Harcourt. [Goldstein’s rating: **** out of 5 stars]

Labels: drama, music

Blogger's Comment [ SPOILER ALERT ]: After thinking about this film for a few days, I want to log some thoughts about the ending. This is clearly a SPOILER, so if you want to watch the film innocently, do not read any further.

Eleanor's experience taking Reggie to visit her trailer-trash family in Oneida, upstate New York is so alienating to both of them that they can't stay with her mother and second husband (the brother of her dying father) so they go to stay in a motel. The following morning after visiting her father in the hospital, Eleanor and Reggie leave, and she vows never to return. Now back in NYC, Eleanor decides that she needs to return home, so she finds a replacement au pair girl, even though she promised Reggie's mother that Eleanor would stay until she returned from China. So Eleanor and Reggie say a tearful, heartfelt goodbye and Eleanor takes the bus back to Oneida, where she finds a UPS/FedEx package on the front stoop of her mother's home, a box containing a new cornet, a gift from Reggie.

Long story short, the last ten minutes of the film make no sense.

Into the Woods (2014) [PG] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Dec. 22, 2014.

Into the Woods left me out in the cold. The long-gestating cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's fairy tale-infused Broadway musical, Into the Woods can claim a clever screenplay and a few enjoyable performances but little else. The generic musical numbers are choreographed with little in the way of verve and there's nary a catchy tune to be found. The film's dearth of emotional impact is grossly apparent when characters are dispatched and no one really cares. And the small budget (reportedly about $50 million) disallows any of the visual effects to be called special.

It's questionable whether fans of the play are going to be thrilled with director Rob Marshall's interpretation. Not only does it elide an important character (The Narrator) but it changes the fate of another and tones down the overt sexual suggestiveness of two relationships (all in the name of family friendliness, of course). Sondheim grudgingly approved the changes but the language he employed in speaking about them makes it apparent that, although he recognizes the commercial necessity, the artistic implications don't thrill him.

The idea behind Into the Woods remains as fresh for the movie version as it was when it took the stage by storm more than 25 years ago. Four of The Brothers Grimm's tales are rebooted and interwoven: Cinderella (featuring Anna Kendrick in that role), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). Added to these is a story that the Grimm siblings never wrote but might as well have - The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), unable to have a child, discover that a Witch (Meryl Streep, channeling her character from The Devil Wears Prada) has placed a curse on their house. To get it removed, they have three nights to go on a scavenger hunt and retrieve four items: a milky white cow, a blood-red cape, a corn-yellow strand of hair, and a golden slipper. So everyone goes into the woods, interacts, and comes out to live happily ever after, at least until Act II.

Marshall is no neophyte when it comes to making movie musicals. In fact, he's one of the few working directors who embraces the genre. His Chicago won the Oscar, after all. This makes it all the more surprising how flat Into the Woods is. The animated Disney musicals of the early '90s had more life. Only one musical number, the deliciously satirical Agony, has the level of energy one would expect from this production, and its success is due more to the way in which Chris Pine plays the scene than the staging, choreography, or setting of the song.

Speaking of Pine (and with all apologies to the perennial Oscar nominee Meryl Streep), he's the best thing Into the Woods has to offer. His Prince Charming is the perfect mix of bluster, charisma, and empty-headedness. Put alongside his work in the otherwise execrable Horrible Bosses 2, he's showing genuine comedic chops. For the most part, his co-stars don't fare as well. Streep is (of course) a standout but Johnny Depp appears in only one scene with a total screen time not exceeding five minutes and name actors like Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt are given forgettable, wafer-thin parts.

Disney has built its animated stable in part on tweaked versions of fairy tales credited to the likes of The Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. Two of the characters in Into the Woods are recognized Disney Princesses. (Note: Although Sleeping Beauty and Snow White made brief appearances in the stage version of the play, they have been deleted from the screen adaptation.) Perhaps the intention was to make this a companion piece to Maleficent - a live-adaptation reworking of popular animated fare. However, where Maleficent achieved something unique and stirring, Into the Woods is strangely stillborn. One wonders whether the studio's need to protect the images of their property has resulted in a whitewashing of Into the Woods.

In terms of its content, Into the Woods may be suitable for family audiences, but it's hard to imagine young children having much interest in a film that is consistently dark and pauses frequently for the actors to warble forgettable tunes. Just as there's nothing terribly wrong with Into the Woods, there's nothing terribly right, either. I'm sure it will make a lot of money - the Disney and Sondheim imprints are sufficient to guarantee a solid return on investment, but as Christmas Day's brightest light, this bulb needs replacement. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: adventure, fantasy, musical

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Magic in the Moonlight (2014) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli, for, on July 27, 2014

Working at his current pace, Woody Allen delivers one film per year. Unfortunately, it has been decades since Allen's endeavors have been consistently good. In fact, even as far back as the 1990s, quality movies have been more the exception than the rule for the filmmaker – his must see efforts have been bookended by stretches of mediocrity. While I would like nothing more than to declare his 2014 entry, Magic in the Moonlight, to be the next Woody Allen masterpiece, the truth is that it's just another unmemorable motion picture for which it's difficult to remember the broad brush strokes, not to mention the details, once the house lights have come on. The evocative title and intriguing premise don't extend to any other production aspects. One wonders whether this is an attempt by Allen to recapture some of what made 2011's Midnight in Paris a modest box office hit.

Magic in the Moonlight wants to weigh in on the age-old debate between skepticism and faith. Allen has sidestepped angering those with strong religious convictions (although I'd imagine few of those comprise his devout demographic) by making the belief aspect one of the occult. On the one side of this struggle is a young, pretty clairvoyant named Sophie (Emma Stone), who is reputedly so good at what she does that her claims of conversing with the dead couldn't possibly be fake. Then there's Stanley (Colin Firth), a world-famous master magician and debunker of mystics who accepts two basic tenets: there is no afterlife and, as a result, anyone claiming to talk to the dead is employing some form of trickery. The stage is therefore set for Stanley to take on Sophie.

Allen's first mistake is turning this rivalry into a May/December romance. His second misstep is converting Stanley, thereby neutering the delightfully acerbic quality that characterizes his and Sophie's early interactions. Colin Firth's performance is spot-on when he's playing Stanley as an arrogant ass; when circumstances force the character to become more humble and human, Firth founders. This is likely more a fault in the writing than in the performance; sincerity has never been a strong quality for Allen. He's better when his characters are infused with doubt and self-loathing.

Magic in the Moonlight boasts a strong first act. Firth is deliciously insufferable, the movie has a light, fresh tone, and Emma Stone has recaptured the appealing qualities leeched out of her in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. After a while, however, it becomes apparent that Allen doesn't understand how to effectively dramatize the central question of his film. Perhaps that's because the deck is stacked (Allen having been upfront about his personal lack of spirituality) or perhaps it's because he can't effectively navigate the romantic waters into which he takes his characters. Stanley's transformation, which transpires in concert with his falling for Sophie, doesn't come close to being credible. The film's final 30 minutes are especially messy. Fans of Firth from Pride and Prejudice may be amused to note that Stanley's marriage proposal echoes the one Firth's Mr. Darcy delivered to Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth Bennet some 20 years ago. Whether intentional or not, it's indicative of how closely Firth has become identified with Jane Austen's best-known male lead. (He even played a version of the character, Mark Darcy, in Bridget Jones' Diary and its sequel.)

Magic in the Moonlight is more of a throw-away than a keeper. It feels like an occasion for the cast and crew to take a holiday. (Filming occurred in the south of France and the photography, by Darius Khondjii, is magnificent.) There are some solid laughs and a palpable chemistry exists between Firth and Stone (most evident during a scene lensed in the Nice Observatory). Eileen Atkins, in a small role as Stanley's wise, witty Aunt Vanessa (an Allen staple), is delightful. Counterbalancing that, however, is an unendurably annoying turn by Hamish Linklater as the besotted Brice, who serenades Sophie on a ukulele. On the whole, Magic in the Moonlight feels more vapid than it should. It never achieves the altitude necessary for it to soar. Allen is on autopilot and, as a result, despite the presence of magicians and mystics, there's no magic. Blue Jasmine captured a Best Actress Oscar for leading lady Cate Blanchett. It's hard to see Magic in the Moonlight catching the notice of the Academy – or anyone else for that matter. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** ½ out of 4]

The supporting cast includes: Marcia Gay Harden (as Mrs. Baker) and Simon McBurney (as Howard Burkan)

Labels: comedy, romance

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for, December 17, 2014.

We as a society tear down what we do not understand. We vilify and destroy people who are different because their differences make us uncomfortable. That message more than any other rings clear in the account of the life of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) as brought to the screen by director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters). No matter that Turing was the key player in the cracking of the German Enigma code and that his work may have ended World War 2 as much as two years earlier, thereby saving countless lives. Turing was reclusive, antisocial, and a homosexual and those so-called black marks on his character led him to be rejected, prosecuted, and hounded to the point where he took his own life. It's easy to see The Imitation Game as a triumph - after all, Turing accomplished what all the experts claimed was impossible - but it's equally apparent that underlying the triumph is a tragedy. The optimism of Turing's creed - Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine - is counterbalanced by the ugliness of how it all ended for him.

The Imitation Game provides glimpses into three periods of Turing's life as a means of fleshing out aspects of his character. A majority of the running time is devoted to his years at Bletchley Park, where he worked as a code breaker seeking to undermine the German Enigma. The success of his efforts provided the Allies with full access to all secret German war transmissions. As part of a small group of experts that included Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), Turing served two masters: the military commander, Denniston (Charles Dance), and the man from MI6, Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong II). The 1939-1945 scenes are presented in flashback using a framing device from 1952 after Turing was arrested for gross indecency. (He was eventually convicted of the charge and elected to be chemically castrated rather than go to jail.) Finally, there are more distant flashbacks from the late 1920s that depict Turing (played in these sequences by Alex Lawther) as a bullied student who is beginning to recognize his sexuality and experiencing his first crush.

Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Turing is spot-on, capturing the obsessive need that defines many great minds facing a monumental challenge. Cumberbatch doesn't portray Turing as a likeable or sympathetic character; his approach is very much warts and all. Turing is cold and awkward around others (the movie finds some comedy in a sequence when he makes a clumsy attempt to win over his compatriots) and more comfortable working with his machine (dubbed Christopher) than with the four humans on his team. Through Cumberbatch's interpretation, we see the brilliance, arrogance, loneliness, and self-imposed isolation of one of the Allies' most unsung war heroes.

The Imitation Game wisely doesn't attempt to provide a detailed explanation of Turing's work. To do so would have forced the movie down a rabbit hole where only the most technically savvy viewers could have followed. Instead, it relies on generalizations, the most important of which is that Christopher represents an early prototype of machines that would eventually become known as computers. (ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer, was based on Turing's design.) Instead of using valuable screen time detailing mathematical/engineering problems and solutions, The Imitation Game concentrates on the interpersonal relationships among the team members and how the four men and one woman interact with their superiors.

At one point during the film, Turing and his fellows are faced with an impossible dilemma. One of the first things they learn upon breaking Enigma is that the Germans are massing their U-Boats for an attack on an Allied convoy. The choice faced by those at Bletchley is simple: inform the military of their findings and save the convoy (thereby tipping off the Germans that Enigma has been compromised) or sequester the information so the font of information isn't cut off. Decoding the Enigma messages becomes as much about what to act upon as discerning the truth.

The Imitation Game is a war movie where no battlefields are shown and no guns are fired. It illustrates the important concept that, even in the 1940s, scientists, engineers, and mathematicians fought on a hidden front that eventually changed the tide of battle. Like Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, Turing faced moral predicaments associated with his role. In the end, however, the genius behind all the innovations of Bletchley was destroyed by the pettiness of a society that didn't understand him. The Imitation Game doesn't hide this dark aspect and it makes the production sobering and engrossing. [Berardinelli's rating: *** ½ out of 4]

The supporting cast includes Rory Kinnear (as Detective Robert Nock).

Labels: biography, drama, thriller, war, WWII

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Interstellar (2014) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Stephanie Zacharek for, Oct. 29, 2014.

There’s so much space in Christopher Nolan’s nearly three-hour intergalactic extravaganza Interstellar that there’s almost no room for people. This is a gigantosaurus movie entertainment, set partly in outer space and partly in a futuristic dustbowl America where humans are in danger of dying out, and Nolan - who co-wrote the script with his brother, Jonathan Nolan - has front-loaded it with big themes and even bigger visuals. Interstellar is supposedly all about what it means to be human, but it's supersized in case we really are so out of touch that we need to have everything blown up IMAX-big. We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars says Matthew McConaughey’s farmer-astronaut-dreamer in one of his many, many proclamations about life, family, and the cosmos. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt. But even the dirt in Interstellar looks spectacularly art-directed. Nolan may be invoking Walker Evans, but Interstellar is really just Jethro Bodine–sized.

This is all the wonder money can buy, and then some. Nolan opens the movie with faux-documentary commentary from old folks settin’ a spell and reflecting on their youth in a dying, dust-choked world. One woman - recognizable as Ellen Burstyn - says that her father was a farmer, like everybody else back then. In the world of this woman’s childhood, there’s a surfeit of engineers and not enough people to grow food. Which means that men of science have been forced into the more menial (though not less important) job of coaxing life out of dry dirt.

McConaughey’s Cooper is one of these guys, though he can never disavow his science-geek roots. One of his two kids (played by Timothée Chalamet as a youngster, but he’ll grow up to be Casey Affleck) isn’t doing well in school; he’ll be placed as a farmer, instead of being one of the lucky few to advance to engineering school. But Cooper’s daughter, 12-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who will eventually morph into a petulant, one-note Jessica Chastain), soaks up her dad’s sciencey musings. She gets into trouble at school for showing off one of her father’s old books about the Apollo 11 lunar landing, which the asshole autocrats of the future have deemed propaganda, just a bit of fakery pulled off by the United States to bankrupt the Soviet Union.

Cooper will end up leaving Murph, and Earth: A seemingly random - but not really - chain of events leads him to a secret space station where an old professor of his, Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand, is planning a mission. Though NASA was dismantled long ago - space travel for exploration’s sake was long ago deemed frivolous by the government - Dr. Brand and his team, chief among them his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), believe that the only hope for mankind lies in the stars. Luckily, Brand has located a wormhole leading to another galaxy, which may contain at least one inhabitable planet. And so Cooper, along with Amelia and two other crew members (played by Wes Bentley and David Gyasi), head into space in search of dust-free air and unspoiled water.

Cooper and his colleagues encounter frozen worlds and watery ones, and the dangers they face are both existential and specific. The universe Nolan has invented for them, drawn from both science (the movie is partly inspired by the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne) and movie dreams (paging Stanley Kubrick), is vast, awe-inspiring, and terrifying. In an early scene, the crew chatters and pick at one another inside the cabin, but thanks to crackerjack cutting, camerawork, and sound design, we can float on the outside, where it’s deafeningly quiet - the planes of the ship hang delicately in the breach of nothingness. This vessel is so gorgeously alone; for a moment, Nolan captures the idea of space as a source of both wonder and despair.

But even the grandest visuals aren’t enough to carry Interstellar. A chief complaint filed against Alfonso Cuarón’s joy-and-anguish-in-space symphony Gravity was that the dialogue was sentimental, and there was too much of it. But in Interstellar, Cooper, a man of science, soaks up plenty of oxygen with his bromides about the importance of family. Other characters follow suit, apparently never having heard the song telling us that we’re people who need people. Nolan gives John Lithgow, as Cooper’s salt-of-the-earth father-in-law, healthy heaps of cornpone dialogue like: They’re saying this is the last harvest for okra. Forever.

There’s more: As a coda to a complicated explanation of the black hole, Bentley’s character adds helpfully that it’s a literal heart of darkness. Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night is quoted at least three times, in case we don’t grasp its significance the first two. At one point, three crew members leave the mother ship to explore a possibly life-sustaining planet. The catch, poignant in its implications, is that seven Earth years will pass for each hour they spend on this threateningly foreign soil. Gyasi’s character -- he’s the token black guy, but at least the movie has one -- stays behind, and when McConaughey and company return, not only is he visibly aged, but he’s wearing a plaid Redd Foxx bathrobe.

Look, maybe there’s science to back this up: For all we know, it’s possible astronauts do wear flannel in space. I know I’m supposed to be moved and amazed by Interstellar’s many pronouncements about how important it is to feel connected to our families and our fellow human beings, in addition to being awed by Nolan’s elaborate vision of pioneers bravely striking out into space, a/k/a the final frontier. And the special effects in Interstellar are, well, stellar: It earns the adjective handsome, which is great as far as that takes you. You sure get a big bang for your buck.

If Nolan is so godlike, you’d think he’d be better with actors. They don’t stand a shooting star’s chance in Interstellar. (Hans Zimmer’s droney, churchy organ score, the worst kind of Zimmermusik, doesn’t help.) Lithgow is a terrific actor - he’s already given one of the finest performances of the year, in Ira Sachs’s Love Is Strange. Can’t Nolan do better than cast him as pops in a cardigan, spewing lines cribbed from the Farmers’ Almanac? Hathaway’s big moment - her only moment, really - is a quavery speech about true love; she emotes like gangbusters as her eyes pool with Fantine-like tears. In the past few years, McConaughey has reinvented himself into a marvel of spark and fire and subtlety. What he does here isn’t acting; it’s superacting. There’s no other way to stand up to the manmade-monument quality of this material. In what should be McConaughey’s most moving scene - he faces the reality that his children have aged by 23 years, while he’s only a few hours older - Nolan trains the camera on the actor’s face so we can take the measure of his free-falling tears. The tears themselves aren’t the issue - it’s wholly believable that Cooper would cry. But we can see McConaughey working the strings. He’s like the Magic Mike version of male vulnerability, turning it all on for show. If he were to work with Nolan all the time, he’d be in grave danger of becoming a neck-tendon actor: He tightens his jaw every time he has to say something of great import, which here is way too often.

Nolan does have a seemingly inexhaustible store of extravagant ideas. As in Inception, with that dream vision of Paris folding in on itself - a wonderful, inventive image that stands out against the rest of that movie’s bland trickery - he comes up with one extraordinary visual idea in Interstellar: Cooper finds himself in a corrugated passageway whose walls appear to be made of strands of light - or are they books on a shelf? The metaphor is lovely, a suggestion that books - all paper, glue, ink, and string, so old-fashioned and so touchingly fragile - still hold incomparable power. Their rays reach out to us like sunbeams.

But that’s about as subtle as Interstellar gets. Whatever his strengths may be, Nolan lacks the human touch. His movies are numbingly sexless, and by that I don’t mean they need sex scenes or nudity - those things are rarely really about sex anyway. But in all of Nolan’s films, human connection is such a noble idea that it’s beyond the grasp of flesh-and-blood people. Nothing in Interstellar is ever ragged or raw or dirty (though there is, admittedly, a lot of dust). Characters gabble on about taking risks, about needing one another, but they never leap toward anything so dangerous as intimacy. Rage against the dying of the light! Nolan urges us, and he himself burns through a great deal of electricity and gas to keep his spectacle glowing for as long as possible. He has so much invested in showing us. He just doesn’t want to get close enough to touch us. Space suits him just fine.
[Zacharek’s rating: 50%]

The supporting cast includes Leah Cairns (as Lois), Matt Damon (as Mann), William Devane (as Williams) and Topher Grace (as Getty).