Monday, March 23, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

I’m not sure why it was that American Sniper was quietly snubbed at the Oscars; despite several nominations, the film made barely a splash, and it seemed people were more interested in the (admittedly amateurish) fake baby than the frankly stellar performance by Bradley Cooper.  While I’m not saying he deserved the award more than Eddie Redmayne (or, for that matter, Michael Keaton), Cooper’s work here deserves another look, especially since the film seems to have been pigeonholed by what potential viewers likely assumed were the politics of the film.

Cooper stars as Chris Kyle in this biopic of the Navy Seal sniper who is credited with the greatest number of kills as a marksman during his service in Iraq.  Sienna Miller costars as his wife Taya, who finds it difficult to keep her family together while her husband is on and off the battlefield.

I think one reason American Sniper made little more than a ripple is because audiences expected (and some critics reported – wrongly, I might add) that the film was only a rah-rah patriotic exercise with little attention to the consequences of a military career.  To which I would say, the movie you’re probably thinking of is Lone Survivor, not this one.  Clint Eastwood has been largely brushed off by many for his conservative politics and/or his abrasive curmudgeonly attitude, but American Sniper never feels like a commercial for the military in the way that Peter Berg’s earlier film toed that same line.

No, this is something much closer to The Hurt Locker, that brilliant Oscar winner from a few years back in which Kathryn Bigelow gave us both a thriller of a war film and a very sober examination of the human psyche under such conditions.  American Sniper is comparable (though a little longer) in that it devotes about as much time to Kyle’s military experiences as to the pained moments where he’s unable to let go of the battlefield and readjust to civilian life.  What American Sniper adds to the narrative of The Hurt Locker is the sense that the country had, ultimately, failed Kyle by not helping him reassimilate.  It’s a smart humanizing move that Eastwood makes, particularly as it anticipates the claim (made by those who haven’t seen the movie) that the film essentially celebrates a murderer – Eastwood rejects that out of hand by showing the dire situation overseas, the pain through which Kyle was wrung, and his true heroism at film’s end (spoilers?) when he attains a kind of healing.

Cooper is frankly astonishing as Kyle, and in any other year I would have been rooting for him to win.  Let’s not forget that Cooper got his big break on Alias, ABC’s spy drama by way of Keri Russell’s Felicity; to see him here and in Silver Linings Playbook, doing amazing work with comedy and drama, is a career to be celebrated.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a disappearance into a role, but it is unequivocally a commendable transformation, particularly in his ability to emote beyond his physicality, refusing to let his bulk do the acting for him.  Eastwood is a star director of the action sequences, but it’s Cooper’s quieter moments that truly define the film and almost overshadow the film as a whole.

On the note of performances, I’d actually written off Sienna Miller about the time she did GI Joe – pretty face, Jude Law’s ex, never memorable in the one or two things I’d seen of hers before.  After American Sniper, though, I’d put her in the “one to watch” category, provided that she gets a good director.  I’m sure Eastwood is a stern hand at the till when it comes to directing, but kudos to Miller for stepping up her game and bringing in a very moving turn as the other side of this very human struggle to recover.

I don’t think American Sniper got the attention it deserved, for a number of reasons.  All of those reasons, however, are largely immaterial, more a discredit to the closed minds of the prospective audience than to the film itself.  What you have here are three very talented creative forces coming together for a film that is, if not outright moving, very intelligent about its subject matter in a way that I hope puts Eastwood back on the map as a director and keeps Cooper in the spotlight where he can do more first-rate work.

American Sniper is rated R for “strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.” Many of the combat scenes are very intense and bloody, in addition to being suspenseful and loud. The film is rather unflinching in the brutality and the immediacy of violent combat.  F-bombs proliferate, as does the typical kind of chauvinistic dialogue you’d expect in aggressive male camaraderie.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Cinderella (2015)

With Maleficent (mercifully) behind us and a live-action Beauty and the Beast yet to come, we’re in the midst of a live-action reinvention over at the House of Mouse.  While I do have some reservation regarding the overall necessity of the move, I do think that Cinderella acquits itself better than Maleficent thanks to its narrative fidelity and its frankly stunning production value.

In what is essentially a remake of the 1950 animated Disney film, Lily James stars as Cinderella, left after her father’s passing in the care of her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett).  After a chance encounter with her Prince Charming (Richard Madden), Cinderella makes every effort to go to the ball, with a little magical assist from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter).

The most striking thing about Cinderella is, surprisingly, the clothing.  I cannot recall ever being as impressed with costume design as I was with Sandy Powell’s work on this film.  (Fun fact:  she’s also the costume designer for my all-time favorite film, The Departed.)  Perhaps some credit is due to the cinematography, but the colors in the film really pop in a way that dominates my overall impression of the film – Cinderella looks spectacular.  The dresses of Lady Tremaine and her daughters very plainly communicate their interior ugliness, doing so with a flair that Powell has described as nineteenth century by way of the 1940s.  Cinderella’s dresses, too, are incredibly vibrant, matching well the Prince’s royal finery.

The film overall has a very polished look which I credit to the very pristine direction of Kenneth Branagh, who does fairy tales with the same elegance he brings to Shakespeare and superheroes.  There are a few nods to both – from Hamlet, both Derek Jacobi and fencing, and from Thor, Stellan Skarsgard – but more importantly, Branagh brings his trademark earnestness to Cinderella.  It’s honestly a little jarring to go from the delightfully revisionist Into the Woods, in which Cinderella’s indecisiveness clashed with Prince Charming’s insincerity, to a film which wholly believes in the happily-ever-after genre tropes.

Despite the well-crafted nature of the film and the strong performances all around, there is still the lingering question of whether there is a need for another treatment of Cinderella which doesn’t really distinguish itself too strongly from the versions that preceded it.  This is, of course, the question asked of every remake at one time or another, and my chief complaint about Maleficent was, you’ll recall, that its contributions to the revisionist project were so uneven that the best scene was the one that took the fewest liberties, so clearly there’s a threshold of acceptable innovation/transgression.  Cinderella succeeds, I think, on the grounds that it steers a very straight course through the familiar elements of the plot in an even and engaging way, but as content as I felt during the end credits there was still the sensation that I hadn’t actually seen anything new.

Now, to be fair, Cinderella goes 180-degrees from Into the Woods by making the Prince more, not less, compelling; where Sondheim’s Prince “was raised to be charming, not sincere,” Cinderella gives us a prince bristling at his royal obligations, more interested in marrying for love than for obligation (subtext that I don’t recall being quite so present in the animated film).  It also recognizes that Cate Blanchett is phenomenally gifted, so Lady Tremaine’s wickedness is played up as well as explored near the end of the film as she monologues about her motivations.

Ultimately, then, I’m in an unusual place with Cinderella.  The creative team responsible have created something that amounts to a very good cover band version of a classic with a few neat solos in the middle there, but there’s a curmudgeonly bit of me that wants to cling to the original because the new isn’t different enough.  Then again, I think of all the children in the theater with me that afternoon, and I realize that for them this film likely is the definitive Cinderella, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  Maybe the better metaphor is that of translation, the act of going from one language (animation) to another (live-action), and it is on those grounds that Branagh’s Cinderella succeeds.

Cinderella is rated PG for “mild thematic elements.”  I suppose that’s due to the passing of Cinderella’s parents and the verbal abuse she endures at the hands of her wicked stepmother, but this is very nearly G-rated material.

Bonus review!  Cinderella is preceded by a seven-minute short, Frozen Fever – a sequel to (you guessed it), Disney’s wildly profitable Frozen from two Christmases ago.  The short finds Elsa (Idina Menzel) prepping the kingdom for the birthday of her sister Anna (Kristen Bell).  Only two things stand in the way – the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is trying to eat the cake, and Elsa has a head cold.  The cynic in me thinks that Frozen Fever is a long advertisement for plush toys of the snow-babies created whenever Elsa sneezes, but aren’t they cute?  By nature of being so short, Frozen Fever isn’t long on substance, but it does continue the film’s emphasis on the sisters’ relationship over a romantic one between Anna and Kristoff in a way that is more refreshing than treacle.  The main song “Making Today a Perfect Day” is about as catchy as “For the First Time in Forever” from the main film, though it won’t, I predict, have the staying power of “Let It Go” (either in eternity or in your head).  All told, I’m a bigger fan of Disney’s original shorts like Paperman and Feast, though Frozen Fever is as pleasant as the “Toy Story Toons” we’d been getting for a while there, a fun pit stop with some familiar faces.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Monday at the Movies - March 9, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  Daylight Savings Time sprung our review forward an hour – it’s a joke, ha ha.

I Know That Voice (2013) – I’ve been wanting to review more documentaries on here, but here is one that I worry might appeal only to a very select number of people.  For me, I Know That Voice is a very interesting look at one of my favorite subsections of Hollywood, the voice actors who bring life to cartoons, commercials, and animated movies.  For as long as I can remember, this has been a favorite guessing game of mine; identifying the same voice across multiple media and through celebrity impressions has always been fun for an amateur impressionist myself, and I Know That Voice gives viewers like me the thrill of seeing the artists perform on camera (rather than behind the safety of an animated character).  The greatest laugh of all comes when John DiMaggio, a heavyset white man, does his impression of a middle-aged black man lamenting how “frustrating” white people are “with they dogs and they yoga.” It’s a different kind of stepping into character than most of us are used to seeing, but there’s real talent here on display.  I’m also glad that the film isn’t just a series of nickels placed into voiceover jukeboxes as the performers give their greatest hits (you do get to see Mark Hamill slip into a little Joker dialogue); I Know That Voice gives a pretty strong look into the business side of the industry, showing how the performers get their gigs, how the recording process works, and the delightful fan culture surrounding them at conventions.  The striking omission here is the absence of Frank Welker, though I understand he declined to appear, but otherwise I Know That Voice is a strikingly definitive presentation of one of show business’s not-so-quiet secrets.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week! 

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Incredibles (2004)

I don’t think it’s fair to qualify The Incredibles as “a great Pixar film” or even “a great superhero film.”  (I do love the joke, however, that it’s the best Fantastic Four movie ever made.)  The Incredibles is, of course, all of those things, but it is for my money a great film, period.  When I informally consider my favorite films of all time (a list I really must put on this page, one of these days), I don’t usually think of The Incredibles on that count, but having rewatched it quite recently I do believe it belongs there.

After superheroes were forced into retirement by a litigious citizenry, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to maintain his cover as Bob Parr while his wife Helen, formerly Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), raises their children – speedster Dash and invisible Violet – in a best attempt to fit in.  Bob’s desire to be super leads him into a dangerous new line of work where the sinister Syndrome (Jason Lee) has other plans for the once and future Mr. Incredible.

At the risk of superfluity, The Incredibles attempts to be many things at once, and it is first-rate at all of them.  I’m often very critical of films that try to do too much in the bounded space of one movie, and I’m inclined to be even more so because of how deftly The Incredibles juggles so many narratives in less than two hours.  First, there’s a brilliant deconstruction of the superhero genre, exposing the warts-and-all in several very clever moments that have now themselves become iconic (“No capes!” and the obsession with “monologuing” chief among them).  Taking cues from Watchmen and Robert Mayer’s Superfolks, The Incredibles also manages to do what most deconstruction never even hazards – it reconstructs in the process, offering a narrative that is not about snidely deriding its inspirations but rather about creating an earnest new narrative on that foundation.

In the midst of all the grandeur of masks and superpowers, there’s a deeply personal story about what brings – and holds – a family together, with a very moving sincerity about the proceedings.  The cast (including Spencer Fox and Sarah Vowell as the kids) all work well together, with a kind of natural chemistry that you don’t find even in some real families.  Nelson has that lovable schlubby quality to his voice, and there’s evident deep affection between him and Hunter.  The scene-stealer here, as he always is in any film, is Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as Frozone, the ice-blasting companion with personality and attitude for days.  Indeed, the best scene of the film is his, in which he and his unseen wife quarrel over whether his abilities are actually needed to save the city.

All of this boils down to how sharp the writing is, and Brad Bird (doing double duty, also directing) is a very smart filmmaker, and this is the kind of movie that gives him a lifetime benefit-of-the-doubt on my end.  Lest we forget, he’s also the genius behind Ratatouille, and I can’t wait to see what he does with the mysterious Tomorrowland – a film whose trailer elicited from me the following reaction:  “Oh, the Incredibles guy?  I’ll give anything of his a shot.”  (He’s also the hysterical voice behind the manic Edna Mode, who costumes our superheroes a la Edith Head.)

At the risk of ending on a groaner of a pun, The Incredibles is a movie which wears its review on its sleeve.  It is, in a word, incredible.  And if there’s anyone in the world who hasn’t seen this one yet, it isn’t too late to catch up before the sequel arrives – and praise the Lord, one actually is on the way.

The Incredibles is rated PG for “action violence.” There’s a lot of running, jumping, punching, and exploding, all done in a cartoon manner with little to no blood.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Monday at the Movies - February 23, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  Joss Whedon is set to have the biggest movie of the summer with Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sequel to his billion-dollar film The Avengers. To prepare, we’re going back to his first film from ten (Ten!) whole years ago.

Serenity (2005) – Here’s the thing about Serenity: it is barely a film, and I don’t mean that as the snarky insult it might initially seem.  Bear with me.  What Serenity is is a two-hour epilogue to the television show about whose cancellation much consternation has been made amongst its cult followers.  Indeed, it is for those followers that the film exists, and though I liked the show when I watched it a few years ago, I have the feeling that I would have enjoyed Serenity a bit more if Firefly were fresher in my mind.  And look, I don’t suspect Joss Whedon is out to make a proper film here; there is so much about Serenity, up to and including its overall refusal to (re)introduce the main characters, that suggests Whedon is catering to a crowd of diehards.  That said, as someone halfway on the outside looking in (someone certain that full devotees will love it), I enjoyed Serenity even without fully remembering all the nuances of the Firefly universe.  The element I liked the most, even more than Nathan Fillion’s swaggering space captain Malcolm Reynolds (think Han Solo by way of John Wayne), was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s villainous turn as a nameless apostle of the crooked transgalactic regime; Ejiofor does a very entertaining heartless disciple, a nice spin on the scenery-chewing villain most cinematic science fiction brings us.  The script has Whedon’s trademark sense of humor and an impressively tight cast of characters, though it does lose points for simply revisiting and not reintroducing or developing those characters (beyond killing a few off).

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week! 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

I’m really quite surprised that the marketing for Kingsman: The Secret Service didn’t make more of the fact that its central antagonist is named Richmond Valentine, a tycoon with a sinister plot set to culminate on the self-styled “Valentine’s Day.”  It is, I suspect, infinitely more preferable than the other film opening this weekend, 50 Shades of Grey; though vastly more violent and surprisingly more chaste, Kingsman ends up being at once a highly palatable deconstruction and a heroically rousing genuine article.

Repaying the debt he owes the boy’s father, secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) springs local hoodlum Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) from lockup and recruits him to be a member of Kingsman, an elite espionage unit in the heart of Britain.  While Eggsy trains to earn a seat at the table, Hart (codename: Galahad) tracks the malicious misdeeds of Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a blue-chip billionaire with dastardly designs on the planet’s future.

As with Kick-Ass, the previous collaboration between director Matthew Vaughn and comics writer Mark Millar, Kingsman: The Secret Service bears a curious relationship with the eponymous comic book by Millar and Dave Gibbons.  The film is very loosely based on the comic, in  the way that I think all of Millar’s work ought to be; Vaughn has taken the broadest strokes from the source material and done his own riff unfettered by fidelity.  Millar’s work always has a darkly cynical edge to it, refusing to pander to the reader’s expectations and instead shocking him with truly grotesque violence and profanity.  As before, Vaughn’s adaptation is more earnest, more interested in deconstructing and rebuilding a film genre than in disparaging convention.

A point-by-point comparison would be somewhat facile (EW’s done a “top five” if you’re interested – beware spoilers in the comments), but case in point – the book unfolds the mystery of who’s been abducting science-fiction icons.  Sidebar for a fun fact: the book opens with the abduction of Mark Hamill; the film opens with the kidnapping of a climate change scientist played by Hamill.  The film, however, tells us fairly early on that Valentine is the villain, and where the book derided Valentine for being a simpering nerd, Sam Jackson’s antagonist is steeped in deliberate camp because he’s a self-conscious throwback to the James Bond villains of old.

As someone who spent the last two years tearing through the James Bond film franchise, seeing Kingsman’s loving critique of the gentleman spy brought a warmth to my heart, one that overrode my occasional frustration with the film’s more excessive laddish humor (cranked up more than in any of Vaughn’s other work, alas).  The film gives us a very suave Bond-esque figure, promptly dispenses with him, and then gives us something even better in the form of Harry Hart, the role that Colin Firth seems to have been waiting to play.  His entire performance exudes a sense of, “Look, I’ve won the Oscar for playing royalty, thanks very much.  But what I’d really like to do is be James Bond.”  He came close with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (with his costar Mark Strong turning up here as Merlin, the Kingsman agency’s tech guru).  But Kingsman is Firth’s moment to shine, and boy, is he dapper as ever.  Jackson brings plenty of charisma as the villain, though honestly he’s just playing himself with a lisp (“Do I look like I give a ----?” could be either Valentine’s quip or Jackson’s response to a dull interview); Firth, on the other hand, is all class, the kind of man that every male moviegoer ought to want to be.

Throughout it all, though, Vaughn never fails to keep it fun, never sacrificing entertainment value for self-consciousness.  In part, this is because the characters are themselves reveling in the act of nostalgia, fondly recalling the quirks and clichés of James Bond and his similarly initialed comrades (Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, et al).  But the greater strength is that Vaughn doesn’t lean too heavily on genre, instead giving us resplendently engaging action sequences for which the allusions to monologuing villains and underground lairs are mere (but in the latter case, literal) set decoration.

As I’ve said before, the film does overstep itself every once in a while; there are a few references to real-life figures, the Westboro Baptist Church and Barack Obama among them (though Vaughn is nonsensically backpedaling on the latter), where the satirical eye becomes downright mean.  The “Pomp and Circumstance” sequence, however – which some reviewers have, tsk tsk, spoiled in their write-ups – is perhaps the most lewdly absurd of these tonal digressions, and in these moments it seems Vaughn allows the reins to slip.  Millar’s pointed disdain works amid the overall attitude of his work, but in the film adaptations, Vaughn is at his best when he’s working in a sandbox populated by wry witticisms and gentle self-reflexivity.

At two points in the film, one character cites a spy genre chestnut, only to be met with the response, “This isn’t that kind of movie.”  Honestly, I’m very much okay with that.  This is the kind of film I felt was promised at the end of Skyfall.  The moment when Bond enters the new M’s office – only it’s the same office from Dr. No – felt like an emphatic “And we’re back, only better.”  Kingsman is that next step, celebrating the best of the genre while moving in a decidedly modern direction.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much excited for Spectre (the next Bond film), but a Kingsman 2 would get my ticket dollar just the same.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is rated R for “sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content.”  The violence is comprised of several very bloody fight sequences, some providing very unflinching detail with some creative methods of killing; gunshots, knives, slicing metallic limbs, and hand-to-hand combat is all included.  The F-word abounds, in excess of 100 times, and one reference to an unusual sexual act is delivered for comedic effect.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Monday at the Movies - February 9, 2015

Welcome to the first “Monday at the Movies” of the new year.  Just in time for Valentines Day, a movie about a love triangle, though I defy you to find anything romantic about it.

Never Let Me Go (2010) – I don’t know anything about the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, so I was instead drawn in by the impressive cast list – Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield as boarding school chums who fall in love and seek atonement for wronging each other as children. But Never Let Me Go is not Atonement, that lush and lusty heartbreaker; it is, on the one hand, absolutely heartbreaking, albeit with a relentlessness that Atonement (for all its hopefulness and aspirations for forgiveness) lacked.  I really can’t articulate thoroughly enough just how unceasingly bleak this film is, and if that’s the point, then well done.  The central trio are all very credible, as are the child performers who play them at age 10 or so.  If you want to go into the film completely unspoiled, stop reading now, because I need to talk about a few things. First, the central conceit of the film is that its protagonists, as revealed about thirty minutes in, are genetic clones being bred for their organs, and if that’s not uplifting enough for you the moral of the story is, “It doesn’t matter how much time you get with the people you love, because you’re all going to die anyway, and it wouldn’t have been enough time even if you had a hundred years.”  The film, though unindictably crafted in every way, leaves such a gaping void in the soul of the viewer without offering anything to fill said void. We can’t even take solace in the frankly gorgeous direction by Mark Romanek, because it’s in service of this desperately despondent narrative. It’s a punishing pace to get to a finish line at which point the narrator ruminates on how little she has left and reveals that that, too, shall pass.  I truly wanted to like this film – I wanted to weep with it when I heard the premise – but instead I found myself unable to feel anything other than a crushing, Werner Herzog-like nihilistic despair.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week, almost certainly with a review of Kingsman! 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Inherent Vice (2014)

Since the debut of the Thomas Pynchon book on which the film is based, Inherent Vice has invited the admittedly somewhat clever pun “Incoherent Vice.”  What this appellation suggests, however, is that incoherence itself is incapable of being a virtue, a distinction I don’t think is fair to a film like this.  While I can’t yet vouch for the rewatch value, I found myself more than spellbound for the ride, regardless of its coherence.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a drug-addled private detective out to thwart his ex-girlfriend’s lover’s wife’s lover’s kidnapping plot.  Only it might not be a kidnapping at all?  It might be a real estate scheme, a government brainwashing trip, a narcotics underworld power grab, or maybe – just maybe – all in Doc’s head.

For those who don’t know Pynchon, Inherent Vice feels very much like The Big Lebowski, which is quite a high compliment coming from someone who’s only a mouse-click away from ordaining himself in the Church of Dudeism.  Taking a page from the slacker noir gospel of the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson gives us that same bewildering sense that grand mysterious proceedings are afoot, if only our narrative guide were sober enough to perceive them. Indeed, Doc Sportello spends significant moments in stoned unconsciousness or blunt trauma-induced comas, trudging through the case compelled more by genre than by duty.

Throughout, a stellar ensemble cast drifts in orbit around Doc.  Where Anderson had recently proven himself with small-cast character studies like the riveting The Master and the incomparable There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice demonstrates his dexterity with multiple moving parts.  A-listers like Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro are here, as are comparative newcomers like Katherine Waterston as Doc’s ex.  Brolin in particular, in a role somewhat analogous to John Goodman’s in Lebowski, plays the heck out of a blustering cop with aspirations to act amid his own crisis of masculinity – the “motto panukeiku” scene, eliciting laughs as it does, also layers on a deep understanding of the character when Brolin reveals he comes to that particular restaurant “for the respect.”

For those familiar with Pynchon, though, Anderson captures quintessentially the novelist’s depiction of the experience of incomprehensibility, the disorienting sensory overload in postmodern America and the struggle to find meaning therein.  Viewers who report themselves feeling alienated may, I feel, have missed the point.  Inherent Vice is not the sort of film in which you can find yourself in one of the characters; this is a film not to be experienced but to be perceived, to be (dare I say it?) overwhelmed by.

Inherent Vice is delightfully overwhelming, if a bit overlong near the end of the film, but Anderson is a filmmaker who’s proven himself well enough to earn my playing-along for 148 minutes.  It is not the kind of film that will be embraced by everyone, but those of us who enjoy a bit of quirky surrealism starring some top-notch performers are in for something of a treat.

Inherent Vice is rated R for “drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence.”  Nearly every scene involves at least one illegal substance being abused, as well as dialogue littered with obscene dialogue of one variety or the other.  In one extended scene, a woman is seen fully nude while delivering what might be important expository dialogue, while a few other sequences involve fistfights and gunfire.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014)

Had this review come out before this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, I would have begun this review with all the intonations of a futurist predicting a nomination for Benedict Cumberbatch (one I don’t expect he’ll win, but it’s an honor to be nominated, right?).  Safely ensconced in 2015, however, the best I can do is say, “I would have told you so.”

Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the father of modern computing and a genius codebreaker who developed a sophisticated piece of machinery to break the Nazi “Enigma” code during World War II.  With the help of fellow scientific wunderkinds (Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode among them), Turing develops his machine, amid flash-forwards that reveal just how rankly abused he was after the war.

When we look back on 2014 at the movies, we’re going to see a lot of things – the persistence of the superhero renaissance courtesy of Marvel’s best and a talking tree, the surprise revival of at least one career, glimmers of hope in the form of original, non-franchise films – but what stands out to me more than any of these is the abundance of science-oriented pictures.  Neil deGrasse Tyson ought to be proud; he’s on record lamenting the lack of scientific imagination in America these days, and I can’t help but feel 2014 has been an attempt to redress that wrong.  To recap:  Big Hero 6, Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, now The Imitation Game.  Heck, I’ll even count Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

As for the historical accuracy of the piece, I’ve read that a fair bit of it takes creative liberties, all of which I think is in service of the dramatization and not at the expense of the truth.  The film conveys its message quite clearly and effectively, declaring what difficult work the codebreaking was and how ultimately immaterial Turing’s sexuality was in his work.  What matters to the film – and what should have mattered to his persecutors – was his genius and his service to his country, and the film’s sequences which depict the ill effects of Turing’s chemical castration are truly heartbreaking.

The heartbreak is entirely the fault of Mr. Cumberbatch, who rebrands his socially awkward Sherlock shtick in service of something less quirky and more earnest, the kind of performance which has been known to scream for awards but which smacks of none of the desperation so often found in such roles.  Cumberbatch’s Turing is quite natural, eager to get on with the job with none of the distractions along the way.  Because his performance is so totalizing, he does eclipse, unfortunately, his ostensible co-star Keira Knightley.  As Joan Clarke, an invaluable figure in the actual business of codebreaking, Knightley isn’t given as much to do, making her more ancillary than I might have liked.  Seeing the film from Clarke’s perspective might have been intriguing, though I understand The Imitation Game’s project is elsewhere.

Surprisingly, I will say that the film is very nearly stolen by Charles Dance and Mark Strong, who play two of Turing’s superiors during the war.  Dance plays the more standoffish military man, where Strong’s real life analogue was apparently also the inspiration for M in the James Bond novels.  While they’re clearly first and foremost foils for Turing, showing who he is by what they are not, Dance and Strong are consummate performers in the sense that they nail characterization within seconds of debuting on screen and continue to captivate.

I had lamented that The Theory of Everything was somewhat formulaic as a biopic, and in a sense the same is true of The Imitation Game, but I think it isn’t to the film’s detriment because The Imitation Game is a story that hasn’t been told (whereas Theory didn’t innovate as far beyond the “handicapped doing the remarkable” archetype as I would have liked, relying more as it did on the strength of Eddie Redmayne’s transformation).  On top of all that, it’s captivating in a way that manages to subvert the fact that the audience already knows the broad strokes of how the story will end.  I liked it, and I liked Cumberbatch; I’m glad to see him nominated, and though I’m sure the Oscar will go to Redmayne or to Michael Keaton, I hope to see more top-caliber work from him in the future.

The Imitation Game is rated PG-13 for “some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking.”  There are oblique and passing allusions to Turing’s homosexuality, culminating in his prosecution for indecency.  The film addresses bullying and the cost of war, including one scene of bombing.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Into the Woods (2014)

I had so desperately wanted to begin this review with the fabulous line given to Little Red Riding Hood:  “Nice is different than good.”  Unfortunately for the sake of the pun, Into the Woods is both nice and good, a fine close to what has been another good year for Disney and perhaps the more sober alternative to the relentless cheeriness of the nation’s current Frozen mania.

The film’s opener sets the stage best:  “Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom there lay a small village at the edge of the woods, and in this village lived a young maiden (Anna Kendrick as Cinderella), a carefree young lad (Daniel Huttlestone as the bean-stalked Jack), and a childless baker (James Corden) with his wife (Emily Blunt).”  The curse of a witch (Meryl Streep) sets these characters into a quest through the woods, where they cross paths with Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), a pair of narcissistic princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), and a Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp).

As someone unfamiliar with the stage play – and deliberately so, in order to take the film on its own terms – I can’t help but see Into the Woods as another fabulous step forward for Disney in its current phase of self-reflexive reinvention.  Those who don’t know the play might be surprised, as I was, by the film’s clever fake-out climax which delivers the “happily ever after” about forty minutes too early and then dissects just how untenable that ending would have been – warts, discontents, and unfinished business.  It’s smart stuff, the kind of revisionist fairy tale that we’re seeing played out in stuff like the Fables comics and, more closely to Into the Woods, the true-love fallacies of Frozen and Brave.

As for the lyrical elephant in the room, Stephen Sondheim’s trademark syncopated style of “talk singing” isn’t for everyone, and even folks who liked Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd adaptation from a few years back will find Into the Woods somewhat less melodic, governed more by motifs than catchy tunes.  For me, I liked the music enough to go out in search of the soundtrack, if only for the tour de force “Prologue,” a fifteen-minute introduction to all the characters and major plots that also gives us the whimsical eponymous chorus “Into the woods / It’s time to go...”

I like the music, but I’m sure it’s because the performers are all quite charismatic.  I can’t think of many actresses who could sell a line like “I caught him in the autumn in my garden one night!” – but, as the oft-quoted line from Modern Family goes, “Meryl Streep could play Batman and be the right choice.”  Streep, who did Mamma Mia! with more class than anyone expected, lends the Witch an equal dose of class, and she does wonders with the maternal scenes with Rapunzel as well as absolutely killing it in the witchier bits.  I honestly don’t have a bad word about any of the aforementioned cast, although I’ll throw in the two-cents that I really could have used more Johnny Depp.  Touted as a centerpiece of the ensemble cast, Depp only appears for about five minutes – which are captivating, don’t get me wrong, with his vaguely pedophilic Wolf devouring scenery and children in one fell gulp.

I think the reason I fell so fast in love with Into the Woods, aside from the equally captive audience sharing the theater with me, is that the characters are very well-crafted and – tragically, a rarity these days – eminently likeable.  Everyone, from the Baker and his wife to Red Riding Hood, has a story arc, compelling motivations, and at least one ingenious turn of phrase (either by smart rhyme or admirable manipulation of rhythm).  When things don’t go well for them, the audience feels it; when the characters triumph, we feel it even more.  This is a musical adaptation that remembers those of us who don’t already love the story, so director Rob Marshall works extra hard to get all of us swept away by the once-upon-a-times.

And while I’m on the subject of the captive audience, Into the Woods is an effortless crowd pleaser, even amid a somewhat gloomy ending.  There’s something for everyone in here, plenty of year-end spectacle and spectacular performances:  “It Takes Two” is a catchy and slyly romantic duet, where “Agony” is the musical number that’ll elicit the most laughs as the Princes compare male-privilege sorrows.  Into the Woods manages to be self-reflexive without being overtly cynical – “Careful the tale you tell” seems to be the moral of this story, and it’s evident that the filmmakers have been very careful indeed.  What more can I say?  I had an infectiously good time, escapism layered with enough narrative criticality not to feel like a brain-drain.  I’d happily go back into the woods once more.

Into the Woods is rated PG for “thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.”  There’s fairy-tale discussion of curses and creatures, though the film darkens considerably in the second half when a giantess walks the earth and several characters die in emotionally-charged sequences.  The Wolf is played as a metaphor for sexual awakening with pedophilic overtones, while the Prince’s philandering ways lead to serious questions about seduction and fidelity.  All told, though, this is no less appropriate than most of, say, Disney’s late-90s offerings.