Archive for December, 2014
I confess. It has been a long time since I truly felt pure joy in a Tim Burton film. Big Eyes is the real deal. It has wit, charm and a lighthearted touch. Perhaps that is somehow fitting because the tale concerns the profile of an artist. Burton – a longtime Keane collector – highlights the life of a personality that for a brief moment, occupied the attention of popular culture.
I must admit that I’ve always regarded Keane’s portraits as a bit cloying. I’m probably closer to the art house snob depicted by Jason Schwartzman than the thousands who genuinely cherished her work in the 1960s. Her output was never validated by the cognoscenti. Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) offers a gag where people of the future consider Keane to be one of the greatest artists in history. She paints children in a primitive style, defers to her husband and becomes a Jehovah’s Witness. The production could have easily descended into camp and treated her as an object of ridicule – but it never does. Burton goes out of his way to handle his subject with a respect that is unique and kind of admirable. What makes Big Eyes so affecting is that it embraces the artist with an impartiality that makes me understand it through the “eyes” of someone who legitimately appreciates her work.
Tim Burton’s enthusiasm can present an odd topic with a delightful zest for the uninitiated. Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands are two of the director’s best. Those tales couldn’t have been told better by any other director. They are distinctly Burtonian – if I may create/borrow a word. That’s the director’s passion coming through in every scene. Big Eyes is a gorgeous looking film too. The cinematography pops with the color and carefully arranged sets that give weight to a setting. Beneath that rosy exterior though, beats the thwarted aspirations of a would-be artist. The tale of Margaret Keane springs to life with a vibrancy and compassion that I haven’t seen from Burton in years.
“The ‘50s were a great time, if you were a man”. That opening line of Big Eyes sets the stage for Margaret Keane’s dystopia. Felt forced to promote a lie that had her locked in a stuffy room while she produced one painting after another. Margaret created hundreds that were then sold under her husband’s name. And boy did they sell. Margaret Keane captivated the fascination of a public who were drawn to her doe eyed waifs. But the story also acknowledges the marketing genius of Walter Keane. Art is often a mixture of talent as well as timing. Walter had a charismatic gift of gab. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz dazzle in their respective roles. The script presents this all in a most appealing way that eschews the campy derision many have for her compositions in exchange for sincere affection. The mentality succeeds as it made me appreciate her style in a way I had never before. Tim Burton clearly identifies with Margaret Keane and his depiction of her comes from a place of love. I had only a cursory knowledge of her work before. Now I have a desire to learn more. With a biography, that’s the highest praise I can give.
A humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have longed to have a child. Apparently their neighbor, an ugly old witch (Meryl Streep), placed a curse on his house when the baker’s father was caught stealing from the old hag. The witch is willing to reverse the spell. But only because she wants to be beautiful again. She cannot touch the objects she needs to accomplish this task and so she delegates securing the artifacts to the couple. The witch requires (1) a cow as white as milk, (2) a cape as red as blood, (3) hair as yellow as corn and (4) a slipper as pure as gold. Anyone familiar with fairy tales will recognize these items. Writer James Lapine has interpolated the stories of Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) & the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) in an altogether new take on traditional fables.
Playwright turned screenwriter James Lapine adapts his Tony Award–winning 1987 Broadway musical highlighting music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. For roughly 75 minutes – 60% of the film – the formula works. The script celebrates classic fairy tales from the likes of The Brothers Grimm with a captivating presentation. The production design is lavish featuring costumes and sets that compare favorably with classic movie musicals. The songs are catchy too. Certainly chief among these is the duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as whiny princes. In “Agony” they lament they cannot be with the women they desire. Pine is typecast as Cinderella’s caddish suitor and he’s enjoyable. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Who knew Pine could sing? His scene with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) as they splash amongst the tiny waterfalls of a brook is the musical high point in an opus that has a few. I’ll also include Anna Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and Meryl Streep’s “Stay With Me” as well.
Into the Woods is half of a good film. The need to subvert conventional fairy tales exists during the first portion but it does so from a place that uplifts the source material. The take is ironic at times and yet the script still keeps an air of sentimentality that is enticing. Unfortunately the mindset to trash “happily ever after” actually tanks the production in the second half. There is the first artificial ending. It’s optimistic and glorious in a winking way. But then the movie continues on for another 50 minutes and the results are disastrous. As the story carries forward, the wife of the fallen giant is now angry. She terrorizes the countryside looking for the boy (Jack) responsible for the death of her husband. Everything upbeat is subsequently destroyed with little regard for the likable personalities they had originally created. A sample “modern sensibility” is when Prince Charming makes a pass at the Baker’s wife. Ew. It ultimately lumps along to a complete bummer of a conclusion that essentially undoes everything wonderful in the first section. Rarely has a movie gone so quickly from a whimsical delight to a dispirited drag. My advice? Stop watching after the mock ending. Up until then it’s a really entertaining film.
If for nothing else, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is wonderful for finally putting to rest the ongoing speculation as to whether making 3 movies was a cash grab. It most certainly was. This series has always been marred by a ridiculously extended narrative. The original book by JRR Tolkien was 310 pages and meant for children. The filmed adaptation by Peter Jackson runs 474 minutes in its entirety. That’s almost 8 hours folks. My patience has worn out. Simply put, the third installment is an aesthetically pleasing but tedious bore.
Our story commences with Smaug the dragon. He assaults the city of Lake-town by setting fire to it, destroying everything. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) faces off against the beast with his arrows. What happens next doesn’t put an end to the troubles of Bilbo and the dwarves. In fact it brings more enmity, not closure. It’s interesting to note that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) doesn’t even register as the star of the movie that bears his name. Instead most of the plot concerns the spiritual quest of Thorin, the dwarf leader played by Richard Armitage. Given his portrayal here, you’ll forget that he was once a good guy. Driven solely by greed, he’s an insufferable presence.
This sleep inducing chronicle encourages a lot of reflection during its 144 minute slog. The fighting is monotonous. All of it repetitive. The battle is drawn out for no other purpose than to render 72 pages into a feature length work. Although it gave me time to make some random observations. What to make of that title? As near as I can figure it, the five armies comprise of (1) Goblins & Wargs, (2) the Men of Dale, (3) Elves, (4) Dwarves and (5) Eagles. Wait what? Eagles?! I’m sorry but a group of gliding birds does not constitute an army. I don’t care how big they are. Actor Ryan Gage is dreary comic relief as Alfrid Lickspittle, a citizen of Lake-town whose chief skill is disguising himself as a woman to save his own skin. When he cries out “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” All I heard was Helen Lovejoy, the gossipy wife of the Reverend on The Simpsons. How about some more déjà vu line readings? A CGI display has Galadriel holding up her hand to banish evil spirit Sauron. But hold the Arkenstone! Did I hear Galadriel dismiss Sauron with a “Begone! You have no power here!”? Wasn’t that Glinda’s line from The Wizard of Oz? Maybe she should’ve just dropped a house on him and been done with it.
The Hobbit as a adaptation simply does not have a narrative rich enough to sustain this bloated, distended bore. The chronicle is not deep nor meaningful nor even well-executed, with one exception. At least there is a definitive conclusion. That’s something that couldn’t be said of the previous two parts. Cheers for that. But the paper-thin plot is stretched out beyond all common sense. Director Peter Jackson continues to add his own characters and subplots to the detriment of Tolkien’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” novel. Jackson’s re-imagining has no focus. Smaug’s attack upon Lake-town, which opens part 3, is one of the better sequences as far as this prequel franchise is concerned. It captivated me. But it’s really the only thing that did. The climatic fight, which is supposed to be the centerpiece, goes on forever – interminable. It’s more Game of Thrones than Tolkien anyway. The material is there. Somewhere buried under all of this exposition is an entertaining adventure, which prompts my suggestion: Could someone please take these three Hobbit movies and just edit them into one enjoyable 2 hour film? Thanks in advance.
Oh Paul Thomas Anderson! It’s getting harder to believe that you were the auteur behind that masterpiece of yours, Boogie Nights. In 2007 you came close with the brilliant There Will Be Blood. At least you’ve always been interesting. Even The Master had that “processing” session that Lancaster Dodd administered on Freddie Quell. Now you’ve gone and released Inherent Vice, a happily incoherent, meandering head trip in the life of an LA private eye.
Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is that laid back private investigator. Let’s just say he loses focus pretty easily. He’s visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) who wants him to investigate a paranoid sounding plot against her current boyfriend, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Apparently his wife is trying to have him committed to a mental institution. But that’s really only the beginning. Along the way Doc meets a overzealous LAPD detective (Josh Brolin) that injects a spark of life amongst all the sleepy “far out man” attitudes. As Doc’s strange case becomes stranger, the narrative grows foggy. The point becomes less and less clear. That, my dear reader, IS the point. The cast list balloons to include speaking parts for over 25 actors I think. Frankly I lost count. These people intersect, reconnect and, in one particularly indelible scene, have sex. Shasta seemingly leaves the story at one juncture, but her return is, shall we say, (ahem) memorable?
Inherent Vice is an aimless trudge through the fog of a marijuana haze. That’s to be expected with a movie adapted from a novel by Thomas Pynchon. Nobody has ever turned a Pynchon book into a movie before. I mean Gravity’s Rainbow is kind of famous for being un-adaptable, So I’ll give Anderson credit for trying. Some will champion its mystifying merits. Translation: Inherent Vice is an acquired taste. One’s enjoyment will partially rest on how much you value a plot in a 2 ½ hour film. The atmosphere is so drugged out you could almost get high by association. I couldn’t find much to enjoy in these shenanigans. And that’s all this is. A bunch of half baked gags. Pun intended. Any story that weaves in characters named Puck Beaverton, Japonica Fenway and Bigfoot Bjornsen obviously isn’t meant to taken seriously. Add a cultural 1970s LA milieu which finds room for the Aryan Brotherhood, the Manson family murders, an Asian massage parlor and something called Golden Fang which could be a secretive Chinese syndicate or simply an alliance of wealthy dentists. That tongue in cheek attitude is good for a few scattered laughs I suppose. Inherent Vice is an “experience” to be sure, but I’ll pass on taking a second hit.
Dear reader, please forgive my opening tangent. On November 9, 2014, Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay ran the field for a 78-yard touchdown pass, then celebrated his win. Only to find he had prematurely dropped the ball on the 1 yard line. Realizing this, Oregon’s Joe Walker of the opposing team, recovered the ball and ran it back in the other direction for a 99-yard touchdown for Oregon. Joy turned to heartbreak is kind of how I felt watching The Imitation Game. The drama is largely a captivating tale that culminates in such an odd way. The denouement rendered a seemingly easy victory into a crushing disappointment.
Recounting Alan Turing’s life is a daunting task. It has been attempted before: a 1996 BBC production starring Derek Jacobi entitled Breaking the Code and 2011’s Codebreaker, a made for TV movie in the UK. Logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist – Alan Turing was a pioneer. His Turing machine was highly influential in the development of the algorithm and modern day computers. The time period is World War II when the allies are desperately trying to intercept and decode German communications. They utilize something called an Enigma machine that scrambles their communications making them undecipherable. Alan is essentially hired to crack to the code so they can better understand what the Axis powers are going to do next. Watching Alan and his team of scholars study messages in a room isn’t exactly the stuff of compelling viewing but director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) makes the code cracking exciting.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing is the portrait of a fascinating individual. However Turing is a bit of an enigma himself. In flashback we get brief glimpses of his schoolboy days where his socially awkward personality doesn’t quite meld with his peers. Yet he is befriended by fellow student Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) and the relationship sheds some light on Turing’s identity. His antisocial nature carries over into adulthood when dealing with his fellow mathematicians. They’re tasked with breaking the Enigma code. Turing contacts Winston Churchill who places him in charge of the group and then Turning promptly fires two members. His stumbling association with his remaining peers (Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech) provide a lot of interesting interactions that help us understand Alan Turing, the man. It’s this time at Bletchley Park, the British World War II code breaking station, that the production really takes off. Many of their advances were accomplished under such secrecy that it would be years before the world was made aware of their contributions to the war effort. Alan Turing is a conflicted man and Cumberbatch portrays the nuances of a complicated individual. Keira Knightly is a delight as the only girl on the team. Her considerable warmth is a nice counterpoint to Turing’s troubled disposition. His relationship to his superior, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), is decidedly more tense but the back and forth between him and the prickly Commander provides some of the most delightfully satisfying moments.
The Imitation Game is 3/4 of an extremely entertaining biography. The last half hour gives us a hurried peek into the concluding events of his life. The movie I saw was 1 hour 54 minutes but the final quarter was so rushed it had me thinking the projectionist forgot to load a reel of film. One minute Turing is being lionized for having made “the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.” The next minute he’s being arrested on charges of “gross indecency” due to his homosexuality. From hero to outcast in ostensibly minutes. A title card during the epilogue hastily informs us of the circumstances surrounding his death. Talk about abrupt endings. We’re left wondering why the complete 180 from the government with regards to all his tireless work. Unfortunately the script doesn’t delve into these latter day developments. For most of the run time, The Imitation Game remains a highly polished, beautifully acted picture. That mystifying resolution though. It’s such a supremely frustrating experience. Unfortunately we walk away with more questions than answers.
2014 has been another great year for film. This was my second year as a member of the Online Film Critics Society. The OFCS is the largest, most respected organization for movie critics whose work appears primarily on the Internet. I adore this group. Looking over the nominees, I must say I am quite pleased with what movies were recognized. I can’t say many of the winners were my first choice, but at least I enjoyed everything that won.
2014 Winners and nominees (18th Annual)
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
- Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
- Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne – Two Days, One Night
- Ava DuVernay – Selma
- Jonathan Glazer – Under the Skin
Michael Keaton – Birdman
- Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
- Brendan Gleeson – Calvary
- Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
- Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
- Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
- Essie Davis – The Babadook
- Anne Dorval – Mommy
- Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Best Supporting Actor
Edward Norton – Birdman
Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
- Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
- Suzanne Clément – Mommy
- Agata Kulesza – Ida
- Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer
Best Original Screenplay
Best Adapted Screenplay
Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl
Best Foreign Language Film
- The Missing Picture
- National Gallery
- The Overnighters
Best Animated Feature
Robert Yeoman – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrone – Birdman
Best Non-U.S. Release (non-competitive category)
- 10,000 km
- Entre Nós
- Han Gong-ju
- Hard to Be a God
- The Look of Silence
- The Salt of the Earth
- What We Do in the Shadows
- The Tribe
The announcement on the Online Film Critics Society web page can be found here.
Still Alice feels like something you’ve seen before. It’s rather straightforward in its construction. The narrative documents the degradation of a woman‘s mental faculties from a condition. Judi Dench in Iris, Gena Rowlands in The Notebook, Julie Christie in Away from Her. We have seen this affliction depicted before. Here, however, it affects a younger woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. To heighten the stakes, she’s a brilliant academic at the peak of her career. Julianne Moore has always been known for her portrayals of women who must endure traumatizing experiences and Still Alice is no exception.
The production is most successful as a document of the illness itself as it impairs Dr. Alice Howland. Julianne Moore portrays a professor at Columbia University whose area of expertise is linguistics. If anyone can be labeled with a highly developed cognitive ability, it’s her. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland pen a screenplay they adapted from Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel. Initially the effects manifest itself in little “senior moments” that had me thinking that I might actually have early onset Alzheimer’s. It attempts to depict how the disease affects her family as well as the individual. The way her various family members react and adapt to the unsettling news isn‘t foreseeable. Husband (Alec Baldwin) and oldest daughter (Kate Bosworth) don’t want to confront the reality. Meanwhile her youngest and more independently minded daughter (Kristen Stewart), is a more accepting.
Still Alice is a beautifully acted film with a stunningly sincere performance by Julianne Moore at its center. She is what sets this mostly conventional tale apart. Moore genuinely conveys the helplessness at losing your memory while still being aware of what’s happening. At one point she records a video message directed at her less cognizant future self. Her shocking directions are absolutely chilling in their matter-of-factness. And yet there’s an ostentatious air about the production that keeps us at a distance. Alice and her WASPy family are the picture of a privileged life. She and her husband are an educated, wealthy couple with 3 attractive adult children, polite well mannered in their exquisitely decorated Manhattan brownstone. She’s just turned 50 though with her gorgeous face, she doesn’t look it. All of this almost scientifically designed to make the tragedy of her ultimate predicament even more emotional. Still Alice is perhaps the most empathetic presentation of the helplessness an individual afflicted with alzheimer’s truly feels. To that end, Julianne Moore renders an extraordinary achievement in a drama that sits comfortably in the sudsy water of a sentimental tearjerker.
Drama based on the life of World War II American prisoner of war survivor, Louis Zamperini. Actress Angelina Jolie directs her 2nd feature based on the best selling biography of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand. Jolie pulls out all the stops in this gorgeously produced biopic in the classic Hollywood tradition. There’s stunning cinematography courtesy of Roger Deakins. A beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat. And let’s not forget the script. Unbroken features a screenplay attributed to no less than four writers(!): Joel & Ethan Cohen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. Every single one a heavyweight in Hollywood. This is a stately, beautifully photographed, well acted spectacle.
Louis Zamperini was a first generation Italian American. His parents spoke no English when he came to the U.S. and the culture clash he dealt with was difficult for him at school. He sought solace in athletics where he excelled in running. He became so exceptional that he qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. In 1941 he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Two years after that, engine failure caused his B-24 to crash in the South Pacific. 8 of the 11 men on board died. Zamperini and two of his crewmates survived. Their rubber raft drifted with no land in sight for 47 days. In time, the survivors were captured and imprisoned by the Japanese Navy. Director Angelia Jolie details all these events and more. It’s never anything less than a handsomely mounted tribute that honors the perseverance of a hero.
And ultimately that is what keeps it from being something vital. It’s hard not to regard this pedantic film as anything more than just a respectful history lesson. The picture opens with a bang with some spectacular aerial photography of B24 bombers in flight. We flash back to an earlier time. Key aspects of Zamperini’s early life are highlighted and we see everything that led up to his enlistment. That all works as the developments move at a brisk pace. Once their plane fails and they are set adrift at sea, it becomes a bit plodding, but still interesting enough. It’s when our lead is taken captive by the Japanese that the narrative loses its way. There Zamperini must contend with Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi) the Imperial Japanese Army sergeant at the prison. Nicknamed “The Bird”, he is a most peculiar fellow. A fey personality who takes an instant dislike to him. Miyavi was a complete unknown to me but I found his mannered performance almost anachronistic for the period setting. Small surprise when I discovered he’s actually a famous pop singer in his native Japan. There’s much to recommend here, but at over two hours the production taxes the viewer’s patience after a while. Let’s just say, Unbroken is worth watching once and then never again.
Lackluster sequel to the 2011 Summer hit reunites Nick, Kurt and Dale in an attempt to be their own boss. Christoph Waltz is a shady investor that tricks the boys into doing all the work so that he can step in and buy their product for a ridiculously low price. The product is an unnecessary invention (my opinion) called “The Shower Buddy”. To retaliate, the moronic trio decide to drug and kidnap his adult son so they can ransom him to regain control. Of course the plan doesn’t go as planned. Hilarity ensues. Actually scratch that last sentence.
Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey are back in superfluous characters that only remind us how much better the original film was. Their parts really drag the comedy down. Whenever one of them appears, it feels as if the story has been hijacked. Jennifer Anniston’s shtick is of the potty mouth variety. If hearing someone say bad words makes you laugh, then you’ll love her part as written here. The main narrative takes a back seat while these actors from the original give us a bit of improv. The result makes the 108 minute running time, feel unnecessarily bloated
Horrible Bosses 2 isn’t completely worthless, but it isn’t very worthwhile either. The winning chemistry between Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis is the best element of the picture. It’s their talent that extracts laughs from a middling script that wouldn’t have been as funny without them. Their camaraderie is what made the first movie such a joy. They still mesh like a modern day Three Stooges. It‘s just that the interaction isn‘t quite as finely tuned this time around. Their appearance on a Good Morning Los Angeles TV show to unveil their new invention is the funniest part in the whole movie. It’s all downhill from there. Their characters are less defined. Instead they shout a lot more. The plot is more perfunctory. Simply put, the comedy just isn’t very funny.