Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into the Woods: Doesn't go far enough

Into the Woods (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for thematic elements, fantasy peril and some suggestive material

By Derrick Bang

I never cease being delighted by Stephen Sondheim’s wordcraft wizardry.

His music and lyrics are as ferociously clever as anything concocted by Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter, and as sharply sardonic as the best of mathematician-turned-satirical-tunesmith Tom Lehrer.

The witch (Meryl Streep, right) explains that the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily
Blunt) will need to find four items in order to reverse the curse that has left them unable
to start a family. Naturally, we cannot help feeling that the witch isn't being entirely honest
about why she actually wants these items...
Almost three decades have passed since Sondheim and collaborator James Lapine unleashed Into the Woods, a frothy, thoroughly enchanting what-if musical that takes an unexpectedly mature approach to several classic Grimm fairy tales. Mostly, Sondheim and Lapine imagine what happened next, following the obligatory “happily ever after” fade-out that concludes such stories.

Nothing good, as it turns out.

Broadway classics don’t always transition well to the big screen, in great part because we lose the intimacy that comes from being in a theater with the actors who can bring fire and passion even to material this whimsical. No doubt many have contemplated this particular challenge, since Into the Woods debuted in 1987, but Rob Marshall eventually won the battle.

Certainly he seems a worthy choice, having watched his cinematic adaptation of Chicago take six of its 13 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

His handling of Into the Woods is unlikely to garner such stellar praise, but not for lack of quality; this simply isn’t as visually dynamic a production, its delights limited chiefly to the way in which the cast brings fresh brio to Sondheim’s lyrics and patter-songs. Production designer Dennis Gassner spends a lot of time with various forest settings that look rather similar; the scenery magic derives more from sfx supervisor Matt Johnson’s various touches, most notably the giant beanstalk that sprouts next to a certain home.

That said, there’s no denying the spectacular splash with which this film opens, cross-cutting between the various sets of characters within the intermingled saga to follow, their desires explicated in the lengthy “Prologue,” the first of Sondheim’s many ingenious songs. Marshall and editor Wyatt Smith have a field day with this stylish production number, a bravura 10 minutes that sets a most impressive stage.

The story is fueled by seemingly reasonable but ultimately ill-advised wishes. In short order, we meet Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wishes to attend the palace festival; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), a naïve but kind-hearted boy who wishes that his cow, Milky White, didn’t have to be sold; and the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who wish they could become parents.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Unbroken: A bit underwhelming

Unbroken (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for war violence, brutality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.26.14

Depicting the human spirit’s strength and indomitable resolve can be a tough sell in the visual realm of the big screen, because so much of that ability is an inward, fundamentally mental challenge.

Dismayed to have come to the direct attention of sadistic concentration camp guard
Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara, right), Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell)
is subjected to a series of increasingly brutal and humiliating ordeals.
And yet we’ve been blessed, this month, by two powerful films that convey precisely that heroic struggle: the first one devoted to a quiet academic who refused to yield — Stephen Hawking, in The Theory of Everything — and now the equally authentic saga of a scrappy athlete driven by equal measures of grit and stubborn fury.

As with Eddie Redmayne’s bravura performance in Theory, director Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of author Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is fueled by equally riveting work from British actor Jack O’Connell, whose until-now obscurity on these shores is certain to vanish forever. O’Connell is the heart, soul and raw guts of this film, and he achieves the near impossible: He genuinely makes us believe that fresh-faced, Southern California-based Italian immigrant Louis Zamperini could have survived — nay, triumphed over — a series of heart-stopping ordeals that clearly would have felled, and killed, lesser men.

Hillenbrand is the meticulous biographer who in 2001 dazzled readers with her first book: Seabiscuit: An American Legend, which went on to become an equally popular 2003 film. Hillenbrand acknowledges that her research into that famed horse frequently uncovered references to another famous Californian who “could give Seabiscuit a run for his money.” That led to an eight-year “chat” with Zamperini, but only by phone; Hillenbrand didn’t want to meet him in the flesh until after her second book was published.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption hit bookstores in 2010, subsequently spending 185 weeks on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list. It was a natural for film adaptation, and therein lay the challenge: how to bring Zamperini’s amazing story to cinema.

Jolie’s smartest move was casting O’Connell in the lead role, and the young actor absolutely rewards her faith. But while Jolie clearly approached this project with both passion and sensitivity, her directorial touch is too remote: We often feel like distant observers, rather than being intimately connected with these men, and their plight.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies: At long last, the grand finale!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense fantasy action violence and some truly scary monsters

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.19.14

Peter Jackson certainly knows how to stage a spectacle.

He’d have had a great time during Hollywood’s Golden Age, choreographing the fabled casts of thousands.

As a massive battle between elves, dwarves, humans and nasty orcs rages about them,
Gandalf (Ian McKellen, left) and Bard (Luke Evans) realize that the ghastly orc armies are
being directed by the orc lord Azog the Defiler, standing on a nearby hilltop. Clearly, he
must be stopped ... but how?
That said, he has become a poor judge of narrative structure. Although this final installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit builds to a rousing, suspenseful, crowd-pleasing climax, this cinematic saga definitely didn’t deserve the three-part presentation that seems to have been dictated entirely by commerce.

Consider the irony: We couldn’t get enough of Jackson’s three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and fans eagerly snapped up the extended-edition DVDs, to savor all the additional scenes left on the cutting-room floor. That adulation was entirely warranted, because those three books are extremely dense.

But The Hobbit lacks that complexity; it’s a shorter, single book, and — more significantly — is aimed at a much younger audience. Granted, Jackson and his fellow scripters — Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and horror maestro Guillermo del Toro — drew from the 125 pages of notes and appendices included with modern editions of The Lord of the Ring ... but, even so, this newest trilogy has suffered from bloat since its first installment. (I still haven’t recovered from the slapstick, Disney-esque dwarf songs in Bilbo’s dining room.)

Although the major plot points have been impressively realized, there’s a definite sense of treading water along the way, and extraneous characters we’d be better off without. Notable case in point: the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his weaselly aide (Mikael Persbrandt), who popped up in the middle installment and return here. They’re no more than stunt casting, particularly in Fry’s case, and their characters seem to have wandered in from a Blackadder installment. Very poor judgment, on Jackson’s part.

More disappointing, though, is the fact that — in this third and final installment — Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins has become a bystander in his own story. That’s a shame on all sorts of levels, not the least of which is the lessened degree to which we’re able to enjoy Freeman’s marvelously subtle performance. I just love the way he twitches his nose, or starts to say something, checks himself, and then decides that silence is the better part of wisdom.

Freeman gets more mileage out of Bilbo’s double-take decisions not to speak, than many of these supporting characters deliver via pages of dialogue.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Best Christmas Movies of All Time

Not quite a decade ago, and responding to a series of similar lists that had popped up immediately before and after the millennial change, I put considerable thought into my own tabulation of the best (and worst) Christmas movies of all time.

A single 10-film list obviously wasn't sufficient, so I broke it down into various categories, in order to include most-people-think-of-them-classics, less obvious alternatives and even seasonal TV specials. And the turkeys, of course; the Hollywood graveyard is littered with Christmas movie flops.

The list remained unchanged until 2011, when one newcomer pushed another title off the list. Since then, no further amendments ... and no surprise there, since holiday-themed movies have been rather sparse during the past three years. Goodness, there really aren't any this year!

So if you want to know which version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol made my list, or if you're seeking something you've not watched 13 times, check out the list. I guarantee you'll find a few titles worth viewing on December 24 or 25.

Ho, ho, ho!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Top Five: My walk with Andre

Top Five (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, drug use, nudity, crude humor and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.12.14

Caught an interesting film the other day.

Concerns a disillusioned movie star who, having turned his back on a crowd-pleasing and profitable pop-culture franchise, attempts to re-invent himself as a serious actor by writing, directing and starring in a highly unlikely vanity project. And, to make things more intriguing, this film’s approach and directorial style are self-referential to the point where real life and reel life blur before our eyes.

Much as he hates to play along, Andre (Chris Rock) agrees to smile for the ubiquitous
cameras on behalf of his fiancée, Erica (Gabrielle Union), a realty TV star who insists that
her entire life take place in full view of her devoted fans.
No, I’m not talking about Birdman. As it happens, I’m referring to Chris Rock’s Top Five.

Yes, Virginia; it would appear that these Hollywood types have been reading each other’s mail again.

I mean, seriously, how does this happen? How many forlorn, anguished twentysomething women attempted to find themselves via thousand-mile solo treks through wilderness in the late 20th century? And within months of each other, we get biographical movies about both of them?

The celluloid gods do work in mysterious ways.

But I digress.

Although Top Five doesn’t have the ambition or directorial pizzazz of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, the similarities are strong ... as is Rock’s savage indictment of today’s vanity-laden, social media-obsessed excuse for popular entertainment. And, much the way Iñárritu employed cinematic legerdemain to add visual snap to his narrative, Rock employs the rat-a-tat delivery of stand-up comedy to tell the story of New York City-based comedian-turned-film star Andre Allen’s effort to re-cast his career in a manner that fans aren’t about to embrace.

The results are uneven, with some of Andre’s sidebar detours plunging too far into wince-inducing vulgarity, but there’s no denying the shrewd, insightful analysis of how we tend to devour our celebrities these days. We must remember that Rock masterminded four hilarious and sharply savvy seasons of TV’s Everybody Loves Chris, which unerringly skewered school- and family-induced teen angst while simultaneously being quite funny.

Andre (played by Rock), as far as his fans are concerned, hasn’t been funny for a long time. He abandoned stand-up years ago, seeking success in Hollywood; he found it in a series of slapstick Hammy the Bear action comedies where only his voice could be recognized beneath his fur-laden costume. Needless to say, the artistic returns have been limited. (Imagine if Tim Allen, having graduated from the improv stage, achieved fame solely as the voice of Buzz Lightyear in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Theory of Everything: A beautiful mind

The Theory of Everything (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for dramatic intensity and mild suggestive material

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.5.14

It’s necessary, up front, to recognize that this film is adapted from Jane Wilde Hawking’s 1999 memoir, Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (extensively updated and re-published in 2008, as Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen).

During Cambridge's annual May Dance, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) can't quite get into the
spirit of the event itself — for openers, he refuses to dance! — but his goofy charm
nonetheless makes an increasingly strong impact on Jane (Felicity Jones).
We therefore cannot be surprised by the saintly hue that Felicity Jones brings to her portrayal of Jane: devoted, compassionate and (particularly) patient beyond comprehension. To be sure, selfless caregivers certainly exist in real life: quiet heroes who rarely receive the admiration they so richly deserve. And there’s no doubt that Jane Hawking must’ve had a very hard life, during her early years with a husband succumbing to motor neuron disease (MND, which is related to ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

But no displays of impatience or hostility, no raging against the universe, no signs of crumbling on Jane’s part? Even if we acknowledge traditional British reserve, that’s a bit hard to swallow here.

Hard, perhaps, but not impossible ... thanks to James Marsh’s thoughtful, sensitive direction, and the incandescent performances by Jones and most particularly Eddie Redmayne. The latter looks, moves and sounds so much like Stephen Hawking, that at times it’s hard not to believe it’s actually him on the screen.

Most crucially, Redmayne captures Hawking’s goofy grin, sparkling eyes and irrepressible, Puckish sense of humor. After the MND robs the man of his limbs — and, eventually, even his ability to speak — Redmayne nonetheless continues to convey a wealth of emotion with faint head movements, raised eyebrows, a twitch of that famous smile, and his darting, ever-inquisitive eyes that miss nothing.

We’ve not seen an actor so thoroughly inhabit a physically challenged role since Mathieu Amalric’s portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby, in 2007’s equally fine The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Bauby’s life changed in an instant, though, whereas Hawking — and his friends, colleagues and family — endured the heartbreak of his slow, debilitating slide into utter helplessness.

But we begin in happier times. It’s 1963, where Stephen is a cosmology student at Cambridge University: the mischievous, easily distracted member of a doctoral team being supervised by famed British physicist Dennis W. Sciama (David Thewlis, in a nicely understated performance). Stephen’s apparent disconnection from real-world requirements is a source of constant amusement to roommate and best friend Brian (Harry Lloyd), who probably has to remind his buddy to eat and sleep on a regular basis.