Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Your Money, My Money: "A Most Violent Year" an expertly told slow-burn with juicy performances

A Most Violent Year (2014) 
125 min., rated R.

What a fast and early career trajectory. When filmmaker J.C. Chandor broke out on the scene with his debut, 2011 wordy, tensely heated financial chamber drama "Margin Call," it seemed as if it was made with the precision of an auteur. Next up, 2013's "All Is Lost" was Robert Redford's one-man show lost at sea, and while that follow-up was too minimalist for this viewer's taste, the tide of critics fell in love with it. Now, "A Most Violent Year," Chandor's third film, could not be more different, but it displays the growth of a filmmaker whose work is becoming more and more cinematic. Richly scripted and methodically carried out, this character-based morality drama cements itself as the writer-director's strongest piece of work, and while many will find a shortage of thrills they might be expecting, it calls up the mature restraint and sedate, slow-burn pacing of Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese back in their heydays. This is one of those "thrillers for grown-ups" in the best of ways.

In New York City, 1981, it was said to be the worst year on record for violent crimes, such as rape and murder. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an honorable man who prides himself on doing the right thing and not getting his hands dirty. And, like everyone, he wants to attain the American Dream. In Long Island City, he runs a successful, "fair and clean" heating-oil business inherited from his late father-in-law; Abel's wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), does the books. After one of his fuel trucks is hijacked and his driver (Elyes Gabel) left in the middle of a turnpike pay station, Abel faces the charges of a district attorney (David Oyelow), who launches an investigation into the company's corrupt financial practices and tax fraud. Once Abel moves Anna and their children into a new house, someone sends a message. Will Abel have resort to violence?

A film of merit in its craftsmanship, "A Most Violent Year" simmers deliberately with bursts of violence and lulls the viewer into this dog-eat-dog underworld. First off, it is eloquently shot by cinematographer Bradford Young (2013's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"), with an impressive tracking shot of Abel jogging opening the story; fluidly cut by Ron Patane (2013's "The Place Beyond the Pines"); and subtly decked out in urban authenticity and period detail. As a storyteller, Chandor doesn't lay all of his cards on the table right away, so to see everything unfold piece by piece is both darkly amusing and deceptively thrilling. Nothing can be seen coming from a mile away, nor does anything feel like a cheat. Being guided by an assured hand, the moderately familiar plot of "A Most Violent Year" builds and builds, albeit not predictably and not without humor or nuance. There are no villains to be served, just people making crooked decisions to survive. 

Continuing to impress and work his way into leading-man status after 2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis," Oscar Isaac is understated but layered and riveting as a sympathetic, dichotomous protagonist wrestling with his own moral code and finding the most right path for his life and career. He's like watching an electric Al Pacino or Robert De Niro commanding the screen, though Isaac seethes from the inside rather than letting it all out. As tension builds between Abel and wife Anna, the real force to be reckoned with is the lone female with the most leverage; she is very Lady Macbeth. Adding to her already-superb filmography, the luminous Jessica Chastain's juicy turn is pronounced without feeling exaggerated, as she brings cutthroat ferociousness and pragmatic smarts to her characterization of Anna, a mobster's like-minded daughter who would rather take care of business now than let someone else take their time doing it. When Abel hits a deer with his car and has to put it out of its misery with a crowbar, Anna gets to it first. And, when she tells no-nonsense D.A. Lawrence (David Oyelowo) that he made a regrettable mistake searching their home the afternoon of their daughter's birthday party, her threat feels anything but empty as she flicks her cigarette and fiercely notes, "This was very disrespectful." Circling the two lead dynamite performances, the rest of the supporting cast make the most of their brief appearances, including Albert Brooks, as Abel's weary lawyer; Elyes Gabel, as shaken-up driver Julian; Catalina Sandino Moreno, as Julian's wife Luisa; and Christopher Abbott, as one of the truck hijackers.

Writer-director Chandor proves to be an expert in building pitch-perfect suspense, especially when intercutting between sequences. An enthralling car and on-foot chase onto a subway is a high point, as well as a shoot-out on the 59th Street Bridge, in the way both set-pieces are carefully directed and shot. Even a brief scene where Anna comes home to find her daughter holding the gun a night prowler outside of their home dropped is mounted with such dread, regardless if the poor child blows her head off. The film isn't without a pulse, urgency being renewed in fits and starts. Sometimes, it does feel like there should be more tension and oomph, as if the film could use a lit fuse under its rump. Still, with a quiet electricity percolating in every scene, "A Most Violent Year" is a smart, meticulously crafted film that absorbs and has the viewer in its clutches for its entire 125-minute length. It reminds of "American Hustle" in its theme of survival and interestingly shaded characters with moral ambiguity, but it trades in brassy, colorful entertainment value for more thought-provoking ideas that are less obviously handled. Chandor is shaping up to be a pro.

Grade: B +

Monday, December 29, 2014

The 10 Stinkiest Films of 2014

It's the end of 2014, a year of good, even great, movies. Of course, with the good comes the bad, even terrible. There were several that didn't quite make the list (read: they didn't make me as angry as the following ten), but would be worthy of a "Dishonorable Mention." 

Sadly, Robin Williams made his third to last film with the tone-deaf muddle "The Angriest Man in Brooklyn." There were a few poor genre indies, including the uninspired asylum found-footage pic "Hollows Grove" that could have been left lost; the voyeuristic cyber-thriller "Open Windows," starring Elijah Wood and former porn star Sasha Grey, that had an audacious gimmick but just spun crazily out of control; and "The Signal," an often technically dazzling but ultimately maddening sci-fi mystery that just fell flat. Also, don't forget the fourth "Transformers" movie, "Transformers: Age of Extinction," which was ginormous and dumb and long. Or, Katie Holmes playing a gun-toting schoolmarm with manners in the annoyingly oh-so-cute "Miss Meadows," which no one saw and, thus, garnered little fanfare. And, finally, "Crash" director Paul Haggis' "Third Person," a multi-character drama which thought it was pulling the rug out from underneath the audience and being meaningful but just came off as a laughably heavy-handed mess.

Bear in mind, I was lucky enough to miss both "The Legend of Hercules" and "Hercules," as if one take on the mythical hero wasn't enough. I purposely skipped "A Haunted House 2" because "A Haunted House" was #2 on my "worst" list last year, so I didn't quite see any signs of a sequel skyrocketing in improvement. Also, I saved my own soul from the apocalyptic, faith-based Nic Cage-starrer "Left Behind," which already looked depressingly inept from its trailers. Point for me. Now, without further ado, let's take out the trash, shall we? 

Here are the Worst Films of 2014:

10) Nymphomaniac: Volume IILars von Trier is a hard nut to crack. He is either a brilliant artist or so pretentious that he thinks shocking and alienating his audience will start a conversation. Truth is, he has even less to say this time around, except maybe, "love sucks" and "addiction warrants punishment." Taken as its own film, "Nymphomaniac: Volume II" might come full circle. However, despite the filmmaker's will to disturb and provoke discussion about female sexuality, his film is still a gruelingly downbeat, emotionally impenetrable wallow of clinical remove. If "Volume I" was by turns compulsively compelling and pretentious, with welcome flashes of power and levity, "Volume II" is punishing and unpleasantly grim, placing a distance between the audience and what's up on the screen. Everyone is a cog in von Trier's hopeless, awful-from-their-head-to-their-toes wheel. It might just turn everyone off from sex altogether. 

9) TranscendenceSeveral decades ago, "Transcendence" may have been ahead of its time as an intentionally high-minded and zeitgeisty sci-fi thriller. As is, it's an ambitious failure that had megabytes of promise on its side. First and foremost, this marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, an ace cinematographer in his own right and filmmaker Christopher Nolan's go-to collaborator since "Memento." Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the film loses its allure, squandering the substance of its "big ideas" and devolving into a muddy, derivative patchwork of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Lawnmower Man," and Skynet from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Either Pfister's vision was compromised or it was never fully realized before the execution stage. Equivalent to the interminable time it takes for a webpage to load and then open up to an Error 404, "Transcendence" is a $100-million turkey that never comes close to living up to its name. 

8) I, FrankensteinThe sort of joyless, unimaginative assembly-line product Hollywood studios hide from critics in the frigid wasteland of January, this dopey, monotonous CG-athon sorely lacks energy, interest, a sense of fun, and good ideas, and yet it all cost $65 million to make. "I, Frankenstein" is so silly, yet played on such one note of deadly seriousness that it's irksome no one involved decided to include at least a glimmer of humor or even a fright. It's pretty bad, and it doesn't even have the decency to be bad in a fun way. Uncharacteristically for Aaron Eckhart as the chiseled monster, he is a bore, jabbering on in voice-over and lumbering through this humorless role as if he were having no fun, either. The film didn't have to be overtly self-aware, but despite Frankie's beast being dead, shouldn't he keep his tongue firmly in his cheek after kicking it with Abbott and Costello?

7) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - No Ninja! No Ninja! No! Backed by Nickelodeon Movies and the Michael Bay machine seeing distribution by Paramount Pictures, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" doesn't lack budgetary resources, but wow, what an empty, witless, nap-inducing piece of junk food this is. "TMNT" ends up an overproduced, soullessly slick shell of a movie that can't even get by on pretty looks or benefit much from lowered expectations. It's more relentlessly mediocre and instantly forgettable than a giant disaster, but do the makers really want such a ringing endorsement in the TV spots? Instead of adult men fervently hanging onto their nostalgia with this 2014 edition or undiscriminating pre-teen boys flocking to see it, everyone is better off staying home and ordering a hot pizza. 

6) Sabotage -  "Training Day" screenwriter David Ayer's claim to fame has been his stream of gritty, hard-boiled law-and-corruption yarns. While he knows this material well, "Sabotage" is proof that he's losing a large chunk of the credibility he started with. His latest fuses a "Ten Little Indians" mystery with a lot of bullets and some left-over prosthetic gore from the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies. Sure, it occasionally buzzes with the intensity and realism of the Drug Enforcement world, but this hard-R whodunit actioner ends up being a bloody mess, quite literally, without being much fun. Gore and carnage have a place in movies, but it's treated here as equally savage and over-the-top that you can just picture director Ayer yelling, "More blood! More viscera!" to the make-up effects department. There's no defending it as a guilty pleasure or even great trash. No buts about it: "Sabotage" is just ugly and stupid.

5) ABCs of Death 2On paper, 2013's "The ABCs of Death" sounded like a horrific, disturbing nightmare come true for diehard horror aficionados, a chance to avert one's eyes in shock, fright, and disgust for two hours' worth as long as the alphabet. Disappointingly, the A-to-Z results were the hit-and-miss equivalent to slim pickings out of a student film festival. Now, there is fresh blood with its new list of 26 global directors who, from what they churn out here, do not work as well under a tight shooting schedule and budget. Like its predecessor, "ABCs of Death 2" surely has its standouts, but the ratio of misses to hits is even greater. There are so many bad ones that the bearable, even occasionally impressive, shorts might be forgotten. If only 4 out of 26 segments was still a worthwhile ratio. This is certainly a wackadoo package, but it's never funny or scary, just tiresome, gratuitous, infantile, amateurish, and downright mean-spirited.

4) Let's Be Cops - Let's just not, okay? More "White Chicks" than "21 Jump Street," unfortunately, "Let's Be Cops" is an R-rated buddy-cop comedy that has a wacky premise ripe with infinite comedic possibilities and affable, funny people trying to make it work, and yet the laughs never come. Slack and labored, the film isn't completely dead on arrival, as it might have a count of maybe two snickers, but it's definitely amateur hour for all involved. Damon Wayans, Jr. and Jake Johnson are done a disservice by earning so much good will and then having their efforts turn up in a waste of time. As is always the question, how bad can a movie with good people really be? This bad, apparently, as there isn't much else to say about "Let's Be Cops." Watching this would-be comedy in a theater of smart, discerning moviegoers will be like witnessing the sound of a pin drop or crickets chirping.

3) V/H/S: ViralAllegedly the third in-name-only installment from Brad Miska's anthology concept again, "V/H/S: Viral" embarrassingly doesn't even deserve to belong in the same canon. It's as if everything this fun little series had going for itand could have led togets washed right down the tubes. Similar to the first two films, "V/H/S: Viral" crisscrosses between three unconnected micro-movies and one wraparound story, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Half-assed and immature in never once ratcheting up the fun, creep factor, or tangible tension like "V/H/S" and "V/H/S/2," "V/H/S: Viral" is a slapdash, ineffectual and heavily disposable knockoff. That's enough to make often-underserved fans angry and less forgiving. While there is no pleasure in taking down a filmmaker, the shockingly piss-poor efforts by these so-called "visionary directors" (the one-sheet's words) manage to turn the "V/H/S" series into a complete joke. 

2) And So It Goes - There was a time when director Rob Reiner used to make wonderful films, but it is just depressing and cringe-inducing at this point. And so it goes with "And So It Goes," which was clearly meant to be a romantic comedy, but resulted in flat-footed, cookie-cutter, infuriatingly unworkable crumminess. The never-before-worked-together Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton sharing the same space and breathing the same air on screen sounds lovely on paper, but elevation from two old pros makes no difference in what an aimless, terminally bland misfire came out of shooting from an awkward, flavorless screenplay and then presenting the finished product to ticket-buyers as a would-be romance between charismatic sextenarians. Everyone need not bother because "Something's Gotta Give," this certainly is not. Even if it were aiming to be pleasant comfort food, the generically titled "And So It Goes" goes down as easily as a rock down a garbage disposal. 

1) The Pyramid - Imitative of 2006's harrowing, claustrophobic spelunking nightmare "The Descent" and August 2014's surprisingly effective Parisian catacombs-set "As Above, So Below," or anything, really, set in a cave, "The Pyramid" has no other pretense than to scare. However, it fails on all counts, unless it was trying to be dull and idiotic by design. The filmmakers should be most ashamed of Anubis, the shoddy-looking jackal-headed god monster they end up unleashing, when an actor wrapped in toilet paper might have proven to be creepier. Even if it didn't end on such an unsatisfying note with three lame endings, this is still amateurish, crummily made schlock with studio-approved duds that could have waited to open cold in the graveyard of January. This year's worst theatrical horror release and just the worst film of the year.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Seth and James Meet Kim: "The Interview" ballsy and amusing enough but never as clever as it could be

The Interview (2014)
112 min., rated R.

Nothing screams Christmas more than a Seth Rogen-James Franco political comedy about assassinating North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un. Joking aside, "The Interview" ran the risk of going too far without much surprise and, thus, became the subject of such controversial blowback and threats by a terrorist group that committed cybersecurity hacking. In case you live under a rock, Sony Pictures pulled the movie from theaters, backing down and then deciding right before its initial December 25th nationwide release to open it in very select indie theaters and sell it to rent or buy online and Video On Demand platforms. Was it worth all the fuss? Not quite. Putting all of that aside, is it any good? It could have always been more clever, more subversive, and even more outrageous, but "The Interview" is a ballsy-enough goof, nothing more and nothing less, that packs on the guffaws like nuclear missiles.

Skylark Tonight producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) and star Dave Skylark (James Franco) have hit their one-thousandth TV episode, but Aaron is tired of airing vapid celebrity gossip. When North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) makes the news for having the weapons to nuke the West coast of the United States, the producer secures a globally broadcast interview with the "master manipulator" who's also a superfan of Dave's show. His nation holds him as a god, who doesn't urinate or defecate and also takes care of his allegedly malnourished people. Before going off to North Korea, Aaron and Dave are dropped in on by Agents Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) Botwin (Reese Alexander), who on behalf of the C.I.A. ask the guys to take out Kim by lacing Dave's handshake with a poisonous strip. Before their interview, Dave and Kim Jong-un find a common thread and strike up a friendship. Can the two American friends go through with the mission?

"The Interview" has a one-joke premise, but co-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (2013's "This Is the End") and screenwriter Dan Sterling mostly balance their standard brand of crass "dude humor" with outlandishly silly, go-for-broke lunacy, finger-biting and blood-spurting included. It's as ribald, juvenile and politically incorrect as one would expect. The biggest surprise might be the proficient production values, and cinematographer Brandon Trost (2014's "Neighbors") and editors Zene Baker and Evan Henke actually do some sharp shooting and cutting here. Calling it a biting satire would be inflating its quality and worth, but "The Interview" certainly has its moments of blazing bite. The film opens with a seemingly joyous anthem sung by a North Korean girl that praises the modern-day Hitler and blasts the United States ("We wish him joy, we wish him peace, we wish him love . . . and the one thing in our time, we wish more than this is for the United States to explode in a ball of fiery hell. They are arrogant and fat! May they drown in their own blood and feces!") before the testing of a missile launch. From there, the important, fear-mongering headline news announcing a possible threat is dichotomized by a Skylark Tonight interview with rapper Eninem. This satirical observation on celebrity journalism and the attempt to legitimize journalism is amusing and relevant, but if you want a sharper political satire or a send-up of bombastic action movies featuring Kim Jong-il as a puppet, revisit 2004's "Team America: World Police" from "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Despite there being no history written for allegedly best friends Aaron and Dave, Seth Rogen and James Franco supply the film with their fast, energetic riffing and natural chemistry, as proven in "Pineapple Express" and "This Is the End." Playing the "Samwise" to Franco's "Frodo" or the straight man to his clown, Rogen is a thankfully grounded presence, while Franco broadly turns his squinting, noxiously smug shtick up to 11. Aaron is more of the voice of reason, even when he has to be the one to secure a package in his anus once staying in Kim's palace, and Dave is a buffoon open to ridicule (his mantra being, "They hate us 'cause they ain't us!"). The genuine standout, though, is Randall Park, who's inspiredly endearing and even a little sympathetic as Kim Jong-un, a rich 31-year-old kid who's felt incompetent his whole life and a closeted lover of Katy Perry and margaritas. As Dave tries convincing Aaron, "Kim is not evil; he was just born into a hard situation." Diana Bang, as Kim Jong-un's assistant Sook, and Lizzy Caplan, as sexy CIA Agent Lacey, aren't called on to do anything that stands out, aside from being sexual objects, but they're both pretty capable when it comes to working around a comedic line or situation.

With more qualifications to make audiences bust a stupid gut than to start an intelligent conversation, "The Interview" will go down in history for all the brouhaha it received rather than the film itself. Randall Park's interpretation of a murderous leader is a hoot before he bites the dust in a fiery, over-the-top "money shot" touchingly cued to Jenny Lane's acoustic cover of Katy Perry's "Firework." Aside from other jokes that work in the moment and then disappear like a drunken night, the film doesn't back down on sticking it to North Korea or even our own nation for vapid celebrity interviews being blown out of proportion for mass consumption. It may not be the year's funniest, but in the times that we're experiencing today when lives and creative freedom are both threatened, it's less of a mean-spirited assault and more of a lewd, harmlessly dumb crowd-pleaser, for better or for worse.

Grade: B -

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wishin' and Singin': "Into the Woods" a vibrant, darkly comic all-star musical treat

Into the Woods (2014) 
124 min., rated PG.

Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" hit the stage on Broadway in 1987 and became an evergreen musical mainstay. It was only a matter of time, following 2007's bravura, Tim Burton-directed Grand Guignol symphony "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and 2012's ginormous, stirring "Les Misérables," before it would, too, make a transition to the big screen and become a Walt Disney holiday-released event. Directed by Tony Award-winning Rob Marshall (2002's "Chicago" and 2009's "Nine") and written for the screen by James Lapine, this screen adaptation is vibrantly staged, musically ebullient, and wonderfully subversive, preserving the show's theatricality without feeling overly stagey or manic and having just enough intimacy for the camera. Some movie musicals prove that musical fans should be more careful what they wish for, but "Into the Woods" should give all audiences their happily ever after. 

Incorporating classic fairy tales "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Rapunzel," and "Cinderella," the  film interweaves all of its storybook characters into one darkly comic, always-entertaining tale. Living in their cozy little cottage, the childless Baker (James Corden) and the Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt) haven't been able to conceive a child, due to a curse placed on the Baker's father by the old, ugly Witch living next door (Meryl Streep), rendering the family tree barren. If they go to the woods and acquire four objects"the cow as white as milk," "the cape as red as blood," "the hair as yellow as corn," and "the slipper as pure as gold"before midnight in three days' time, the curse will be reversed and the couple will be able to bear a child. Meanwhile, sparky Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is making her journey into the woods to her grandmother's house not before stopping for a basket full of bread; beautiful maiden Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) spends her life in a tower in the woods after being put there by The Witch, her supposed mother; under the orders of his mother (Tracey Ullman), young farmboy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) takes their cow, Milky White, to the town market and ends up trading the Baker for magic beans; and poor Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) goes against the command of her wicked Stepmother (Christine Baranski) and attends the festival at the kingdom to see the prince (Chris Pine) and ends up making a mad dash, leaving her golden slipper behind. The Baker and his wife will eventually finish their scavenger hunt, but the woods still throw a wrench into their plans. 

Right off the top, "Into the Woods" begins its narration and segues into its first glorious, hummable, show-stopping number, "Into the Woods," introducing characters who each wish for a better life. Each performer nimbly handles Sondheim's quick-witted, tongue-twisty lyrics, particularly the climax's "Your Fault." As an ensemble piece, no one sinks the ship, and compared to the recent reincarnation of "Annie," everyone has had much more vocal training. Meryl Streep is having a ball as The Witch and she seems to be more in charge of the music than she was in "Mamma Mia." Though The Witch is the catalyst for everything unraveling, Streep—the queen thespian of versatility that she is—turns the character into much more than just a spell-casting villain; as a mother who loves her daughter so much that she has kept her hidden from the world in a tower, she sells both the petty witchiness and an underlying vulnerability. Her belting of emotion is entirely palpable in "Stay With Me," her sorrowful plea to Rapunzel. She's also just plain fun to watch, and her third-act transition will remind Streep completists a bit of "Death Becomes Her." James Corden (2014's "Begin Again") and Emily Blunt are charming and empathetic as The Baker and The Baker's Wife who, respectively, wants a child and isn't so sure. Anna Kendrick is cute as ever as Cinderella and can carry a tune as we've seen early on in her career in 2003's "Camp" and then 2013's "Pitch Perfect," but she's hemmed in by the writing a bit. A swoon-worthy Chris Pine hammily and cheekily runs with the role of Prince Charming with a self-deprecating charisma and shows a different side of himself. The fun he's obviously having is so infectious, especially during a preening, cackling-inducing duet and dance-off of "Agony" on the top of a waterfall with his brother, played by a game Billy Magnussen (2012's "Damsels in Distress"). 

Making her feature film debut with aplomb, Broadway performer Lilla Crawford is the purest delight as the feisty Red Riding Hood. She played Annie in the 2012 stage revival, and her command on the stage translates beautifully to the screen. Johnny Depp's participation in the plot is minimal as the leering Wolf in a zoot suit and whiskers, but he sells the creepily perverse subtext of "Hello Little Girl" with relish when preying upon Red Riding Hood and even luring her with candy in his coat. Daniel Huttlestone's (2012's "Les Misérables") plucky Jack endears, and he nails "Giants in the Sky," a description of his journey up the beanstalk. Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, and Lucy Punch aren't given a lot to do as Cinderella's cruel Stepmother and Stepsisters, but they're an over-the-top hoot just the same. TV actress Mackenzie Mauzy looks the part of sheltered Rapunzel, but she's mostly a plot construct to move the narrative along. Also, Tracey Ullman is amusing but largely underused as Jack's exasperated mom. 

The play is the play, and the movie is the movie. It is sometimes to be expected for a stage play taken to the screen to be cursed with choppiness, the seams showing in motion picture form. In the case of this one, no actual time is spent between Cinderella and Prince Charming at the festival, perhaps for pacing, and same goes for Rapunzel and her prince. And, when a couple of characters have abrupt exits, both of their deaths just have to be accepted without being palpably felt. Despite such slivers of unevenness in James Lapine's script, director Rob Marshall makes so many inventive choices—we see inside the wolf's belly, reminding of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, and Cinderella has an amusing freeze-frame aside—and shot on soundstages and a tactile forest in Surrey, England, to bring an organic storybook world to the screen. The viewer will struggle to keep their drool in, thanks to the mouth-watering sights of Dion Beebe's cinematography, Dennis Gassner's production design, Colleen Atwood's costume design, Anna Pinnock's set decoration, and the art direction. 

Before a lady giant (Frances de la Tour) even climbs down the beanstalk and enters the picture, "Into the Woods" has already run out of steam from all of the storytelling convolutions and character collisions, but that never makes it any less fun or lively to watch. To focus too much on the misgivings of the narrative would be like not seeing the wood for the trees. It would be hard to tell which songs were cut or reworked, but theater brats should calm down because there are so many to choose from. Even being under the family-friendly Disney umbrella, this PG-rated storybook mash-up thankfully doesn't dilute Sondheim's arch spark of spontaneity or compromise too many of the grimmer, more adult story details (i.e. loss, an affair, the stepmother slicing off her daughter's heel and toe to fit into the golden slipper). For a holiday offering, "Into the Woods" is an alive, swirling, rapturously magical treat. 

Grade: B +

Secret Painter: Burton paints his lightest, second most sensitive work with "Big Eyes"

Big Eyes (2014)
106 min., rated PG-13.

Though it is a minority opinion, 2012's "Dark Shadows" might have been a bit of a mess, but it was a lovingly gothic and entertainingly imaginative live-action return to form for macabre filmmaker Tim Burton and his summation of work since 2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Straying a bit from the dark and strange with "Big Eyes," the stranger-than-fiction story of '50s-'60s painter Margaret Keane would be seem to be poles apart from Burton's idiosyncratic sensibility. Then again, such an unusual, fascinating true story makes for his most gentle and sensitively human work alongside 2003's "Big Fish" and 1990's "Edward Scissorhands." At first glance, "Big Eyes" doesn't feel like a recognizable Burton picture with a welcome lighter touch, but his warmth and humor, fondness for kitsch, and surreal visual eye are certainly present. In the long list of biopics this holiday season, this one is the most delightfully offbeat, something of a small winner that shouldn't go overlooked.

Northern California, 1953. Fleeing the suburbs and her abusive first husband, naïve housewife Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) packs up her life in a suitcase, with round-eyed young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) in tow, and uproots them to North Beach in San Francisco. While she has a portfolio of paintings—all of them of big, saucer-eyed children—Margaret doesn't have much work experience to provide for her and Jane's new life. One day at an art fair in a park, she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a realtor-cum-painter of Italian street scenes. He's so charming and Margaret so impressionable that, in order for Margaret to keep her daughter, Walter asks the single mom to marry him. She's reluctant at first, but sees Walter as a good provider. Before Margaret knows it, her new husband starts promoting and then selling her big-eyed paintings, but he takes credit for being the creator of the "little hobo kids," signing them all in the bottom right-hand corner as "Keane." He tries reassuring her, "I'm Keane, you're Keane. From now on, we're one and the same," but it's her word against his, and for ten years, Walter would force his undermined wife to churn out her creations in a closed-off art studio of their fancy home.

Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (who both know their way around biopics, including 1994's "Ed Wood," 1996's "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and 1999's "Man on the Moon"), "Big Eyes" paints a personal, achingly sad eye into the sexism and fraudulent behavior in a 1950s marriage. Narrated by Examiner reporter Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), the screenplay takes its time through the first two halves, tracking Walter's charade of taking credit for Margaret's paintings and being his own artist of manipulation, and then rushes through the last. One cannot help but wish the story was given a more even-handed treatment and fleshed out Margaret's feelings even more deeply. She does tell Walter that the "big eye" paintings are personal, like all art. Margaret puts her heart into all of them and she centers on the big peepers, as they are the way to the soul, a notion she realized when going deaf for a short period of time in her life. The film is obviously on Margaret's side, even when critics revile "Walter's" creations as "creepy, maudlin, amateurish," and Burton and his screenwriters raise questions about art and commerce. Would patrons look at the paintings differently with a woman being the artist ("lady art")? If art makes money, does that automatically make it "good"?

While a grinning Christoph Waltz is the show, a blonde-wigged Amy Adams is the heart. In a nimbly reactive and impassioned performance that could have been too passive, Adams is a touching triumph of perfection. She never hits a false note, creating a submissive but effortlessly empathetic and pure character in Margaret to whom our heart goes out. Unlike husband Walter, she has a heart and soul and later gains a backbone (which she once had to leave her first husband). As the schmoozing, insincere Walter Keane, Waltz is an ingratiating showboat. He's certainly fun to watch, despite dialing it up rather than down or somewhere in the middle, and probably brought even more paint buckets of larger-than-life color than what was already written for him on the page. Jason Schwartzman and Terrence Stamp have some fun, respectively, as a hoity-toity art gallerist and biting art critic, while Krysten Ritter, as Margaret's only friend DeeAnn, is largely underutilized, dropping out as quickly as she drops in.

Narratively, "Big Eyes" hasn't the depth to always allow the story to breathe. It probably wouldn't have been such a bad idea to develop the relationship between Margaret and Jane to feel the impact of a mother lying to a daughter (later played by Madeleine Arthur). However, taking in the bigger picture, we care about Margaret and we can't wait to see her voice be liberated in a courtroom, which would be so absurd if it weren't so true and satisfying. Not to be unexpected, the film looks swell, being aided by Bruno Delbonnel's vibrant cinematography and Rick Heinrichs' era-specific production design, with the introductory scenes' pastel-colored suburbia recalling "Edward Scissorhands." Burton does eventually get in touch with his trademark weirdness in a nightmarish sequence, set in a grocery store, where Margaret starts seeing everyone as one of her big-eyed portraits. Just sharing Margaret Keane's little-known story makes for a good yarn that is just a stroke away from sounding like pure fiction, and it takes a filmmaker who has respect and an affection for the people on screen and knows how to inject a certain whimsical flair to do it justice. It's nice to see Tim Burton fully connected here.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Chariots of War: "Unbroken" well-made and often moving but oddly unremarkable

Unbroken (2014)
137 min., rated PG-13.

An inspirational, old-fashioned account of former Olympic track star Louis Zamperini becoming a prisoner in a Japanese war camp, based on "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand's nonfiction book "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," "Unbroken" aims to be a well-meaning "triumph of the human spirit," a film that should clearly matter. It's well-made and solidly acted, so why isn't it extraordinary? On all sides of the camera, Angelina Jolie's sophomore directorial debut (2011's "In the Land of Blood and Honey"), from a screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, is technically impressive and admirable, but it rates as just a very noble effort that still somehow feels whitewashed in its treatment. Still managing to stir, "Unbroken" is just never as emotionally satisfying as it could and should have been. 

It's 1943 above the Pacific Ocean, where champion Olypic runner Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) finds himself at war as a U.S. Air Force bombardier. Flying in a B-24 bomber, he and his crew crash into the ocean, killing eight men. From there, Louis and two fellow survivors, pilot Russell Allen 'Phil' Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) and tail gunner Francis 'Mac' McNamara (Finn Wittrock), spend 47 days drifting on two life rafts in the middle of the ocean, finding food, fending off sharks and dodging into the water from bullets from the enemy overhead. When only Louis and 'Phil' are rescued, their would-be saviors turn out not to be the Allies but Japanese soldiers. Eventually, Louis finds himself held captive at a different POW camp, run by a sadist known as "The Bird" (Miyavi), who will make it his mission to break the Olympian.

Rather two-dimensional and squarely hagiographical in its overly respectful telling, the film engages without gutting us, but keeping us engaged is still key when the outcome and fate of the protagonist are preordained. The creative choice of backtracking to Louis' rise as an Olympian might have deflated the momentum of the current harrowing story, but it pushes on efficiently, cherry-picking life events from Louis' early life, being raised by Italian immigrant parents and then becoming a petty thief who would, with the encouragement of his older brother Pete (played at different ages by John D'Leo and then Alex Russell), join the track team. In 1936, Louis would run in the Olympics, making him a sort-of celebrity in the POW camp. A "jumping from the frying pan into the fire" survival story if there ever was one, it is tough and gripping before it starts to tread one note, lingering, punishing and never going soft on the brutality. There were even respites in "12 Years a Slave," but "Unbroken" strikes again and again and again with suffering and endurance, until it's time to go home.

Jack O'Connell (2014's "Starred Up") is a promising newcomer, capable of selling war-boy pluck and reaching raw emotion and physical power, especially when he's forced to take a punch from every prisoner in the camp. Though not the actor's fault, the complexity and edges have been sanded down in the characterization of Louis Zamperini, rendering him a symbol in his own incident-filled story. The real Zamperini died this year at age 97, and it goes without saying that O'Connell surely does a fine tribute performance of playing him as a hero full of resolve and perseverance. The other actors are all committed to their gaunt bodily transformations, particularly Domhnall Gleeson (2014's "Frank") and Finn Wittrock (TV's "American Horror Story: Freakshow"). Making his screen debut, Japanese musician Miyavi (Takamasa Ishihara) is the epitome of irredeemable evil as "The Bird," but what else is new? He's interestingly effeminate, but a pretty one-dimensional villain who deserves to be throttled with his own stick. With an indelible painterly eye, the film is shot in a way only ace cinematography Roger Deakins knows how, regardless of how grim an image can get. One shot composition captured when Louis and 'Phil' are found by the Japanese, whose shadows hover over their raft, is a real stunner.

Most of the time, filmmakers who want to tell a remarkable story about a real-life person feel the need to paint them without any personal flaws of their own, and that's exactly what Angelina Jolie has done. The subject matter is inherently compelling, especially Louis Zamperini's forgiveness and peace with Japan (which is only mentioned in the closing title cards) after such a grueling journey, but distinction and nuance are nearly lost at sea. Almost too stately and straightforward of a director like Clint Eastwood, Jolie is also not shy of a little Christ-like iconography in a sequence where our godsend must hold a heavy wooden beam on his shoulders without getting shot dead. The entire takeaway of the story boils down to Louis' brother's patently obvious motivational quote, "If you can take it, you can make it," that guides our hero to the end instead of actually getting inside his head. It will be hard to feel completely unmoved, but something about this treatment just feels too kid-gloved and ultimately saccharine to be truly impactful and worthwhile. Jolie at least never strays from Louis or marginalizes him, and for that, "Unbroken" never breaks its nobility as a skilled, if remarkably safe, survival war saga.

Grade: C +

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Yesterday Was Not Plain Awful: "Annie" painlessly sunny, jubilant cotton candy with a smile

Annie (2014)
119 min., rated PG.

Anyone can bet his or her bottom dollar that everyone already knows "Annie." Whether it be Harold Gray's Great Depression-era comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," Broadway's original 1977 production with Andrea McArdle and later Sarah Jessica Parker, its revivals, the 1982 film adaptation, 1999's Rob Marshall-directed TV movie, or just the sight of a curly, red-headed orphan, you can probably recite every lyric from "Tomorrow" and "It's a Hard Knock Life." There's nothing wrong with updating the enduring rags-to-riches story in musical theatre for a new generation, and the 2014 "Annie" surely does that, changing the race of a few key characters, modernizing recognizable songs and adding a few originals, and incorporating Facebook and Twitter. Looks can be deceiving, like the advertising campaign making this 21st-century face-lift look like a plasticized, faux-hip embarrassment, but the Will Smith/Jada Pinkett Smith/Jay Z-produced "Annie" is, shockingly, a peppy, cheerfully entertaining diversion.

Against all expectations and preconceived notions, the first scene is pretty clever, opening with a school classroom where the "Annie A." we all know—curly, red hair and all—is in front of the class for a presentation on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but then our attention is turned to "Annie B." 10-year-old Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a spunky foster child living with four other girls in a Harlem brownstone, under the boarding "care" of Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a belligerent, always-sloshed has-been music star booted out of C+C Music Factory. She still has half of the locket from her biological parents, but the only evidence Annie has of them is a letter written on a check from a restaurant, which she visits every Friday. One afternoon, as Annie goes running after a couple of bullies chasing a dog, she's nearly hit by an oncoming van but saved by germaphobic cell-phone magnet Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx). Running for the mayoral race, Stacks is encouraged by political adviser Guy (Bobby Cannavale) and personal assistant Grace (Rose Byrne) to invite Annie to his home when his heroic rescue goes viral. To help his approval rating, he gets plenty of photo opportunities with Annie, who ends up moving into his luxurious penthouse. Is there an organic bond between Stacks and Annie, or will it be just another calculated political move?

Directed by Will Gluck (he of 2010's delightfully sharp-witted high-school comedy "Easy A" and 2011's surprisingly snappy romantic comedy "Friends with Benefits") from a screenplay he co-wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna (2011's "I Don't Know How She Does It"), "Annie" might be a clumsy musical, à la 2008's "Mamma Mia!," but that might be one of the reasons it's so disarming. The songs have certainly been glossed-up and contemporized with a hip-hop beat by composer Greg Kurstin, albeit without sounding like overly tacky or pandering covers by Kidz Bop, but they aren't any less catchy. If one hopes to hear "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," no one performs it, but there is a poppy arrangement by Sia over the soundtrack. The staging and choreography are even cheesy, but they're also unabashedly brassy and appealingly basic. Chore anthem "It's the Hard Knock Life" is the first real splashy, toe-tapping musical number, performed by Annie and the four other girls with "Stomp"-style choreography involving brooms, mops, and plate juggling. "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," performed by Wallis' Annie, Byrne's Grace, and Russian family services worker Mrs. Kovacevic (Stephanie Kurtzuba) during Annie's tour of Stacks' smart penthouse, is a bouncy, irresistible standout with a show-stopping energy.

If Quvenzhané Wallis astounded in her first lead role in 2012's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" at just age six without any acting training and then earned herself an Oscar nomination, the peanut-sized 11-year-old star is precociously cute and gives every song and dance her competent all. Had her breakout role not already come early, Wallis would just be seen as a generic moppet based on her work as Annie, who wins our hearts when she's not directed to pour on the cutesiness less than naturally. As Will Stacks, a version of Daddy Warbucks, Jamie Foxx is the most accomplished voice talent, leading intimate original song "The City's Yours" during a helicopter ride over Manhattan with Annie. While he gets saddled with a mashed-potato spit take, he does sell some of the better comedic moments. His arc from driven, lonely politician to a warm-and-fuzzy family man actually feels genuine, too.

Taking on the role of Miss Hannigan, Cameron Diaz isn't so much miscastthe "Bad Teacher" star is capable of playing meanas she is just super broad and strident. Carol Burnett certainly did it better, and despite the occasionally funny delivery of a line, Diaz's performance too frequently feels like a hammy put-on of a cartoon who lives to whip open the girls' bedroom door and bark at them with insults and demands. Even if Diaz doesn't always pull it off, as if director Gluck kept pushing for a mugging, preening acting style rather than reeling her in, it is fun to watch Diaz gamely lap up her playfully choreographed rendition of "Little Girls." Once the actress is allotted time to calm down, Miss Hannigan also gets reconfigured with a decent, vulnerable side. Finally, of note, Rose Byrne is becoming such a world treasure, an adorable delight here as Mr. Stacks' workaholic assistant Grace; and even when sharing only a couple of scenes with her notable co-stars, Stephanie Kurtzuba (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street") is a priceless scene-stealer as excitable Russian family services worker Mrs. Kovacevic. Otherwise, the other four foster kids make little impression, and Bobby Cannavale tries as hard as Diaz, especially during their inferior duet of "Easy Street."

There's something enjoyable about watching actors who aren't ordinarily one's first choice to warble a recognizable song. Of course, "Annie" wouldn't be "Annie" without a heart, and there is a sweetness between Annie and the adults, particularly Grace, who, natch, becomes a mother figure. There are also drops of self-referential winking about product placement and Miss Hannigan handling a casting call to play Annie's parents. One of the film's most absurdly funny jokes has nothing to do with the story proper: Stacks invites Annie and her friends to a movie premiere of a hilariously bad fake fantasy-romance, "MoonQuake Lake," starring Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Rihanna. On the downside, the golden-retriever-chow mix playing the beloved Sandy—she is named after the hurricane (!)gets curt treatment, disappearing all too often, and an easily excisable subplot about a would-be romance between Miss Hannigan and bodega clerk Lou (David Zayas) didn't really need to be here to soften the harridan. Nevertheless, with its almost-synthetic but eager-to-please charm, "Annie" is sunny, jubilant cotton candy with more than enough painless entertainment value to go around. It might get a hard knock for not always working, but it doesn't deserve hate mail when you won't leave the theater without a smile.

Grade: B -