INTO THE WOODS (2014/IN THEATERS) Ever get a song stuck in your head for days on end? True confessions. I’ve already seen this film three times in the theater! That’s in part because its songs are ringing in my ears every morning and also because I’ve been convincing friends to see it on the big screen rather than wait for the DVD. More confessions. Unlike millions of other people, I hadn’t seen Stephen Sondheim‘s 1987 musical on any stage, or been part of some high school production of it (!), so the movie for me was quite the revelation. First off, the idea of a Grimm’s fairy tale “mash-up” is seriously brilliant and add to that lyrics which are beyond clever– funny and poignant at the same time. Plus the music! So haunting. And topping it all, a company of wonderful actors who can not only bring the story to life on screen but can really sing as well–who knew. I’m sure you’ve seen the previews, so you already know that Meryl Streep is the witch who has cast a spell on the baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), rendering them childless. To break the spell, they have three midnights to gather up four items familiar to anyone who has ever read a fairytale: “a cape as red as blood, a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, and a shoe as pure as gold.” Enter Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Charming Price (Chris Pine) plus her evil Stepmother (Christine Baranski), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman), and Rapunzel and her prince ( Mackenzie Mauzy and Billy Magnussen). Director Rob Marshall creates a musical that really works on-screen–not an easy task. The film has rightfully earned Oscar nominations for Costume Design (Colleen Atwood) and Production Design, as well as the usual nod to Meryl Streep. If you’ve been waiting to see it, I urge you to head to the theater, if for no other reason than to witness Chris Pine and Bill Magnussen perform their big song “Agony”—it’s worth every penny!
P.S. Your first viewing may find the last third of the film dark and jarring—you’ve been warned. On stage, according to what I’ve read, that last third is in fact the second act (following an intermission) and the passage of time is better explained with an additional opening song.
WILD (2014/IN THEATERS) You all know the story, right? In real life, Cheryl Strayed tackled a solo hike of 1,100 miles as a radical way to renew a life that had fallen into drug addiction, wanton sex and epic sadness over the death of her mother at the young age of 41. She wasn’t prepared in any real sense for a hike of this magnitude but she basically gutted it out. The memoir she wrote afterwards (“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”) was wildly successful–topping the NYTimes Best Seller List— and Reese Witherspoon optioned it. The movie version offers a bravura performance from Witherspoon, sans make-up (mostly) and showing what look like real bruises where that darned 55 pound backpack banged into her body every step of the way. I didn’t read the book, but my friends who did were pleased with the movie and with Witherspoon’s performance (though they said of necessity the film left out a lot). This is the second major biopic success in a row for director Jean-Marc Vallée who gave us Dallas Buyers Club and Matthew MacConaughey‘s Oscar winning performance last year. I’m sure Reese is hoping for something just like that—she’ll be on the list for sure!
BIG EYES (2014/IN THEATERS) Tim Burton is a hit or miss director and sadly, for me, this one falls into the “miss” column. I’ve read that he was aiming for something akin to “Ed Wood”, his fabulous, funny and very warm biopic from 20 years ago. This time his real-life subject is Margaret Keane, the painter who created those God awful big-eyed children some of us grew up with and the story of her swindler husband Walter, who was a master promoter/salesperson and took credit for the art for over a decade. The sets, costumes, cars and accessories in the film are fabulous, bringing the 1950s and 60s to life. And heaven help us, the paintings themselves are spot-on. But the film itself is a surprisingly lifeless and ultimately uninteresting story. It’s hard to get invested in these two, despite big performances from both Amy Adams as the “put-upon-heroine-trapped-in-a-web-of-her-own-making” and Christoph Waltz as her “over-the-top-flamboyant-uber-controlling” husband. I thought early in the film that it would possibly find its magic…but by the end, as Walter puts on a silly courtroom show, serving as both his own lawyer and witness (this did happen in real life, I gather) and Margaret is shown to be living to old age, still painting (yikes) and now having found God thanks to the Jehovahs Witnesses, you would just as soon forget everything you’ve seen, especially those darn paintings!
THE IMITATION GAME (2104/IN THEATERS) It’s easy to see why this film won the People’s Choice Award at Toronto this year– while it’s not exactly The King’s Speech (which also won that award and went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture), there are elements of everything we love about British films in this one also, not the least of which is the “stiff upper lip” approach to WWII and a couple of really fine performances. The story focuses on Alan Turing, the real life prodigal mathematician and cryptographer who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma machine and really did help win the war. The film version of his story jumps between a painful and lonely childhood, to the frustrating and frantic war days, finally taking us to his ignoble and sad end, courtesy of British bureaucracy and over-zealous policing. The movie is well done and the lead performance by Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific, showing a range of acting and emotion that anyone should be happy to witness. Supporting him and more than keeping up is Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, Alan’s fellow mathematical wizard and would-be fiance. As is true of so many British films, the others in the supporting cast are especially strong, including my favorite Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies, the team’s MI6 liaison and supporter, and at least two familiar faces from Downton Abbey–Matthew Goode (he’s Henry Talbot, one of Lady Mary’s many handsome suitors) and Allen Leech (so good as Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur who joins the family). Turing was famously ignored by the British for many, many years and so this film is considered a triumph for his contributions. It is based on the book by Andrew Hodges (“Alan Turing: The Enigma”) and directed by Norwegian born Morten Tyldum.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014/IN THEATERS) It’s difficult to portray genius in film—remember Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind?” So how about tackling genius combined with severe physical malady, like the horrific “motor neuron disorder” that struck Stephen Hawking when he was a young 20-something? A tough combo for sure, but one that Eddie Redmayne has pulled off perfectly, all the while adding that little “twinkle in the eye” and crooked sweet smile that we associate with the real Hawking. Moviegoers, however, should not be confused about this film. It is NOT an explanation of Hawking’s extraordinary genius but rather the story of his first marriage to Jane Wilde, whom he met when they were both students at Cambridge University before his illness began. Married in 1965, the two remained together until 1990 and produced three children–certainly a surprising fact to those of us who knew very little of Hawking’s personal life. (BTW: Thankfully, the movie offers a short biological explanation of how a man who is almost completely paralyzed can achieve fatherhood.) The movie is based on Jane’s book, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” and is largely told from her point of view, starting with her first meeting with Stephen at a party on campus. Over the course of the film, we witness their 25 years together—complete with ups and incredible downs, mostly based on Stephen’s continuing deterioration. Both parties are presented well and appear strong in the face of adversity. Jane (played by Felicity Jones) famously brings Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), the Choir Director at her church, into the family to help with the children and with Stephen. She and Jones develop an “arms-length” romance but, at least in this movie, wait to fulfill their love for one another until she and Stephen officially divorce (in 1995). By that time, Stephen has taken up with his nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) who is shown as totally devoted to him in the film (in real life, she was accused of being physically abusive). Scenes showing Hawking racing after his children in his motorized wheelchair and trying out his new voice synthesizer (with that very familiar Hawking voice) are truly charming and serve to remind us even more of how much he has overcome. What we’re meant to also appreciate is the level of effort Jane contributed to their semblance of a normal life. As the film nears its end, we see Hawking with the Queen and the two now-separated companions admiring their teenage children. Very sweet and worth the viewing for anyone who wants to learn more about these two lives.
What to say about Christopher Nolan‘s eagerly awaited sci-fi/mind-bender of a flick? I have one word:
LONG! 169 minutes in fact–that’s almost 3 hours–and it certainly feels that way. I found myself checking my watch at the 60 minute mark and thought seriously about walking out half-way through. Sure enough, though, the final 45 minutes or so did bring a series of crazy twists that made me glad I stayed. As I’m sure you already know, the plot revolves around our dying Earth, full of dust storms and failing crops, and the clandestine effort to find a new planet to escape to. The hero of the piece is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, in full drawl), a former space pilot now consigned to be a farmer. He’s a widow who is very close to his two children and lives with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) in a typical “needs a paint job” midwestern looking farmhouse. Thanks to a series of events and particularly because of his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy as a young girl, Jessica Chastain as the grown-up version), Cooper discovers that NASA, in secret and led by none other than Michael Caine (as Dr. Brand), has sent out explorers to find a new host planet and needs his skills to chase down the most promising ones. The mission inspires Cooper and he agrees to help, in effect leaving his children behind on a dying planet. He’s joined on the mission by Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway) as well as two other scientists and a couple computer “droids”, one of whom is intended to bring a few comic chuckles to a movie that offers little relief. All of this set-up eats up about 1/3 of the movie but soon we’re headed off in the space ship, through a “worm hole” in pursuit of phantom signals from three sites on the other side. I’ll stop here with any further description because frankly, there’s way too much to cover and you’ll want to see it all for yourself. Suffice it to say, that there are plenty of twists and turns, most of them bad. And there’s also plenty of pathos (too much for my taste really) and way too much loud and intrusive music from Hans Zimmer (who scored the movie), always signaling to us that SOMETHING IMPORTANT is happening. We get it, Mr. Nolan. The film really has moments that are awesome, but on the whole, I think it would have benefitted from some tight editing.
P.S. Will I run out to see this film again? Not on your life, but AMC is now selling an “All You Want” unlimited ticket option for those who can’t enough of it. And it’s doing just fine at the box office, especially overseas.
BIRDMAN (2014/IN THEATERS) It’s difficult to characterize this movie—darkly comedic, with laugh-out-loud moments, yet real pathos, combined with bravura performances from every cast member, a blow out “score” alternating gorgeous classical pieces with jazz drumming, and over-the-top creative camera-work by Emmanuel Lubezki—all to deliver writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s portrait of “Birdman” Michael Keaton‘s Riggan Thomson. Riggan is a has-been film actor who has set out to rise above his failed movie career and honor the serious side of his craft with a Broadway play he has written, produced and stars in. The name of the play is “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and the title is just as meaningful to the movie as you might expect. Riggan is trying to restore not just his pride of purpose as an actor but also his relationship with his daughter which is a mess. You’ll find yourself rooting hard for Riggan and one of the main reasons is that Michael Keaton is so unbelievably good in this role. It’s hard to think of another actor who could pull it off. But while Keaton is the centerpiece of the film, those around him are equally talented and wonderful. Edward Norton is Mike, the self-assured stage actor “stealing” Riggan’s play. Emma Stone is Riggan’s recovering addict daughter Sam, vulnerable and angry but loving in her way. Zack Galifianakis is perfect as Riggan’s beset lawyer who is trying to hold everything together financially and otherwise. And that’s not all–we also get Naomi Watts as Mike’s lover and Riggan’s co-star, in her first big Broadway break, Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex and Sam’s mother, and Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s current love interest (and co-star). There are wild scenes–I’m sure you’ve seen some of them in the previews. But it all works and beautifully to bring our hero “Birdman” to wildly crazy life. Whatever you do, don’t miss this one.
First-time director and screenwriter Hossein Amini is no stranger to great cinema—he wrote the screenplays for Drive and Wings of the Dove, among many others—and while in this film he has taken a few liberties with Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel of the same name, the result is just fine IMHO. For one thing, the cast of this three-handed thriller is top notch. Set in 1962, we first meet Chester MacFarland, a handsome older con man (Viggo Mortensen, looking chiseled and tanned), who is accompanied by his beautiful younger wife, Collette (Kirsten Dunst), while touring the Grecian ruins in Athens as part of their grand sweep of Europe. They make a striking couple and attract the attention of a small time, younger con man, Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaac of Llewyn Davis fame), who presents himself as a useful tour guide.
Chester’s smooth cover is blown soon in the film when he is confronted with a Private Detective, gun in hand, who is looking to recover funds for mob-related clients back in the States. Rydal, attracted to Collette, is drawn into the couple’s desperate need to escape. He helps them arrange fake passports and takes them to Crete, where they can all theoretically disappear for a few days while the documents are being created. Of course, three-ways never work, and when there are two men and one beautiful woman, the audience can already predict a bad outcome.
But this story is not a simple love-triangle—nothing from Ms. Highsmith is ever simple. For those who aren’t familiar with her work, she is the creator of The Talented Mr. Ripley and you’ll certainly notice similarities between this film and the Ripley series. As with those movies, the hot, sun-soaked Mediterrean plays a major role in the film, while running themes of father/son relationships lie just one level below the action. I won’t say more to spoil the film but I will say this–I am a fan of old-style thrillers and while this movie has not gotten the best reviews all around, it did not disappoint me one bit. Granted some plot points are a bit of a stretch and the pacing can seem very slow. But this is part of the build-up. The acting, particularly from the two men, is top notch. My favorite scene includes not a single line of dialog and no action whatsoever, as they sit opposite one another at a table. All that needs to be said is carried in their faces and particularly in their eyes. And while some reviewers have disliked the ending, I found it spot-on.
GONE GIRL (2014/IN THEATERS) Talk about buzz! The screen version of Gillian Flynn‘s 2012 bestselling thriller has been in the news since the moment the rights were sold to Reese Witherspoon back in 2011 based on the manuscript alone. And reports in 2012 listed Witherspoon as the expected star in the leading role of “Amazing Amy,” the whip-smart blonde wife of masculine lead Nick Dunne, whose disappearance starts the chain of events that make up the entire plotline here. It was easy to picture Witherspoon in the role, but in January 2013, David Fincher joined as director, and Rosamund Pike was announced as Amy with Ben Affleck as Nick. These two leads (as anyone who has read the book knows) must not only carry this film, they must succeed in confusing us in the audience — about their motives, their truthfulness, what they’ve done and what they haven’t done, as well as everything else in between—otherwise, the story doesn’t work. Flynn herself crafted the screenplay, preserving the “he said,” “she said,” structure of her book straight into the film, with Nick giving a spoken narration of events and Amy’s perspective coming from her diary. I’m assuming anyone reading this review is familiar with the plot, but just in case, here’s a quick rundown: on the morning of his 5th anniversary, Nick leaves his bar in the small Missouri town of New Carthage, to find that his wife has disappeared, with evidence pointing to kidnapping or worse. Over time, Nick becomes the prime suspect of murder and many pieces of circumstantial evidence point in his direction. Meanwhile, we meet his NY wife, Amy, who has served as the model for her parents’ successful book series entitled “Amazing Amy,” and we learn as she writes/reads her diary of how her model marriage has fallen desperately apart.
Although I’ve always liked him, Affleck is often understated and even “leaden” as an actor. Here his style works to his advantage—we honestly can’t tell if he’s lying or just plain stupid. Rosamund Pike is a drop dead gorgeous British actress with a slew of wonderful roles behind her (An Education, Pride and Prejudice, Barney’s Version, just to name three of my favorites!). She has a very smooth exterior which serves the role of Amy well. The movie is tight and the supporting roles are on target as well, especially (of all people) Tyler Perry, who is just plain fabulous as the slick lawyer who comes to help Nick as he’s floundering in today’s media madness. And of course, that’s the other “leading role” in the film—today’s media. Famously, Gillian Flynn was a writer who was fired by Entertainment Weekly during the downturn. She spent three years on her novel which skewers the media perfectly. Fincher has certainly made that part of the film come alive just as solidly as his two main characters. My overall take: Good film. Great adaptation. Don’t miss it.
Like any recent college graduates (no follow-up questions, please), your Serious Movie Lovers still get that giddy anticipatory feeling when Fall arrives. New school supplies! Fresh seasons of our favorite TV shows! And a slew of new movies. Here are a few that we can’t wait to talk about.
1. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Jessica Chastain might be my favorite film actress right now–her performances in Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, and even Mama were all so distinctly memorable. (Also, she has a three-legged dog! Living my dream!) It’s unclear to me if this is going to be released in the original “his and hers” versions or just as one Harvey Weinstein-approved combo–either way, I’m in.
2. Whiplash: Ever since Rabbit Hole, I’ve been waiting for Miles Teller to really break out–he was, no kidding, so good in the Footloose remake! Charm for days. And his performance in The Spectacular Now should have made him a major teen heartthrob (That wiener Ansel Elgort? No thank you). There are rumblings that his work in Whiplash (as a jazz drummer mentored/abused by the always fantastic J.K. Simmons) might do the trick.
3. Foxcatcher: It’s my dirty little secret that I find true crime fascinating. Coming across a copy of “Helter Skelter” at a friend’s house helped shape me into the weirdo I am today. And while this du Pont guy doesn’t seem as intriguing/crazy as Robert Durst (see All Good Things) or most of the small-town murderous ladies on “Snapped,” I am looking forward to seeing Steve Carell and Channing “Tater” Tatum act without utilizing a single goofy face or skilled dance move, respectively.
And add to that, Becky’s top two:
SML Readers: Add more in our comments section! What’s got you excited for fall??
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014/IN THEATERS) Moviegoers seem to be taking something of a pass on Woody Allen’s latest film–his 49th, depending on your counting method. Certainly the critics have given it mixed reviews, awarding the movie a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 48%. The story is relatively simple: Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is a world-famous magician who goes by the stage name of Wei Ling Soo. He is invited by his former classmate, friend and fellow magician, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), to come to the Cote d’Azur to help debunk a young American mystic (Emma Stone ) who has captivated a wealthy family there. Stanley is quick to take up the offer, as he sees an opportunity to visit his favorite relative, Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), and to also add to his reputation as a “man of science” who will unmask this young pretender. Once in France, we the audience are treated to some spectacular sets and scenery—thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of Darius Khondji who also shot “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome with Love,” as well as many others. Filming took place in several fantastic venues, among them Villa Eilenroc, in Cap d’Antibes, and at the Villa la Renardière, in Mouans-Sartoux. The costumes are also to die for. Did I mention that this is a period piece? It’s set in the 1920’s and while that adds some charm, perhaps it’s also part of the problem. The movie feels a bit “stodgy”–with awkward dialogue, some jumpy cutting between scenes, and a really slow start. Nonetheless, the last third of the movie is really fun and you certainly will enjoy several wonderful performances throughout, not the least of which is Colin Firth’s, as he moves his character 180 degrees and back. My personal favorites in the film are Eileen Atkins as the worldly and wise Aunt Vanessa, and Jacki Weaver as the wealthy matriarch of the piece, who is happy to hear that her dead husband was “faithful” to her. But what about Emma Stone, you’re wondering….she’s always so good. Let’s just say that she plays her part quite well (as always) but you could wish for a little more “magic” on screen. Ultimately, I found the movie to be classical “mid-level” Woody Allen, bringing to mind something like “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” Maybe a great choice for your end of summer matinee treat!
P.S. Darius Khondji shot on 35-mm. film, with old CinemaScope lenses, to achieve a noticeably soft, lemon-tinted light that evokes “To Catch a Thief“…..and that’s not all……at one point Firth and Stone drive along the Riviera in a red Alfa Romeo, in essence repeating the exact drive Cary Grant and Grace Kelly made 60 years ago Now there’s a film with real magic!
BOYHOOD (IN THEATERS/2014) This film from Richard Linklater (Writer/Director) has been called “ground breaking” because he shot it over 12 continuous years (3-4 days at a time) with the same actors, showing us a real boy and all his changes, as well as his family’s, over those years. Mind you, this is not a documentary–it’s fiction. These people you come to know so well on screen are actors (although young Ellar Coltrane, who plays the main character Mason Jr., was only 6 when he started and an unknown) who remarkably didn’t sign contracts and agreed to show up every year for 12 years for this fabulous director. Even if you’ve read the reviews, it’s hard to know quite what to expect as you’re walking into the theater. What will this be like? How will it move over those 12 years? What’s going to happen? First off, let’s just say that my friend and fellow SML Reviewer Be and I were surprised to learn that the film is 2 hours and 45 minutes long. BUT, those minutes literally flew by as we were completely sucked into the story of Mason, and his well meaning parents (played so beautifully by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) as well as his sometimes incredibly overbearing sister Samantha (the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater). The time shifts are smooth and feel natural–the audience follows perfectly as life moves on and changes. Mason transforms right in front of our eyes from a dreamy kid into a geeky/slightly rebellious teenager and finally into a handsome young man heading off to college and surely a good future. I won’t write more about the film because I would want any SML reader to experience it directly. But my advice is this: run right out and see this movie. It couldn’t be better.
P.S. Didn’t realize it, but the 1968 GTO driven in the movie belongs to Linklater himself!