Thursday, December 18, 2014

Review: "Wild"


 I was surprised to appreciate “Wild” a lot more than I thought I would. The tale of a young woman who sets off on a seemingly random 1,000-mile trek by foot to find herself, it looked like the sort of simplistic, life-affirming pap you often see in cinemas this time of year.

But buoyed by a terrific, grounded performance by Reese Witherspoon, “Wild” is anything but maudlin. It’s a tough, gritty look at a woman at their end of her rope, who sets out on an expedition in which the destination doesn’t matter, but testing herself in spirit and body is the true aim.

She happened to choose the Pacific Crest Trail, a grueling path through the Western mountains and deserts, as her personal crucible. But really, it could have been anything.

Her story is less about going somewhere, and more about finding your own path, and getting started along it.

The quality of the filmmakers behind the project should have clued me in. Director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e was nominated for an Oscar last year for “Dallas Buyers Club,” and also helmed the high-toned “The Young Victoria.” Screenwriter Nick Hornby is known for cerebral material such as “An Education” and “About a Boy.”

The film is based on the best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the PCT through California, Oregon and Washington two decades ago while in her mid-20s. Her marriage had just come off the tracks and ended in divorce, due mostly to her philandering. (Thomas Sadoski has a tidy, small role as her long-suffering but sweet husband.)

On top of that, her beloved mother (a glowing Laura Dern) had died of cancer, and Cheryl was getting ever more heavily into hard drugs. Clearly things were headed in a foul direction.

Instead of hitting rock bottom, though, she came across the idea of traveling the PCT, despite being an itinerate hiker herself. We see exactly how inept she was in the early going, as she struggles to shoulder a pack that is literally bigger than her, and tears her feet to bloody shreds with too-small boots.

Cheryl meets a few people along the way, mostly men, and there’s an explicit threat of assault or rape with many of these encounters, as a young cute blonde girl all alone on the trail. But she proves quite able, and some scary meetings turn out to be friendlier than first blush. (W. Earl Brown turns up nicely as a gruff bushmaster.) Still, a couple of hunters appear to enjoy frightening her just for the sheer thrill of it.

In the film’s most bizarre (but true!) sequence, she is nearly run over by an enthusiastic African-American reporter for the Hobo Times who says his name is Jimmy Carter. Despite Cheryl’s protestations that she’s not homeless, just in between homes, she ends up becoming an unwilling subject for the publication.

Along the way, our protagonist is revealed to be a thoughtful, literate woman – she writes down quotes from famous writers in the trail station journals – who’s simply made a lot of bad choices in her life. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, she hits the road like a latter-day Jack Kerouac, though on her own two feet rather than behind the wheel.

Instead of just flaunting her freedom, though, Cheryl Strayed was seeking inspiration and forgiveness. “Wild” is the soulful tale of how she learned these were not things out there to be discovered, but gifts only she could give to herself.




Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review: "The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies"


Unlike the triumphant finale of the three “The Lord of the Rings” films, the last movie in “The Hobbit” trilogy feels more like the grateful collapse at the end of an overlong marathon.

With regards to “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” the audience won’t exactly be exclaiming, “Thank goodness that’s over!” But like an overambitious runner who found they’d signed up for a more grueling race than anticipated, the series concludes with quite a bit less enthusiasm and energy than when it started.

As I’ve said in my reviews of the previous two movies: the Middle-Earth of author J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps my most treasured mythological playground. I grew up adoring these books, dreaming of hobbits, orcs, magical rings and dragons. You could set pretty much any story in this realm and I’d be first in line to buy a ticket.

But director Peter Jackson and his co-screenwriters have so twisted, changed and augmented Tolkien’s straightforward tale that it barely even deserves to have “The Hobbit” in its title. They’ve expanded slender storylines into major themes; turned behind-the-scenes events barely hinted at into full-blown subplots; and in many cases, just plain ol’ made a bunch of crap up.

It’s still a rousing picture after a slow start – things don’t really get going into the titular battle is joined.

In case you don’t remember, humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) had been plucked by deposed dwarven heir to the throne Thorin (Richard Armitage) and meddling wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to help reclaim the Lonely Mountain taken over long ago by a fearsome dragon.

As this movie opens, the great wyrm Smaug (voice by Benedict Cumberbatch) has been roused from his slumbers and is attacking Lake-town, the tiny fishing village built on docks into the lake next the mountain. Dutiful bowman Bard (Luke Evans) takes up arms against the dragon and brings him down.

But Thorin, driven mad by a lust for gold from “dragon sickness,” refuses to share any of the great wealth of the mountain with the refugees of Lake-town. And he certainly wants nothing to do with the elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), who previously kept the company prisoner and now wants his own slice of the pie.

It seems likely to come to a nasty conflict, but meanwhile the Orc armies led by the terrifying Azog (Manu Bennett) are bearing down on them all. The last half of the movie or so is essentially just a bunch of swordplay.

In the book Bilbo got knocked unconscious at the start of the fighting, and thus everything that transpired went undepicted. Jackson & Co., of course, couldn't do that with a big-budget spectacle, so we get a whole raft of CGI beheadings and splatterings (though curiously bloodless, to keep the PG-13 rating intact).

The best of the "add-on" material involves the effort by Gandalf and other powerful sorcerers -- including Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) -- to force out the evil force that has invaded the fortress of Dol Guldur. As we know, it turns out to be the shade of Sauron, who will go on to cause more trouble down the road. It's a brief but thrilling side excursion.

Other new material is less successful, especially a contrived romance between one of the dwarves and an entirely concocted female elf character (Evangeline Lilly). This results in a love triangle with familiar friend Legolas (Orlando Bloom), plus his daddy issues with the king, and a journey up north that appears to serve no narrative purpose at all.

I was thrilled with what this team of filmmakers did with the "Lord of the Rings," occasionally altering the navigation but keeping the terrain intact. Here, though, they seem like they weren't content with the tale Tolkien spun, and decided to supplant it with their own.

It's still a decent fantasy flick; it's just not "The Hobbit."




Video review: "Magic in the Moonlight"



Woody Allen, who started out as a TV punchline writer while still a teenager, has moved restlessly between comedy and more somber fare all his career as a film director. I’ve enjoyed a lot of his dour stuff, such as “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Match Point.”

But his newest, “Magic in the Moonlight,” is one of his most light-hearted and purely entertaining movies in years.

Set in the upper-crust world of the 1920s, it’s the story of a magician named Stanley who’s also a man of science. Played unctuously and splendidly by Colin Firth, Stanley makes a hobby of exposing charlatans who pretend to have psychic abilities. His latest target, a young would-be seeress named Sophie (Emma Stone), proves to be his greatest challenge – and an unlikely love interest.

Though Sophie’s manner while doing her act is amateurish and transparent, her divinations have the disturbing habit of being unerringly accurate. Soon Stanley, who places more trust in Nietzsche than religion, is wondering if his life of agnosticism about the great beyond has been a tragic mistake.

It’s a great-looking movie, filled with sun-dappled gardens and shorelines, terrific period costumes and lots of pretty people to look at.

Filled with wry humor, delightfully clumsy encounters and a whole lot of extravagant mannerisms, “Magic in the Moonlight” is best described in one word not lately applicable to Woody’s work: fun.

Alas, as is often the case with the Woodster’s video releases, there is only the bare minimum of bonus features. And they are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray versions: A making-of featurette, “Behind the Magic,” and publicity footage from the film’s red carpet premiere in Los Angeles.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Indiana film critics announce 2014 awards



The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of writers dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is proud to announce its annual film awards for 2014.

"Boyhood" won top honors, taking the prize for Best Film and earning a total of three awards. Richard Linklater won in the Best Director category, and the film also took the Original Vision award, which recognizes a film that is especially innovative or groundbreaking.

"Whiplash," which was the runner-up for Best Film, won two awards: Damien Chazelle's script in the Best Adapted Screenplay race, and J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" also won two awards: Ralph Fiennes was named Best Actor, and Wes Anderson earned the Best Original Screenplay prize.

Besides the winner and runner-up for Best Film, eight other movies were named Finalists in that category, cumulatively representing Indiana film critics' picks for the 10 best movies of 2014. (See full list below.)

Reese Witherspoon took Best Actress honors for "Wild," while Jessica Chastain took Best Supporting Actress for "A Most Violent Year."

In the inaugural vote for the newest category, Best Vocal/Motion Capture Performance, Andy Serkis won for his work on "The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." The IFJA is the only critics group in the U.S. to give out an award for nonrepresentational acting.

"The LEGO Movie" won Best Animated Feature, "Two Days, One Night" took the prize for Best Foreign Language Film and "Life Itself" took Best Documentary.

The Hoosier Award, which recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with roots in Indiana, or a film that depicts Hoosier State locales and stories, went to film historian and preservationist Eric Grayson.

IFJA members issued this statement with regard to the Hoosier Award: "For more than a decade, Grayson has worked tirelessly to collect, restore and exhibit movies on celluloid film, often for little to no pay or recognition. We commend his efforts to preserve movies in their original state and show them to people who share his passion for cinema. Countless films would have been lost to the ages were it not for his efforts."

The following is a complete list of honored films:

Best Film
Winner: "Boyhood"
Runner-up: "Whiplash"
Other Finalists (listed alphabetically):
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
"Guardians of the Galaxy"
"The Imitation Game"
"Life Itself"
"Locke"
"A Most Violent Year"
"St. Vincent"

Best Animated Feature
Winner: "The LEGO Movie"
Runner-Up: "The Boxtrolls "

Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: "Two Days, One Night"
Runner-Up: "Ida"

Best Documentary
Winner: "Life Itself"
Runner-Up: "An Honest Liar"

Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Wes Anderson, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Runner-up: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"

Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"
Runner-up: Graham Moore, "The Imitation Game"

Best Director
Winner: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
Runner-up: Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"

Best Actress
Winner: Reese Witherspoon, "Wild"
Runner-up: Rosamund Pike, "Gone Girl"

Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Jessica Chastain "A Most Violent Year"
Runner-up: Melissa McCarthy, "St. Vincent"

Best Actor
Winner: Ralph Fiennes, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Runner-up: Tom Hardy, "Locke"

Best Supporting Actor
Winner: J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"
Runner-up: Ethan Hawke, "Boyhood"

Best Musical Score
Winner: Mica Levi, "Under the Skin"
Runner-up: Alexandre Desplat, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Original Vision Award
Winner: "Boyhood"
Runner-up: "Under the Skin"

The Hoosier Award
Winner: Eric Grayson, film historian and preservationist
 (As a special award, no runner-up is declared in this category.)

Reeling Backward: "The Hands of Orlac" (1924)


I don't review a lot of silent films here in this space -- and by "not many," I mean I believe this is the very first one.

I freely admit I don't respond to most silent film like I do other classical cinema. To me, it's almost an entirely different art form. Silent films are, with some exceptions, much more theatrical and slow-paced. They were made for people used to stage productions, vaudeville or crushingly long novels.

Let's face it: people just had more patience a century years ago. Of course, they had to: there just wasn't as much to do.

One advantage silent films had was their universality. By changing around the title cards for dialogue, a film could just as easily play in Istanbul as Idaho. Music was also much more important to a movie, since it consisted of the entire auditory aspect of a cinematic experience (and often was played live by an orchestra). 

"The Hands of Orlac" is pretty typical of its era. It falls into the expressionist horror neighborhood, and is a fairly close cousin to the better-known "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," which also was directed by Robert Wiene and starred Conrad Veidt. Veidt is mot remembered as the stern German commandant from "Casablanca," but in his youth made a career out of playing spindly fellows given to violence and/or supernatural control.

(He also starred in 1928's "The Man Who Laughed," as a man whose face was frozen in a rictus grin, and clearly served as the inspiration for the Joker character.)

Based on a story by Maurice Renard, "Orlac" tells the tale of a famous pianist who loses his hands in a train accident, and wakes up to discover that doctors have miraculously stitched on a new pair that work perfectly. (Except for playing the piano.) Alas, they turn out to have belonged to a condemned murderer named Vassuer. Haunted by the origins of his appendages, Orlac begins to have visions and feels compelled to knife somebody -- particularly his wife, Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina).

Later, he's bedeviled by a man (Fritz Kortner) with iron gloves who claims to be the guillotined murderer, brought back to life by the same mysterious medical process that returned Orlac's hands. He murders Orlac's father and demands a large chunk of the inheritance as compensation for his stolen hands.

Story-wise, there isn't that much to tell... actually, I just relayed the entire plot to you. As I said, the narratives of silent films tend to be fairly simplistic.

The movie is very slow-moving, with long extended scenes of Veidt staring at his hands as if they were foreign objects, and bulging his eyes out in that way very popular in films of the time to depict people in peril or physical distress. (Sorina also gets to pull this move several times.)

The visuals are creepy and evocative, but my modern sensibility kept wishing the director would speed things along. My reaction was very much the same as that I had watching Terence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" -- it really doesn't take long to convey emotional power through moving imagery. When you keep the camera focused on the same thing, on and on, or keep cutting back to the same image, over and over, you're beating a dead horse, cinematically.

It's a beautiful-looking film, even with the graininess and scratches that come with 90-year-old celluloid. The use of irises and slow fade-ins and -outs feels very dated, of course, but Wiene's use of dense, murky shadows offset by harshly lit foregrounds and faces is still compelling to look at.

This idea of body parts imbued with their own spirits became a familiar one in movies after this one came out. "The Hands of Orlac" was adapted into film twice more, and a 1980s horror flick starring Michael Caine, "The Hand," which scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a lad staying up too late watching HBO, also seems clearly inspired.

The metaphysics remain pretty vague. At first we are told Orlac's new appendages act independently of his will -- he finds he can no longer play the piano, and even his handwriting resembles Vassuer's. Subsequent events, though, suggest it's all part of an elaborate delusion contacted inside his fevered head.

I enjoyed the artistry of "The Hands of Orlac," but it exists for me now as an artifact rather than a living, breathing piece of cinema. Watching it is akin to wandering through a museum, peering at dusty trophies behind thick glass. We relate to these objects not for the power they hold, but its echo.





Monday, December 8, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Night of the Iguana" (1964)


James Garner was offered the lead role in "The Night of the Iguana" but said it was "too Tennessee Williams for me." I understand what he was talking about.

Stage-to-screen translations are often handicapped from the get-go. There's the feeling of being severely bookended -- both with locations and the number of characters. It's OK for a play to stay stuck in one place with a handful of people for a couple of hours, but movies tend to get claustrophobic if they aren't on the move.

Then there's Williams himself, whose plays tended to focus on lost, pitiable souls who struggle to articulate their own despair. Sometimes the film versions, some of them scripted by Williams himself, soared on the strength of the cast and direction -- "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Streetcar Named Desire." But with "Iguana" it often feels like the story is caught in an eddy, swirling about itself without ever going anyway.

The main character, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), is a youngish man of the cloth whose ability to withstand temptations of the flesh is, shall we say, lacking. In the two decades since he was ordained he was without a parish to call his own for all but a single year, and his one stint as a pastor comes to a crashing end when he diddles with an underage girl of his flock. In the opening scene he suffers a near-breakdown from the pulpit, denouncing the worshipers for judging him, and literally chases them out of the church.

Flash to two years later, and Shannon is now working in Mexico as a guide for Blake Tours, a bargain-basement outfit catering to religious types. His current gig isn't going so well. As they pull into the coastal town of Puerto Vallarta -- a name made famous by this film; a statue of director John Huston still resides in the village square -- Shannon is being henpecked by Miss Fellowes, the domineering head of a group of Baptist women teachers.

Fellowes doesn't like Shannon because she senses the lecherous personality beneath Shannon's gentle facade. Her suspicions aren't unfounded -- her winsome teenage niece is played by Sue Lyon, who had the title role in "Lolita," and plays a similar part here as a teenage temptress. Shannon tries to hold off the girl's advances, but not very hard.

Fellowes is played by Grayson Hall, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role, though I find this style of screechy, google-eyed overacting hard to swallow. Late in the going it's suggested Miss Fellowes is a "butch" who secretly desires the girl for herself, though the harridan is too self-deluded to admit this to herself.

This is notable in of itself, to have a fairly overt reference to homosexuality in a mainstream 1964 film. There's also an explicit reference to smoking marijuana, though it's not depicted.

Anyway, Shannon's dalliance is discovered and Fellowes declares her intention to have him fired. So he hijacks the bus and takes them to the Costa Verde Hotel, a rundown little place up the beach run by an old friend of his, Fred. He confiscates the bus' distributor cap and dumps the old biddies there, since he thinks there is no phone and thus now way to contact his employer.

Alas, Fred has died, and one of his last acts was getting telephone lines run up the steep hill to the hotel. Shannon responds by getting good and drunk and waiting for the axe to fall.

The Costa Verde is now run by Maxine (Ava Gardner), Fred's widow, who is a real piece of work. She espouses a carefree attitude but has a short temper and plenty of vim left in her. An aging beauty, Maxine felt abandoned by her much-older husband the last few years, and took to openly consorting with her two cabana boys -- a pair of shirtless, perpetually smiling young studs who constantly hang around, rarely speaking, occasionally helping out the guests or the proprietress with luggage, or any other needs.

Maxine never wears any shoes or seems bothered by anything, but it soon becomes clear she's carried a torch for Shannon for a long time. She finds him pathetic but adorable, a man-boy who has regular crack-ups about twice a year, and clearly needs someone to look after him. And this is a woman who desperately needs some fun in her life.

Some unexpected competition for Shannon's attention arrives in the form of Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), an English portrait artist who travels the globe with her 97-year-old grandfather, whom she calls Nonno (Cyril Delevanti) and introduces as the world's oldest practicing poet.

Of course, it's been 20 years since Nonno last composed a poem, and the two are essentially well-bred vagabonds who fritter around, peddling their artistic services -- her portraits and his recitations -- in exchange for food and lodging.

If Maxine is a piece of work, then Miss Jelkes is an even odder bird. Her prim manners and reserved disposition resemble those of a missionary, and in some ways that is her role in the film -- to show up and minister to the troubled heathens. Jelkes has a very firm grip on who she is and what her shortcomings are, and seems not at all troubled by her current hardships.

"Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind or violent," she says.

Things go on from there. Miss Fellowes and her flock of biddies, having successfully detached Shannon from Blake Tours, depart for more sightseeing, and we're left with Shannon, Maxine and Jelkes to figure out the dynamic between them. Jelkes offers counsel to the suicidal Shannon -- though, as Maxine correctly surmises, it's halfway playacting; the man has an inveterate theatricality about him.

There's some splendid acting in "The Night of the Iguana," particularly Kerr and Gardner. I found Burton to be a twitchy, sweaty mess, a whole lot of behavior substituting for a character.

Hanging around with this crew is like being trapped at an annoying party you can't leave. You might wander into a semi-interesting conversation or two, but in the end it feels like time wasted.





Sunday, December 7, 2014

Video review: "Guardians of the Galaxy"


Back when “Guardians of the Galaxy” came out, I praised it highly but fretted that audiences wouldn’t come out for yet another comic book adaptation based on characters most of them had never heard of.

Silly me. Now the top-grossing film of the year, “Guardians” obviously didn’t need any sympathy.

What a dizzy, daffy antidote to a summer of largely dreary flicks. Here for the first time was a super-hero movie that was a flat-out comedy. That whole thing with glum caped crusaders kvetching about “with great power comes great responsibility” had gotten kinda old. Here’s a quintet who love doing what they do, no apologies, and plenty of humor along the way.

Rather than being inveterate do-gooders, these Guardians are a motley crew of thieves and killers who get thrown together while greedily pursuing the same mysterious space orb. They are:
  • Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), a smirky, quip-throwing human with cool gadgets;
  • Gamaro (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned assassin and turncoat;
  • Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper), a spirited raccoon engineer;
  • Groot (voice by Vin Diesel), Rocket’s 9-foot-tall tree-like companion;
  • Drax (Dave Bautista), a burly red guy with revenge on his mind.
The plot is a little hard to follow, but something to do with a powerful rebel Ronan (Lee Pace) who wants to throw off the yoke of his master, Thanos, an evil space emperor. Ronan and his fellow Kree want to destroy the Nova, a benevolent race guarding the orb.

The action is zingy, the villains (there are many) quite hiss-able and the belly laughs plentiful. I doubt “Guardians of the Galaxy” will need my boosterism for its video release.

Video features are good, not great, and feel a bit underwhelming considering the success of the film. The DVD comes with but a single feature, and it’s more of an ad: an exclusive look at “Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add a feature-length audio commentary track, deleted scenes, gag reel and making-of featurettes.

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