The Film Gang

Into the Woods

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above, and read it below.

I had neither seen nor heard of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into The Woods, before I watched the film version of it. And I wasn’t terribly keen on watching the film, either, but my companion cajoled me into it. I am so grateful she did, because I haven’t enjoyed myself at the movies this much in a long time, not withstanding an uncomfortable moment when Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf character envisions a deplorable act with Little Red Riding Hood.

Into The Woods combines three of my favorite arts: music, poetry, and, of course, the movies. And it does so with a magic touch. The film cleverly blends four well known fairy tales with a sprinkling of the ‘David and Goliath’ myth.

James Lapine’s script manages to shuffle and mingle the themes of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and, Jack and The Beanstalk. Sondheim’s music is a delight and his lyrics are a work of genius – pure poetry.

The film opens with a scene in a bakery. A child, who appears to be a year or so shy of puberty, is attempting to talk the baker out of a basketful of sweetbreads. She claims she’s been sent by her mother to get the goodies for her grandmother, who lives in the woods. The baker is skeptical.

His wife, however, is sympathetic to the child. The child, by the way, is dressed in a red cape. With the wife’s subtle encouragement, the child grabs what she can and dashes into the woods.

Then, before you can say ‘shazam’, a witch, who just happens to live next to the bakery, crashes, in a whirlwind, through the front door. It turns out that quite sometime ago the witch had placed a curse upon the baker and his wife. For an offense committed by the baker’s father, many years ago, his progeny would remain forever barren. However, as the witch explains, she would consent to remove the curse if the baker would gather for her four items – to wit: a red cape, a cow white as milk, a hank of hair as yellow as corn, and, a golden slipper.

Thus it is into the woods the baker and his missus must go. They’ve seen a red cape only moments ago. And surely, a white cow ought not be too difficult to find.

We get the idea. The remainder of the film will be variations on search and find, or find and lose and search again. A young boy named Jack will part with his pet cow and try to find a way to get her back. A nubile young woman named Cinderella will find herself in a pair of golden slippers, and a certain Ms Rapunzel will end up shorn. I won’t tell you about the giants and the magic beans, or the Prince and his infidelities.

At least half of these stories are sung. The lyrics are stunningly brilliant, and in spite of an untimely death here and there, most of the folks in these merged fairy tales seem headed for better days.

The performances are fine, some even endearing. I especially liked Lilla Crawford’s portrait of Little Red Riding Hood, a precocious and slightly selfish girl.

Into The Woods is on my shortlist of the year’s best movies. If, like me, you were inclined to pass this one by, I urge you to change your mind. I’m surely glad I did.

Top Five

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.

As the holiday season closes another cinematic year, film producers, directors, stars, their agents, publicists and other movers and shakers jockey for position in advance of Oscars. Behind the image makers lie real human beings striving to live actual lives off stage, off script often fighting the same horrible demons as audiences seeing their screen personae.

The Top Five of the title references one’s musical favorites in order of importance and/or influence, chiefly in hiphop. Chris Rock’s latest work traces recent episodes in the career of Andre Allen, a black stand-up comic who transitioned to film farce and now wishes to recreate himself. Like Birdman, it tells a tale of the difficulty of transcending typecasting.

But Top Five is no burnished Birdman. It echoes an insistent cry from African-American artists in film, theater and other performing and creative arts to be seen and heard on their own terms and not merely in the sterile niches to which they may be consigned in popular imagination and by moneyed moguls who call the shots in film factories like Hollywood.

Top Five speaks directly to a particular demographic. Flowing from Chris Rock’s own experience it revolves around a world that may be reduced to the distance between New York and Los Angeles, centering on what it takes to achieve and retain star status. More to the point, it shows black and urban youth culture as the hiphop nation hits middle age.

Top Five is as black as it can be, starting with the effortless string of “n-word” epithets peppering the film’s first half. I lost count after what seemed a half a hundred, but also vividly recall a time growing up in New York when such speech was not foreign to me.
By contrast, there are references to a film within a film, a bold saga of Haitian rebellion.

Dre, as Andre is familiarly known, has made a film called Uprize! detailing the saga of Dutty Boukman, a Haitian slave who became a leader of the insurrection against France.
Making the film was a risky venture for Allen and it symbolizes the analogue of breaking free from the fetters firmly binding him as he seeks to recreate himself as a liberated man.

Rock is joined by Rosario Dawson, J. B. Smoove and a host of luminaries, predominantly albeit not exclusively African-American, whose faces will be instantly recognizable, from movies and television. Top Five may say much more than its cover story or its marketers. Finding this takes conscientious effort by viewers. Then the work can disclose its secrets.

The Theory of Everything

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.

The life and work of physicist Stephen Hawking, as seen through the eyes of Jane Wilde, his first spouse, which formed the basis of her memoir Travelling to Infinity, My Life with Stephen, is the subject of the film The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh, with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based upon Wilde’s book.

Eddie Redmayne is Hawking, while Felicity Jones portrays Jane in a reconstruction of key events marking their coupling, marriage and ultimate uncoupling as Hawkings struggled with Jane’s help to cope with the crippling effects of motor neuron disease. The two great tales unfolding simultaneously and interdependently are of a love then marital relationship and Hawking’s meteoric rise to prominence as an innovative scientific theorist, starting with research into Black Holes as a route to determining whether time had a beginning to the quest for what the title suggests, a theory to explain existence.

The gift of the film is its ability to take on the heady stuff of physics and then balance it with romance, propelled by the electricity of the lead actors. Redmayne and Jones are assisted by David Thewlis as Hawking’s Cambridge mentor physicist Dennis Sciama and Simon McBurney and Emily Watson as Hawking’s mother and father. Special mention should go to Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones, a choirmaster and caretaker who played a decisive role in the lives of Stephen and especially Jane.

Redmayne’s transformations, first into Hawking, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, and then from ostensibly able-bodied to grievously afflicted patient then highly dependent man whose intellect is unfettered by the chains of infirmity is really remarkable. Redmayne is able to capture oceans of emotion in a knowing wink, sly smile or lascivious leer to remind us that however things may look, he is very much engaged in the here and now.

The film does not shy away from the hard questions posed by the circumstances in which Hawkings and Wilde find themselves. How does one create and sustain what can be considered a “normal” existence, in the face of such monumental challenges? Yet Jane and Stephen do raise progeny under extraordinarily trying conditions, and Hawkings continues to work, at great expense to everyone around him. While this unavoidably situates Hawkings the innovator in the pantheon of the great, it is clear that his stature could not have been reached without the support of Jane and others.

The Theory of Everything affords much food for thought. It will not leave viewers wanting.

Whiplash

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Listen above to the review by Dennis Morton, and read it below.

Whiplash is a film that raises lots of questions but leaves many of them unanswered. And if, at times, we viewers feel that we’ve been lashed with a whip, well, rhetorically speaking – we have.

The story is rather simple. Andrew, a young guy in his first year at a prestigious music academy in New York City, wants to become the best jazz drummer in the world. Terence Fletcher, on the faculty of the academy, is the school’s best instructor. Andrew’s nascent talent comes to Fletcher’s attention.

The problem for Andrew, and all the students under Fletcher’s purview, is that Fletcher is a mean and nasty guy. He brooks no deviation from his expectations. He is preposterously demanding and to say that he is verbally abusive is a massive understatement. His rants range from sexist to homophobic. He’ll pretend, for a moment, to be interested in the personal life of a student, but it’s just a gathering of ammunition to be fired at an opportune time.

Because there are several moments when Fletcher is, or appears to be, human and vulnerable, we wonder how he came to be the ugly man he seems to be. Writer / director Damien Chazelle does not provide us with the answer. Like his students, we, the viewers, must accept Fletcher as he is. And it is J.K. Simmons brilliant performance that makes it possible for us to do that.

Whiplash is a two person show. Miles Teller, who plays Andrew, is equally brilliant in his role. The big question regarding Andrew is: how much abuse can he tolerate from Fletcher. Ultimately, director Chazelle does provide that answer.

We do get a few brief hints about the events that have shaped Andrew’s life. These are provided at a family dinner. Present are Andrew’s ubiquitous father, his two cousins and presumably, his aunt and uncle. The cousins arrive a bit late. Just prior to that, Andrew is answering a question about how things are going at music school. His response is interrupted when the cousins show up. Immediately, all attention if focused on them. One has just scored a 93 yard touchdown. The other has just learned that he’s being considered for a Rhodes Scholarship. So much for Andrew, it would appear. But not so. Unexpectedly, in a one-sided bout of verbal fisticuffs, Andrew demolishes his cousins’ achievements. And we are left to wonder if, somewhere under the skin, there’s a bit of Fletcher lurking in Andrew.

There are a few scenes in Whiplash that strain credulity. On the way to a big band competition, an unlikely series of automotive mishaps threatens Andrew’s timely arrival. But perseverance prevails and a bloodied Andrew arrives in the nick of time.

Notwithstanding who prevails or who loses, and when – it’s J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller that make Whiplash a worthy investment of your movie going time. Their performances are simply magnificent.

‘Rotten Tomatoes’, a website that gathers movie reviews, reports that Whiplash is a huge success, among critics and viewers. An astonishing 96% of critics and 96% of viewers have given it positive ratings. Don’t miss Whiplash.

Rosewater

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony, above.

Force Majeure

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above / read it below.

‘Force majeure’ is a phrase I’d never heard of. So, I looked it up. In general, it’s a legal term – in contract law. It refers to a major event, unforeseen by the parties to an agreement. A ‘force majeure’ can render a contract void should one of the parties successfully claim it as a reason for not being able to fulfill the terms of an agreement.
It turns out to be a perfect title for Swedish director, Ruben Ostlund’s latest film.

Force Majeure is a study of human behavior in the aftermath of a perceived mortal threat. The idea for the film came from an incident in the lives of friends of the director – a married couple who were vacationing in Latin America. One day, from seemingly nowhere, gunmen appeared and began shooting. The husband bolted for cover, leaving his wife unprotected. They both survived, but when they returned to Sweden, if the wife had consumed a glass or two of wine, she told the story over and over, simply couldn’t get it out of her mind.

In Ostlund’s film, we closely observe five days in the life of a Swedish family on a skiing vacation in the French Alps. Ostensibly, the purpose of the vacation is to provide the father, a successful businessman named Tomas, some down time to spend with his family. The locale is a bit upscale and the mountain-scape exceedingly gorgeous. Tomas, his wife Ebba, and their preteen children, Vera and Harry, are more than passable skiers. Watching the family zig zag down the slopes is a minor, but enjoyable part of the film.

Day One goes fine. The family skis. The food is good. And Ebba meets an unnamed woman, about her own age, who is vacationing solo – having left her hubby and kids back home. Ebba is astonished to learn that her new acquaintance is an eager practitioner of free love. And, she is eloquent in defense of her life-style.

Day Two begins just as fine as Day One. After a morning on the slopes, the family has lunch on the balcony of their hotel, overlooking the unspeakable majesty of the snow covered mountains. Lunch is momentarily interrupted by the sound of an explosion. Tomas tells Ebba not to be concerned. The purpose of the explosion, he explains, is to precipitate a ‘controlled avalanche’, one that will prevent a spontaneous, and potentially dangerous, real avalanche. What happens next is at the core of the film, and I shall remain mum about it.

But the aftermath of the event consumes the emotional lives of every member of the family for the duration of their vacation. We are treated to ruminations about the psychological consequences of society’s expectation of heroism. Significant and articulate ponderings of gender roles, cowardice, and the intuition of children are explored. And, perhaps the biggest subject that director Ostlund takes on is the torturous path to forgiveness.

For me, one of the things that makes Force Majeure such an intelligent and powerful film is that it doesn’t really end after the credits have rolled. I left the theater wondering how I might react if confronted with a ‘force majeure’. And, it’s not that I want to find out, but, I haven’t stopped wondering. This film ‘has legs’, and it’s following me. I highly recommend it.

Dear White People

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above.

Pride

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Listen to a review of this film by Dennis Morton above, or read or below.

 

Any movie that opens with Pete Seeger’s version of Solidarity Forever would have my immediate attention, and I’m very happy to say that throughout the new British release, Pride, my attention never flagged. In fact, I grew ever more rapt as the movie rolled on.

The film opens in the summer of 1984, in London. A gay pride parade is about to commence. One of the leaders of the march, Mark, a young fellow in his twenties, has just coldly flipped off an importunate lover. Mark’s attention is focused, instead, on a news show on the telly. He, and we, learn that a national coal miners’ strike is now in its fourth month, and that 20,000 jobs are in limbo for the interim. Margaret Thatcher defends her government’s reactionary stance to the strike and tells the country the following: I can’t change my style. I’m here to be a good firm leader.

(more…)

The Skeleton Twins

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton, above.

Land Ho!

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Listen to the review above, by Dennis Morton.