Friday, December 26, 2014

"The Imitation Game"

 4 / 5 

If judged -- as Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing might recommend -- as a spy thriller, The Imitation Game is crisp, efficient, tense.  As a period piece, it's lush and detailed.  With almost stereotypical wartime British stoicism, it's an eminently polite and polished piece of entertainment that can hardly be criticized because it's just damned fine.

Only when it ventures into psychological territory, as perhaps befits a film about someone as precise and mechanical as Turing appears to have been, does it falter.  Though it presents itself as an incredibly true story about how a mathematician helped win World War II, it ends on a most unexpected and not entirely successful note of gay pride.  If this had been a movie about the heterosexuality of a prominent figure, The Imitation Game might be criticized for tiptoeing around the subject far too carefully, for being too, well, straight-laced.

But The Imitation Game is, in large part, about how being homosexual at a time when same-sex behavior was both illegal and immoral, and judged (again, as Turing himself would have suggested be done) in that way, it's so proper and stiff-lipped it hurts.  Sure, there's vague talk about some un-chaste things Turing might have had on his mind, but there's only one hint of his emotional relationships, and it's limited to two boys who pass notes in class and sit shoulder-to-shoulder under a shade tree.

Perhaps it's not fair to fault The Imitation Game for what it isn't -- that is, an effective exploration of how Turing's sexuality influenced his work.  But that tantalizing premise is just beneath the surface of a film that's otherwise terrific on every level.  The Imitation Game posits that Turing's entire work is based on the presumption that a machine and a person can be indistinguishable provided the machine can imitate enough patterns of a human being. (I'm paraphrasing wildly here; I'm no mathematician.) The implication: Turing could imitate a "normal" (his word, not mine) human being through imitation.

That's a fascinating premise for a film, but The Imitation Game only touches upon it briefly and tentatively.  More generally, The Imitation Game is a fantastically well-told story of the seemingly impossible effort to crack a Nazi code used to encrypt military messages.

It's brought to life with impeccable style and handsome earnestness by Cumberbatch, an actor who grows on me with every role despite his ubiquity, and particularly by Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, a female codebreaker who is, generally, considered more suited to be a secretary.  Its a role that could have been overwhelmed by spunk and determination, but Knightley brings assured self-confidence to it.  She's the emotional center of a film that is generally devoid of human emotion.

Instead, The Imitation Game brings clarity and conciseness to an arcane puzzle, explaining just enough to make the less logically minded audience members (like me) feel they understand what's going on, offering a human face to the most formidable early technological challenge of the 20th century.  The Imitation Game does a fabulous job at telling a different kind of war story -- it carefully balances the machinations of espionage with the very real stakes, and marvelously showcases the politics of war.

It leaves behind, though, the nagging sensation that there was a lot left untold, deemed too scandalous or scintillating for the masses, ideas better left to intriguing end-title cards that hint at a deeper story of personal sacrifice and alienation.  It's like listening to a storyteller spin an incredible tale about a hero and the impossible odds he faced, then adding, with a suggestive wink and in a polite whisper, "And he was gay, you know."

The capper puts a completely different spin on the story, even if it doesn't detract from the intrigue that has come before.

Viewed Dec. 26, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Into the Woods"

 3 / 5 

"Then I went into the woods to get my wish," sings the witch in the stage version of Into the Woods, adding to her lament: "And now I'm ordinary."

The same could be said for Rob Marshall's long-awaited cinematic adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, for which Lapine wrote the screenplay and, unexpectedly, rid it of the heart that makes it work so effectively in front of a live audience.  And although it's produced by Disney, which famously strips its heroes and heroines of parents so they might be able to accomplish great things, the movie version of Into the Woods lacks one central relationship that generally makes the whole thing work.

The missing relationship is between the Baker (James Corden), a made-up fairy-tale archetype, and his father -- who, on stage, turns out to be the narrator of the show.  Perhaps the most crucial song to the entire show is the one in which the Baker reveals his biggest and most unexpected frustration about parenthood: It's too damned hard.  He and his wife (Emily Blunt) have risked everything for a child, and now that they have one all he can do is worry about it and fear he's a terrible, neglectful father.

The Baker's wish is the single most important wish in Into the Woods, but the movie version really only treats it as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin -- the thing that makes the story happen in the first place.  In this version, it is as dispensable as the microfilm or the secret plans of a Hitchcock film; it doesn't matter what it is, only that it's sought after in the first place.

Into the Woods begins with the Baker's wish, in a brilliant, jaunty opening that promises no end of mirth and malevolently tinged merriment that also introduces a handful of other key characters: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wishes so much to go to the ball; Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman), who wish for wealth; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who wishes to see her granny in the woods; the charming princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), who wish for wives who will love and adore them; and the Witch (Meryl Streep), who wishes for her own daughter, Rapunzel, to love her with equal ferocity.

The musical montage that introduces them is promising, but it's not too long before all the characters actually are in the woods -- which are dark and glum, and not only in the metaphorical way.  Into the Woods has a generally joyless physical appearance, one that feels perpetually too dim and flat.  The woods are neither realistic nor stylized enough to be thoroughly engaging -- and with the large cast of characters, which seems oddly larger and more unmanageable than the stage version, it's sometimes a chore for the audience to keep up with exactly who is where and what they are doing.

Cutting the musical's lengthy book to a size that can accommodate five showings a day, Into the Woods pares down the roles of some characters and cuts out entire songs in ways that are mostly unobtrusive and sometimes even appreciated.  In trade-off, what it achieves is greater clarity of some key relationships and often chipper amusement -- particularly in the song "Agony," a terrifically shot duet between Princes Charming that has much of the airiness and joy that is woefully missing from so much of the film.

The actors, with the notable exception of Johnny Depp in a pointless cameo as the Big Bad Wolf, sing with gusto; there is rarely a moment in which the singing feels forced, and Sondheim's notoriously tongue-twisting lyrics work better in context than, perhaps, they should.  This isn't Rodgers & Hammerstein (or even Kander & Ebb), so don't come out expecting to be humming the big show-stopping tune -- in fact, there isn't one, which is bound to frustrate audiences not already familiar with the source material.

So, what it boils down to is whether the basic story and structure of Into the Woods work cinematically, and the unfortunate reality is: They don't.  It all feels unexpectedly off-balance, hesitant, an uncertainty worsened by the missing relationship between the Baker and his father.  Of the many, many characters here, the one whose actions and decisions matter the most is the Baker; a key decision he makes, one rife with consequences, gets much careful consideration on stage but is essentially thrown away here.  Whether the film works emotionally depends on how the audience perceives this particular decision; omitting the rationale for it reduces the entire affair to some clever theatrics.

In part, the excision of that key sone has been made to play up Meryl Streep's role as the Witch.  No surprise, she's quite good (and delivers two key songs with great gusto), but her presence can't hide that her only comments on, and doesn't drive, the action.  She appears and reappears intermittently, and the result is that neither she nor the Baker become the center of attention.  The film version of Into the Woods wants audiences to sympathize with everyone, but while that may be possible in a musical, it doesn't work in this film.  To make such a sprawling cast work together requires the finesse of someone like Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, it's not a touch Marshall has. Into the Woods ends up feeling like a musicalized 1970s disaster movie, moving from character to character -- only, in this case, without a real climax.

I don't really know what to make of Into the Woods.  I liked parts of it very much and didn't really dislike any element of it enough to be entirely disappointed.  (Notable exception: Johnny Depp's frankly terrible few minutes as the Wolf.)  Despite the inordinate amount of time I spent squinting through the murkiness, I laughed, my eyes misted up a couple of times, and I was undeniably entertained, especially by the fact that such fairy tale subversion comes from Disney.

But Into the Woods is in no way as definitive a musical adaptation as Marshall's incomparable Chicago.  It feels largely like one of NBC's notorious live productions: there's nothing specifically wrong to fault, the actors are all clearly game, and a lot of effort has been put into it, but it feels like a technical endeavor more than a passion project.

The formidable task here was to create a film version of a cerebral Stephen Sondheim musical -- as close to melodic a show as he is likely ever to create.  Into the Woods succeeds at translating a well-known musical to the movies and succeeding moderately well, but it doesn't do much more than that.

Viewed Dec. 25, 2014 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Catching Up: "Jodorowsky's Dune"

 4 / 5 

Jodorowsky's Dune (available on demand) is a terrific documentary for film lovers that saves its best, most impressive observations for the final few minutes -- observations that reveal why it's Chilean filmmaker's Alejandro Jodorowsky's ill-fated adaptation of the Frank Herbert's novel Dune, not Star Wars, that may be the most influential sci-fi movie of the past 40 years.

Like many of those who worked on Jodorowsky's movie, I've never read Dune.  Though I saw David Lynch's maligned 1984 film version, that was no help -- I still know virtually nothing about the novel's plot, though it's impossible not to be aware of the ways in which Dune inspired a generation of readers.

According to Jodorowsky's Dune, the plot wasn't the point anyway.  The vision was the thing, and in that, Dune was a perfect match for the surrealist, anarchic filmmaker.

Beginning with his early films, little seen but widely admired among film cognoscenti, Jodorowsky's rise from obscurity paralleled the global auteur movement.  Well-represented here by numerous clips, his movies were the kind that make mainstream movie buffs itch: heavily symbolic, saturated with colors and clunky visual effects, they eschewed standard narratives and experimented with the nature of cinema in ways that Hollywood never dared.  The IMDB description of his 1970 film El Topo reads: "El Topo (the mole) claims to be God, while dressed as a gunfighter in black, riding a horse through a spiritual, mystical landscape strewn with old Western movie, and ancient Eastern religious symbols."

I'd like to be the kind of person who appreciates those films; maybe you just had to be there.

Yet, those films attracted ardent fans and propelled Jodorowsky to turn his attention to Dune. Flamboyant, truculent, free-thinking and filled with the sort of self-importance that is simultaneously infuriating and wildly endearing, Jodorowsky's Dune largely lets the filmmaker tell his own story, abetted by interviews with other artists he sucked into his orbit.

Chief among these are artist Chris Foss, designer H.R. Giger, late visual effects pioneer and writer Dan O'Bannon, and Jean ("Moebius") Giruad.

For those who grew up watching sci-fi movies in the 1970s, those names are legend, and if it weren't for Jodorowsky, many of them might never have crossed over into the Hollywood mainstream.

The film itself was a bloated, delusional, extraordinary mess -- a movie so simultaneously brilliantly and poorly conceived that it was doomed to failure.  Jodorowsky's vision was impossible to realize on film (among other problems: the movie would have been about 20 hours long), but got so far into development that a massive "look book" containing a galaxy of visual ideas and completed storyboards was widely circulated around Hollywood studios.

Jodorowsky's Dune uses many of these images to pull together a rudimentary sort of test reel of imagery, from the astonishingly complex shot that would have opened Dune to many of its key action sequences.

Whether or not you know Dune as a novel (or as that ill-fated David Lynch film), it's fascinating stuff for film lovers, and these newly constructed snippets of Jodorowsky's never-made film would be enough to recommend the documentary.

But director Frank Pavich goes a notable step further. Who knows exactly who saw those original Dune look books?  Certainly enough people, Pavich argues, that Jodorowsky's Dune became one of the most widely imitated, visually influential films of the 1970s.

From Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 to Prometheus just a couple of years ago, the work that Giger, Foss, Giraud and others did on Dune seeped into the visual vocabulary of film, and in its final few minutes, Jodorowsky's Dune is revelatory in its side-by-side comparisons of the production designs for Dune and many of the films that went on to define science-fiction.

In that regard, Jodorosky's Dune is a can't-miss film for anyone who loves the movies.  It begins as a routine examination of a lesser-known filmmaker, and ends up making the compelling case that he may be the most imitated and most influential director whose movie never saw the light of a projector.

Viewed Dec. 20, 2014 -- On-Demand


 5 / 5 

Wild begins with the sounds of a woman in distress.  Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is somewhere high in the mountains of California on the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the California-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border.  Strayed has decided to walk most of it, and the distress and anguish she feels as the movie opens have as much to do with her physical state as her mental one.

She has decided to walk not to seek enlightenment, but to obtain release.  As the film, by Canadian director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e and British screenwriter Nick Hornby, gets underway, it proceeds along two parallel paths, telling the linear story of what happens to Strayed along the trail while revealing, slowly, what brought her to the point in her life that bodily suffering would be so vastly superior to emotional turmoil.

Cheryl has found herself so far from any vision she once had of herself that she is lost: Her last name is intentional, self-selected when she divorces from her husband, who has come to her rescue one too many times and cannot live with her anymore.

She wasn't always this way.  Her younger self may have been a little haughty, a tad too judgmental, but only because her mother (Laura Dern) promoted a strong sense of self-confidence.  Her eternally sunny, perpetually chipper mother -- who is well aware of the less-than-ideal state of her life and family -- was the foundation of Cheryl's life; her sudden, grim death at age 45 didn't simply rock Cheryl's world, it destroyed it.

The recitation of the facts leading up to Strayed's 1,000-mile journey may make Wild sound like an earnestly inspirational drama, and while it is undeniably inspiring, that is -- admirably -- not its aim.  Wild goes far deeper into the woods than that.

Deftly balancing gorgeous wilderness photography with satisfying scenes in which Strayed encounters others along her path, Wild is a specific story about a specific kind of grief -- a bone-crushing, soul-piercing grief whose outcome is destructive and tragic.  It descends with a magnificent fury and traps its sufferer.  Wild shows the extraordinary lengths one person goes to to defeat grief's equally extraordinary grip.

Wild is a movie of remarkable clarity, aware of exactly where it wants to head, even in the rare moment it seems unsure of how to get there.  It has a few false steps along the way (particularly its determination to depict some men as leering, sex-addled menaces), but none that distract for more than a moment.  More meaningful and impressive are the moments of sublime fascination, like the wounded fox that may or may not be as real as the fleeting hallucinations of her beloved mother.

While Wild may seem like a one-woman show, in addition to the exquisite, impassioned performance from Witherspoon, it contains some affecting and memorable supporting roles -- not just Dern, an actress whose smiling face always seems to be hiding an unspoken pain, but, in smaller roles, Thomas Sadoski as Strayed's deeply loved ex-husband; and W. Earl Brown as a lonely farmer whose own learnings form the backbone for much of what Strayed discovers herself.

Still, Wild is Witherspoon's movie, and she holds the screen at every turn.  Wild isn't just about her walking on the trail, and the film takes the steel-jawed, ebullient Witherspoon into emotionally stark territory.

Wild gets everything right that last year's All Is Lost got catastrophically wrong.  Strayed's journey is not one of hubris or pride, but of desperate need and intense loneliness.  As she tells another woman she meets along the way, "I feel less lonely out here than I do in the rest of my life."

With a pitch-perfect ending (something more and more movies find harder to pull off lately), Wild is a movie that may be off-putting to some.  It's emotionally brutal -- but also meaningfully specific.  It's Strayed's story, and she's not the easiest of people.  The film steadfastly refuses to make light of her more difficult side, and her behavior toward the end of the film at first surprised me -- and then made me admire her even more.  She may end her walk with more emotional awareness, but she isn't a miraculously changed person.

In that, and in its sometimes wearying physicality and emotional starkness, Wild may not resonate for everybody.  For me, it's the best -- and most affecting -- movie of the year.

Viewed Dec. 21, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Monday, December 8, 2014

"Big Hero 6"

 3.5 / 5 

In ways that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the new Disney animated film Big Hero 6 one bit, I kept thinking back to Scooby-Doo.

Tens of millions of kids who grew up watching Scooby-Doo on Saturday mornings eagerly anticipated the moment when Scooby, Shaggy and the gang would unmask the villain.  They'd have him or her trapped uncomfortably and would remove the mask that had kept the bad guy's identity secret for the previous 20 minutes.  "Farmer Jenkins!" they'd exclaim in surprise, which would leave Farmer Jenkins kicking his feet and muttering with disdain, "You meddling kids!  If it hadn't been for you, my plan would have worked."

There's a moment just like that about halfway through Big Hero 6, when a group of college kids -- led by the young genius Hiro Hamada and his big, cuddly robot, Baymax -- confront the villain who, wouldn't you know it, is wearing a mask.  Finally, they catch him in a corner, rip off the mask and ... oh, you meddling kids!

It's nice to see a Disney movie perhaps unconsciously referencing an animated touchstone that doesn't involve singing princesses or dancing bunny rabbits, though Big Hero 6 goes a few steps further than that and begins doing something unexpected and, for me, a little bit uncomfortable: It reflexively comments on the superhero genre that Marvel Comics, which Disney itself famously purchased in 2009.  This meta-move is both refreshingly engaging and strange -- Big Hero 6 is a genuine hybrid of a movie, a cross between Disney's own animated legacy, its famously saccharine live-action movies from the 1960s, and the pop-culture mega-powerhouse it swallowed up whole.

The Disney parts are borrowed from previous animated movies (an orphaned hero -- here given the quite literal name of Hiro -- and his adorable sidekick), those Kurt Russell movies that took place at Medfield College, and The Love Bug's San Francisco locales, which in Big Hero 6 are reimagined as San Fransokyo, a visually arresting though geographically confusing Pacific Rim megalopolis.  But anyone who grew up watching Herbie cross the Golden Gate Bridge knows what makes San Francisco such a great place for light comedy, and Big Hero 6 knows it, too.  (Hint: It's not the stunning vistas, it's those treacherous hills that lead to white-knuckle car chases.)

The Marvel parts are grafted onto these tropes with surprising ease.  Hiro Hamada, the 14-year-old super-genius, is like Disney's Dexter Riley for the 21st century: Anything he needs to do, he can. Back then, Dexter invented super-invisibility spray; now, Hiro invents a micro-robot so incredibly advanced that within moments of seeing it the founder of a high-tech company offers Hiro "more money than a 14-year-old could imagine." I fully expected Disney to reference its Star Wars acquisition by having Hiro answer, "I don't know, I can imagine quite a bit."

Hiro turns down the offer, and rightly so -- in just a few days, working in his garage, Hiro has created a game-changing technology so advanced it left me wondering why the university he desperately wants to attend wouldn't just have skipped the formalities of classes and given him an honorary doctorate and named a building after him.

Meanwhile Hiro's brother, who soon will face an ending nearly as tragic as Bambi's mom, has invented something of his own, an eight-foot tall Michelin Man-inspired robot named Baymax, whose job is to be a giant, cuddly, fully automated nurse.  Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) is a terrific creation, the personality of Pixar's Wall-E crossed with Eve from the same film.  You see where all this pop-culture self-reflexivity is heading?

While it never once reduces the sheer enjoyment of Big Hero 6, which is an immensely enjoyable and amusing movie, after a while it's hard not to think of the movie as a kind of robot creation itself, with almost every moment or character taken from other movies and animated pop-culture.  It turns in on itself further with an obligatory post-credits scene that exists for no other reason than to give fanboys a guffaw; it's a Disney movie made by, and for, Comic-Con lovers, and there's really nothing wrong with that, except that it leaves Big Hero 6 feeling so much like other things that it never quite feels like itself.  Even Baymax, as wonderfully droll and un-ironically literal as he is (and almost sublime when his batteries wear down), feels somehow familiar.

Big Hero 6 is a triumph of visual design, a skillfully entertaining and brisk joyride that tries to create a new type of animated film for a post-comic-book world but instead feels like the scattered pieces of other movies, comics and TV shows all came scurrying together, much like Hiro's mini-bots, to create something that looks original, even if it really isn't.

Viewed Dec. 8, 2014 -- DWA Theater