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The Theory of Everything (2014)
An emotional and relationship-centered biopic, 'Everything' is a welcome change of pace
The stories of great people, particularly the great thinkers, have been source material for a number of acclaimed and awarded biopics, a sub-genre that has evolved a lot in the last decade. You can tell just by comparing two of 2014's best, each focused on one of the greatest British minds of the 20th century. There's "The Imitation Game," the suspenseful, "critical moment in the life of" take on the life of mathematician and computer grandfather Alan Turing, and then "The Theory of Everything," an emotional romance taking the "snippets in the chronological life of" approach to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
Taken from Jane Hawking's memoir, it makes sense why "The Theory of Everything" tells us more about her and Stephen's relationship than it does about Stephen's work. For those interested more in the science of Stephen's life and work, it's a film that will disappoint on some level; director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten are far more interested in the philosophy and ideology that influenced Stephen's way of thinking, and how Jane influenced him as well.
"The Theory of Everything" is also a chronicle of a crippling disease. We meet Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) at Cambridge, where he meets and falls in love with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) and shortly thereafter learns he's suffering from ALS, a fatal disease. Stricken with depression, he tries to distance himself from Jane, but she insists on staying by his side. We slowly watch Stephen lose the ability to move parts of his body until he becomes wheelchair bound and can no longer speak. Yet miraculously the disease never claims his life, and never affects his mind, even if it does take a heavy toll on his family.
Redmayne certainly deserves all the praise in the world for being able to honestly and authentically portray the evolving disabilities, but his performance is so much more than such surface-level awards-bait fodder. Redmayne's true accomplishment is how he lets Stephen's personality grow and shine through despite of the physical limitations. Through eye contact and facial expressions, he paints something special despite the clear restrictions of his brush. Stephen's spirit really shows, and it adds to what's already an emotional film.
Yet Stephen is not the sole focal point of this movie. Jane is very much his equal, and in many ways, the film is really about her, a woman's struggle to be the caretaker she set out to be, what it is like to feed and clothe and literally care for an internationally famous person incapable of doing those basic things for himself. She is a complex character, both strong and weak, shoving aside expectations of how she should or shouldn't behave or think at every opportunity. A young-faced 30-year-old, Jones is trusted to convey age and maturity as the film goes on (the makeup doesn't really get the job done), and she does in a way most actresses her age simply have yet to demonstrate in their careers.
Marsh and the film's casting director, Nina Gold, deserve a whopping commendation for trusting in such young talent to convey these people at such mature stages of their relationship. Most films would've gone with older veterans knowing they could get away with them playing Stephen and Jane in their 20s and that later in the film they would fit naturally. Instead, they got two lesser-known but rising stars who have long careers ahead of them and could still probably fill these roles 15 years from now.
"The Theory of Everything" only lacks in compelling drama. It's a portrait of two people and the ups and downs of their relationship, making it a much more indie take on the life of a famous person rather than the Hollywood prestige biopic route that won "A Beautiful Mind" the Best Picture Oscar. More concisely, it will move audiences far more than it will entertain them, which for the biographical genre, is actually refreshing.
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American Sniper (2014)
Well made, quintessential 21st century war film that doesn't go deep enough
Stories of American soldiers their bravery in the field, their struggles to return to civilian life have been well documented by Hollywood. The first thing to think about, therefore, is what makes each a necessary or unique story to tell. "American Sniper" tells of the life and years of service of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper who killed more enemies than any soldier in U.S. military history during his four tours in Iraq.
Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was a Texas cowboy who at the age of 25 felt he could be of value serving his country and became a Navy SEAL. While in Iraq, Kyle was primarily tasked with protecting ground units from threats they couldn't see, meaning many of the people he killed were in a position to take the lives of American soldiers. Before he finally finished serving, his reputation as a legend proceeded him.
That, in essence, is what makes "American Sniper" different from other 21st century war films. The other elements of his story make him just another soldier: a man who was willing to put his life on the line for his country, left his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids for months on end to do it and wrestled with the side effects of post-traumatic stress disorder when he was home and after he quit. The film soundly and movingly depicts the life of this consummate soldier, but it glosses over the story's defining characteristic that its main character is both a beloved hero and an elite killer.
As a blue-blooded patriot, Clint Eastwood is both the perfect and maybe even the wrong choice for this film. Eastwood certainly shows us why he's been a good director for so long, in some ways reminding us after his recent string of critical duds. Yet he (and admittedly screenwriter Jason Hall, who adapted Kyle's memoir) evades a certain level of depth when it comes to the themes and issues this story presents. The film doesn't ignore PTSD and the hurtful effects that military life can have on a family, nor does it silence the point of view that war, specifically Operation Iraqi Freedom, is inherently controversial, but it does limit their influence on the film's message.
Hall's screenplay walks the line when it comes to opinions on war. Put a Southern, conservative, God-fearing patriot in the same theater as an urban, liberal, agnostic and one might tell you "American Sniper" is an amazing, truly American film that honors those who rid the world of evil to keep America safe, while the other might say it casts an uncomfortable shadow of doubt over war as it relates to American values. A third person might even tell you it's nothing short of propaganda.
Although it doesn't pick sides on war, "American Sniper" does choose to portray Chris Kyle as a hero, and therein lies the controversy. Not that Kyle wasn't a brave and good person, but that he's a hero for his actions. On one hand, while working closely with Kyle, his friends and family, filmmakers do not want to create something that would in any way be disrespectful to them. On the other, certain aspects of his story are conspicuously under-developed, with the emphasis on the action and suspense of the military action he saw.
To avoid delving too far into it, I'll simply say that never before has a movie's credits sequence informed its message to the extent that "American Sniper's" does. It honestly complicates the movie, what the takeaways are supposed to be, and highlights a lot of the gaps in the storytelling, primarily how what we see in the Iraq scenes translates into the "legend" of Chris Kyle at home. The script merely hopes that lots of characters telling Kyle how they've heard this and that about him will convey the truth of it to the audience. Nothing that we see truly confirms how incredible of a soldier Kyle was.
To go back to the surface layers, "American Sniper" holds interest and suspense extremely well. Eastwood's technique doesn't compare with the way Kathryn Bigelow powerfully portrayed soldiers in the Middle East in "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty," but the level of intensity in both the action sequences and in the way Kyle struggles at home exhibit excellent craftsmanship. And neither is it dumbed down Hall creates some sharp dialogue and plenty of humanizing, touching moments.
Cooper is probably the best thing about the movie. Sporting a legit Texas accent and bulking up to look almost exactly like Kyle, he definitely shows his versatility. Most of his previous roles have showcased charm or paranoia; here he plays a realistic, humble action hero of sorts. In the non-action scenes, he could colors the Texan stereotypes with a complex psychological portrait.
"American Sniper" captures the essence of the contemporary war story in a way that allows contrary opinions to coexist, but it doesn't answer the question, "why Chris Kyle?" His story is compelling, probably more compelling than most, but "American Sniper" doesn't feel like the story of "the deadliest sniper in U.S. history" so much as the story of "a dedicated, courageous soldier who happens to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. history."
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Exciting, suspenseful and a film even non-jazz fans will appreciate
Jazz music and psychology create a furious cinematic swell in Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," a striking breakthrough effort that will have toes tapping and pulses racing. Centered on a 19- year-old aspiring Jazz drummer pushed to his limits for better and for worse (usually worse) by a merciless instructor, "Whiplash" tells a simple story of how far one's willing to go for their dream, and what inspires and motivates greatness.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew, a first year student at a music conservatory with a clear-cut dream: become the next great jazz drummer. His talent catches the eye of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) the conductor of the school's revered studio band, a no-nonsense teacher who pushes his students to their breaking point through cursing, screaming and insulting them, and he particularly enjoys directing his questionable tactics toward Andrew.
By and large, Fletcher's methods inspire Andrew to push himself, but not without instilling a certain fear and anger in both him and the audience. The tension becomes powerfully thick whenever the two are in the same scene and any time Andrew makes the slightest mistake that will certainly invoke Fletcher's wrath, it's a gasp-worthy "oh crap" moment. Chazelle easily gets the audience under his finger in this way, but it's Simmons who really gives him that power.
Simmons has been a beloved character actor for more than a decade, in large part due to his mouth and exceptional line delivery. The role of Fletcher plays to these strengths while allowing him to access a more sinister and dramatic side. In other words, when he rips off a comic insult in this film, you're also laughing out of nervousness. He's every strict, terrifying, bigoted, foul- mouthed teacher, instructor, coach or boss you've ever had (or that's ever been on screen) rolled into one and that has a profound influence on the film's suspense.
Interestingly, executive producer Jason Reitman (director of "Up in the Air" and "Juno") has a lot of influence too, and that goes beyond that he likely recruited Simmons for the project. Chazelle likes to use a lot of sequence shots (such as all the student musicians opening their instrument cases one after the other) to create a rhythm to the film, one of Reitman's hallmarks. That said, it should by no means diminish the work Chazelle has done. He balances this with a lot of other techniques (the opening shot, for example, is a long take) and weaved together the film takes on the characteristics of a carefully orchestrated piece of music.
Music has always played a crucial role in the creation of cinematic suspense, so a suspenseful film about music naturally has to take this relationship to another level. That's where the focus on percussion makes a difference. There's the obvious piece in that the drums are the pulse of the band, so the connection to our own physical response to the film is apparent. Also, and maybe slightly less obviously, there's a lot happening visually, so it's much easier to convey the intensity on film. Chazelle films Teller playing from just about every possible angle and distance, which ought to tell you that Teller's own drum skills were definitely put to the test. The suspense also impacts jazz standards "Whiplash" and "Caravan" and other pieces heard in the film, making them infinitely more gripping because of what's at stake for the characters.
A surprising third act twist takes the story to another level and elevates a script that otherwise might've gotten too satisfied with simply highlighting the moral dilemma Fletcher and Andrew pose. There are weaker components too like a side plot involving a love interest (Melissa Benoist of "Glee") and a little stuff with Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) and extended family, but they help break up the intensity and also show that Andrew's pursuit of greatness doesn't exist in a vacuum.
"Whiplash" works by being both niche (one small story taking place in the little-seen world of competitive collegiate jazz) and yet universal, while employing a multitude of sensory components both visual and aural to creating an engaging, accessible and entertaining film. Chazelle will surely have a number of encore performances to follow, while giving us an all-time great one from Simmons.
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Under the Skin (2013)
Entirely unconventional, "Under the Skin" is slow and eerie yet poetic and insightful
Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" can't be judged by it's well skin. Scarlett Johansson starring in a science-fiction film will lure unsuspecting men into watching this movie, pretty much exactly like Johansson's character lures unsuspecting men into her van and back to her "place." So the most important thing you can do going into "Under the Skin" is to temporarily forget all the conventions you expect from movies.
Glazer's film is quiet, slow, brooding and, frankly, creepy. He demonstrates a large degree of patience as a filmmaker that will unnerve a lot of viewers. As such, the casting of Johansson is the lynchpin; she's the kind of actress you can watch reading the phonebook silently to herself. She brings the necessary curiosity to her other-worldly character tasked with using her sexuality to kidnap lonely men.
At least that's what it seems like she's doing. Whereas most science-fiction films have to explain themselves through excessive dialogue (think Christopher Nolan's films, for example), Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell, who based the film off of Michael Faber's 2000 novel, provide no context whatsoever. At least a little portion of everything that happens is left completely open to interpretation.
It seems we are meant to view and experience the world the way Johansson's nameless character sees it. At first, she is very methodical about her task, lacking any empathy or any of the characteristics of the human form she wears. Eventually, however, her perspective appears to change and she veers off her path to explore what it's like to be human.
Glazer creates a portrait of working-class Scotland that starkly contrasts with the (limited) science-fiction imagery. The atmosphere he creates for the film makes Scotland appear like another planet. Nature plays a small but ever-present role, and Glazer's unconventional approach, namely in holding still on a number of seemingly irrelevant shots, forces you to look at everything differently. It's part of where the creepiness settles in.
Because so much of "Under the Skin" remains a total mystery throughout the entire film, it's not until after the credits roll that what Glazer set out to accomplish can be realized. At that point the film's themes and ideas can be looked at objectively without agonizing over what "information" or "truth" may or may not be revealed. Essentially, the film uniquely calls attention to what makes us human, specifically the relationship between our insides and our outsides.
While the message is profound, it's not one that's clearly or easily heard, and the film's delivery is certainly not optimized for its entertainment value. There's something awe-inspiring to its beautiful and creepy yet poetic nature, but in reality, you can't substitute anything for being engaged and wrapped up in a story. Parts of "Under the Skin" definitely do, but not in a way that will resonate with a majority of audiences.
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The Interview (2014)
Behind the national controversy is just a lot of Rogen and Franco goofin' off
When major theater chains decided not to show "The Interview" because of terrorism threats from North Korean hackers, Hollywood saw an unparalleled degree of hype surrounding a film that otherwise would've received a moderate spotlight at best. But while news buzz for this comedy about a TV host and his producer being recruited to assassinate Kim Jong-un can impact marketing and maybe box office numbers, there's one thing it can't change: whether the film's any good.
James Franco and Seth Rogen star as Dave Skylark and Aaron Rapaport, host and producer of "Skylark Tonight," a long-running primetime interview program known for covering celebrity gossip rather than hard-hitting journalism. When Dave and Aaron learn that Kim Jong-un is a fan of the show, they realize landing an interview with him could legitimize their work. After Kim agrees, the CIA, represented by Lizzy Caplan, pays the pair a visit and recruits them to kill the North Korean Supreme Leader.
Prolific comedy writers (and recently directors, including this film) Rogen and Evan Goldberg along with longtime TV comedy writer Dan Sterling have crafted one of their strangest premises yet. In fact, there's an opportunity to do something genius in the realm of satire, but the biting moments are quick and fleeting in a film that's by and large a farce about two guys in way over their heads.
"The Interview" seems to primarily exist just to give Rogen and Franco an even weirder set of cinematic circumstances in which to dick around and say outrageous things to one another. Those who already take issue with Franco will likely find Dave Skylark his most insufferable comic character to date, while Rogen plays the straighter character lacking in street smarts. The two definitely find golden banter throughout the movie, but considering the large percentage of "The Interview" that can be constituted as banter, there's not as much hit as miss.
The Rogen-Goldberg formula still has its merits, but "The Interview" provides evidence that its effectiveness is wearing thin. The predictability of the plot, for example, really works to the film's detriment. The story has a clear structure: Dave and Aaron feel motivated to do something important, they schedule an interview with Kim, the CIA recruits them and prepares them for the mission, they go to North Korea for the interview and to kill Kim. The only unpredictable chunk is the last one what happens after they get to Kim's "palace." The way they choose to go about it is mostly juvenile and devoid of suspense until the actual interview occurs, but even then, you can always depend on Rogen and Goldberg to up the chaos factor in the third act, usually with comic violence.
The humor of "The Interview" hinges a lot on recurring jokes in addition to the usual genitals and bathroom humor. The concept of "honey-potting" and Katy Perry's "Firework" are two jokes/references that the script tries to get a lot of mileage out of. The situational humor is mostly spoiled by obviously plot devices. This isn't to say "The Interview" isn't funny, but when you can see through the jokes and situation humor and their use feels obvious, it takes away from the escapism that comes from good comedy.
There's also a lot of Rogen and Franco. The supporting cast is uncharacteristically small in this one, especially compared to Rogen and Goldberg's cameo-loaded "This Is The End." Aside from Caplan, King Jong-un (Randall Park) and Sook (Diana Bang), Kim's head of communications, no one else gets much screen time. That puts a lot on Franco and Rogen's shoulders, which, capable as they are, have six plus years (since "Pineapple Express" at least) of wear and tear on them. So the brazen concept of "The Interview" is really the freshest thing about it.
Rogen and Goldberg as writers and Rogen and Franco as actors have done better and will do better again, most likely, than "The Interview." What seems like an outlandish and exciting premise would've probably been best as a 30-minute "South Park" episode. And when you think about all the insulting satire that show has committed over the years, you start to realize what "The Interview" really is once you strip away the national "controversy."
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Everything you expect and want from a dystopian sci-fi film, plus a little more
Every so many years, a fantastic dystopian science-fiction film comes around that barely anyone hears about, yet the few who see it spread the gospel and eventually it becomes a cult hit. "Children of Men" and "Equilibrium" are a couple that come to mind. This year's vastly underrated entry sure to develop a following is "Snowpiercer" from Korean director Joon Ho Bong ("The Host").
Based conceptually on the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige," the human survivors of a failed global warming experiment that left the world frozen over are all aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circles the globe. The story is set 17 years into the train's journey. Curtis (Chris Evans), who has been on the train since he was 17, is ready to lead the passengers in the back cars, who live in horrid conditions, in revolt. Their plan is to traverse the entirety of the train to the front, where train creator, Mr. Wilford stays with his beloved engine keeping their society running and therefore keep "everything in its place."
Revolution is a clichéd yet foundational component of dystopian stories, but containing it all on a train with this video game-like plot of heading from car to car is ingeniously entertaining. In many ways, Bong marries the rich, thematic style of American and English science-fiction with this level-by-level approach of foreign action movies. On one hand, you have John Hurt playing the grandfather of the revolution and spouting thematic wisdom to Curtis, and on the other you have a scene in which the lower class does battle with masked, axe-wielding train guards. (This fight sequence, by the way, is easily the year's most exciting and memorable.)
This juxtaposition of Eastern and Western styles even trickles down to the characters. Instrumental to the rebels' success is a man in the prison car named Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), a junkie who knows how to open all the gates to all the cars, whose daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) has a sort of clairvoyance and knows what awaits behind each door. So you have these Western heroes in Evans and Jamie Bell, who partner with these characters who are both played by Koreans and are typical of characters in Korean action movies, and they rely on each other to make the story move forward.
The wild card of all these characters is Tilda Swinton's Mason, the front of the train's voice to the back of the train. Her character goes from epitomizing the evil of this dystopian autocracy to something else entirely; she's like an even quirkier version of Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket in "The Hunger Games" series. Other casting choices including Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a woman in the back whose son is taken from her at the onset of the film and Alison Pill in a cameo as a propaganda-spouting teacher show just how diverse and entertaining the movie is.
The division of classes gives Bong a lot to work with artistically. The beginning of the film is full of grays and browns with the occasional bright color when someone from the front of the train comes to the back. As they make their way forward and discover train cars that include an aquarium, a garden and a classroom, Bong opens the color palette up to drive home the class discrepancy that fuels the story from an emotional standpoint.
Like any good Dystopian film, Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson ("Before the Devil Knows You're Dead") have loaded the movie with all the great hallmarks of the genre including tons of ideas about humanity. Other than the train, however, there's no one aspect of the movie that wasn't inspired by something else or could be considered similar to another film or novel. Yet the train acts as fresh packaging in so many ways, enhancing the presentation as to make everything feel exciting and new, even though it borrows from several time-tested tropes.
Thrilling, entertaining and thought-provoking from caboose to engine, "Snowpiercer" caters to all your expectations of the genre and feeds them through a streamlined plot that, like the titular train and its precious engine, never stops moving. Excitement and anticipation strike at the opening of each and every gate as to what lies behind it, especially the last one, where we know Wilford himself and the answers to all our questions await, including the classic notion of "what will our hero do once he knows the truth?"
And the best part may be that once you've seen "Snowpiercer," you get to recommend it to all your friends.
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This Is Where I Leave You (2014)
A stacked cast can't save this over-the-top mess
Dysfunctional family antics get taken to the extreme in "This Is Where I Leave You," the story of four adult siblings who reunite in their childhood home after the death of their father, whose last wishes were for them to sit shiva, the Jewish custom of staying together as a family for seven days following the funeral to mourn and be comforted by family and friends. But the Altmans are far from religious, and each family member has his or her shtick along with problems in their personal life, and all together they drive each other bonkers in a perpetual cycle of farcical melodrama.
The Altmans are a true all-star family: Jane Fonda plays the matriarch, and her children are played by Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll ("House of Cards") and Adam Driver ("Girls"). Along with spouses, significant others and neighbors being played by Kathryn Hahn, Rose Byrne, Dax Shepard, Timothy Olyphant ("Justified"), Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights") and Ben Schwartz ("Parks and Recreation"), the cast is totally stacked for Jonathan Tropper's adaptation of his novel.
Why they all came together for this script, however, is anyone's guess. "Leave You" is an absolutely over-the-top mess of a dark slapstick comedy trying desperately to be an introspective indie dramedy.
The main character is Bateman's Judd, who weeks before getting the call about his dad walked on his wife sleeping with his boss (Shepard), but it doesn't seem so bad alongside his siblings' problems. His sister, Wendy (Fey), has two young kids and a jerk husband, his older brother, Paul (Stoll), is having trouble getting his wife (Hahn) an ex-girlfriend of Judd's pregnant, and his younger brother, Phillip (Driver), is dating his much older therapist (Britton) who is just like their mother. The side plots don't even end there.
The script plays out like an endless round robin of family members having heart-to-hearts and exploding at each other in bouts of physical violence. Judd talks to Wendy out on the roof, fights with Paul, goes for a spin with Phillip, weeps with his mother and falls for a girl he grew up with (Byrne), all while dealing with his soon-to-be ex-wife (Abigail Spencer). The scenes barely have time to set themselves before they escalate into chaos, lust, hilarity, poignancy or whatever the end goal is.
Clearly, veteran comedy director Shawn Levy is in over his head with this one. Juggling a dozen characters is easy in the "Night at the Museum" films, but illustrating the combination of grief, personal hardship, family dynamics, relationship dynamics and more has him completely out of sorts. He's a director who understands comedic timing and how to pace a film in an entertaining way, but he has no idea how to slow the script's pacing down to create empathy for the characters and allow the audience to chew on Tropper's well-intentioned themes. He also peppers in an "indie soundtrack" in hopes of creating that tone, but it only backfires given how "un-indie" the rest of the movie is.
The cast is fun to watch, but the number of clichés and melodramatic moments kill any seriousness or realism they bring to their characters. The fact that the actors are such proved talents really just proves that the film's biggest problem is the plot and the way the story was strung together. They make this movie infinitely more bearable because they're funny, quality actors, but they don't tip the scales from "watchable" to "good."
There's no breathing space for any of the characters and their stories, which sucks them dry of any realism and makes the whole film seem completely ludicrous. How could that much soap drama happen to one family in a week's time? As much truth as there might be to the themes of Tropper's story and that logically all these things can and do happen in relationships, there are just too many of these conflicts for one movie.
"This Is Where I Leave You" is a classic trap film. Casual moviegoers browsing through their rental options will surely say aloud, "Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, the director of 'Date Night' ... how did I miss this in theaters?" Well, usually there's a good reason for it.
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The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
Could change the way films address people with challenges and differences
The cure for cancer is still an exhausting search, but the cure for bad movies about cancer has finally taken affect. A few years ago, Jonathan Levine's "50/50" changed the portrayal of and dialogue about cancer in movies. Fast-forward to 2014 and the TV show "Red Band Society" and this film adaptation of John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars" are normalizing cancer in teenagers. It's a weird trend to highlight, but if Hollywood can start treating other "taboo" subjects the same way, there's hope for film as a meaningful teaching tool yet.
"The Fault in Our Stars" begins by essentially scoffing at picture-perfect love stories. Its narrator, Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a Stage IV thyroid cancer survivor not even 20 years old, warns us that this story will not have a happy ending. She's right, but that said, you won't be blindsided by some Nicholas Sparks tearjerker move either.
Hazel doesn't know her timeline, but she knows her cancer is terminal. She carries an oxygen tank with her everywhere she goes, including a support group that she only attends to keep her mother (Laura Dern) and father (Sam Trammell) happy. But it's there, ironically, where she meets Augustus, or Gus, (Ansel Elgort), an osteosarcoma survivor with a prosthetic leg and an impressively positive yet realistic attitude about life. Both of them witty, sharp and sarcastic, Hazel and Gus become fast friends and their romance grows in spite of Hazel's best intentions to avoid falling in love.
There's a terrific sense of humor and approach to cancer in this script that even makes "50/50" seem dated. The characters are not defined by their illnesses but by their attitudes toward life, the way they cope with the ups and downs. Hazel and Gus are surprisingly mature for their age, partly because they're written so well but also because they've been through a lot and ripened at a young age. They still feel like teenagers though, and that's key.
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, writers of the outstanding "(500) Days of Summer" and "The Spectacular Now" nail it again with the chemistry between Hazel and Gus. Obviously much credit belongs to Woodley and Elgort, but these writers know how to craft real, authentic dialogue. They so effortlessly evoke our own memories of love and life's challenges at a young age in addition to creating compelling drama.
They've also got modern teenage relationships down pat. There's just enough use of phones here to make texting a meaningful component of Hazel and Gus's relationship, but not so much that the movie is overbearingly "contemporary." Director Josh Boone handles these scenes delicately and in a way that's true to those who have experienced romance develop through text. But anyway, these characters are in the business of making real connections; after all, they've been through more hardship than a majority of kids their age.
The movie is the story of their relationship, which doesn't become a romance for them as quickly as it does in the audience's mind. Trained to know in movies when two people should fall in love, we are conditioned to look for a first kiss scene well before it happens in this movie, which reflects the inherent, largely unspoken challenges of Hazel and Gus's relationship. As much as teens will gravitate toward this film, it's the adults who know the heartbreak, who know what teenage romance is like, who would likely tell these two to be cautious that will most appreciate the story's attitude toward love and relationships. In a lot of ways, "The Fault in Our Stars" could be a great film for teens and their parents to begin to have conversations about these things.
Even though the opening narration insists that the story won't sugarcoat anything, it doesn't mean it's free of melodramatic twists that ratchet the drama and sadness up to 10. The approach to scene work and dialogue and characters is more authentic, but the plot doesn't exactly follow suit. In the story's defense, however, we'd have a very boring film on our hands without something to really challenge these characters. Even if you might argue their lives have been challenging enough, it's still a movie.
Thematic richness is another strength of "The Fault in Our Stars." It's an emotionally deep and resonant film just in the way it handles cancer, but it also presents difficult concepts and subplots that even further inform the core story. When Gus uses his "Make-a-Wish" to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet with the author of her favorite book, this seemingly tangential segment in their larger journey brings a surprising number of new layers and ideas to the story, including the author's unexpected reaction and a visit to the Anne Frank House.
"The Fault in Our Stars" is one of the films changing the way we look at major issues. There's nothing politically charged about cancer, but films wanting to approach anything from race to sexual orientation could certainly adopt some of the techniques here to approach those issues in authentic ways. Teaching tool or not, it's still a quality coming-of-age story right next to "The Perks of Being A Wallflower."
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The Imitation Game (2014)
Cumberbatch is the crown jewel of this well-crafted biopic
Biopics have become so commonplace today that they often lack the prestige they carried 10-20 years ago. So when one stands out, it deserves an extra bit of recognition and praise, and "The Imitation Game" is one such film, commanded by a fascinating performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.
The "Sherlock" and "Star Trek: Into Darkness" star plays mathematician Alan Turing, the wrongfully disgraced father of the modern day computer and a war hero, the extent of which remained classified until the '90s. Turing was a total genius and a recluse, whom many theorize may have had some degree of Asperger's syndrome. However, his reputation was marred most for being a convicted homosexual, as private sexual acts between men were deemed criminal in England until the late '60s.
Turing shares many traits with the character that shot Cumberbatch to fame, Sherlock Holmes, another savant-like character devoid of social manners who puts work ahead of relationships. The difference, however, is the BBC series employs those quirks for kicks, whereas "The Imitation Game" is a thoughtfully constructed portrait of a deeply misunderstood individual.
Although the film opens with Turing's arrest in 1951, it uses this to frame the core of the story Turing's work for British Intelligence during World War II, when he helped crack the German Enigma code and swing the balance of the war into the Allies' favor. It also flashes back to Turing's schoolboy days, which help to explain more of his behavior during his time at Bletchley trying to build a machine to decrypt the Enigma messages.
The beautiful thing about Cumberbatch's performance is that it's multi-dimensional we see Turing's social struggles, his genius, his unlikable qualities and his tenderness. His performance generates a powerful empathy and understanding of who Turing was and how he struggled through the world and his life. These characteristics live in balance, without any exaggeration. Neither his social "quirks" nor his sexuality define this portrayal, yet they are crucial to it.
Cumberbatch might be the primary focus, but he doesn't tower over the supporting cast, which includes strong performances from Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance ("Game of Thrones") and especially Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, Turing's closest friend whose intelligence in ways dwarfed his own. Joan could've easily been reduced to very little, but Knightley gets good stuff to work with and as always, she brings strength and independence to her character.
Still, the film's crowning achievement is Cumberbatch's performance, though much credit for his success in the role belongs to rookie screenwriter Graham Moore, who carefully selects the moments that best encompass Turing's multi-faceted identity and ultimately help us to understand him. And of course director Morten Tyldum deserves props for really giving Cumberbatch the time and space to thrive.
"The Imitation Game" is also rather impressively paced for a biopic. At two hours long, it rarely drags, nicely interweaving the 1951 arrest story line with the main code-breaking plot and the flashbacks. Perhaps this credit belongs to the fact that Tyldum ("Headhunters") established himself as a director by making thrillers and editor William Goldenberg ("Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty") has made his career on similarly suspenseful films.
The only place "Imitation Game" seems to trip up a bit is thematically. Its notions of humans vs. machines as it relates to Turing are a little bold and don't quite land the way Moore intends, but the portrayal of Turing has enough emotional resonance to carry the film from simply being very good and missing something to excellent.
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Into the Woods (2014)
A likable movie musical in a time when movie musicals are becoming less likable
How I've never seen a stage version of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" is still a head-scratcher. My high school theatre department put on the twisted fairy tale the year after I graduated (much to my disappointment) and it has eluded me ever since. The point, excuse my digression, is it's very rare for me to go into a movie musical knowing very little of the show, but after seeing the film and chatting with those who have seen the show, it's clear director Rob Marshall and Disney's take delivers the very qualities that made the stage musical a hit.
It helps to know that James Lapine, who wrote the book of the musical, wrote this screenplay. Even though he doesn't have final say in the film, there's no criticizing the movie's loyalty to the source material. This is not a Disney-fied version despite the marketing-savvy casting moves of Meryl Streep as the Witch and Johnny Depp as the Wolf. This is every bit as dark, fantastical, quirky and unusual as fans of the show have led me to expect.
"Into the Woods" is an amalgamation of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel all centered around the story of a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who discover they cannot have a child because a witch (Streep) put a curse on the Baker's father many years ago. The only way to reverse it, she says, is to go into the woods and retrieve her a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. So off they go into the woods, as do the fairy tale characters whom they seek.
This is not some what it looks like: a fun super mash-up of classic stories. Rather, it's a way to explore the human truths of the fairy tale genre as Sondheim does so beautifully in his lyrics. Everything about "Into the Woods" is just a bit off from what you'd expect: not too whimsical, not too intellectual, not too dark and scary, not too childish, etc. It lives in this gray area, which makes it totally unique as a work of art, albeit a bit frustrating for the movies, where audiences like to see exactly what they expect to see. Yet there seems to be "just enough" of each of these elements to make "Into the Woods" a likable film for all.
Although few are as skilled as Marshall at effectively filming a musical performance for the big screen, so much of the credit for what makes "Into the Woods" enjoyable is the cast. Streep, for example, has precisely the gravitas needed for the Witch, and it's exciting to watch such a venerated actress taking on a peculiar character. She's really the tip of the iceberg though. Blunt and Anna Kendrick (who plays Cinderella) are two of the best and most versatile actresses of their generation, and they have pipes to boot; Corden, little-known but rising quickly, strikes a terrific balance of humor, pity and heart; Youngsters Daniel Huttlestone (Jack) and Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood) are terrific finds; and although with less significant roles, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as the princes get the film's most entertaining musical number in "Agony."
Each of these actors connects with and owns the lyrics, which are the heart of the story and the true magic of "Into the Woods," but in the wrong hands (on the wrong tongues?) can feel inaccessible or superfluous. Cinderella's song "On the Steps of the Palace," for example, is her over-analyzing and being indecisive about whether (for the third time) she should run away from her Prince. It's lyrical word vomit, and while Kendrick doesn't turn it into pure gold, she effortlessly communicates her character's inner albeit excessive dilemma and makes Sondheim's point that just because in fairy tales girls are supposed to fall in love with charming princes, doesn't mean they should run off with them without a second thought.
In this example it's also easy to see that "Into the Woods" can get a bit wordy and boring. It's a fairy tale story, so we expect something breezy and entertaining, not something existential and overbearing. As much as you can appreciate how Lapine and Sondheim have challenged the notion of fairy tales by turning them around on the audience, at some points it just gets boring. The film's third act, when "happily ever after" gets turned on its head, for example, is a test of patience, even though without it, the story would have no meaning and the film would therefore become artistically pointless.
This problem doesn't seem to be unique to the film, but rather, has followed the show to the big screen. All the cinematic elements work nicely here from visual effects to Colleen Atwood's costumes; this is certainly the type of story that truly stands to benefit from escaping the confines of a stage. Even so, Marshall doesn't use that as license to overdo it; he gives us tastes of visual effects here and there. In a sense, this is staying true to the musical, because it's not supposed to be a pure entertainment piece.
"Into the Woods" doesn't get better on the silver screen, but it clearly doesn't get worse, as most fans of stage musicals fear when their favorites get adapted. I might not be able to speak from experience, but what was a likable albeit slow musical according to my "sources" has become a likable albeit slow film. Considering "Into the Woods" has a very specific message and style, the fact that Marshall and Disney honor that is something deserving of some praise.
~Steven C Thanks for reading!
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