With TANGLED before it and CINDERELLA coming next year, Disney’s production of this musical finds the same two lead characters alongside those from several other famous fairy tales, including Jack (of the Beanstalk) and Red Riding Hood. Happily, the filmmakers have forged a magical balance between the studio’s ever-assured family-friendly gloss and composer Stephen Sondheim’s darker intentions. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, it honors the score: while the music is condensed from the stage version, it’s never rushed through and in fact is an integral part of the storytelling. We know already that Meryl Streep can sing, but she nails the emotionally extravagant “Stay with Me”. So too Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen doing “Agony” to clever comic direction, taking great advantage, as elsewhere, of shooting outdoors, or in some cases “outdoors” — the sets are beautiful. (I would have loved to see them do the Act II reprise, whose lyrics upend the sentiments of the first version, but that song was cut.) I’ve loved James Corden since THE HISTORY BOYS and the play “One Man, Two Guvnors” which was recorded live in London. His warmth and genuineness and surprising physicality make him the perfect Baker. Daniel Huttlestone is an engaging young actor, but in his big song, “Giants in the Sky”, he swallows his words and doesn’t put across the song’s double meaning (of his literal encounter with a giant, and how a parent appears to a baby as a giant). Johnny Depp is presumably on hand for star power but is rather wan and could have had a lot more fun with “Hello Little Girl”. I saw this show in its very first incarnation, at the Old Globe in San Diego, then on Broadway and again here at the Music Center. It’s second half has always been problematic, in part because the first act is as close to perfect as you can get. With a beginning, a middle and an end, accompanied by Sondheim’s glorious music, it would send you out into the street smiling if it just ended there. But then we’re shown what happens after “happily ever after” and things grow very dark — until a way-too-quick resolution wraps matters up bittersweetly. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s not fatal. Certainly this is one of the better screen adaptations of a musical and certainly the best one ever done of a Sondheim musical. (We won’t even mention SWEENEY TODD!) — Jeff Schultz
Disney has once again hit it out of the park. With a lead character that resembles the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, fun action sequences, and a ton of heart along with an undertone of darkness, this flick plays to both adults and kids. I can’t wait for Big Hero 6 2.
There isn’t a lot left to say now that this movie has dominated the national discussion, largely because of the extra-cinematic circumstances surrounding its initial non-release and Sony’s subsequent reversal. To restate the obvious, however, it’s a somewhat shapeless, very hit-and-miss, mostly brainless bromance masquerading as a political satire, which had it been about a made-up dictator would have come and gone at the multiplex after doing modest business and making not a ripple. You’ve already read 50 other reviews that say the same thing. Accentuating the positive, here are some genuine, if stupid, laughs in the movie: the North Korean child sweetly singing “Death to America”, Eminem “coming out”, Rob Lowe bald, “they hate us ‘cause they anus”, and… and… I’m struggling to remember any other chuckles. The ones listed are in the first half-hour or so. After that, it flounders, especially at the end where it cannot stay aloft both literally and otherwise. Randall Park, who has gotten such good notices as dictator Kim, is too restrained and serious for a farcical villain; he doesn’t come close to capturing the man child (or even the look) of the genuine article. Surely, the filmmakers can’t have wanted us to feel badly for Kim when he blows up — but the assassination isn’t a satisfying “gotcha” moment. I’m a Franco fan, but he’s painfully unsubtle here. And Rogen seems half asleep. If striking a blow for free speech is your goal, you might want to do what some theater-goers are apparently doing in Los Angeles: buying a ticket, and then not showing up for the screening. — Jeff Schultz
Fury doesn’t try to reinvent the ‘war is hell’ genre. It doesn’t try to be a message movie. It is simply a fast paced thriller with unique action sequences and characters you get to know just enough so that it matters when they get killed. Fury does what movies should do more often: entertain without hitting audiences over the head with it’s ‘importance’.
Peter Jackson for some reason saw fit to take Tolkein’s relatively short book The Hobbit and stretch it out to three movies. The first movie a AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY definitely felt bloated with filler. DESOLATION OF SMAUG was a much better movie. It moved the story along briskly and had a wonderful combination of action and story. So, what to make of the final installment, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. Let me get this out there right away, I really liked this movie. It is a thousand percent better than the first film in the series. It moves quickly and gets right into the action with a minimum of muss or fuss. The battle sequences are well staged and well filmed (attention Michael Bay) any easy to follow. There is also a couple of good story lines. The unexpected hero forced to lead his people. The leader blindly obsessed with riches and power. The greater threat bearing down on the squabbling armies. A great villain who’s treachery is clearly defined. Love, jealousy, serving a greater purpose. All of that comes to bear during the course of the film and the resolution is at once satisfying and sad (trying not to give away too much of the plot here). The acting is excellent with special nods to Martin Freeman, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, Ryan Gage and all of the Dwarfs. The movie is gorgeous. The cinematography and CGI combine to create grand vistas that are spectacular. I saw it in the high frame rate and whatever issues there had been in the past, I didn’t notice any flatness or muddiness. It is just a thrill to look at. Ok, that’s the good. Here’s the bad, with acknowledgement that Peter Jackson is responsible for all of the above, it is too long by about 30 minutes. Peter Jackson has a sense of spectacle and grandeur. He has a great eye for what he wants to accomplish and easily transfers his vision to the big screen. But, the man couldn’t spot an ending if he tripped over it. His denouements drag on and on. THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES went about 30 minutes after all the storylines were resolved. Granted that allowed Bilbo to return home, but for 30 minutes? I loved this right up until then. So go see it. But be prepared to kinda get bored at the end. — Alan Yudman
It seems that comedies fall into a few categories these days. The Adam Sandler/Judd Apatow/Will Ferrell & Adam McKay bunch which frankly are hit and mostly miss for me. I don’t consider them smart or insightful. They usually prey on a loser and poke fun at his quirks. Not a fan of that kind of comedy. Then there is the “hey, the first one was great let’s make another”. Those (The Hangover, etc.) started with a great and hysterical premise which worked for one movie, but the subsequent films didn’t do anything new so they became tired rehashes. Then there are the indie comedies of which I am a huge fan. They are smart, have a point of view and are much better than their box office would tend to indicate. I’m sure there are more that I’m leaving out (Tyler Perry, Kevin Hart, etc). Chris Rock’s new movie TOP FIVE is the best of all worlds. If you just want belly laughs, they are there. Two scenes come to mind. Without giving too much away, one involved Cedric The Entertainer in a hotel room with two hookers and the other involved a tampon and hot sauce. You have to see the movie to fully appreciate it. But TOP FIVE also has a point of view. Chris Rock is Andre Allen, a comedian who starred in a series of films in which he dressed up in a bear suit and fought crime as “Hammy the Bear”. After a stint in rehab and months of sobriety, he has decided to move away from comedy and do some serious acting in a movie about the slave uprising in Haiti. No laughs there. We’re dropped in the middle of his day pimping the movie around New York. Junkets, radio interviews and one really in depth interview with a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) who tags along with him throughout the day. As if Andre isn’t dealing with enough—the interviews, people yelling out “Hammy Time” catch phrases and his sobriety—he is also getting ready to marry a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) and has to deal with the insanity of a very public wedding. So you can imagine, Andre is feeling the stress. What Rock does is balance the absurd with the insightful. Andre is worried he is not funny anymore, that he can’t be the comedian he was because well, it was the booze and the coke and whatever else he used to get high. Though he won’t really admit it. So is a creative soul creative without its muse of outside stimulation? It’s a question artists, musicians and actors have struggled with for centuries. It does get answered, at least from Rock’s point of view. The pacing is great, the jokes are there and range from a titter to a full out, body shaking guffaw. There isn’t a dud of a performance anywhere. My favorites in no particular order: JB Smoove as Andre’s old friend and manager, Dawson (who’s character becomes a romantic foil for Andre), Cedric, Tracey Morgan and Leslie Jones as two friends from his old neighborhood stand out. This is Chris Rock’s best work ever. He wrote and directed it and did a great job with both. This is the Chris Rock the public deserves to see and should see more of in the future. — Alan Yudman
Totally sweet and gentle, this is a Brit-ified STUART LITTLE, with Paddington being another cross-species fish out of water (in this case a bear not a mouse) come to live in a strange place with a nuclear family. There’s the tiniest bit of a message at the end about fitting in even though you’re different, or maybe even because you’re different, but this is a movie for 9-year-olds — and a lovely one at that — which keeps it simple. It’s also restrained (it doesn’t assault the senses) and soothing… once you get past the sad reason Paddington has to make his journey to London. Even with its share of nod-wink “adult” jokes, the movie feels timeless, like older children’s literature. (Paddington first appeared in 1958.) The integration of CGI and live action is so seamless, I was never brought out of the story by something that looked like an obvious effect. And while Paddington “himself” has to carry the movie, there’s charming assistance from Sally Hawkins (the amazing “Poppy” from Mike Leigh’s HAPPY-GO-LUCKY) and a bunch of cameos from veteran British film actors.(Nicole Kidman is a dud as the villain.) A question: In this time of tots with computer skills playing video games before they can read and an assaultive culture of football, superheroes and crassness, can a movie that just wants to be nice succeed? — Jeff Schultz
No Thomas Pynchon movie has ever been made into a movie until now. After seeing INHERENT VICE I can understand why. I have not read the book, so I cannot tell you if this is a faithful adaptation. But if the book is obtuse and layered and thick with style, then yeah, Paul Thomas Anderson captured it. It may work as a book, but it does not even come close to working as a film. Ok, maybe I’m being a bit harsh. Anderson is an auteur and has made some mind blowing films. Think BOOGIE NIGHTS, THE MASTER, THERE WILL BE BLOOD and even MAGNOLIA. Those were heavy on style but also full of substance and didn’t get bogged down in trying to be too “much”. INHERENT VICE tells the story of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) a stoner private eye who is hired by his ex-girlfriend to find her current beau. But he’s also hired by other people to find other people and they all circle around the same case. Wow! What a happy coincidence! So at its core, this is a detective story. Kind of a 1940’s or ’50’s Phillip Marlowe tale, but updated for 1970. There is a lot of talk about taking drugs and a lot of actual taking drugs. I feel like I had taken drugs after watching even an hour of this. Did Anderson take drugs while writing this? It is so dense and obsessed with it’s own cleverness, well it’s just too much. Too much baffling dialogue, too much pointless exposition, too much narration telling us what we are seeing, too much of Phoenix in a drug induced haze staring aimlessly at the the camera. Reese Witherspoon is Phoenix’s girlfriend who also works in the D.A.’s office. Why is she even in the movie? Her role is pointless and unnecessary as far as I can tell. It’s just so difficult to fathom what the heck is going on, I almost gave up several times, but figured I had to stick it out for the whole 2:30. Yes, 2:30 of head scratching, what the fuck is going on here moments. There is one angry sex scene which kind of breaks the monotony, but then it’s right back to more what am I watching here? The best part of this is Josh Brolin who plays a cop with anger issues who is at the same time Doc’s friend and adversary. He plays it with the right camp and the right flattop haircut. Anderson needed to trim the script as much as Brolin trimmed his hair. Maybe then we could all make sense of this. But I doubt it. — Alan Yudman
Would Charlie Parker have been Bird if a drummer hadn’t hurled a cymbal at him, motivating Parker to practice harder, get better and become one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century. What motivates a great artist? Can an average artist be pushed past his limits to become something greater? All of these questions are at the core of WHIPLASH. Miles Teller is a 19-year-old drum prodigy attending Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the country. He is selected, seemingly by chance to join the school’s top level Jazz band. The director of that band is J.K. Simmons, a martinet of a teacher who curses, slaps, insults and throws things at his students. Teller is obsessed with becoming the Charlie Parker of the drums (without the heroin). He pushes himself to please Simmons, but really, that is impossible. Simmons is brutal, demanding and unforgiving. Teller’s father (Paul Reiser) appears to be supportive, but even that seems to come undone at a dinner party where he asks Teller if he wants to be dead at 34. Teller’s response is telling.. he’d rather be a dead legend, than a live nobody. So it seems he has found his perfect teacher in Simmons. But how far can he be pushed before he simply breaks. What is he willing to give up to live his dream. Does he want to be great or simply be ok. There is one resonating scene in which Simmons tells him that the words “good job” are the two worst words in the english language because they invite mediocrity. This is an absolutely fantastic film. Teller is an astounding young actor. Simmons has been around for years playing mostly the genial dad (JUNO) or the bigger than life, yet lovable bully (SPIDER-MAN). He is the actor’s character actor. But it is wonderful to see him get a chance to step into a lead role and own it so wonderfully. The script and direction by Damien Chazzelle are tight and to the point. No wasted words or shots. Like a great jazz composition, it washes over you and digs into your soul. I don’t know whether Teller and Simmons played instruments before this film or learned for it. It doesn’t matter. They both are simply amazing, award caliber performances. WHIPLASH deserves all the praise it gets and then some. This deserves several awards, which sadly, it probably won’t win. — Alan Yudman
BIRDMAN opens with a fireball streaking across the sky. Or is it an alien burning up in our atmosphere? Or is a phoenix rising? The last seems to be a metaphor for Michael Keaton’s character. Keaton is Riggan Thompson. He played BIRDMAN in a superhero franchise that netted him millions, a house in Malibu (maybe other places, not really clear here) an ex-wife and a daughter (Emma Stone) just our of rehab. But Riggan abandoned all that years ago and seems to have dropped off the map. But he is trying to rise again (like the phoenix) by writing, directing, producing and staring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. That is kind of the theme of this whole story. Love versus admiration versus simply falling off the fucking map and not even registering on the radar of celebrity. Riggan is the latter. But he wants the former, but you get the feeling he’ll settle for the middle. He just wants to be relevant, to not be alone with, well… him. Because when he’s alone he hears the voice of Biridman (kind of a drunker sounding Christian Bale as Batman) and can just will shit to fly across the room, or spin on a table, you get the idea. He’s deep in some psychosis born of lost celebrity. How Keaton and director/co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu extricate him from this spiral is a helluva ride. The movie borders on being meta, but not in an uncomfortable or eye rolling manner. It’s a movie about a play about love and death which is what the movie is about to begin with. Follow? Don’t worry, you will. Gonzalez-Inarritu skillfully keeps all the plates spinning while delving deep into Riggan’s damaged psyche. Riggan is forced to hire Edward Norton, a Broadway star who is completely together on stage and a complete mess off it. Riggan’s daughter is there for any number of reasons. So he can be the father he never was, so she doesn’t relapse back to rehab, or just to be a constant reminder of what a fuck-up he has been. Actually it’s all of the above. The dialogue is witty and clever.. sharp and convincing, especially when spoken by Keaton, Stone or Norton. The cast is all very good, but those three stand out. Keaton is magical. You remember that this guy was once a really good actor. What happened to that guy (notice a parallel to the story)? The scenes dealing with the production of the play have an old Hollywood musical vibe that feels comfy and familiar. Keaton’s Riggan is searching throughout the movie. He thinks this is a way to earn the love of his fans again, or the love of his daughter and to finally put BIRDMAN in his past. But you cannot escape the past. It’s always there, reminding you of what you did and how you fucked it up. He’s searching for love and meaning and relevance. But he’s looking in all the wrong places. One excellent scene has Riggan confronting the New York Times’ theater critic who can close a play with one bad review. He lets her have it about how venal and trivial critics can be. But it has little impact on her as she promises to close his play after one night. This film is genius and Keaton is brilliant, Oscar-worthy. Riggan may not fly again as BIRDMAN, but this serves notice that Keaton’s star should once again soar. — Alan Yudman