Archives for the month of: February, 2016

People didn’t like Into the Woods, and I think I mostly agree with them. Part of this is that Stephen Sondheim isn’t my favorite (I know, I know, you’re definitely supposed to, but I just don’t really get it). But most of it is the Disneyfication. The original musical is unapologetically grown-up. Taking that away does violence to the coherence of the story, and the lame, winking attempts to minimize the problem don’t succeed.

The charm of the show is the interlocking stories:

  • Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to the ball to meet the Prince (Chris Pine). I find Kendrick hard to root for, which was a problem, but Pine was enjoyably cheesy as the “charming but not sincere” royal.  Christine Baranski and Lucy Punch are entirely wasted as step-mother and a step-sister (Punch reprising a rôle she played in Ella Enchanted).
  • Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) meets a wolf (Johnny Depp) in the woods. Crawford’s affect was almost unbelievably flat; Depp was atrocious in what I think was a (gratefully) curtailed version of the creepy sex-offender Mr. Wolf.
  • Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) lives in a tower, also has an attendant Prince (Billy Magnussen). Both very good-looking, their love-story is probably the most appealing.
  • Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, yes, Gavroche) sells his cow for giant-beanstalk-growing magic beans. He needs a different haircut. Tracey Ullman is great as his mom, obviously.
  • A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) want a child. They play off each other well, and can both really sing.
  • A witch (Meryl Streep) has put a curse on the baker’s family, and they need to collect something from each of the four first-mentioned characters to break it. She’s Meryl, but with bluer hair.

So it’s mostly fine, but not great. The cinematography does all of that sweeping fake Disney forest nonsense, which is unnecessary and bad. There’s a blue filter most of the time, which is at odds with the general kiddification. The costumes are mostly all right except that everyone wears to the ball a dress with a mullet hemline, which looks really stupid.

I recommend just getting the Bernadette Peters one.

Stray observations:

  • James Corden’s impatience with Red is the best comic moment in the film.
  • Cinderella’s dress looks unfinished, and she wears the same one all three nights. Also the shoes are ugly! No good, guys.
  • Her birds, too, are pretty creepy. You can’t use crow-like birds to be Cinderella’s cute sidekicks, because crows are ominous and scary.

Director: Rob Marshall
Rating: PG
Length: 125 minutes
Score: 3/5

You know the drill on this one: Steve Rogers is a 90 pound asthmatic, but loves America. So he becomes Captain America in order to beat up Nazis. It’s great.

My one quibble (and this a quibble with the comics rather than the movie, really): you don’t need to have a weird occult freak villain. The SS is evil enough. X-Men handles this marginally better.

So does it rate a 5/5? I think so. It’s the most tonally consistent of any of the Marvel films, period. It’s clever without trying too hard, the humorous beats are pleasing but not overdone, and everything has a slightly stylized olive-drab vibe that is extremely successful. Plus, I’m sick of the eternally flawed superhero, because I really don’t watch comic book movies for angst. Sure, Superman’s one-note admirability is boring, but that’s because Superman is a stupid alien. Steve Rogers’s one-note admirability is adorably charming. Which you can tell because Peggy Carter, Number One Awesome Badass, falls in love with him. [Watch “Agent Carter” before it’s gone, idiots.]

And the kid that Richard Armitage throws in the harbor! He can swim and Cap doesn’t have to rescue him and that is terrific. Maybe my favorite moment.

Stray observations:

  • I love the end titles. I think they’re meant to be send-ups of wartime propaganda posters, but they’re great anyway.
  • I’ll watch JJ Feild in anything and I kind of love that they don’t even really spend any time on the Howling Commandos. It’s just all, “Oh, hey, Union Jack’s here and so is everyone else. Sweet.”
  • Tommy Lee Jones is completely phoning it in, and is still tremendous.
  • It is endlessly hilarious to me that Chris Evans is having a second career as a different Marvel superhero (yeah, I saw both of those Fantastic Four piles of garbage and own one of them). I guess it helps to be a definitional dreamboat.

Director: Joe Johnston
Rating: PG-13
Length: 124 minutes
Score: 5/5

It’s probably true that if this weren’t a Coen Brothers movie, its quality would have rated a 4/5, but they’ve raised expectations, so….

50s Hollywood! There are communists, and studios rule everything, and people have hilarious accents! Tilda Swinton plays two people, but they’re twin sisters! Fortunately they both have great hats.

During the movie it seemed strange how many disparate strands there were, until I remembered how Burn After Reading went. That said, the disparate strands in Hail, Caesar! did not resolve as well as those in Burn After Reading, even though it was literally Josh Brolin’s role (as Eddie Mannix) to bring them together. This is because he is the person who puts out fires at his studio, so he has to deal with all the nonsense his stars (and others) pull: Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is making the shift, Horst Buchholz-style, from westerns to…not-westerns, and his director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is cranky about it; DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant but unmarried, which is a problem; Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is the star of the big sword-and-sandal flick about Jesus, and gets kidnapped by communists; he needs to consult with various spiritual leaders about the film; his son wants to play a different position on his baseball team. Oh, and he’s trying to quit smoking.

Channing Tatum also dances.

There are good moments, but the movie as a whole is disappointing. The film within a film is a hilarious send-up of Ben Hur and the like. The conversation Mannix has with three priests and a rabbi about how to put Jesus onscreen is incredibly funny. Laurentz teaching Hobie how to speak like a human being is drawn out the perfect amount, so that it stops being slightly irritating and starts being howlingly uproarious. The surfacing of a Soviet submarine is a bizarre but wonderful mix of The Hunt for Red October and Wes Anderson. But you can see how that might seem jumbled.

On a different note, it’s slightly odd to watch a movie that involves Hollywood and communists and doesn’t try to be a searing indictment of something but instead has David Krumholtz as an amusing drunk yelling pinko. Further, the various demands of the studio seem totally reasonable, since everyone who works there is an utter baby, and Mannix is put-upon and well-meaning. And, sure, it’s ironically exaggerated, but it seems just so much cutesier than most other Coen Brothers stuff.

Stray observations:

  • Scarlett Johansson is actually bad in her part as a pregnant screen siren; her accent obviously takes an immense amount of effort.
  • Channing Tatum can really hoof, man.

Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Rating: PG-13
Length: 106 minutes
Score: 3/5

There was a time, in movies, when Gwyneth Paltrow would make out with John Hannah and audiences would go, “Okay, sure,” and not be sarcastic. It’s hard to imagine. But we don’t have to imagine it, because Sliding Doors is on Netflix and we can just watch that.

The premise is simple: either Helen (Ms. Paltrow) makes a train or she doesn’t. If she makes the train, she meets James (Mr. Hannah) on it. She also catches her boyfriend, Gerry (John Lynch), cheating on her with Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). If she doesn’t, she doesn’t. We watch both options play out.

Helen is that rare thing in films: a woman who has more than one thing going on. She cares about her career, she cares about her boyfriend, and she cares about her friends. She gets drunk and is sad, she worries that he hasn’t called, she sometimes doesn’t know what to do. It’s great, and Ms. Paltrow is good in both parts: the Helen that catches Gerry and makes immediate major life changes (you might remember that adorable pixie cut) with the help of her friend Anna (Zara Turner), and the Helen who…doesn’t. You’re initially disappointed in Helen for ever falling for Gerry’s particular brand of nonsense–he’s a writer, and she supports him, plus of course he’s a spineless cheating jerk–but then she mostly starts making much better decisions, so it’s not irritatingly hard to watch.

James is charming, and maybe slightly too quirky, but it’s also nice to see how he likewise has a family and a life and doesn’t spend all his time creepily following Helen around, as he would if this were a normal romantic comedy. He just notices that she’s sad and buys her a milkshake, and then things develop. Perhaps one of the things I look for in films is a plot that doesn’t demand weird dramatic gestures or fairy tales. It’s much better to see characters make a connection through reasonable common ground and plausible physical attraction. You know, like people.

On the other hand, Lydia is kind of a caricature, and she intermittently draws Gerry into her absurd orbit. These are the weakest bits of the film. Fortunately you have Helen and James to pull your focus back.

Oh, yeah, the clothes are awful. Even Ms. Paltrow almost drowns in some of the horrible boxy garbage. And only she can wear those slips people wore as dresses for outside back then.

Stray observations:

  • “Shagging” used as an explicit gerund is maybe the worst example of awkward bowdlerizing I’ve ever seen, and if people actually used it habitually in London in the late 90s, then London in the late 90s was a sad place.
  • John Hannah has infinite goodwill with me, but I guess your mileage may vary.

Director: Peter Howitt
Rating: R
Length: 99 minutes
Score: 4/5

If you saw the trailers for Kingsman, you probably thought that it looked like a heightened version of James Bond, with stylish rooms full of guns and a slightly off sense of humor. And it sort of is that, but also tonally so, so different. Colin Firth kills a lot of people. A lot.

Kingsman is both a Savile Row tailor and a stateless band of elite spy-assassins with cute Knights of the Round Table nicknames. They’re all English, though, and, until this film starts, posh.* Their brief is…unclear, but appears to involve general world-saving type things. Arthur (Michael Caine) is in charge, and the three agents with whom we most interact are Galahad (Firth), Lancelot (Jack Davenport), and Merlin (Mark Strong). Merlin is basically Q, but mean. They’re trying to find a new agent to replace a dead comrade, so we start out with a bunch of posh kids (particularly Edward Holcroft as Charlie and Sophie Cookson as Roxy), and one streetwise youth, Eggsy (Taron Egerton).

They are pitted against a tycoon with world-domination and/or cleansing ambitions, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, with a hell of a lisp and a baseball cap in place of his trademark Kangol, but otherwise the same). He has an assistant with blade prosthetics on her legs (Sofia Boutella), and those blades are not euphemistic. Also he has kidnapped Mark Hamill(!).

The acting is better than you’d think, frankly. Both Firth and Strong are glintingly, urbanely intense, in a very pleasing way. Egerton makes the chip on Eggsy’s shoulder both irritating and comprehensible, which is no mean feat. Beyond that, though, there’s not much there. Roxy is unfortunately rather a cipher, but it’s probably something of a step to have a woman in this sort of movie as anything other than ornament, so I guess maybe we shouldn’t be picky. And the clothes and interiors are great.

This is sort of Avengers (Marvel-type) meets James Bond, but it’s less than the sum of its parts. The cartoonish notes–down to its comic book pedigree, presumably–are discordant and sometimes offensively flippant. The violence is all extremely well choreographed, but a lot of people die. It’s not very gory, but perhaps it’s not gory enough. We are constantly told that the stakes are high, but it never really seems that way.

*Maybe not, though, with Michael Caine. Unclear.

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Rating: R
Length: 129 minutes
Score: 3/5

This movie didn’t look promising. Against it stand: Katherine Heigl (needs no explanation), Ben Barnes with stubble (why hire that face to cover it up, and also he might be a terrible actor), blue filter, grit, guitars.

But it was pretty good, I honestly think. It’s a lot like other musical ships-passing movies, and there are a couple of glaring issues, but it managed to keep the stakes focussed enough that you just care about the people involved. Ryan (Barnes) is a train-hopping street musician with a seventh-grade education, seventeen possessions, and a dodgy almost-beard. He arrives in Ogden, Utah, where he meets some music friends and then patches up Jackie (Katherine Heigl) when she gets hit by a car. Jackie is our problem: Heigl’s unusually likable, and the custody battle over her daughter is actually quite well-drawn, but her past as a pop star is…what’s the word I’m looking for? Laughable? Deranged? Unnecessary? Plenty of people play the guitar and made it big in NY before getting divorced and moving home; the guitar and the making it big need not be connected.

But if you forget that, you have a film in which two people are slightly lost, have a few extremely mundane but important things to offer each other, and make out when appropriate. Their friends and family are entirely reasonable: Jackie’s mother think that maybe it’s not great that her divorced daughter is sleeping with a guy who is literally homeless; Ryan’s musician friends are impatient with his intentions to stick around in nowhereville to fix roofs. It has only about 20 seconds of heavy-handedness, and absolutely no ambitions towards a wider message. The camera work is small but not pretentious, and the music is surprisingly good (and apparently real).

Also, anybody who saw Prince Caspian is going to be shocked by Ben Barnes’s newfound ability to do accents. I’m not sure where he’s supposed to be from, but I think it’s the same place the whole time, and probably a real place.

Director: Ami Canaan Mann
Rating: PG-13
Length: 90 minutes
Score: 4/5

This is another one of those movies where people tell you it’s a romantic comedy but literally zero funny things happen in it. It is also so 90s. And not just because it has Joe Fiennes in it.

Martha (Monica Potter) leaves somewhere in the midwest in desperation on the first flight anywhere. Daniel (Tom Hollander) is a record executive on her flight to London, and falls for her, setting her up in a fancy hotel and sending her flowers. Frank (Rufus Sewell) is a failed actor and alcoholic who runs into her by chance the next day and as far as I can tell mostly just creeps the living hell out of her for several hours. Laurence (Fiennes) teaches rich women how to play bridge, and Martha falls for him.

The twist? Daniel, Frank, and Laurence are childhood friends. Daniel and Frank fight over Martha like children; Laurence actually likes her and she actually likes him, but because Laurence is the only person in this movie who isn’t a complete sociopath, he feels bad about stealing her from his friends, and hies himself to a psychiatrist (Ray Winstone).

That’s the movie. It’s insane and terrible. Martha is dumb, irritating, and badly dressed (even by the standards of 1998). Her sad past is underdeveloped but actually kind of alarming. It goes nowhere, obviously. Frank isn’t a cute troubled artist, he’s just the worst. Daniel has even worse clothes than Martha, and is a pushy jerk. Laurence seems like he might be all right, but doesn’t speak enough for you to tell. See? The 90s: bad blond dye-jobs, unexplained grittiness, and dudes who are supposed to come off as sensitive but instead are clearly emotionally stunted. Moodiness is not the culmination of personality.

There are no laughs, and my favorite parts were spotting a young Stephen Mangan at Frank’s audition and Rob Brydon driving a bus(!) at the airport.

Director: Nick Hamm
Rating: R
Length: 98 minutes
Score: 1/5

I seem to recall, when reading minor Dumas novels, that there was a lot of intrigue circling around the building of various of Louis XIV’s stuff, but it was indescribably tedious and I was just waiting for the musketeers to reappear. Or a war, or something. There’s a lot of stuff going on in France under Louis XIV, so you might as well go for the political or military gusto.

This…does not. Nor does it have anything much to do with reality (which it engagingly admits in the pre-film text, which tells you that there was an outdoor ballroom at Versailles, and that, at least, is true). It is, nonetheless, charming.

André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts), in defiance of probability, is young and hot in the early 1680s. He is designing some gardens at Versailles, and he needs some help. So he hires Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), whose lack of artifice is jarring to Le Nôtre’s steadfastly gallic sensibilities, but may be just the touch of genius he needs! Sabine is inexpert at court, but sweetly shepherded around by Rupert Penry-Jones, a godawful mustache, and apparently no ulterior motives, and additionally accepted with suspicious alacrity by Jennifer Ehle as Mme de Montespan. She also manages to avoid inspiring professional jealousy in her various male competitors and to have heart-to-hearts with the King (Alan Rickman) that don’t offend him or get her fired.

She also, of course, falls for Le Nôtre. And this is okay, because his wife (Helen McCrory) is just awful, and her husband is dead and was a cad.

This sounds goofy, and it is. It’s a little inexpert–tries to do too much, makes everyone too humane, overuses artsy camera angles–and not at all subtle. Sabine is a weak link, not because Winslet does anything wrong, but because her character is freighted with vastly too much anachronistic nonsense. No seedy underbelly of 17th century France is visible, no bigotry of any kind, against Huguenots, women, homosexuals, anyone who isn’t French…

So why a 4 out of 5? Charm, chiefly. Stanley Tucci as the Duc d’Orléans and Paula Paul as his wife are gems, lovable caricatures. Rickman’s Louis is perhaps how we’d like to think he was: self-aware, oddly generous, tired of the cares of state but too dutiful to shirk them. Le Nôtre is like nothing on earth, but attractively given to deadpan one-liners.

My best friend said that this movie was rough around the edges but made you wish that Alan Rickman had gotten the chance to direct more films. And it’s true.

Director: Alan Rickman
Rating: R
Length: 117 minutes
Score: 4/5

On IMDb, this movie is billed also as a comedy. I don’t remember the early 90s that well, in fairness, but it’s a mystery to me how this is at all funny. Like, it starts in an orphanage, there’s an attempted rape, stalking, and heart disease… Does one hockey game really make a difference?

Caroline (Marisa Tomei) is a diner waitress in Minneapolis. She falls in love too quickly and men treat her badly. Adam (Christian Slater) is a diner busboy with a heart condition, a dog, a lot of books, and no parents. Rosie Perez is Caroline’s sassy waitress friend. Her name is Cindy, apparently, but, you know, it’s Rosie Perez. Oh, and then a couple of dudes attack Caroline and Adam saves her (because he follows her home, which is obviously way better than being a rapist, but isn’t…great), so she falls for him.

So I guess you could say that both Caroline and Adam have heart conditions! Only some of them are metaphorical!

Marisa Tomei is, of course, adorable. But her charm and her (as far as I can tell) plausible Minnesota accent are wasted on a dodgy script and a taciturn and ill-groomed Christian Slater. The 90s were definitely a time when we could not tell the difference between “deep and quiet” and “possibly Nell, from the movie Nell.” Or between “sensitive hair” and “doesn’t know how to buy shampoo.” Or even between”sweetly devoted” and “sneaks into your bedroom regularly and watches you sleep.”

Director: Tony Bill
Rating: PG-13
Length: 102 minutes
Score: 2/5

I remember kind of wanting to see Mortdecai when it came out, because I figured there was no chance it was as bad as everyone seemed to think. But, while I’m not sure it’s as bad as everyone thinks, it is pretty bad.

Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is a dopey upper-class art thief, probably. But he’s in debt, so he and his valet/bodyguard (Paul Bettany) end up being strong-armed into recovering a lost Goya painting to thwart terrorism. That doesn’t make sense, no, but nevertheless this is what we are given. Mortdecai’s wife Joanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) hates his new mustache, his MI-5 contact (Ewan McGregor) loves Joanna, an American (Jeff Goldblum) wants to buy Mortdecai’s Rolls-Royce, and his nymphomaniac daughter (Olivia Munn) is in cahoots with the painting-stealing terrorist. Also there are Russians. And schemes.

It’s really not very good. The plot doesn’t hang together (in a careless way, not a humorously madcap way), Johnny Depp is exhausted- and exhaustingly mincing, and the movie relies far too heavily on your finding him charming. Joanna’s fine (her clothes are delightful; few people can wear jodhpurs as well as Gwyneth Paltrow), and Ewan McGregor is actually engagingly uptight and useless, but he isn’t given enough to do. The only real enjoyment is Paul Bettany playing completely against type as a scarred, womanizing tough guy with a staunchly working-class accent. He’s surprisingly good at it, and his doglike devotion to Mortdecai gets a bigger laugh every time he declares it a pleasure to be wounded in his master’s service.

That’s it, though.

Director: David Koepp
Rating: R
Length: 107 minutes
Score: 2/5