Sunday, December 28, 2014

Holiday Releases Part 1

Directed by Rob Marshall

A baker and his wife encounter a witch, who tells them she'll grant them a wish to have a child if they can bring her four ingredients for a spell that will undo a curse put upon their family:  "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold."  So the couple venture into the dreaded woods to find these items and, in the process we meet several characters from the Grimm Fairy Tales.  Each has its own story that intertwine in the woods.

Having not seen the Tony-award-winning Stephen Sondheim play this is based on, I was free from such worries as which songs were kept or which interpretation of the characters I might prefer.  A fresh perspective directly to the film.  It is mostly an enchanted affair, with an engaging cast and gorgeous production design.

James Corden and Emily Blunt are fantastic as the baker and his wife, who rekindle their passion while on this fateful journey through the woods.  Meryl Streep proves she is capable of playing just about any role, as the witch, which may not come as a surprise to most.  
I wasn't sure, after the over-hyped "August: Osage County" that this would be a worthy performance, but she performs in impressive and deliciously entertaining fashion.  Chris Pine gives an hilarious send-up of a conceited Prince Charming.  However, it is not without flaws.  Some of the musical numbers slightly overstay their welcome and the film drags a bit in spots as a result.  Yet when it soars, it really sings, and Rob Marshall's staging works quite well.  It may not reach the spectacular heights of Marshall's "Chicago," but it is nonetheless his best big-screen work since then.

Directed by Bennett Miller

An Olympic Gold Medalist, Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) is approached by multi-millionaire John Dupont (Steve Carell) to help him form a wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics.  Grateful for an opportunity to do do more than make speeches at elementary schools, Mark takes the offer.  A friendship starts to form between the emotionally needy Shultz and the awkward Dupont.  It becomes apparent after several months that Dupont's real goal is to recruit Mark's accomplished brother - Olympic Gold Medal winner Dave - leading to friction between Mark and John, as well as between the brothers.  Eventually Dave does join the team as an assistant coach, although he is without question the true wrestling trainer, and this unusual arrangement leads to an unexpected tragedy.

A true-to-life story, "Foxcatcher" is a unique sports-driven drama in which the resentments simmering beneath the surface lead to events that are not overtly foreshadowed.  Yet we know something will happen, because of the uneasy imbalance of the personalities involved.  The cast is uniformly superb, although little is done with the appearance of Vanessa Redgrave as Dupont's scoffing mother, whose affection is greatly desired but never granted.  Steve Carell is very good here, as a kind of creepy, just-this-side of sane.  However, even though his character is a dominating figure, he story really belongs to Mark.  Mark is the person we witness this unfolding tragedy through.  His dilemma in trying to come out from under his brother's shadow, despite his own successes, blinds him to the kind of personality Dupont truly is, until it's too late.  And while it is mainly about Mark, the heart of the film is the brother, Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo.  He wants to give his brother space, but hates what is happening to him once he joins Dupnt's team.  It is through Dave that we see the bond the brothers share.  Yet even he gets snared into Dupont's world, and ultimately his efforts to save his younger brother do not end well.  A fine film.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

*NEW* Romance Through the Ages

Elsa & Fred (Michael Radford, 2014) * * ½
Widowed Fred Barcroft (Academy Award-winner Christopher Plummer) is a grumpy, anti-social old man.  Elsa Hayes (Academy Award-winner Shirley MacLaine) is an unpredictable, energetic woman with a penchant for embellishing the truth and dreaming of being Anita Eckberg in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita."  Of course, this turns out to be a match made in Heaven.  After a bit of prying and thawing, Fred is bouncing around happily in love, but comes to wonder how much he can trust his new flame.  With a veteran supporting cast that includes Academy Award-winner Marcia Gay Harden, Oscar-nominee George Segal, and Emmy Award-winner Scott Bakula, you'd think this might be something special.  Alas, even in the capable hands of another Oscar-nominee, director Michael Radford, this is a 
pleasant-but-unremarkable diversion.  It may have been better to release this as a cable TV movie.

The Way He Looks (Daniel Ribeiro, 2014) * * * ½
Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) and his best friend Giovana (Tess Amorim) spend their afternoons wondering if and when they will ever be kissed by a special someone. Leo worries especially, because he is blind and doesn't know if that would hurt his chance at a normal relationship. When a new kid named Gabriel (Fabio Audi) arrives at school, he joins the two friends and takes over some of the help with walking Leo home in the afternoons. One night, after a drinking party, Gabriel swiftly kisses Leo, and he's not sure if it was a true kiss or just the drinking. Soon the three friends are at odds with one another, until they can resolve their feelings.
This is a sweet coming-of-age tale, based on a 2011 short entitled "I Don't Want to Go Back Alone (Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho)." While they both center on the changing nature of the trio's friendship, this expansion revises much of Leo's personal struggles. In the short, he was more dependent, while here he defiantly wants to explore a life without so many restraints, particularly from his protective parents. The performances are warm and the characters likable. A really solid tale about growing up and finding love. [Official Selection of Brazil for entry in the Academy Awards Foreign Language category this year, it is in Portuguese with subtitles]