Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Short Takes: "Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Into the Woods," and More

If I Stay (dir. R.J. Cutler, 2014)

Recent years have seen so many YA (young adult) novel adaptations involving the supernatural, they've practically become their own subgenre, complete with the necessary formula. Take a girl who's supposedly very plain and ordinary, introduce special powers/abilities/whatever's necessary to make her "exceptional," then add two very different love interests who will battle for her (and the audience's) affection. One book becomes a trilogy; the movie adaptation of the third book becomes two movies so the studio can milk the cash cow for all it's worth, then start over with the next phenomenon.

It's refreshing, then, that If I Stay has a decidedly different focus. Based on the novel of the same name by Gayle Forman, the film concerns talented young cello player Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moritz), who was born into a musical family and is eagerly waiting to hear if she has been accepted into Julliard. One morning, riding with her family during a particularly snowy morning, she is involved in a car accident that kills both of her parents (Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos) and leaves her and her younger brother in a coma. Mia has an out-of-body experience, examining both her past fractured relationship with rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley) and her present situation, and faces a crucial choice: let go and leave this world, or find a reason to stay and continue living.

Unlike many YA adaptations, Mia isn't given any special powers. Instead, this film tackles a much weightier subject: finding a reason to live. It's refreshing that director R.J. Cutler weaves in and out of the flashbacks of Mia and Adam's relationship, and that the focus on music gives them something deeper than just finding each other physically attractive. And Moritz and Blackley both give fine performances, especially the former, finally getting the opportunity to play a relatively-normal teenage girl and creating a wonderfully-realized character with her work.

It's just a shame, then, that the film never really gives much weight to everything. A few genuinely devastating shocks aside, Mia's plight never seems all that serious, perhaps because it applies the same gravity to her relationship with Adam as it does to her desire to stay alive. Whether she chooses to live or die shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone. Still, it's a refreshing change-of-pace for the genre it belongs to. B

Grigris (dir. Mahamat-Saleh Hauron, 2013)

In 2010, Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Hauron made a splash on the international scene when his film A Screaming Man won the Jury Prize (essentially third place) at that year's Cannes Film Festival. The result was a new focus on African cinema, especially on films produced within the Saharan nations that had been largely ignored.

His follow-up, Grigris, concerns the titular young man (Souleymane Deme), who is renowned for his dancing skills despite being paralyzed in one leg. When his uncle falls ill, however, Grigris decides that simply being a photographer and winning dance competitions won't be enough to provide the health care his uncle needs. Despite the concerns of his girlfriend Mimi (Anaïs Monory), Grigris chooses to join a group of gasoline smugglers, an illegal endeavor that could cost him his life.

I personally have not seen A Screaming Man, so I cannot speak to how this film compares to Hauron's previous work. Grigris, however, does struggle to overcome the cliches that comprise its plot. The film meanders from one plot point to the next, never giving too much weight to any of the various subplots, and its so oddly paced that even its 101-minute running time feels excessively long. However, there are some potent moments, including a thrilling chase through the nighttime streets. In fact, the film is almost entirely carried by Deme's fantastically charming work, all the more impressive considering the film is his acting debut. It's disappointing, however, that the rest of the film can't rise to his level. C

Moonstruck, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and more after the jump.

Moonstruck (dir. Norman Jewison, 1987)

Simply put: they don't make them like this anymore. As studios move ever faster toward only making films that can spawn franchise-expanding "universes," films like the mid-budget romantic comedy have fallen to the wayside, now almost purely the realm of indie directors looking to make a quirky, ironically-winking splash. The likes of Moonstruck have fallen away, and with them an opportunity for fantastic work like this.

The film follows Loretta Castorini (Cher), a Brooklyn-ite bookkeeper who's engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). However, while Johnny's away, she one day meets Johnny's estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage), who works the ovens in a local bakery after losing his hand in an accident. Suddenly, Loretta is left with a choice: does she go through with her engagement to Johnny, or does she follow her strange attraction to Ronny? All the while, Loretta's mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis) is concerned that her husband, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), is having an affair with another woman.

Written by playwright John Patrick Shanley (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for this film) and directed by the legendary Norman Jewison, the film crackles with lived-in wit and easiness; you never doubt the relationships between any of these characters for a second. And the film is loaded with fantastic moments of humor, from the back-and-forth banter of the Italian-American characters ("Well snap out of it!") to Jewison's great visual gags. But it's the performances that make this film stand as more than just an '80s time capsule. Cher - who won the Best Actress Oscar for this role - is an absolute marvel, and her chemistry with an on-fire Cage makes for one of the all-time great screen pairings. And Dukakis - who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar - makes the most of every minute of her screen time; her scenes in which she contemplates an affair to get even with her husband are some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful performances of the decade. If Hollywood ever gets back to making romantic comedies, this is the film they should emulate. A

Legally Blonde (dir. Robert Lukitec, 2001)

Speaking of romantic comedies, here's an example of why the genre could stand to be revived: they can help launch the careers of great actors. It's hard to believe that there was once a time that Reese Witherspoon wasn't a household name. Of course, she had had "who's that girl?" roles in major films like Pleasantville (1998), Cruel Intentions (1999), and American Psycho (2000), and won over the arthouse crowd with her peppy-psychotic Tracy Flick in Election (1999). But it wasn't until Legally Blonde that she won over the mainstream.

The film finds Elle Woods (Witherspoon), a perky sorority sister, dumped by her boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis) for not being smart enough for him. She decides to follow him to Harvard Law School, where not only does she get in, but she discovers that she's far more legal-savvy than even she had ever expected. Armed with her knowledge of her skills, she vies for an internship with her professor's (Victor Garber) firm, which is handling a high-profile murder case that could make or break whoever takes it on.

Of course, there are some elements to this film that ring a little rough today, namely the continued insistence that being blonde is equivalent with being dumb. It's a joke that would quickly grow stale if not for Witherspoon's phenomenally winning performance. Witherspoon sells every aspect of the character, allowing her to deliver punchlines without ever being the punchline herself. In her hands, we see how intelligent Elle has always been, even if she applied that knowledge to beauty tips rather than legal codes. Rarely have we seen a brilliant, a-star-is-born performance radiate so brightly. The film completely belongs to Witherspoon, and it's all the better for it. B+

Into the Woods (dir. Rob Marshall, 2014)

Adapting the musicals of Stephen Sondheim is a tricky business: his musicals often feature intricate songs where melodies and harmonies leap and dance in exciting ways, and can shift unexpectedly at a moments notice, all while being grounded in complex emotions. Into the Woods is one of his more difficult works, a hodgepodge of various fairy tales and folklore that embraces a dark twist on those classic tales. That Disney would be responsible for the film version rightfully concerned fans of the 1987 Tony Award winner for Best Musical; would the studio scrub away the darker elements in favor of a more lighthearted, family-friendly version of the story?

The concern was not especially needed. The film's center is the quest of the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt), who desperately want a child but cannot because of a curse that was placed on them long ago. The Witch (Meryl Streep) vows that she will reverse the curse if they can find the four ingredients she needs to do so. Their journey finds them interacting with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who trades his beloved cow for magic beans; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who loses a slipper running to avoid the Prince (Chris Pine) from seeing her as a servant; Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who is trapped in a tower and being wooed by her Prince (Billy Magnussen); and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who's avoiding the advances of the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp). But breaking the curse will come at a cost for all of them.

Though the film does retain some of its darker subject matter, it is ultimately an uneven effort. In its favor is a cast of actors with terrific singing chops: Streep has proven she has a terrific voice, and she makes "Stay with Me" resonate splendidly. The same goes for Kendrick, who turns "On the Steps of the Palace" into one of the film's best moments. Both Corden and Blunt do fantastic work as the leads, tying the film's sprawling ambitions together even when they're threatening to fly off the rails. But the true showstopper is "Agony," in which Pine and Magnussen's Princes hilariously square off atop a waterfall over who has a worse situation. Both men steal the show with their performances, nailing both the comedy and the notes.

However, the film doesn't completely hold together. There are parts that have been excised for content and likely time, and though director Rob Marshall does a fine job at trying to stitch the pieces together, it ultimately feels disjointed and chaotic. The film's second half, in particular, suffers from having too many balls in the air at once, never quite sticking the landing on many of its various subplots. It's certainly not a disaster, by any means. But if you get a chance to see Sondheim's original performed onstage, do so; then you'll see what all the fuss is about. B-

Far from the Madding Crowd (dir. Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)

It's interesting that, nearly 20 years after co-creating the famous Dogme 95 resolution (with it's insistence on realism, minimalism, and here-and-now settings), Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg would be directing an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel. It breaks almost every rule of the movement that he started (though every film within it broke at least one rule), and its easy to imagine that, had this film come out ten years ago, there would be cries of treason throughout the cinematic community. Now, it's greeted as a fine adaptation from a well-known director, another handsomely-mounted period piece.

For the uninitiated, the story concerns Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a woman in Victorian England who inherits a large farm from her uncle upon his passing. Bathsheba is fiercely independent and headstrong, more than willing to break the patriarchal customs of the time to make sure her farm is run successfully. She also attracts the attention of three suitors: shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), neighboring farm owner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and fiery sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). As she struggles to keep her farm afloat, she also struggles to maintain her independence, weighing the options of which of these suitors is best for her.

As previously noted, this is a very handsomely-mounted film, with beautiful shots of the rolling English hills and bold costumes that seem both period-appropriate and modern (such as Bathsheba's leather vest). However, Vinterberg's direction doesn't always seem interested in the story he's telling, and the fact that this story has been significantly trimmed to its essentials takes away some of the weight of Bathsheba's choices. The film's greatest success, however, is the performances. Mulligan is an absolute marvel as Bathsheba, imbuing her with conviction and strength even in her moments of weakness. Similarly, Schoenaerts is terrific as her confidant, a man who's suffered great loss but proves to be just as resilient as Bathsheba. Sheen does nicely subtle work as Boldwood, showing humanity in a character who could have simply been a pushover, and Sturridge is appropriately sexual and slimy as Troy. Their performances bring the energy that the rest of the film, unfortunately, sorely lacks. B

Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon, 2015)

When The Avengers came out in 2012, it felt like an event four years in the making: ever since Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) showed up at the end of 2008's Iron Man to recruit Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) into the "Avengers Initiative," each successive Marvel film was laying the groundwork for the superhero team-up. It was a gargantuan effort, and one that paid off in a zippy, humorous, and fun film that was the perfect antidote to the self-seriousness that had become a staple of the genre during the 2000s.

It also launched "Phase Two" of Marvel Studios' plan for world domination, bringing on a second wave of films that deepened the mythology and expanded the universe that these characters inhabit. It also meant that long before anything else existed, release dates would be announced, planning your Marvel watching schedule all the way into the next decade. The Avengers was fun, but the aftermath has been exhausting.

That includes the proper sequel to the film as well. The film begins with a battle in a made-up Eastern European nation, where H.Y.D.R.A. is hiding the scepter that Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who doesn't appear in this film) had used in the first film to open the portal to another dimension. Once its retrieved, Stark (Downey Jr. again) is looking to perfect his "Ultron" program, which would allow his robots to protect the world and him and his friends to retire. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) reluctantly assists him, unwittingly creating a more sophisticated A.I. that decides the only way to save the world is to kill all of humanity. The team - Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Stark, and Banner - now has to figure out how to stop Ultron (voice of James Spader) and his accomplices, twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), before he succeeds in his plan.

If that sounds like a lot, it doesn't even cover half of what the film does. There are actually several fine films lurking within Age of Ultron, but none of them are given enough room to breathe and feel natural. A subplot involving the budding romance between Black Widow and Banner is never fully explored, and themes of fatherhood in Stark and Ultron's rivalry are mostly left hanging. Returning director Whedon seems stifled by all the balls he has to keep in the air in this film; the moments that feel most true to his vision in the original are a quick detour to Hawkeye's safe house and a brief scene where the team hangs out at Stark's mansion attempting to lift Thor's hammer. Instead of the zippy pacing of the first film, Age of Ultron feels more labored, both for the filmmaker and the audience. It's meant solely to ease us into Phase Three. It feels less like a film than a box to check off. B-

Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

Calvary begins with a terrific hook: a man steps into Father James' (Brendan Gleeson) confession booth and tells him that in seven days he's going to kill him, because he was raped by a priest as a child and wants to kill a good priest to send a message to the Catholic Church. It's a great genre premise, one that could easily slide into the type of grindhouse-trash masterpiece that would make for a good midnight watch on basic cable. Will Father James fight back, guns blazing, or will he accept his fate?

McDonagh's film doesn't go that route, however, opting for something far more interesting: an engaging character study that triples as a pitch-black comedy and an allegory about the Church's role in modern Ireland. Father James is left to confront his past demons, such as his drinking problem, as well as work with various people around town, including his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly), a troubled butcher (Chris O'Dowd), an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen), a prickish man of wealth (Dylan Moran), and a deeply disturbed young man (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan's son). Each of his parishioners has a different opinion about the Church and Father James' role in it, and Father James must make peace with all of them and himself in deciding whether or not to run or stay.

The film is a masterful showcase for Gleeson, an immensely talented actor who's done scores of supporting work in films ranging from the Harry Potter series to McDonagh's brother Martin's brilliant hitman comedy In Bruges (2008). He commands the screen, allowing Father James' inner conflict to play out on his countenance without ever over-acting. He is, essentially, the film, and combined with McDonagh's sharp script and clear direction, he makes the ultimate choice all the more surprising and devastating. It's a smart, ruminative film that's worth seeing. A-

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